Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/August 1898/Editor's Table
THE great Russian writer, to whose views on the subject of science we made a passing reference last month, has published a book under the title of What is Art? which has been translated into French by M. de Wyzewa, a well-known contributor to the Revue des Deux Mondes and other periodicals. The author's treatment of the question is very radical; and, as he has assailed the theories of all previous writers on the subject, the theory which he himself puts forward will probably receive abundant criticism. To our mind, waiving all minor questions, his book seems to be one of great importance and value. It is a direct appeal to the conscience and intelligence of the cultivated classes, summoning them to consider whether far the larger part of that which they applaud as art is art at all in the true sense, and whether its effect on themselves and on the world at large is not injurious rather than beneficial. The appeal is made with so much vigor and sincerity, and is supported by so many apt and powerful illustrations, that we shall be surprised if it does not produce far-reaching effects of a most salutary kind. Such a voice as has now been raised has long been wanted to cry out to a luxurious generation that they are abusing the advantages they possess, that their ideals of life are false, and that art in their hands has sunk from its high position as a chief means of the moral and intellectual elevation of mankind and become little else than the echo of their affectations and the servant of their vanity and pride. Count Tolstoi examines the various definitions that have been given of art and finds them all unsatisfactory, though he pronounces the views put forward by Darwin and Spencer as infinitely superior to those of the metaphysical school which founds art u])on the perception of beauty. He hazards a theory of his own, which is that art is the means adopted by men to communicate their emotions and sentiments, as distinct from simple statements of fact, to their fellows. Where any communication is made from man to man in such a way as to awaken in him who receives it the same emotion as is experienced by him who makes it, there, according to Tolstoi, art has intervened. Art may be employed in the service of an evil sentiment; but that does not prevent its being art, provided the sentiment is truly personal to one individual and effectively conveyed to another. In the same way ordinary language might be employed in perfectly logical form to convey a false statement or a wrong opinion; but just as the proper and normal use of language is to convey true statements and correct opinions, so the proper and normal use of art is to convey right sentiments, and, above all, sentiments which make for the binding together of mankind in fraternal union. Art finds, according to this writer, its highest use when it is employed in the service of religion; and the religion of to-day, he holds, consists mainly in the affirmation that all men should be brethren. The best examples of art are those which give expression to sentiments in which all mankind can share; and judged by this standard the art most highly prized by the cultivated classes of day is not art at all, since it is designed merely for the amusement of a few, and is altogether beyond the comprehension of the many. Moreover, if the many could comprehend it it would do them as little good as it does to the exclusive circles for whose special gratification it is produced.
Whatever may be said of this definition of art, there is little doubt in our mind that it furnishes a basis for a fruitful consideration of the whole subject. We incline, indeed, strongly to the opinion that for the average man the most profitable point of view is that which the author has indicated. Let it be granted that the purpose of art is to convey emotion from one mind to another and we have at once a criterion that can be usefully applied both to alleged works of art and to alleged artists. We can ask the latter: What emotion personal to yourself have you that you wish to convey? If you have none, then, whatever your technical ability, you are not an artist. If the emotion is one the propagation of which will do harm, then you are using your art to do injury to your fellow-men, simply to earn from the unthinking or the vicious the praise of having done a bad thing well. If the emotion is one which all men will be the better for sharing, then in proportion to the strength with which you experience it and the power you possess of communicating it to others, you are an artist and a benefactor of mankind. Or we can deal directly with works tendered for our admiration as artistic. What emotion do they convey? To what sentiments do they appeal? Does the message which they bring come direct from the heart of the author, or is it the repetition of another man's message—an echo of tones and a mimicry of methods elsewhere found successful?
If these works give pleasure, what is the nature of the pleasure they give? Is it such as accompanies an enlargement of our sympathies and the raising of our hopes for the future of mankind? Or is it the pleasure of gratified vanity or cynicism? Is it a pleasure which makes our hands "swifter unto good," or one that makes us more self-centered, more self-sufficient, more self-enthralled?
It is much to be desired that men in general would criticise works of art from this point of view. They might occasional!}' err in doing so; but their errors would be rare in direct proportion to their own sincerity, and the effect in strengthening their powers of judgment would be very marked.
