Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Artist and His Public*


 

I took the freedom last week to say something in this column about the artist and his critic; about the two-fold duties of the critic, towards the public on the one hand, whose servant he is, and towards the artist on the other, whose interpreter he should try to be.

But what of the relation between the artist and his public? For that, after all, is the important thing. The critic (or reviewer) and his duties are quite secondary, and one might be tempted to treat them with some complexion of severity. But when we speak of the artist and his place in the Commonwealth, we speak of something much more important and vital to our civilization.

No modern artist or writer, I suppose, has given more thought to his craft and its relation to life than the late William Morris. And I was surprised at one thing he said on the subject. It was last spring. I was taken by a friend to that well-known house in Hammersmith. We skirted the riverfront for half a mile, after leaving the train line, and at last came to his door, and were shown into the front room on the left-that plain study and workshop, with its great oak table littered with pipes and pencils and uncorrected proofs. After Mr. Morris had shown us the New Chaucer, then all completed save the binding, he brought out his own last volume made at the Kelmscott Press, and his own work, as a writer, he was careful to explain, was given gratuitously to the public. The published price of the work covered only the cost of making and selling. His labor as a writer and artist was given for nothing. I asked him if his idea was that the artist should live by some other means than his art, and he said "Yes." The artist (as I remember his conversation) can only do a certain limited amount of work, and if that work is to be good, he must do it for love only. It must not be his means of livelihood. And since he can only work to the best advantage for a small part of each day or each week, the rest of his time may be devoted to useful and remunerative employment.

Certainly no writer ever wrote less for the public and more for his own sole pleasure than Mr. Morris. His standards were all within himself. His labor was full of purpose, and he had the good of his fellows constantly at heart. But the sanctions and demands of the public influenced his writing not a jot. No other writer of our time paid less heed to his critics, or insisted more strenuously on the right of the creative artist to follow his own bent. And Mr. Morris was a socialist. Did he then think of the fine arts as a phase of human activity quite without the range of social order? Is the mere artist a citizen unworthy of a wage?

Or look at the question in another light. The fine arts have their rise in the human need for expression; they are primarily different modes of giving vent to the idea of beauty and the inward exhilaration of life. We dance and sing not for others' amusement, but for our own satisfaction, to give play to our feelings of joy. This is the beginning of art. It has no more part in the constitution of the State than prayers or weeping. It is an outward embodiment of emotion; it is expression. But presently, if our voice is good and our dancing graceful, this artistic performance of our attracts attention. It is admired by those who have the same feelings and delight as ourselves, but lack the ability to express themselves so beautifully. They are not only glad to hear us sing, they wish us to sing especially for them. They are willing to pay us for the performance. Then we become professionals. However conscientious the execution, we are no longer creative artists; we are professional entertainers, with our legitimate place in the social scheme. And as such we are entitled to our living at its hands.

And poets like Morris or Browning, are they not in a similar case? They write as simply and instinctively as a young girl sings. They have no eye for the public, I mean. Their work is born of the inward impulse alone. It has no commercial origin. It is pure art. As soon, however, as they print it and publish it, and cast it abroad, they become to that extent professionals. People are willing to buy the books because they wish to have their own ideas and aspirations expressed in a more beautiful form than they themselves could utter them. They are willing that such men should share the world's goods; or, to take a more telling instance, they are willing that a man who could give them so much pleasure as Du Maurier should secure a fortune in reward of his labor. Art is not paid for according to its absolute and artistic merit, but according to its popularity. And this does not seem to me unjust. For the absolute and artistic merit of a piece of art are not always immediately discoverable; and from the very nature of the case and the inspirational character of art, the artist must always be willing to bide his time, confident of his own genius, content with frugal reward. When work that is new and original and sincere has also by chance some quality that takes the public fancy, so that the creator is generously supported by his fellows, it is a happy and an unusual coincidence, nothing more. In short it is not for painting a picture that the artist is paid, but for parting with it after it is done. And since it is to a poet like Morris we are indebted for the pleasure of reading his "Earthly Paradise," quite as much as to the printer and publisher who place it in our reach, I cannot see why he is not entitled to a just share of the wage from the book.

