Poise in Criticism

— From time beyond which the memory of man runs not, the criticism of art by men not artists has been resented by the latter, who, however, have rarely undertaken it themselves with more satisfaction to their brethren. Yet the literary critic of art has one advantage over most artists, — he is not enamored of one class of truths, as any artist but the greatest must be of those that give him guidance and inspiration in his own work. Mr. Brownell, in his recent book on French Art, — a book, it seems to me, that gives us more clear seeing, sound thinking, and accurate as well as charming statement than any other of its kind since Fromentin’s Maȋtres d’autrefois, — describes the attitude of the critic in words that give the spirit of the whole volume, and disclose what I conceive to be the essential advantage of the literary art critic : “ Catholicity of appreciation is the secret of critical felicity. ... In criticism, it is perhaps better to keep balancing counter-considerations than to determine brutally by excluding a whole set of them because of the difficulty of assigning them their true weight. In this way, at least, one preserves the attitude of poise ; and poise is, perhaps, the one essential element of criticism. In a word, that catholicity of sensitiveness which may be called mere impressionism, behind which there is no body of doctrine at all, is more truly critical than intolerant depreciation or unreflecting enthusiasm.”

But for the qualifying term “ unreflecting enthusiasm,” this would come perilously near a defense of that phrase which is the red flag to the artistic temper, “ I do not know art, but I know what I like ; ” and, after all, is not the difference between the critic and the bête noire of the artist, not in following one’s “ likes,” but in knowing the sources and reasons of them ? One cannot read — much less study, which is better — Mr. Brownell without seeing that his doctrine is as painfully costly as conscience usually is, and as richly rewarding. The patient and courageous fidelity with which he uses the complex and delicate instrument that furnishes criticism is apparent on every page.

What I should like to note, however, is, not the very valuable results attained, but the ethical nature of the principle applied. Sincerity in the expression of one’s opinions is not always hard ; it is to some temperaments easy and pleasing. Even the reflection required to be sure that the opinions expressed are yours is not the most trying part of the work. Behind all lies the supreme task of open-mindedness, the preservation of that “ catholicity of appreciation ” which so many and such obstinate forces — vanity, laziness, contentiousness, to mention only the coarser — are constantly tending to undermine and destroy. The mind nature has given you, be it rich or poor, many-sided or limited, strong or feeble, will do the work for which it is fitted only at the price of carefully respecting it; respecting it, if possible, as in time it becomes possible, habitually. Granted this, and you may dismiss anxiety for the result. It may be worth much or little, but what there is of it is real. You may not be proud of it, but you will have no occasion to be ashamed of it. And though, in Mr. Brownell’s case, I think that it is relatively worth much, very much, it is its absolute, not its relative quality, that gives the deepest delight.