Our author furnishes in the following passage a familiar example of what we are frequently called upon to admire as "art":
"A musician of renown seats himself before you at the piano, and plays for you what he says is a new composition of his own or of some present-day musician. You hear him produce strange and noisy sound.s, you admire the gymnastic exercises accomplished by his fingers, and you also see clearly that his intention is to make you believe that the sounds which he produces express different poetical moods of the soul. His intention, I say, is clear; but the only feeling he communicates to you is one of mortal weariness. The performance lasts a long time, or at least seems to you to last a long time, owing to your utter failure to receive any distinct impression; and the idea comes to you that perhaps the whole business is a mystification—that the artist is trying an experiment on you, and is just flinging his hands at random over the keys in the hope that you will be taken in, and that he will have a good laugh afterward at your expense. But no. When at length the piece is finished, and the performer, all trembling and bathed in perspiration, rises from the piano manifestly expecting your applause, you see that it is all very serious. The same thing happens in concerts where they play pieces by Liszt, Berlioz, Brahms, Richard Strauss, and numberless composers of the new school."
It strikes us that there is much truth also in the following: "To say that a work of art is good, and that nevertheless it is incomprehensible to the majority, is as if we were to say of a certain food that it is good, but that most men should be careful not to eat it. The majority of men may not like decayed cheese or 'high' game, dainties much esteemed by persons whose taste is perverted; but bread and fruits are only good when they please the majority of men; and it is the same in art. A perverted art may not please the majority of men, but good art must perforce please everybody."
We must add a passage which contains a most powerful arraignment of the absurdities and wrongs which are every day being perpetrated in the name of art. Regarding art as an organ of human progress, the author points out the disastrous consequences which flow from its perverted action:
"The first of these consequences is too conspicuous to escape notice. It is the vast expenditure of human labor upon things that are not only useless but, as a rule, pernicious. To think that children, handsome, full of life, with every natural endowment necessary for happiness, are condemned from the moment they leave the cradle, some to practice scales six, eight, ten hours' a day, others to dance on tiptoe, others to do singing exercises, others to draw from the antique, from the nude, and others again to compose phrases destitute of meaning according to a particular system of rhetoric! From year to year these unhappy victims go on wasting in these murderous occupations all their physical and intellectual forces, all their aptitude for the comprehension of life. We often say, What a lamentable spectacle to see little acrobats twisting their legs round their neck! But is it not a still more sinister exhibition to see children of ten giving concerts, and little collegians of the same age who know by heart all the exceptions in the Latin grammar? In such pursuits they not only waste their physical and mental forces, but they undergo a process of moralwhich renders them incapable of any kind of service useful to human beings. Accepting in society the position of purveyors of amusement to the rich, they lose the sentiment of human dignity. A hunger for praise develops in them to so monstrous an extent that they suffer through life from this diseased condition, and expend their whole moral being in the effort to appease an insatiable craving. Yet there is something more tragic still, namely, that men who sacrifice their whole life to art, and who are lost for all other purposes, not only do nothing to advance their art, but even cause it immense damage; the reason being that in their academies and colleges and conservatories all they learn is to counterfeit art, so that they become henceforth incapable of conceiving true art or of doing aught except helping to crowd the world with the counterfeit works of an art divorced from Nature."
Before finishing his book Count Tolstoi finds time to say a needful word or two about those men of science who forget the social function of science as completely as some artists or would-be artists forget the social function of art. He well compares science and art in their relations to one another with the lungs and the heart in the human organism. Neither organ can work perfectly unless the other works perfectly also. A defective science makes a defective art, and vice versa. This is an interesting point and one that deserves careful attention. We have said enough to show that the great Russian has produced a work which the civilized world of to-day can not afford to ignore, and which, when it has drawn the fire of all who are offended by the positions it takes, will be recognized as a strong and irrecusable plea for the rights of humanity in the judgment of works of art and of all other works whatsoever.
