Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Everyday Art*


 

We are accustomed to think of art as a concrete product of labor, rather than as an inherent quality in labor. And this misconception, I believe, works mischief both to the artist and to the layman. It is apt to engender in the mind of the artist and of the lover of art an undue regard for achievement in the fine arts, as being something quite apart from ordinary work and superior to it, while it tends to depreciate the estimate of the ordinary workman in his own eyes. So that we have the unfortunate result of an ever wider and wider breach between labor and art, when in truth there should be no divorce at all.

In the case of painting, for example, we have the concrete results of that beautiful art constantly before us on our walls and in our museums; we judge, we criticize, we enjoy the pictures of many masters and interesting contemporaries; until it almost comes to seem that the paintings themselves which we treasure so preciously are in reality all there is of the art; whereas they are only so many varying phenomena in which the art has fixed itself for the moment, in order to make itself manifest to men. Paintings are the embodiment of the artistic impulse, the offspring of a creative spirit finding vent in substance.

But the actual art which took on this material form was a spiritual faculty, a trait in the character of the artist, a power he chanced to possess and chose to exercise, just like courage or physical strength or sound reasoning. And this quality, this aptitude for expression, this art is just as inherent, just as forceful, just as inalienable from that man's character, as any other of the moral forces which go to make up individuality, and, like them, too, it must always find an outlet in one way or another. A man who is entirely void of reason is an idiot, and no one is utterly without strength or courage, however slight these characteristics may be in particular cases. And just so with the art instinct. We must use art in whatever we do. Through all our motions, all our gestures, all the tones of our voice, in every in every act and enterprise, in our possessions, in our houses, in our dress, we are constantly revealing our inward selves, constantly giving expression to ourselves. And all this expression implies art-the innate, universal, human, artistic instinct, which is an instinct for the proper manner of doing things. One has naturally a native instinct for doing some things and avoiding others; that is our first choice, but after that choice has been made, one also has this other instinct or aptitude for doing things well or ill, with grace or with clumsiness. To live gracefully requires art; to live uncouthly and awkwardly, exhibits the lack of it.

If we would only recognize the truth once for all and remember it, I am sure we should find a great enhancement of pleasure attending our life. Not only would life become easier, it would become more entertaining. We should find difficult situations relieved, as they were more aptly and skillfully handled. We should find our every-day routine of work lightened by increased dexterity. And we should find the irksomeness of toil disappear, as we came to have any proficiency in the performance of it. And, further, we should have pleasure in finding ourselves, in realizing ourselves. For, after all, the realization of oneself is one of the profoundest of all human needs. Indeed, it is more than human, it is primitive and cosmic. The first blind principle of life is for self-realization, as the finest aspiration of the creative soul is for a perfectly complete realization of its own vastly more complex and conscious self. The one results in the myriad parti-colored forms of nature, the other in the untold handiwork of man through all the ages. And both are the gist of art, both show evidences of a creative source, both are expressional and capable of interpretation. The only difference is that in art we begin with conventional forms of our own designing, whose meaning is clearly intelligible; whereas in nature we are confronted with a vast a vast array of complicated, intricate and interlaced forms, whose original significance is lost in obscurity of age. Yet both are the product of one cause, whatever that cause may be.

To be more specific. The art of speaking, or I had better say, the art of speech, is one of the most potent and beautiful of the natural or everyday arts, and yet how slightly we appreciate it, how little we cultivate it, how we violate and distort and disguise it! To speak well so that we may impress others with the force of our convictions and the passion of our sympathies, we must have a voice well trained, modulated and exercised, and we must be well versed in the subtle lore of dramatic and interpretive expression. But when we have acquired such culture, when we have a musical and flexible instrument at our command and a cunning skill in its use, we are in possession of a power commensurate with the greatest reach of personality, and as we proceed to exercise that power, we ourselves inevitably grow to the height and compass of its possibility. Our capacity for happiness also increases with our increased power, and we find ourselves developing to the full stature of manhood for which every human being has the latent possibility within himself. And we should always be aware of that power within us, always careful in its use, always with a worthy pride in its operation.

And again, in the art of deportment (if I may use the phrase without danger of being misunderstood) is a vast field for exercise of an individuality. By deportment, of course, I do not mean merely our conduct in a drawing room, but our conduct, the conduct of every man and woman, at every moment of life. How we walk, how we smile, how we greet our friends, how we step from a car, a turn of the head, the lifting of a finger- all tell something of the character behind the fleshly screen, and all move the beholder this way or that as surely as uttered words do, though perhaps not quite so perceptibly.

And in these minor arts of every day we are to recognize a means of expression as legitimate, as well worth while, and as interesting as any of the fine arts themselves. Any one who gives attention to the art of life will perceive opportunity for skill and scope for activity large enough for the most ambitious demands. The minor arts of life have this also in common with the fine arts-they reward their devotees with a happiness keener in kind and more unlimited in possibility than most of the necessary activities of men. For if we divest human toil of everything except the skill and exertion which go into it, we have omitted an important third element needed for perfection-the element of pleasure. And art, as Morris said, "is the expression of man's pleasure in his work." So, too, art is the expression of man's pleasure in life. The arts of every day indicate and embody our constant happiness at being alive; and if we slight them, as we are so likely to do in a hurried existence, we shall be robbing ourselves of most of the delightful zest of our temporal sojourn and hampering our usefulness to an untold extent. To do our work conscientiously and cleverly is not enough, we must do it with joy, and have a care that beauty is never absent from our labor. Otherwise, however complacent we may be, we shall find our interest growing faint, our vigor less, and our natural aptitude gradually decaying. And all this because we have failed to put our heart in our work. But then, of course, every man must be given such freedom that he can chose some kind of work in which he can put his heart.


"Everyday Art," from galley proofs for Commercial Advertiser, [n.d.] [back]