has always been a difficult problem with critics how
to redeem criticism from the mere vagaries of personal
whim and reduce it to the orderly dignity of a science.
It is easy for the man of cultivated taste to say, “this
pleases me,” or, “that seems to me unlovely;”
and the great mass of our current criticism has no other
logic. In an estimate of art, we are dependent on just
such arbitrary judgments of critics — honest opinions,
indeed, but without any philosophic basis. Now how are
we to improve upon these obiter dicta? Is there
no sound canon of criticism to be substituted for this
haphazard method of judging a work of art?
To answer these questions we
had better [Page 107] ask ourselves
again for the thousandth time, What is the nature and
purpose of the fine arts? In the first place, it will
recur to us, the fine arts are a natural product of
human imagination finding expression in various forms
through various media. Such a product inevitably embodies
the characteristics of the creative impulse to which
it owes its origin; and if we would inquire what are
the invariable and inevitable essentials of art, —
of all the arts, of music, poetry, painting, and the
rest, — we must ask what are the invariable and
inevitable characteristics of human nature. For whatever
features human nature presents, we shall surely find
in any work of human nature. Now one of the most salient
features of human nature is this, that it has not one
but three distinct ways of appreciating the outer world.
It perceives things about it by means of the senses;
it apprehends certain stated facts as true and others
as false; and it looks on the universe always with a
partial spirit — has preference and likes and
[Page 108] desires. To put it in plain
terms, we are made up of body, mind, and spirit, indissolubly
not only will all art, therefore, show traces of this
threefold nature of man; it will, in its turn, appeal
to man in each of these three ways. Art must convince
our reason, it must enlist our sympathy, it must charm
our sensuous nature.
accomplish the first of these objects art must be true
— true to life, as we say. It must preserve such
a semblance of reality that even when it is incredible
we shall be half-inclined to believe it. And this verity,
on which so-called realists insist so strongly, while
it is not the end of art, is certainly the beginning.
More than this, the subject-matter of art must be truth.
No art can be worth while which makes no attempt to
satisfy the curious mind of man.
accomplish its second purpose, the arousing of our emotions,
art must itself be impassioned. However profoundly true
an [Page 109] artist’s convictions
may be, however wise his philosophy, however comprehensive
his acquaintance with science, he will for ever fail
to engender the stir of action in his fellow men, if
he cannot impart warmth to his productions and the vital
force of love, or hate, or fear, or courage, or wonder,
or whatever passion he will. So that looking upon his
work, we may admire his skill, and agree with his conclusions
about life, but we shall never be really influenced,
nor be moved to alter our own conduct a hair’s
breadth on that account. And his work, though brilliant,
will be faulty and futile.
accomplish its third purpose and bring us palpable pleasure,
art must be beautiful; this is the business of technique.
And while this requisite is likely to be overemphasized
by the artist himself, it is quite as likely to be undervalued
by the layman.
is particularly the case in our own day in regard to
art. A distracted and uncertain age, astonished with
the many revelations of [Page 110] science,
must necessarily find itself engrossed more with the
matter than with the form of art. We demand of art an
answer to our innumerable problems. This answer it is
part of the business of art to give. But in our haste
we forget that no answer, however conclusive to our
reason, which is not at the same time consummate in
expression and stirring with ardour, can ever be final.
We ask what literature has to say, and care very little
how it is said; in fact, we demand from literature what
more strictly belongs to science. And since poetry is
the one sort of literature in which the form is made
of equal importance with the substance, we are inclined
to be indifferent to poetry altogether.
the temper of any period is, perhaps, never wholly perfect;
it always shows a bias in one direction or another.
One age may insist on the excellence of the physical,
the necessary element of sensuous enjoyment, the paramount
need for beauty in the world; the next may insist quite
as strenuously on the [Page 111] eternal
dominance of spiritual and religious qualities in life;
while the third is engrossed with eager thought, with
science, with metaphysics. So that at no time do we
have mankind engaged in the effort to establish a balance
between these three diverse yet inseparable phases of
our nature. And yet that is the one thing we must attempt
if we would help ourselves forward on the interminable
pathway of perfection.
we shall have established the worthiness of such an
ideal, when we shall have begun to make it prevail among
men, then we shall have at hand not only a canon of
criticism, but a canon of conduct and culture as well.
Even now we may begin to apply such a standard of criticism
to every kind of art, indeed to all our civilization,
whenever we have need to bring any work within the range
of judgment. We shall no longer be slaves of personal
caprice, dependent wholly on our individual point of
view, often all the more vehement because it is irrational.
[Page 112] Nothing human, indeed, will
be alien to us, but, on the other hand, nothing human
will seem excellent which does not make at least some
pretence to represent human nature in its entirety,
which does not tend to foster and encourage that threefold
ideal. Men and manners, art, industry, and religion,
every guise in which our activity shows itself on this
earth, will be subject to this unique irrefutable canon.
a new and deservedly popular novel comes up for discussion,
we shall say of it, perhaps: “Yes, it has great
beauty and strength; it moves us profoundly; and yet,
after all, it does not give us any sound or comprehensive
judgment upon life; it is ineffectual in its philosophy.”
Here would be an instance of a work of art lacking on
the mental side. Or again it might have a different
fault. It might be profoundly keen and discriminating
in its psychology, stirring in its appeal to our sympathy,
and yet after all so slovenly and ill done as to be
wholly [Page 113] wanting in beauty.
There would be an instance of neglect of the physical
side of art.
too, of a painting or a statue or a piece of music,
our first question must always be, How does it respect
the great law of normal human development, how nearly
does it come to representing normal poise? Of human
character, also, when we come to discuss its merits
and defects, we shall be able to say, this one was at
fault here, another was at fault there, because of a
lack of force, or a lack of emotion and will, or a lack
of reasoning capacity.
is the business of art to charm and entertain us; it
is the business of art to move and inspire and ennoble
us; and lastly it is the business of art to enlighten
us. To see that art does this is the business of criticism.