What is "a great country"? The schoolboy idea is that it is one that can thrash other countries; and, according to this notion, the greatest country of all is one that can "whip all creation." This idea might not do much harm if it were continued to schoolboys, but when it is shared by grown men the case is more serious. "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Here is a childish thing, however, which thousands who have reached man's estate find it very difficult to put away, and have not in point of fact put away. They still think that a country's greatness consists in its military strength—in other words, in the power it could bring to bear for the destruction of rival nations; and, if that country is their own, they exult to think of the havoc it could create among its enemies in the event of a conflict. That a country should be strong for defense is not enough, in the opinion of such persons; it must be strong for offense also; it must be strong enough to swagger.
How very different this is from the spirit of true patriotism hardly needs pointing out. Take that passage in Shakespeare in which the spirit of patriotism receives perhaps the strongest expression ever given to it in literature, and how little do we find of mere exultation in military strength! We refer to the words in which the dying John of Gaunt laments over the evils which the new king, Richard II, is bringing on the state:
"This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle.
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise.
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war.
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea.
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth.
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land!"
There is some reference here to military power—not unnatural when we consider that the date of the play is within eight or ten years of the Spanish Armada—but how little in comparison with the heartfelt expression of love for a land that was the home of a happy and prosperous people—"this land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land"! Moreover, in so far as the poet exulted in the strength of his country, it was the quality of its inhabitants he thought of and dwelt upon—not the engines of war that it possessed or the vastness of its pecuniary resources, A great country in the true sense is one that evokes this feeling in its sons and daughters, and evokes it not less in times of peace than in times of war.
It may here be remarked that the ambiguity of the word "great," as applied both to men and to nations, is the source of no slight perversion of moral judgment. When a man is spoken of as a "great" man without qualification, the inference is only too readily drawn that he is one who may serve as a model for imitation; and yet many so-called great men have had the most serious vices of character, and many have been guilty of the most appalling crimes. "Even so," their eulogists contend, "it can not be denied that they were great." So be it, only let it be understood that the word great so employed has no necessary connotation of moral excellence, of superior humanity, or of any of the qualities which might entitle a man to the love and gratitude of his fellows. The trouble is that, make what reserves we may, the word, as often as it is used, creates illusion, or else has the equally disastrous effect of making us think that where "greatness" is concerned moral considerations are of quite inferior importance.
So, when we speak of a great country, we are only too apt to think of its wealth and strength, and only too readily ignore the elements which go to make up a really great national character and a prosperous and stable commonwealth. We do not care to ask how it got its gold, or what it is doing with it, or at what moral cost it is maintaining its military organization. We do not ask whether liberty is flourishing within its borders, or whether its people are strong in the sum of their qualities, in energy, in resourcefulness, in a sense of public duty. We are ready to consider these things at other times; but the spectacle of military-strength imposes
on our imaginations; and, in schoolboy fashion, we account that nation especially great that has all its preparations made for striking a deadly blow at an enemy in the shortest possible time. It is lamentable that, in a country like this, such views should prevail to the extent to which they do, and that a large proportion of our people should have become enamored of the military ideal. The evil resulting from such a state of opinion is twofold: a wrong direction is likely to be given to our foreign policy, and the internal development of the country is in danger of receiving a serious check.
For, let it never be forgotten that the great problem which every community is set to solve is the problem of social evolution under the guidance of the principle of justice. Even the most military communities are working at this problem in their own way, but under disadvantages directly proportioned to the extent of their military organization and the amount of national energy which it absorbs. No reasonable person will deny that the highest well-being of any state depends upon the equity with which its laws are administered, the protection accorded to individual rights, and the scope allowed to individual initiative and energy. No one will deny either that the intellectual and moral condition of a people is, with reference to the ultimate ends of human existence, of vastly more account than their preparedness for offensive warfare. If these propositions are admitted, how can it be regarded otherwise than as a calamity that the ambition of our people, whose position is so eminently favorable to peaceful development, should be diverted into military channels and turned toward military ideals? Some day we shall have to turn back and seek for things that make for peace, the things that tend to the true upbuilding of the nation and the development of a civilization founded on justice and humanity; but unless that day comes soon evil may be wrought both to our national character and to our institutions which it may take long years to repair.