The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

The Critical Spirit


    WE are apt to think of criticism as something very unimportant, and to offer it the merest tolerance as the pastime of leisurely scholars and visionaries, with no bearing on daily life. But the power of the press is very largely a critical power, wielding a direct influence on all our undertakings in art, in politics, in religion, in affairs. And this consideration alone should convince us that criticism comes within the range of what we call practical concerns.

    Criticism resembles original creation in that it has both a scientific and artistic side. It is scientific so far as it has to do with the analysis of phenomena, the collecting and arrangement of data, the discovery and elucidation [Page 146] of principles, and the exposition of the natural laws of art. It is artistic, in that its purpose is to offer its conclusion to the student with as much convincing grace and polish as may be. It is not merely the part of criticism to investigate the achievements of art, and to record the result of those investigations in a bare tabulation of fact; it is equally business, surely, to win men to an allegiance to the beautiful, to direct them courteously. It is not enough that we should be brought face to face with all the best interpretations of nature and humanity. It is needful that they by made clear, convincing, luminous, intelligible.

    This is very nearly the service art renders us with respect to life and nature. That famous saying of Arnold’s, “Poetry is a criticism of life,” is a concise statement of the same idea. It was never intended, I take it, for a definition of poetry, yet it expresses very aptly one aspect and function of all art. And this, without in the least implying anything [Page 147] didacticism, or the dreary obligations of a so-called moral purpose. Even the most faithful reproductions of realism are hardly impersonal utterances. They cannot but betray the critical standpoint of their author, however dispassionate he may be. If they are revolting and painful in their bleak veracity, they speak, perhaps, for his pious indignation at some hideous wrong, some social injustice, some piteous tragedy of existence; and we may go our ways, the better for his wholesome though disagreeable lesson. If they are engrossed, even to the point of tediousness, with the familiar, the common, or the dull, unrelieved by any spice of romance, unheightened by any touch of extraneous beauty, they are still, it may be, so many expressions of a serene and humane personality, perceiving good everywhere and implicitly declaring the worth of life. Let him be as literal, as uncompromising, as he will, his temperament and philosophy are still inevitably revealed on every page. Not a word is traced [Page 148] on paper, not a colour laid to canvas, but carries some hint of the delineator’s hand. The artist’s identity is patent in his work, his accent lurks in every line, his features look from every phrase. And at the last, whether he intend it or not, his collected work will form a commentary, or at least a foot-note, to the great book of nature.

    There it lies, this green volume of the earth, the dark sea on one page, the dark forested hills on the other, and the creamy margin of shore between, with a ribbon of surf to mark the place. And there you may read to your heart’s content; the story will never by finished, nor the interest flag, till you drop the task for some night for very weariness, and your candle goes out with a puff of wind. But while the bright light lasts, and your strength holds out, how enthralling a book it is. What legendry and science, what song and story. The obscure records of the mountains and the tides, the shifting pictures of cloud and ruffling forests and changing fields from year [Page 149] to year; the multitudes of the living trees and grasses, and last, most wonderful of all, the perishable talking tribes of men. And then to think, before this volume how many students have sat and mused, pondering the meaning of its fair text — so fair, yet so obscure as well. Here Shakespeare read and smiled; here Homer and Horace looked and doubted; here Job and Plato, David and Dante, Angelo and Darwin, Virgil and Voltaire, Spinoza and Rubens and Cervantes, found lifelong solace mingled with disquiet. Scholars and saints, painters and ploughmen, lovers and skeptics, emperors and peasants, and poets and kings; and what had they all to say about their reading? No comment? Did they find the work amusing, or was it squalid, or only dull? Think of the poetry of Emerson and Wordsworth; what is it but a critical interpretation of nature? Think of the work of Fielding or Thackeray or Hawthorne; what was it but a running commentary on humanity? [Page 150]

    There is one sense in which all the arts are one — in that they are all but differing forms of expression, differing methods in which the spirit of humanity finds a voice and embodies its thought about the universe, and in that sense, surely, all art is an appendix to nature, a criticism on experience. Fiction and painting, for example, seem clearly to have had their origin as simple pastimes, yet how significant a body of commentary they contain. I suppose the art of painting arose in the idlest hour, from a very superfluity of leisure and fancy, the chance discovery of some dreamy bygone summer afternoon; yet every line or shade tells tales of the vanished painter’s sentiment as he looked out at the world about him. And modern fiction; there is a fine art which would seem to have had its beginning in nothing more serious than the telling of tales over a winter fire. Yet now, in all its varied complexity, so philosophical, so intentional, how evidently critical it has become. [Page 151]

    We must not forget, either, to make ample allowance for that conception of art which claims for it a province quite apart from the actual world. According to this view, it is the business of art to create for our enjoyment a fictitious universe, within our own, yet dissevered from it — an unreal, imaginary palace of pleasure, having no bearing upon actual life. This was the dream of the pre-Raphaelites. For them the fairy-tale was the true model of fiction. They revelled in creations that leave nature toiling far behind. You would certainly never go to them for a criticism of life. And yet what does the presence of such a fanciful creation mean — springing up side by side with the actual, and resembling so little? Is not its mere existence a most significant comment on the world of fact it pretends to ignore? Is it not an avowal of the insufficiency of nature, the imperfection of our lot? It is easy to scoff at such fantastic wistfulness in art, but for my [Page 152] part I think it more profitable than a complacent abiding in “things as they are.”

    If you consider the attitude of the artist, the painter, the poet, the man of letters, as an attentive observer of things about him, as a portrayer of natural phenomena, a reporter at large in all the splendid, bright avenues of earth, bringing home to the attention of his fellows many facts from many sources, adding some hint of his own thoughts concerning them, elucidating them from his fuller knowledge than ours, suggesting by his chosen preference which seem to him most memorable and noteworthy, you will be reminded of the attitude of the critic, and see how closely they resemble each other. Admitting this similarity of functions, what are those qualifications of the creative artists which are requisite to the right critical temper as well?

