Why Socialism Appeals to Artists

THE question implied in the title of this paper is not unfrequently asked from the point of those who, assuming that art is a more or less portable and exchangeable commodity, a luxury for the few rather than a joy for the many, hold that artistic development is founded upon individual accumulations of riches, and depends mainly upon private patronage. Now, however apparently true such assumptions may be with respect to certain forms of pictorial production in modern times, if we take the larger view of art, regarding it as the expression not only of the mind, taste, or pride of individuals, but as the monument of the life and ideals of peoples and the symbol of great epochs in history, we shall have very largely to qualify this view.

It would appear that the art. instinct, the desire to represent or express something, manifests itself quite spontaneously, and its evidences are seen as soon as the primitive physical wants of man are satisfied. There could have been no capitalists among the cave men, and yet very spirited designers of animal life existed among them. Probably the hunter who drew the bow or flung the lance could also draw the form of the mammoth or the reindeer he was stalking. The impulse to record in pictorial shape forms familiar to the eye, the life and movement of the natural world, and the love of decorative beauty which led primitive man to ornament his weapons and utensils seem inseparable from any manifestation of human life, though their development is necessarily modified by anything which influences life itself and its conditions, climatic, physical, political, social, spiritual.

Those who follow art, like other men, might be roughly divided into optimists and pessimists, according to their temperament, conditions, and the influence of their particular personal experience of life; but in so far as an artist is an artist, by the very nature of his calling, whether architect, painter, sculptor, or other, he is necessarily brought constantly face to face with the direct social results and external aspects of the existing system of society, and he must, for good or for evil, be influenced by them; he must in his work, consciously or unconsciously, give expression to the mind as well as the body of his time. The building, the decoration, the picture, the statue, so far as they are vital works at all, are not only the expression of the idiosyncrasies of their designer, but are also the outward and visible signs of the spiritual and material forces paramount in a people’s life. They are the index to a nation’s history; nay, they often remain the only authentic pieces of history we possess. The artist, then, be he the sensitive recorder of every change and phase of the human as well as the natural day, or be he the creative idealist in whose eyes common things are transfigured and become sublime, who sees in the rising sun, like William Blake, an innumerable heavenly host, must be, one would think, the first to feel, the first to be moved by, any signs of storm or coming change on the face of the social sky or earth.

In spite of the fashionable impressionism, I venture to hold that even a painter must paint what he knows and feels as well as what he sees; and unless we are prepared to limit the term Art to painting, and Painting to the art of recording the accidental aspects and phases of nature, without selection or creative purpose, — unless we limit the painter’s mind, for instance, to the condition of the sensitized plate in the photographic camera, we must allow his ideals and aspirations to influence his work, just as his color-sense must influence it. We recognize an artist by his power of design, characteristic touch, or sense of form, tone, and color; what are these but, as it were, his handwriting, his illuminated text, which conveys, as with an electrical flash, the passion of his mood and his inner vision to other minds and eyes ?

If, then, it be granted that an artist may have thoughts and feelings as well as external impressions, let us ask how these are likely to be influenced by the social environment at the present day.

The gradual economic change which, owing to various causes, has been taking place during the last three centuries, leading to production for profit in place of production for use, now dominates all kinds of production, even that called artistic ; and whatever advantages such a system may have from the commercial point of view, and as bearing on quantity, it cannot be said to be favorable to quality, or, in operation with an unequal competition, to be other than wasteful and debasing.

Our century has seen the development of an enormous mechanical invention, and, by its industrial application, has established a system of machine labor which has taken the place of the older system of division of labor. Production for profit and the enormously increased rapidity of production have led to the centralization of markets, — to the great world-market; and this same centralization drives the worker in art, like the wage-worker, by the whip of competition, to seek his livelihood in the great commercial centres, where the struggle for existence grows ever fiercer and more tragic ; as

“The many fail, the one succeeds.”

The capital drains the resources of the country in brains as well as hands. Interesting and characteristic local developments disappear, and amid the increasing interdependence of countries art has a tendency to become more and more cosmopolitan. This state of things may be pronounced a blessing or a curse according to one’s mental standpoint. I do not say it has not its advantages, but I do not feel it would be a happy day for art if it should ever be narrowed to picture-making, and ruled, like millinery, by the quick changes of Paris fashion, however piquant.

