Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Art of Life*


 

We have come to look upon art and life as separate things. We have come to think of art as a peculiar form of activity practised by a very few and enjoyed by a few more. There is a tacit belief in the bottom of the mind of most of us that art really has not very much to do with life. Even those who love art well are shaken in their faith at times by the universal scepticism around them. They are not unwilling to speak deprecatingly of art as a cult, to make concessions to the average standard of thought: they help to put art farther and farther away from life.

But what is the reason of this divorce of art from life? Is it only that we feel the too frequent lack of vitality in art? As everyday people we cannot help seeing that a great deal of artistic energy is expended idly away from the main issues of life. The original artistic sin was the conception of art as something aloof from life. And when once that pernicious poison had entered the human soul, naturally there were not a few adherents of the sect of the dreamers. Their number increased; the estrangement between life and art grew; the devotees of expression even became supercilious and fanatical in their sectarianism; until to-day the name artist is a synonym for the impractical bystander, the man of inaction, the contemplator of the actual, the workman who is a stranger among equals.

It is nothing new to say that this vicious secession of one state of mind from the great republic of thought has worked sorry havoc to art. One sees that only too clearly every day in the really slight hold which art has on the racial mind. In the days of the blessed innocence of art it never occurred to the artist that he was not a layman like the rest of his toiling fellows. His work had that quality, I presume, just as it has to-day in rare instances.

But if the evil to art was great, the evil to life was not less so. The idea that art is something that does not quite concern us in our everyday affairs at last breeds the belief that in a natural state we should have no need of art. The truth is that in a natural state we should never know what art means as distinct from life. Think of it: art is expression, we say. Very well, but nothing we can do or say can possibly be done or said without expression, without revealing the person behind the action and the word. You lift a finger or drop an inflection, and the stranger in the room has gathered a volume of characteristics of your personality. Yet expression is more than this; it is part of our work, too. Consider the truth of this statement, that nothing we do or say can be without expression; and then see how all trade and commerce and manufacture-the whole conduct of civilization-has its artistic aspect; has it and cannot escape from it. And because of the original artistic sin the divorce of art from life, we suffer in a life without joy. For work, like art, is nothing but a natural function, and the natural joy of the one is as great as the natural joy of the other; for they are only different aspects of the same energy, and not different kinds of energy.

No one ever heard of an artist complaining of the tedium of his work. Of course not; for him art and work are one; he tastes the blessed joy of a natural function having free play. He is expressing himself after his kind, as nature intended. On the other hand, how often does one hear a toiler (as the non-artistic worker is called) rejoicing in his work? His life is one long complaint. Why? Because false conditions and false ideals have so completely separated his work from all artistic possibility. It has been made impossible for him to find any expression for himself in his work. The hands must keep up their aimless, weary energy while the soul is stifled for an outlet. "The heart in the work" is not a motto for the artist alone; it is for the laborer as well.

With that possibility before him, the meanest toiler may grow beautiful; without it the veriest giant of energy with grow petty and warped and sad. The commonest work is ennobling when it contains any avenue of expression for the spirit, any exit for the heavy, struggling, ambitious human heart out of its prison house of silence into the sunshine of fellowship. Set me a task in which I can put something of my very self and it is a task no longer; it is a joy, it is art.

To make such a condition of work universal seems to me a sufficient aim for modern endeavour. How soon things would cease to be ugly and become beautiful, if only every stroke of work in the world had some expression in it! Of course, we can not have that under existing conditions. Any improvement of society in that direction implies a cure more radical than has yet been attempted. It implies freedom for the common worker as well as freedom for the thinker and artist. Not until the term artisan has come to be as honorable as the term artist will we have real freedom. But I am afraid that with all our talk of freedom very few of us believe in it after all. We seem to think it is dangerous. But freedom is not an acquisition of power, it is merely the disimprisonment of spirit. And not to believe in freedom is to believe in the ultimate evil of spirit. For if the good is stronger than the bad, the less repression we have the better. Since it is impossible to duscriminate between them, we can only unlock the doors and call forth every human energy-give it opportunity, give it work in which there is some chance for expression-believing that the better powers will triumph over the worse.

The art of life, then, is to make life and art one, so far as we can, for ourselves and for others-to find, if possible, the occupation in which we can put something of self. So should gladness and content come back to the earth. But now, with body made a slave to machinery and the spirit defrauded of any scope for its pent-up force, we have nothing to hope for in the industrial world; and the breach between art and life will go on widening until labor is utterly brutalized and art utterly emasculated.


"The Art of Life," Commercial Advertiser, Jan. 21, 1899 [back]