And there is a further reason why Mr. Morris's position in regard to the artist seems to me doubtful. It is this. The artist or writer who spends two hours a day at his painting or his desk is very probably working at the height of his powers. He needs a wider margin of leisure than the craftsman or the professional man. To ask him to spend another five or six hours a day in another employment is to dull and coarsen his zest for his art, to deplete him of energy and depreciate his value to the community. To compass the achievement of a Browning or a Puvis de Chavannes is undertaking enough for one man. It does not seem to me that poetry or art is such a casual thing, play of genius though it is, that it can be done at odd moments or in leisure hours merely. "For a great poet is made as well as born." And I believe we mistake if we think anything is to be accomplished in arts without single, life-long and unflinching devotion and courage.

Let us for the present, then, admit the worker in fine arts to a place in our social structure, and pay him the wage which Mr. Morris thought him not entitled to. Let us consider him for the moment an integral part of the common life of the world. What are his relations to it? What privileges should we accord him, and what obligations bind him in turn? What conditions are most necessary to him?

In the first place, I should say, his greatest potential at the hands of society is freedom. Not freedom of conduct beyond that of other men, for he is one of them and must share their concessions and restrictions, but freedom of thought and freedom of expression. It seems to me we should accord the artist absolute freedom of expression in his art. The wildest vagary of sensationalism had better be tolerated, killed by silence alone, rather than that the sincere artist should feel himself hampered by the least annoyance. And he, on his part, in return for such liberty, will feel himself under an obligation to use it only under the stress of great sincerity and conviction. He will play no pranks on his fellow mortals; he will never be fantastic or brutal or extremely intimate without the gravest belief in its necessity. He will write from the cue of his genius, as indeed he so often does; and we will offer him full sway, as indeed we do seldom.

Then the morality of art and the moral obligations of the artist. Who touches that subject, touches a hornet's nest. I think the great difficulty is that we look upon art as the servant and child of religion; whereas, the truth is that religion is quite as much the child of art. All our religions of which we boast, and which we have upheld with so much obloquy and bloodshed, have their origin in the inspired utterances of single men. They have been formed by incrustations of the dead letter around a living word. We call the founders of churches and sects inspired men, and so they were. Genius was uttering itself in a memorable form. So it did in Camden and out at Concord. We cannot tell where it will appear next, but we may quite safely leave that event to take care of itself. It will be our best policy to instruct ourselves in openmindedness and tolerance. For if the breath of inspiration is so imminent it may well take us by surprise. And that same inspiration, that same touch of genius, which we look upon as oracular in the prophets, we must not look upon with scepticism in the poets. The Bibles of the world differ in degree, not in kind, from the epics and novels. And the more our hold on the miraculous explanation of things is shaken, the more need we to transfer our allegiance and faith to the human and possible.

So that I incline to think the broadest latitude for the artist the only one. If his code of ethics does not square with our own that is no reason for berating him. (I speak, of course, of his work, not of himself or his conduct. For these must be amenable to the world in which he dwells.) He may be right, and if he is not, time will very quickly obliterate him. Anything like a censorship over art is a ludicrous and antiquated error. There can be no authority set over the artist, for the simple reason that the highest authority, the only sanction by which he speaks at all, abides in the artist himself. If Emerson and Whitman and Browning and Shelley were subversive of our conventional notions, so much the worse for the notions. They had a grip of the truth; we were only chasing its shadow.

I would have every man, therefore, who sets pen to paper or brush to canvas, follow his own genius, whim, fancy, taste or whatever he may call it, bidding a long adieu to the comment of his neighbors. Indeed, if he heeds their witticisms at his expense he must have an angel's temper not to be ruffled and unsteadied for his work.

And, among ourselves, who haunt the purlieus of literature, and assume the office of critic with so light a heart, I could wish for a good deal more geniality and receptivity towards what is novel, and a much less frequent exhibition of the condescending tone. There are really only two persons who can speak with cocksureness in matters of ęsthetics-the genius and the ignoramus; and the chances are that we none of us belong in the former category.


"The Artist and His Public," Boston Evening Transcript, Jan. 9, 1897 [back]