Every young student to whom the need of getting a livelihood comes home soon feels under the necessity of doing work consciously with intent to sell, — that is, of doing less than his best, — uninspired, commercial work done to order, to supply demands of trade; those very demands being often artificial, like the art they call into being. If he has cherished dreams of great and sincere works, he must put them away from him unless he can face starvation. Perhaps, in the end, he goes into some commercial mill of production, or sells his soul to the dealer, the modern high priest of Pallas Athene. Then he finds that the practice of serving Mammon has so hardened into habit as to make him forget the dreams and aspirations of his youth, and the so-called successful artist sinks into the cheerful and prosperous type of cynic, of which our modern society appears to produce such abundant specimens.

The choice presented to the modern artist is really pretty much narrowed to that of being either the flatterer and servant of the rich or a trade hack. Between this Scylla and Charybdis it is difficult indeed to steer a true course, — to be at once true to himself and keep his head above water. How many are broken on the rocks or drawn into the whirlpool!

Suppose, then, that our artist, feeling the pressure of social conditions in this way, stops to think how it has come about, — stops for a moment to compare the present state of art with the art of the past, with the art of ancient Greece or of Italy in the Middle Ages, to say nothing of the contrast he may look for in the outward aspects of life. Let him picture the life of ancient Athens in the fifth century B. c., or of Florence or Venice in the fifteenth A. D., and compare it with that of New York or London in the last years of the nineteenth. Well, although I believe there are painters who love London smoke, and adore the chimney-pot hat and tubular clothing of the modern citizen, our artist, if he be one of the almost extinct race who think external beauty of much consequence, and is candid, must reflect that what we call modern convenience and comfort, forsooth, have been obtained at a heavy price.

They are, after all, but comparative convenience and comfort, and on reflection one perceives that most modern inventions are intended to mitigate evils, or to meet difficulties unknown and unfelt in more simple and primitive states of society. The blind gods of Cash and Comfort are enthroned on high and worshiped with ostentation, while there exist, as it were on the very steps of their temples, masses of human beings who know not either, or at the most scarcely touch the hem of their garments. “ This has been so since the world began,” says the comfortable citizen, with no desire to pry into origins. Restless inquirers, however, are not so easily satisfied : they insist on searching records ; they look back and find the germs of modern socialism at the beginnings of history, in the primitive communism of the village communities. They see the primitive and common rights of man usurped by conquest or acts of parliament; and private property established by force of arms, however afterwards secured by legal parchments ; and the heavy, useful productive labors, which keep the world alive, gradually thrust on the shoulders of a class, the wealth producers, who have but this one commodity of laborpower they can call their own, and this only to be exercised at the will of another. Chattel slavery is no more, but wage slavery has taken its place. The free Englishman (I have not been long enough in the United States to be sure about the American, but some say he furnishes a counterpart) has not where to lay his head. If he loiters on the highway, he is liable to arrest as a vagrant. If he strays off it to enjoy his native fields and woods, he may be prosecuted for trespass. Yet he may be a man desiring merely to be allowed to work for his living and to take his leisure. He is supposed to be politically free, but even if he had a vote, and could possess his forty-thousandth part (as Carlyle puts it) of a parliamentary representative, of what use is political freedom if there be no economical freedom ; of what use are opinions when a man is not certain of his daily bread ? Our artist need not dig very deep below the surface to perceive these things ; he need not read Mill, or Ricardo, or Carl Marx to discern the signs of the times : hopelessness and apathy are painted on the faces of our laborers. The joy, the dignity, and the poetry of labor are being crushed out by long hours, in factory or field, and the overmastering machine, and the beauty of our country and city becomes more and more a rare accident. Everywhere is to be seen the picture of our modern Atlas, with straining arms, in the sweat of his body, sustaining the careless world. I do not say it is without significance or pathos, or even graphic elements, but it is a saddening spectacle.

In the fierce race and breakneck speed of competition all are driven. The old popular festivals die out; there is no time or room for them. We must bow down and worship the golden image which our kings of profit and interest have set up; scrape, save, invest, speculate, gamble, to raise a pile for self or family, and build a palace on the ruin of the lives and hopes of others. We are taught to despise the useful productive labor by which we are maintained; obliterate all traces of our occupation, if possible, whatever it may be ; struggle for a place on the social ladder ; push and shoulder our neighbors aside ; strive to reach what is called “ a position of independence,” — that is to say, a position which depends for its security on the labor of others. Strange that at one end of the scale it is a crime to have “ no visible means of subsistence,” while at the other end it is respectable and respected! These be your gods, O Israel!

