Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

What is Art?*


 

Art is not a pleasure, a solace or an amusement; art is a great matter. Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man's reasonable perception into feeling. In our age the common religious perception of men is the consciousness of the brotherhood of man-we know that the well-being of man lies in union with his fellow men. True science should indicate the various methods of applying this consciousness to life. Art should transform this perception into feeling.

"The task of art is enormous. Through the influence of real art aided by science guided by religion, that peaceful co÷peration of man which is now obtained by external means-by our law courts, police, charitable institutions, factory inspection, etc.-should be obtained by man's free and joyous activity. Art should cause violence to be set aside.

"And it is only art that can accomplish this."

I quote these astonishing words from the most fundamental, radical and profoundly wholesome book on the mooted question of art that modern readers have had in many a long day. Purposely I take them from near the close of Count Tolstoi's great work first, as it is only toward the end of his elaborate essay that he begins to be optimistic. Much of the earlier portion of his discourse is so destructive, so utterly at variance with our accepted notions of art, as to make irritating reading for the complacent, conservative mind. Tolstoi's argument is likely to receive stout allegiance and spirited attack; at any rate it cannot be skipped henceforward, whenever we are thinking of modern art, its aims, its influence, its importance, its function in the daily life of the world. It is at once a ruthless attack on nearly all art as it exists at present, and a lofty apology for art in the abstract, as it might develop under the right conditions.

Briefly stated, his objections to art of to-day are these. Art has become entirely alienated from the sympathy of the people, and is no more than a pleasure-giving fad of a special privileged class. And this break was caused primarily by the intrusion of skepticism in the church. Art cannot speak for the main trend of human thought and feeling, because it has lost faith and has no reliance outside itself. It has turned its eyes inward on itself-has become absorbed, dwarfed, starved and ineffectual.

Tolstoi takes the position that the ethical ideals of the race are enunciated from time to time by great moral teachers, who perceive more clearly than their fellows in which direction truth lies. And thenceforth their doctrines become rules of conduct for the mass of mankind. To this he adds, that art is, or should be, engaged in transmuting these common thoughts into the realm of feeling. The function of art, therefore, according to his theory, is to follow religion, and to interpret its conclusions in terms of the emotions. All Greek art, for instance, which sprang up under the direct in- fluence and guidance of Greek religious teaching, was good art, he would say; whereas all Greek art produced after disbelief had begun to take possession of the cultivated classes, was bad art. And he makes out a stronger case, with a like purpose, in speaking of Christian art in the Middle Ages. So long as the doctrines of Christianity were received universally by men, art was occupied only in spreading those doctrines and transmuting them from the realm of thought into the realm of feeling. And since the matter over which art was expending itself was comprehended by everybody, criticism was universal. Every one could understand art, and the artist felt no sense of alienation among his fellowmen. With the revival of learning, however, and with the gradual accretion of false dogmas in the church, the upper classes grew more and more skeptical. And yet they had not the courage to be outwardly heretics. They dared not attempt to reform the church. So they turned a thwarted artistic energy away from its natural channel, away from its proper function, and instead of using art to embody the universal religious feeling of their time, they made it an exotic interest, to be cultivated for its own sake. Art for art's sake, is the veriest heresy in the world, in Tolstoi's eyes. And this theory of art, the divorce of art from the practical universal ends of helping human conduct, has persisted and spread, until now art is supposed to have no other aim than the procuring of pleasure.

Tolstoi draws an unpleasant picture of a rehearsal he once attended at a popular theatre. He shows us all the toil and unkindness and suffering that must go to produce a play or an opera. And he exclaims against the useless waste of energy. But this is the smallest part of his criticism of art; for any one will admit that there is a great deal of art in the world which is simply rubbish. The objection is really the old, old objection of the Puritan, who fancies that because he is virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale. If people are willing to take so much trouble for mere pleasure, why not let them take it? Because, our Russian would say, under normal healthy conditions we should be so glad and happy in simpler human activities, we should not ask to be always distracted by vapid pleasure of the sort to which popular art makes it a business to cater.

