The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


Vanitas Vanitatum

 

    “VANITY of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” And what you may find to remark in this well-worn note of tribulation is the fact that it is the saying of a preacher. Then further we may query: In what other profession than that of the preacher will a man come so abruptly upon a sense of the tædium vitæ? So powerful is the reflex and hypnotic influence of actions, the professional faultfinder soon becomes both victim and example to his own tirades. What is less lovely than a scold, or more pitiable than a buffoon confirmed in his buffoonery?

    Emerson has a pregnant though in one of his brief poems: [Page 48]

                     “ ‘A new commandment,’ said the smiling Muse,
                        ‘I give my darling son, thou shalt not preach’ —
                        Luther, Fox, Behem, Swedenborg, grew pale,
                        And, on the instant, rosier clouds upbore
                        Hafis and Shakespeare, with their shining choirs.”

    It is the same thought that has led us by common consensus of critical opinion to condemn the didactic in art, and prefer those artists who stick to beauty pure and simple. As good comfortable Fra Lippo Lippi has it:

                        “If you get simple beauty and naught else,
                        You get about the best thing God invents.”

    Here is at once a sanction for the best and the lowliest effort of art, the truth which rewards and satisfies the eminent master, and also encourages and consoles the humble craftsman. It dignifies not only all art but all work. Our fine arts and handicrafts are perfected and ennobled, when once we treat them with this cheery and loving though in mind. Whether the work is an epic or [Page 49] a bookbinding or the setting of a precious stone, it is all one in importance if only we are careful to dignify the task with love and devotion. Beauty calls for our best, and only by giving our best in the service of beauty can we learn to fully appreciate the delight that beauty offers us in return.

    If it is true that every one should take some manly share in doing the necessary work of the world, it is probably just as true that every one should have some active interest in one of the fine arts. To speak more truly, perhaps, there should be no divorce between work and art; and I dare say that not until all work can be done with the workman’s whole heart can we have the best results. At present, in a time which we are pleased to call complex, this does not seem quite possible. Most men’s occupations call for a stress and hurry that preclude the slow care which art demands. Certainly, however, the artistic method is to be attempted wherever it is possible. Certainly, too, we shall be wise if we [Page 50] make time (however busy we may fancy ourselves) to take up some form of art or handicraft on which we may expend enthusiasm. For then we shall be getting “simple beauty and naught else.” We shall need neither to preach nor be preached to any more. Even the higher journalism will become superfluence. We shall be so busy enjoying ourselves in our way, we shall have no time to spend on the questionable task of trying to improve our neighbours.

    I am much mistaken if the first preacher was not the first idler, a brazen skulker from the field where his sedulous companions were toiling in the sun. He probably went home to discourse to his appreciative family on the proper methods of agriculture and the sin of laziness.

    Vanitas vanitatum, et omni vanitas. And served him right that he found it so! Had he preached less, perhaps, he would have not have discovered vanity so quickly. But why is it dangerous to preach? Because it is dangerous [Page 51] to do anything that is not done with the whole being, and preaching is too mental a performance. The calling of the preacher, in the pulpit or in the press, has too little connection with activity, and enlists only the forces of mind and spirit, with too little regard for deeds. The artist must not only reason out his work, he must love it and execute it himself. That piece of work is ill done, whether it be painting or paving, to which there did not go a modicum of love and thought and energy together. No two will serve alone. If you will seek out a successful mechanic, or sailorman, or musician, or mule-driver, — one who puts brains and heart into the work of his hands, — I think you will find he hasn’t much time left for lamentations. He doesn’t know what tædium vitæ means, and he wouldn’t know any better if you translated it for him. But it never ought to be translated. And whenever you hear a man going up and down the world reviling the times continually — he is a preacher. If he [Page 52] isn’t a preacher by profession, he is a preacher by nature, which is worse. The habit of preaching has taken hold upon him, and is eating into his vitals. “Happy is he who has been apprenticed to trade and taught to preach beauty with his hands,” says the Book of St. Kavin. [Page 53]