Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Artist and His Critic*


 

I have noticed lately a disposition on the part of our little friend, the earliest of the duodecimo magazines, to take some of its contemporaries severely to task for their critical shortcomings, their lack of point, their lack of wit, and so forth. And indeed there is large room for improvement. I have never felt rich enough to become a subscriber to one of those modern institutions for the fostering of youthful vanity, a clipping bureau. But one cannot be a frequenter of publishing houses without coming across the basket of clippings, in all their appalling multitudes. They raise many thoughts, chiefly on the question of the relation of the artist to his public. First comes the question of the artist and his critic, since to the critic he must go first; and then the question of the artist and his paymaster-the Commonwealth which supports him.

Now I wonder if any man who has been trying to paint or write or act or mould in clay or put together new phrases of music, in this country, ever derived any good from current criticism of his work. I very much doubt it. As long as he and his doings are matter of news, he will be advertised and noticed and freely talked to by the gentlemen of the press. But do these too facile and unceasing pens of ours ever put down a single word that is of service to the artist in his laborious task? The man (to say nothing of the woman) who should protest to an editor that he felt some delicacy about having his portrait made public, would be looked upon as an admirable hypocrite or an extraordinary freak-to such lengths has commercialism and the instinct of advertising corrupted our world. And what untold evil may you not do towards a man by cheap and foolish praise! He learns to conquer fame in a year, and is deluded at once into thinking the road to art is a flowery path, broad and sunny. He slackens his endeavor; he becomes not only content with the quality of his small achievement; he is content to try no more. He is already the famous What-do-you-call-him? and has only to keep repeating his first performances, to earn his bread and butter-if he is so fortunate.

And yet while we make the downward road so easy for him, in one way, how thorny we make it in another! There seems to be no limit to the depth of ill manners to which we descend, when once we are launched in a literary or artistic discussion. And when it comes to the moral question of a Bacchante or an Obscure Jude, we cease to articulate and begin to bark. We all have our moments when, after the manner of the Appearance in Stevenson's fable, "The House of Eld," we "gobble like a turkey." I sometimes think that perhaps after all, heaven will prove to be nothing more than an open mind, that last most impossible attainment of the human soul. After the lusts of the flesh, there is no more imperious and mordant passion than bigotry. The tiny pestiferous bacillus of the ego frets man like a plague. It seems almost hopeless to ask for courtesy and politeness, in dealing with matters of taste or belief.

To come to particulars. What might one reasonably ask of a critic or reviewer in a time like this? Let us admit at once that there are no recognized causes of taste, that the judgment of the most intelligent people through a long range of time can alone determine the relative worth of this and that work of art. There still must remain many guides to conduct for the critic. In the first place the reviewer stands between the artist and the public. He will have, therefore, duties towards them both.

What is the critic's duty towards the artist?

His duty to the artist is humility, whose fruits are patience, gentleness, openness of mind.

What is the critic's duty towards the public?

His duty to the public is honesty, whose fruits are fairness, temperance, pains-taking.

What a revolution there would be in our journalistic world if we would only try to bear in mind that duty towards the artist-the duty of humility. We should not then content ourselves with rude and coarse insults. We should not contravert a work simply because it happened to be opposed to some pet theory of our own. We should first of all put away our own preconceived notions on the subject and bring our minds into sympathy with the writer or painter or actor. We should not then insult him and patronize him in a single breath. For we should remember that in all probability he had given his subject ten times more study and consideration than we had, and anything he might have to say would be worth attention, at least from us. If we had any reasonable criticism to offer the man from a fellow-workman's point of view, we should then give it to him with a decent and kindly grace. For we should be deeply imbued with the fact that the highest truth is a revelation and comes unbidden to the artist. No matter how paltry and ignorant and mistaken an artist may be, the very fact that he wishes to be counted in that roll at all should protect him against the jibes of our vulgar moments. If his work is so palpably bad that there can be no possible hope for it whatever, surely that were reason enough for passing it over in silence. It is at least deserving of pity. And then, too, if only the really significant and worthy works of contemporary art and letters were made the subject of notice-if to be spoken of at all become a distinction-then the number of feeble and pointless efforts would decrease. I fear our incessant chatter is responsible for the flood of cheap writing and cheap painting. We are given to indulging in florid talk about the power of the press as if it were some benignant Titan. We forget that it is merely a multiplication of human power, a tremendously augmented capacity for doing good or evil. We try to shift the responsibility from the little, old, laborious-scratching pen to the huge impressive, rumbling cogs and rollers. But it will not do. You cannot shift the blame of a hasty judgment, a vulgar impertinence, a false impression, onto the iron press; it will come home to roost on your little pen-handle, and mine.

And then the critic's duty toward the public-the plain duty of rendering an honest report of what he finds in his author or artist. Having come at his author's meaning in an open-minded and modest manner, he will convey it to the public as faithfully as he can. He will not allow himself to be clever at the expense of truth, nor jocose at the expense of tolerance. He will be a very different person from the average American reviewer. (I am aware that this paper might be headed, "Impertinences of one Journalist to his Contemporaries and Betters.") He will never lose his temper; he will neither bark nor gobble; for he will be constantly aware of the greatness of truth and how it must prevail in the end. He will hold his own doctrines lovingly but lightly, ready to change them at a moment's notice on the bidding of conviction. He will have a generous hospitable mind, delighting to entertain strange new thoughts-even though they may be only vagrants. He will seldom mistrust his own impressions; he will keep his sensitiveness too bright and alert for that. He will almost always mistrust his own judgments, particularly when he finds himself thinking they are final. He will be as incapable of falsehood as a piece of litmus paper, and almost as impersonal.

I have been thinking, of course, of the critic in his capacity of a reviewer of current works. For a critic's function in dealing with recognized masterpieces is somewhat different; it is the more like the poets dealing with nature. He may wander at his own will through the gardens of Hellas and the swamps of the Middle Ages, and make what reports of them he chooses. If he be a critic of any ability, we shall be interested in hearing his exploits, what flowers he gathered as he went along, what beasts terrified him, what gods claimed him, what doubts unhinged his mind. We shall be enthralled by his adventures, no matter how whimsical his judgments. In reading a critic like Arnold, the information is of small importance; we might get that out of any encyclopædia. The temper of the critic himself is everything; we can get that hardly anywhere else. I read the essay on Translating Homer, not because I want to translate Homer, but because I want to be in Matthew Arnold's company. Now in journalism it's quite different; I read the weekly reviews, because I want a report of the latest books, not because I want to be in the reviewer's company. Usually I am only too glad to be out of it as soon as possible. Why?

Because he is bumptious and self-opinionated, where I only wish him to be obliging and truthful; because he bores me with his own likes and dislikes, when I only ask the kindness of a little information; because his condescension is insufferable and his manners offensive.

Our critical journals are neither many nor good. Not more than three or four on which one can count for even the decent politeness of human intercourse. So when I hear that the Chap-Book is to change its size and enter the lists with reviews like the Athenæum, the Spectator, the Dial and the Critic, I have pious hopes for its conduct. I drink its health on the brink of a new year. May it become an example of unfailing urbanity and unflinching honesty to us all!


"The Artist and His Critic," Boston Evening Transcript, Jan. 2, 1897 [back]