It is obvious that, such being the motive power, the machinery of life must be complex, its outward aspects restless and inharmonious, the atmosphere it engenders not a healthy one for humanity, and therefore not a happy one for the artist.

Art has flourished in small communities, in epochs of a certain unity of sentiment and of rich and varied external aspects. A sympathetic atmosphere of some kind is essential to its existence. The greatest works have been always public buildings and monuments, just where modern art is, as a rule, weakest. Between the critic and the dealer, between the devil and the deep sea, where is there standing-room for an original artist ? It is sufficiently extraordinary that he ever obtains recognition and sympathy, but therein lies our hope.

Sweep away the cobwebs of custom, open the windows of the mind and let in the fresh air of knowledge and free thought, and humanity responds again to ideas of beauty and truth. The larger heart rings true to the vibration of larger ideas. How many even of the very men who are absorbed in the millhorse round of modern business existence, and who are helping to perpetuate it, are yet the first to rejoice to shake off the harness for a moment, to escape for a time to Bohemia, —to the wilderness, if they can find one ! Indeed, it seems as if modern life were endurable only in proportion to the number and the accessibility of the means of escape from it.

Why then strain every nerve to maintain this costly and wasteful fabric ? Why be alarmed at any suggestion of the possibility or desirability of the reorganization of a system of society which confessedly succeeds so ill in securing human happiness ? It is all very well to say we individually make or mar our own happiness, but no one is independent of conditions and the action of laws beyond his control. It is all very well to say to the modern artist it is his business to extract beauty from ugliness, and sublimity from commonplace and unlovely materials ; he may even succeed in doing so. But it is only in a state of siege that people look for a substitute for bread ; it is only in the arctic regions that men have been reduced to eating their boots. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles ? If so much can be made of unfavorable conditions, if so much public spirit, good fellowship, human kindness, poetic feeling, and artistic invention and sensibility exist under an economic and social system the whole drift of which is logically against such developments, it is merely reasonable to assume that there would be much more room for the best side of human nature in a state not founded on selfinterest, or where good works are not dependent on the state of the stock market.

In looking at any new ideal or movement in the direction of social reorganization, we are too apt to read into it results which are peculiarly characteristic of our own time and its conditions. It is difficult, no doubt, to divest the mind of prejudice ; it is difficult fully to realize what a vast difference conditions and motives make in human development. Alter the conditions, and you alter motives. The differences in human development, moral and physical, at different periods of the world’s history, under various climatic and social influences, are at least as striking as any resemblances, or the persistence of what is called human nature. Human nature, like human virtues and vices, however, appears to be one thing in one age, and another in another. When starvation is always impending thrift may be a virtue; but the habit of calculating, of weighing the value of everything to the uttermost farthing, and of resting all things on the standard of money value must have a narrowing and cramping effect upon the mind, and render it incapable of the appreciation of art, of large and generous conduct and humane views.

One of the commonest objections raised to socialism is generally put in the following form: " What incentive will there be to work under socialism, and what will you do with the idle ? ” Have we then succeeded in making all labor so dull, unattractive, or positively irksome that it is impossible to conceive of men and women doing useful work except under the whip of commercial competition or the fear of starvation ? It should be remembered that in any reasonable state of human society the text would hold good, “ If any will not work, neither let him eat; ” that would be the only compulsion. But the organization of the labor of a community for the sole good of that community alone would mean a very different kind of organization of labor from that which goes by the name at the present day, when the motive and mainspring of action are not the good of the community, but the amount of profit possible to be secured by the individual. Then, too, what motive, what temptation, would remain for the greedy and the grasping, when the wealth resulting from the labors of the community, its knowledge, its art, its leisure and pleasure, would be common to all ?