This question, however, is not the most interesting one raised by Tolstoi's work. We may leave popular art, the false art as he calls it, to look out for itself for the present. But what are we to say of his main theme? Here he is contending that all art which does not express some universal human feeling is bad. According to Tolstoi, Longfellow, for example, is a greater poet than Browning, because he appeals to the wider circle of human hearts. Tolstoi is always asking what a simple peasant would think of this of that great work of art. He is most intolerant of the art and litera- true which appeals to a select and educated class. He would have art concern itself with nothing but expressing the commonest most universal emotions. It should be preŰminently religious. It should not be for any cult or school; it should be for every man.

After making all allowances for Tolstoi's fanatical narrowness of vision, there remains the very substantial truth of his criticism that art is eminently religious, in the wider sense of that word. Its one excuse for existence in our scheme of life is to promote what we consider good and lessen what we consider evil. And it is probably true that no good art can exist solely for the sake of giving pleasure. But the weak point in Tolstoi's logic seems to me to be his failure to credit artists with the inspiration of genius. He makes them and their business entirely subservient to popular widespread standards of life. But all art that is sincere is the word of the artist's deepest conviction. It embodies his own private ideal first of all. It is so truly inspirational in its origin that you may almost call it a new revelation. Tolstoi's whole theory rests on the basis of his own belief in primitive Christianity; it makes no allowance for any new knowledge in the world. For him the few simple rules of Christ are all sufficient for a right conduct and thorough reform of modern life. And possibly he is right. But if progress is anything more than a name it is not to be secured except by constant fresh increments of knowledge, science, wisdom. And if we are not to look to our artists for this new wisdom, for these fresh ideals. I do not know where we are to find it. Tolstoi's essay seems to me the noblest commentary on all our frivolous, commercialized, worthless, false art. I could wish to see it in the hands of every man who had ever laid a color or turned a sentence.

It is so deep and sincere and full of healthy sense. Still, I cannot think that he has done justice to the inspirational service of art in the past or its aspirational function for the future. I must continue to believe that new truth is revealed to the few, not to the many, that art is the searchlight of humanity-not a mere glimmering torch in the procession. I don't believe that the best has yet been discovered or thought or said in the world. I believe that the same power which has given us our ideals to live by from the first days up to now, has yet other better ideals in store for us. And I believe that these new ideals of wisdom and conduct and knowledge will be revealed in the days to come, as they were in ages gone, to the few. I am glad to tolerate the thousands of worthless works of false, counterfeit art, on the bare chance of one new work of real worth being born into the world. I perceive that nature works just that way-myriads of failures for one success; and yet nothing altogether a failure. I must persist in thinking Count Tolstoi's conclusions a trifle narrow and doctrinaire. I cannot help feeling that he has missed that one most important attribute of true art, and that radical as his theories are according to our debased standards they are still not radical enough. And I am haunted by the terror that his theory, if put in operation, would reduce the world to the level of a Russian peasant. Even allowing for the argument's sake that the average man (the Russian peasant, for one) is the normal moral being, it is a vast assumption to suppose he is the ultimate type of human perfection. Even admitting that our rules of conduct must be cut to fit the average man, it by no means follows that the average man is to be left forever at his present standard.

Still, this is a distant contingency, and for all immediate purposes Tolsoi's criticism might be applied to most of our art with a saving benefit. There is matter for deep thought for our artists in sentences like these: "Art, all art, has this characteristic, that it unites people. Every art causes those to whom the artist's feeling is transmitted to unite in soul with the artist, and also with all who receive the same impression. But non-Christian art, while uniting some people together, makes that very union a cause of separation between these united people and others; so that union of this kind is often a source, not only of division, but even of amenity toward others. Such is all patriotic art, with its anthems, poems and monuments: such is all church art, i.e., the art of certain cults, with their images, statues, processions, and other local ceremonies."

In one sentence Tolstoi's ambition for art, and his implied critical severity toward our present artistic ideals, is this, "The task for Christian art is to establish brotherly union among men."

Has any one any better aim to propose for the art of the future?


"What is Art?", Commercial Advertiser, Aug. 21, 1898 [back]