    First of all, I should place openness of mind. One would think that a very obvious requirement, the least that could be asked of [Page 153] a personality bringing itself under the spell of new forms and fresh influences of beauty. But how rare it is, that spiritual candour which shows itself in the utterly unprejudiced disposition of a great, patient humility. It is linked on one side to the religious sense, the capacity for wonder, and on the other to a profound curiosity that is for ever questing, questing, questing — the scholar’s gift. It involves a love of truth, too, undauntable and unswerving, ready on the instant to abandon the most cherished notion for the sake of one more tenable in reason. With an exquisite susceptibility to impressions, and with a depth of feeling rather than conviction, the artist steeps himself in the atmosphere of every scene he would reproduce, the critic surrenders himself to the subtlest influences of the masterpiece under his hand. In either case, it is a finely sensitized mechanism, as delicate as a piece of litmus paper played upon by the potent element of beauty in the chemistry of the soul, and bearing unimpeachable evidence [Page 154] of the test. Such a being is in little danger of coming to destruction through the self-confidence of the prig. He is more likely to be the most unassuming of mortals. There will characterize him a sweet eagerness for knowledge, not incompatible with a gentle regard for beliefs no longer possible and conceptions no longer true. He, too, will be quite willing to pass with the slow procession of created things from one illusion to another, without dejection or regret. None will be more passionately and keenly alive to events than he; no one more detached in contemplating them. A sedulous, kindly nature, earth-born and instinctive, will be his; so that, while he is almost strenuous in following a bent, he will completely realize the futility of insistence and the folly of overstrain. Such a mind will not be affluent nor impressive, but it will be infinitely exact in its own way, infinitely careful of distinctions, infinitely scrupulous in speech. To the sobriety of science it would add the elation of art; [Page 155] and to the elation of art it would add the smiling afterthought of indecision.

    That a painter, or a writer, or an artist of any sort must be receptive, seems almost self-evident. It is his business to be sensitive, to keep on the alert for all passing phenomena of beauty, all the suggestive incidents of life. Not a line or a gesture must escape him of the manifold human drama daily enacted before his eyes; not a shade or tone of colour must be lost on him of all the wonderful fleeting loveliness of sky and sea, mountain and cloud, sun and rain. The changing face of the universe is his continual study, and his appreciation will never fail to catch the gusts of passion and mood that sweep across the tumultuous regions of the mind. Whatever else he may be, he can never for one moment be fixed or stable, save in the purpose to be always free, always unprejudiced, always ready for the new impulse, the new impression, the new inspiration. For whether we think of inspiration as coming through experience or through [Page 156] intuition, it demands an equally receptive habit of thought. And one who would be guided by it must have an equally sedulous regard for the inward meaning and the outward apparition of things. He must be endowed with senses of no ordinary keenness, like that figure in Norse mythology who could hear the grasses growing; and a very wizardry of instinctive comprehension must be his. Culture for him will mean not so much self-perfection as self-absorption in nature and life for others, and at the instance of an uncontrollable propensity. He is the unwearied listener at the Sphinx, the eternal wanderer by all trodden and unfrequented paths; he is a nomad in the blood, and an incredulous believer from his birth. And this natural aptitude for indecision and appreciation is emphasized by a daily use, is encouraged and developed and grows by practice, until your typical artistic temperament, as the phrase runs, becomes proverbially impressionable and fastidious. [Page 157]

    And all this, that he may convey some expression of his new knowledge to the audience of his fellows. He is eyes and ears for multitudes less fortunate than himself. We rely on him for daily fresh reports from every corner of the house of life, with all its wonderful galleries and crannies, crowded with fact and haunted by illusion. But what is our attitude toward him? Many of those traits which are most useful to the artist are most useful to the critic as well. Flexibility or openness of mind is one of them, and the most important. If the artist must exercise absolute freedom in his art, are we ready to grant him that right? Do we look with tolerance on the new and strange in art? If we were to approach a new book or a new picture with anything of the same receptiveness which the writer or the painter felt in dealing with his subject, we should, first of all, be attentive, curious, impressionable. We certainly should not be carping and antagonistic. Our first effort would be to understand. We [Page 158] should apply thought to our subject, and not prejudice.

    While the creative spirit may be carried away by zeal in a cause, the critical spirit must always remain impartial. They are alike, however, in this, that to reach their best they must always be unhampered and individual. The critical spirit can espouse no party, adhere to no preconceived notion of the truth. Its only principle is a love of truth, of beauty, and of goodness, wherever they may be revealed, and in whatever guise they may appear. It must stand apart, without creed or predilection. The academic point of view, so valuable for the conservation of learning, is out of court in critical affairs; since the gist of art is revelation, the accomplishment of something unprecedented. The underlying science of art is as fixed and stable as all other natural law; but the manifestations of art are always surprising, often in seeming contradiction to tradition. So that the purely scholastic mode of appreciating [Page 159] them is inadequate. To set up standards of bygone excellence in art and then bring all new achievements into comparison with them is unjust to both. You pin your faith to Dante and Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth, let us say, and then you bring a new book to be tested by their standard. If it does not conform, you say it must be poor. But, if it did conform, art would be a dead thing. Art and poetry are not inventions, they are living and vital forces, growing with civilization, and making themselves felt in fresh ways every day. So that it is impossible, as it seems to me, to confront them with any preconceived notion of what they ought to be. It is only possible to criticize them in a spirit of absolute impartiality, with the unbiased loving patience of the scientist. [Page 160]