The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

The Outskirters


    “TO be even an outskirter in art leaves a fine stamp on a man’s countenance.” I had forgotten the quotation, if I ever knew it, until a friend recalled it recently in a letter. But it expresses well the position of so many, does it not? And that single word contains a power of suggestion.

    To be an outskirter. That is itself the very embodiment of the artistic aspiration and temper. For the artist, I dare fancy, is never desirous of being wholly absorbed; he dreads being committed past recall to any creed or course; he dwells at the static centre of opposing forces, and sails leisurely in the eddies of the storm; his supreme fear is the loss of his independence and his power of detachment. [Page 199] Show me a man who cannot make up his mind, and I will introduce you to a friend of mine who has the first rudiments of the artist about him. Like many sayings, this is not wholly true; for if a man really cannot ever make up his mind after deliberation, if he can make no choice between better and worse in æsthetic matters; if he has no taste to guide him, no instinct for beauty; if he remains for ever undecided, he is no artist at all. Such an unfortunate is only fitted to be a critic, or a professor, or a politician, or something of that sort; he can never hope to be a poet, or a carpenter, or a doer of things. I mean that one must have the habit of detachment, with the power of selection. To keep your mind already made up is to be dull and fossiliferous; not to be able to make it up at all is to be watery and supine. These are the two types, each worse than the other. From the former came bigotry, bastinado, and all manner of bumptious cruelty and hate that can make this paradisal earth a Gehenna; [Page 200] from the latter came the sloven, the sentimentalist, and the tramp, that forceless contingent of humanity with no more backbone than a banana, which shuffles and bewails its way through this delightful valley of tears.

    To avoid both of these faults is necessary — and possible. Let us begin by forgetting for ever the vile superstition that “you cannot alter human nature.” If you cannot alter human nature, you cannot alter anything on earth. That is all we are here for, to alter human nature, to make it more natural and more human. Let us begin with our own, and, when that is perfect, let us impart the perfection to our friends. Meanwhile, if we can perceive any hint and shadow of perfection before unrecognized, let us call it to the attention of others. That is what art is for, to embody perfection, to manifest the ideals we have not yet attained.

    I should say, then, that artists at their best are very far from being indifferent folk or unenergetic; they are, however, capable of an [Page 201] almost complete detachment. They are veritably outskirters, and not partakers of the milling turmoil of existence. ’Tis part of their business to observe, but seldom, I imagine, to fight. Yet, they are not all outskirters. There was Shelley, for instance, and Carlyle. And I remember a lecture of Richard Hovey’s (unrecorded and delivered before a handful of friends, who will recall that masterful treatment, that gentle humour, that beautiful voice which no one will hear again now), in which he touched on this very theme in dealing with Shelley, and in which he seemed to think the quality of detachment not so important in a poet, after all. Very likely he was right, and we must allow for the zeal of the prophets. At all events, the very theory of detachment would forbid us holding it too rigidly. And the outskirter may sometimes give a lusty buffet in the right cause where he sees an inviting opportunity. As it is written that the Prince of Peace once made a whip of cords and cleared out the greedy [Page 202] money-changers, so you may wield a rope’s end at times and be justified — yes, and be outskirter still.

    Being an outskirter is not in the least like being an outlaw. The outskirter refuses to be absorbed in lesser things, that he may be the more wholly and freely devoted to following the higher law and filling the larger obligation. The artist wishes to be free, not that he may escape any obligation, however humble, but that he may find the source and orbit of his capacity. He foregoes many pleasures that follow on compromise and conformity, for example, in order that at last, after toilsome days, he may justify himself to himself. Surely that is a harmless ambition.

    And then, while the great guild of artists may be considered in a sense outskirters in a world of active men, there are also outskirters in art — in a different sense. There are those who achieve no great things in art, who have not the gift or time or the opportunity, perhaps, for making any solid contribution [Page 203] to the beauty of the palace, who are still devoted servitors, not ashamed of a modest wage, and proud of the great house they serve.

    At least they have our place to fill; they help to form the society in which a great national art shall one day flourish for the betterment and the advancement of our kind. If we believe in the efficacy of art at all, we must stick to it, we must make it prevail more and more. [Page 204]