The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

The Contemporary Spirit


    ONE’S first impulse is to say of the contemporary spirit: There is the infallible guide, the exemplar of conduct and achievement! It seems to us that one thing needful is to live and work in accord with the spirit of the times. This, indeed, is largely true. To be out of joint with our own time is to be in bad humour with ourselves. Whereas the secret of efficiency is to be well attuned with ourselves and our surroundings.

    One easily remarks the great men who have been hands and voice to the time spirit, and one sees how irresistibly they have gone forward in their cause, toiling and resounding through the earth. They have been so evidently moved by a power whose whole limits they did not themselves comprehend; possessed [Page 54] by a glorious idea; inspired by a splendid thought; carried out of any petty conception of life, or any selfish, self-seeking aim, and borne on the great universal current of progress. The mind feeds upon the events and aspirations of its time as a plant feeds upon the soil and air of its own valley. And it is a mark of greatness and robustness of mind to be able to assimilate wholly and readily the material brought into contact with it. Not to be nourished by the sunshine of the hour is to begin to wilt and fail.

    And yet, in another way, it is quite as necessary to disregard the contemporary spirit, and follow only the teaching of the cosmic spirit — the spirit which takes small heed of men and events and passing modes. It has the trend of larger progress in its care, and disregards the smaller ebb and flow of local currents. The contemporary, on the other hand, it must be remembered, is ever in danger of being diverted and absorbed in the trivial and the unnecessary, the foolish and [Page 55] the futile. The contemporary spirit not seldom becomes jaded and debauched and ineffectual from a multiplicity of detail and a diversity of interest. The contemporary spirit is very human, very like our lesser selves; it is by no means always up to its better self; it often fails of its ideal; is hasty and short-sighted and frivolous. It is, really, nothing but the force of average humanity at any one time, realizing itself in its own creations.

    The uncontemporary spirit, on the other hand, is the power of humanity’s better self accomplishing large purposes, fostering lofty aims, keeping in sight pure ideals, and pondering on the past and the future while it still must toil in the present day. It cares little for reward, save that of its own approbation; does not hesitate nor falter nor compromise; but is frank and insistent and of large endurance.

    It is the uncontemporary spirit that is the genius of discovery and art and invention. It is the devoted imaginers who have been the [Page 56] benefactors of their race. The contemporary spirit is self-seeking, self-satisfied, self-sufficient; the great upholder of things as they are; it sits stolid and somnolent in the pew corner. It scoffs at liberty, praises antiquity, and prophesies ruin.

    The contemporary spirit always has an eye to the main chance; it feathers the nest, provides the dower, lays by for a rainy day, lives in the passing hour, and dies eternally, for all we know to the contrary. Of what service, then, are the contemporary and the uncontemporary spirit to be to the artist? They must serve him, I fancy, very much as he is served by his dual self, with the wisdom of the serpent and the wisdom of the dove. There will always be active within him the conflicting, yet parallel, desires — the inclination to adapt vague, unrealizable dreams to the comprehension and utility of his time, and the stubborn disinclination to alter his ideal for any use whatever.

    Yet we must remember that all art, [Page 57] like life itself, is a compromise — a compromise between what we would and what we can. On the one hand is the artist’s mind, to which come fancies, thoughts, pictures, ideas, half-comprehended by himself, never yet articulated or declared by others, and unimagined by the great world of his fellows to whom he would address himself; on the other hand is that stubborn world of media, the rough material of sounds and colours, which is to be made plastic by the artist’s hands, which is to be made to convey his meaning. How is he to express to others the new thing, which as yet he can hardly define to himself? Evidently he must compromise between perfect faithfulness to the vision and intelligibility to his auditors. He must be content to convey only a part of his own impression in order that his expression of it may pass on to others. And here is always the artist’s dilemma, and his need for self-surrender. Not what he would say, but what he can say, must still suffice him. So to lay the colour that it may [Page 58] enshrine his new dream of beauty, yet retain so much of its old disposition that men beholding will recognize and comprehend it still; so to dispose and array these old words as to make them embody a shade of meaning, an influence, an infusion, unguessed before, yet at the same time not to wrench or distort them from their common acceptation — to use them with great freedom and novelty, yet not to startle their timorous inheritors.

    To be fresh, to be original, to be conclusive, to be untrite and compelling, yet to be alluring and convincing and seductive also; to astonish and overcome and carry wholly away, yet never to antagonize nor offend — there is a task for a summer’s day. And always while the contemporary wisdom of the serpent is teaching the artist patience and tolerance, and to be contented with little, the uncontemporary wisdom of the dove is bidding him contend for the manifestation of his best self, for the uncompromising realization of the prophecy and the dream. [Page 59]