Caste in Criticism
Caste in Criticism.
By HARVEY O'HIGGINS
IT is one of the sardonic conclusions of modern research that an aristocracy's prejudices against certain vocations and means of livelihood are prejudices that have come down from the early days of savagery, when manual labor and industrial occupations were left to women and slaves, and the free males of the tribe were properly engaged only in war and hunting, government and priestcraft. So the younger son of an English governing family, still, like an Iroquois brave, is unable to seek a career outside of the army, politics, or the church, although amateur sport now carries some of the honors of tribal hunting, and learning, which used to be a part of priestcraft, is as respectable as holy orders. As a further extension of these caste prejudices, a gentleman is a man who does not work for his living, and an occupation is degraded that is pursued for gain.
In America, with a democratic ideal and a wholly industrial basis for society, such prejudices are not yet very strong. Our leisure class is not large enough to impose them on us, although it has imported them in some degree for its own edification. We have little of the feeling that a gentleman must be a gentleman of leisure or engage only in pursuits that are not mercenary. We are more inclined to consider idleness a disgrace and to despise an occupation that is merely ornamental. There is with us a sneer in the word amateur,—one who practises an art for the love of it,—and the professional is the man whom we admire, because of his greater skill. We share somewhat, with the British, their dislike of professionalism in sport and politics, those traditional occupations of the leisure classes; but we scarcely share at all their suspicion of professionalism in art, and we have little of their reverence for ornamental culture or for erudition that has no useful end. We compel our arts and our sciences to serve us, and to earn their livings, or be slighted.
Thus poetry, the highest form of literary art traditionally, is humorously regarded by our people, and the poet is a common butt in our theater and our press. The painter, unless he is a portrait-painter, is not highly considered, but the illustrator is popular and much admired. The sculptor shares in the honors of the architect if he makes expensive public monuments. The musician and the singer have been recently established in general regard by grand-opera salaries and fabulous concert fees. The playwright has to make his fortune to be noted. The actor has to be a star or nothing. In fact, although academic criticism still rates our arts in the order of comparative honor that they hold abroad, our popular approval seems to rate them according to their utility and their earning power.
That may be not an unmixed evil. The past is full of proof that the popular art of one generation is the classical art of the next, and the verdict of the jury, in the lowest court of public approval, has a way of being unexpectedly sustained on appeal to the supreme critical tribunals of posterity. The museums are full of dead pictures by forgotten artists who were acclaimed immortal in their day because they were classical, traditional, of the aristocracy of art. The books that live in all libraries are the books that were democratically vital to the readers of their time. It is notorious that no dramatic art that was unsuccessful with its own audience has ever found an audience in posterity. It is equally notorious that the judgments of academic criticism have been almost invariably wrong when the judgment was delivered on its contemporary art.
Such considerations need not deceive us into believing that what is popular in American art is therefore good. But they may console us for much of the foreign condemnation of what is popular. As foreign art, as British art particularly, is an entertainment for the leisure classes, so foreign criticism, and particularly British criticism, forms its judgments according to the prejudices of the leisure classes. These prejudices are apt to rule against anything in art that is not classic, traditional, stylish, and leisurely in form and high bred, philosophical, and aristocratic in matter. Ruskin was such a critic when he described George Eliot's "Middlemarch" as "the sweepings of a Pentonville bus." James Stephens is such a critic when he declares that we cannot have a literature in America because "without a social order there can be no literature; for that the house must be in order."
Stephens seems to repeat the prejudice when he says "the secret of good writing is to be found in the words used by the writer and the way he uses these words; but before any American writer I know of can escape from mediocrity he or she must jettison their present vocabularies and provide themselves with new ones." (And in this case the critic exalts diction in a sentence the syntax of which is disgraceful, as a snob will see only the good manners of a behavior that is morally bad.) There was a time when Latin was the language of aristocratic literature, and Dante had to defend himself for writing his poetry in his native, but vulgar, tongue; and even Edmund Spenser was criticized for refusing to use Latin meters in his English verse. The same tradition of aristocratic expression in literature has animated academic criticism at all times. American literature will have to endure its condemnation. If we produce a literature that bears the same relation to American life that American plumbing does, for example, we shall be doing a sane thing, but a thing that will surely be anathematized by all the high priests of art. And they will anathematize it, although literature has to be vital to be anything at all; although it has to serve life, not esthetics; although the religion of "art for art's sake" is a religion that ministers to its idol, but not to humanity; although such religions, are dying everywhere, and the religion of social service is taking their place; and although the priests of art also, in their turn, will have to come down out of their temples, to serve among the people, or be mocked.