As to the question of the disposal of the idle, — well, we are encumbered with idle classes, at present, at both ends of the social scale, compulsory idleness in both cases. The poor man out of employment is not allowed to work. The rich man, living on surplus values extracted from generations of labor by his fathers, or by the mere mechanical working of monopoly and the rolling in of the waves of unearned increment, has no work to do. Could it be nearly so disastrous for the community if, under the new order, every emancipated member of a socialist commune worked only two hours out of the twenty-four, and claimed the rest for enjoyment and sleep ? There would at least be a large margin left for the natural restlessness and energy of man to disport themselves upon.

Would the establishment of such a communal system be so terrible, after all ? What a vast load of false sentiment and vulgar ostentation it would sweep away! An artist could even face the temporary disappearance of art itself to gain such benefit; just as we endure the fall of the leaf, knowing that spring must return, in the natural order of things, with the glowing sun and the flowers.

“When Thackeray wrote The Newcomes, the artist was regarded as a kind of Bohemian, picturesque in dress, free in manners and opinions, and frowned upon by the respectables. Perhaps even with the improved prosperous later nineteenth-century exterior of merchant or banker he may still keep a more or less Bohemian lining, which makes him more accessible to revolutionary ideas than some of his fellow-citizens. It is to be hoped so. It would be an evil day for the progress of society if every man were so bound, hand and foot, by the conditions of his life, his dependence on others, as to be unable to speak his mind.

As to the form of socialism, there are of course many schools of thought; the underlying principle at work may fairly be said to be established. In the course of our natural economic evolution, we are already crossing the threshold of the new epoch. Coming events cast their shadows before. Every government has to give prominent place to social legislation. Public spirit begins to animate the accumulators of riches, public wealth is being restored to the public in the form of free libraries, museums of art and history, and the claims of the whole community to a share of intellectual life are granted in free education. Can we logically stop here ? “ Man shall not live by bread alone.” No, but he must begin with bread. The fire must have fuel; the engine will not go without steam or electricity. The welfare, the strength of a state, of a community, rests upon the welfare, the strength, the happiness, of every individual of that state or community. Bound in the solidarity of brotherhood and community of interest, in the ideal state the land and the means of production could be the monopoly of none, because the property of all. There could be no fine-drawn distinction of class, no abasement of useful labor, no shirking and shifting of all the hard work upon the shoulders of one order, but each would be ready to do his or her part in the service of humanity ; knowing no higher dignity than distinction in such service, whether of brain or hand; untouched by the sordid taint of gold, the greed and the desire for it removed, since it would buy nothing that could not be enjoyed without it in the highest sense by every citizen.

With such corner-stones as these what a social structure might be raised ! Upon such a basis, the sense of art and beauty, the wit and invention of man, freed from long hours of exhausting toil and the wear and tear and worry of modern existence, would in happy emulation strive to enrich and ennoble life in every way. While the necessity of useful work would keep habits simple, and yet make true refinement possible, the greatest art and splendor could be devoted to public buildings and monuments, in which, again, all the arts should be reunited and reinspired, and, penetrated with the spirit of that new religion, that larger faith, the dawn of which we already faintly perceive, realize themselves in new and beautiful forms for the joy of emancipated humanity.

Does this seem an idle dream ? Nay, it is our plain destiny ; we have but to put forth our thoughts and our hands to reach it; we have but to ask what is the progressive factor in humanity. Is it not always the social instinct ? Is it not the social instinct which determines all our relations? Morality, law, religion, all are gradually modified by it in the course of its development through the ages. Did primitive man differ more from his early progenitors in the dim obscurity of the past than modern man differs from him in habit of life, in moral and religious conceptions, in power over nature ? Can the world stand still ? Having put our hand to the plough, can we look back, except indeed it be to learn the lessons that history teaches. ?

Times of activity in art, as William Morris has well said, have been times of hope. There is the alternation of night and day in the history of human progress. Each new dayspring lifts the voices of new singers ; the reddening lips of the dawn fire the eyes of painters. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that bring good tidings ! In the freshness of the morning, in the wonder and delight and anticipation of the new intellectual day, Art is born again; she rises like a new Aphrodite from the dark sea of time, trembling in the rose and gray of the morning, her blue wistful eyes full of visions, her slender hands full of flowers, and straightway there appears a new heaven and a new earth in the sight of men filled with the desire and joy of life, as the husk of the past, the faded chrysalis, shrivels away, and the new-born spirit of the age rises upon the splendor of its painted wings.

Walter Crane.