Thou Shalt Not Preach: After Reading Tolstoi on "What Is Art"?


THERE is one respect in which pure art and pure science agree: both are disinterested, and seek the truth, each of its kind, for its own sake ; neither has any axe to grind. Both would live in the whole, — one through reason and investigation, the other through imagination and contemplation. Science seeks to understand the universe, art to enjoy it. A man of pure science like Darwin is as disinterested as a great artist like Shakespeare. He has no practical or secondary ends ; the truth alone is his quest. He is tracing the footsteps of creative energy through organic nature. He is like a detective working up a case. His theory about it is only provisional, for the moment. Every fact is welcome to him, and the more it seems to tell against his theory of the case, the more eagerly he weighs it and studies it. Indeed, the man of science follows an ideal as truly as does the poet, and will pass by fortune, honors, and all worldly success, to cleave to it. Tolstoi thinks that science for science’ sake is as bad as art for art’s sake ; but is not knowledge a reward in itself, and is there any higher good than that mastery of the soul over the problems of the universe which science gives ? By bending science to particular and secondary ends we lay the basis of our material civilization, but it is still true that the final end of science is, not our material benefit, but our mental enlightenment ; nor is the highest end of art the good which the preacher and the moralist seek to give us. A poem of Milton or Tennyson carries its own proof, its own justification. When we demand a message of the poet, or of any artist, outside of himself, outside of the truth which he unconsciously conveys through his own personality and point of view, we seek to degrade his art, or to destroy that disinterestedness which is its crown. Art exists for ideal ends ; it looks askance at devotees, at doctrinaires, — at all men engaged in the dissemination of particular ideas. I am not now thinking of art as mere craft, but as the province of man’s freest, most spontaneous, most joyous, most complete soul activity,— the kind of activity that has no other end, seeks no other reward, than it finds in or of itself, the joy of being and beholding, the free play of creative energy. Art does not rebuke vice, it depicts it; it does not urge reform, it shows us the reformers. Its work is play, its lesson is an allegory. The preacher works by selection and exclusion, the artist by inclusion and contrast.

When the resources of literary art are enlisted in any propaganda, in the dissemination of particular ideas or doctrines, or when the end is moral or scientific or political or philosophical, and not æsthetic, the result is a mixed product, a cross between literature and something else, which may be very vigorous and serviceable, but which cannot give the kind of satisfaction that is imparted by a pure artistic creation. A great poem or work of art does not speak to any special and passing condition. mental or spiritual; its ministrations are neither those of meat nor those of medicine ; it does not subserve any private or secondary ends, even the saving of our souls. The books that seem written for us are quite certain to lose in interest to the next generation. A great poem heals, not as the doctor does, but as nature does, by bringing the conditions of health. It consoles, not as the priest does, but as love and life themselves do. It does not offer a special good, but a general benefaction.

I once heard Emerson quote with approval Shakespeare’s saying, “ Read what you most affect,” but no doubt a broad culture demands wide reading, and that we be on our guard against our particular predilections, because such predilections may lead us into narrow channels. Do the devotees of Browning, those who cry Browning, Browning, and Browning only, do him the highest honor ? Do the disciples of Whitman, who would make a cult of him, live in the spirit of the whole, as Whitman himself tried to live ? — Whitman, who said that there may be any number of Supremes, and that the chief lesson to be learned under the master is how to destroy him. Our love for an author must not suggest the fondness of the epicure for a special dish, or partake of the lover’s infatuation for his mistress. Infatuation is not permissible in literature. If art does not make us free of the whole, it fails of its purpose. Only the religious bigot builds upon specific texts, and only the one-sided, halfformed mind sees life through the eyes of a single author. In the æsthetic sphere one may serve many masters ; he may give himself to none. One of the latest and most mature perceptions that come to us is the perception of relativity, in art as well as in all other matters.

With respect to this question, both readers and writers may be divided into two classes, the interested and the disinterested. — those who are seeking special and personal ends, and those who are seeking general universal ends.

The poet is best pleased with the disinterested readers and admirers of his work ; that is, with those who take to it on the broadest human grounds, and not upon grounds merely personal to themselves. Thus Longfellow will find a wider and more disinterested audience than Whittier, because his Muse is less in the service of special ideas; he looks at life less as a Quaker and Puritan, and more as a man.

The special ideas of an age, its moral enthusiasms and revolts, give place to other ideas and enthusiasms, which in their turn give place to others ; but there are certain currents of thought and emotion that are perennial, certain experiences common to all men and peoples. Such a poem as Gray’s Elegy, for instance, is filled with the breath of universal human life. On the other hand, such a work as Schiller’s Robbers or Goethe’s Werner seems to us like an empty shell picked up on the shore, the life entirely gone out of it. One can see why Poe is looked upon by foreign critics as outranking any of our more popular New England poets. It is because his work has more of the ubiquitous character of true art, is less pledged to moral and special ends, less the result of personal tastes and attractions, and more the pure flame of the unpledged æsthetic nature. The Raven and The Bells have that play, that scorn of personal ends, that potential spiritual energy, of great art. Whittier never rises into this region, never gets above ends more or less literal and practical. Outside of his experience and his strong moral and patriotic convictions, he is not much. Even in such a poem as Snow-Bound, with all its New England flavor and truth to nature, we miss the creative touch ; it is only a transcript of experience.

Is it Coleridge who tells of an artist who always copied his wife’s legs in his pictures, and thereby won great fame ? The creative touch it is that marks the artist. He smites the rocks, and a fountain gushes forth. Tennyson has the artist nature in greater measure than Wordsworth, a more flexible receptive spirit, though he never attains to the homely pathos or the moral grandeur of the latter. Yet individual convictions and attractions played a less part in his poetry. Wordsworth gathered the harvest of his own feelings and experiences, Tennyson that of other men as well. One reaped only where he had sown, the other where all men had sown. One is colored by Westmoreland, the other by the whole of England. Wordsworth wrote more from character and natural bias than Tennyson. What nature does with a man, that is no credit to him, but what he does with nature. If his character inspired the poem, is it not less than if his imagination had inspired it ? What a man does out of and independent of himself, or the degree in which he transcends his own experience and partialities and rises into universal relations, — is not that the measure of him as an artist? If I tell only what I know, what I have felt, what I have seen, no matter how well I do it, that is not to come into the sphere the artist dwells in. What Wordsworth writes is more personal to himself, more out of his own life, than what Tennyson writes. He is more limited by his temperament and natural bias than Tennyson is by his. His word is more inevitable, more the word of fate, but is it not therefore less the word of art? Be sincere, be sincere ; be not too sincere, lest you substitute a moral rigidity for the flexibility demanded by art. The artist is never the slave of his sincerity.

Graphic power is only a minor part of artistic power. One can say what one has felt, and tell what one has experienced ; but the artist can tell what he has not experienced, and say what he has not felt. He can make the assumed, the imaginary, real to himself and to his reader. He can depict the passion of love, of anger, of remorse, though he may never have felt them. Many persons have written one good novel, but not a second, because in the first they exhausted their experience ; to transcend that is denied them. True art will have many messages and many morals, as life and nature do, but we must draw them out for ourselves. They do not lead, they follow ; they do not make the argument, they are made by it. Let us repeat and re-repeat. Art makes us free of the whole ; not art for craft’s sake, but art as implying the entire sphere of man’s spontaneous æsthetic activity. Beauty is indeed its own excuse for being. Literature is an end in and of itself, as much as music is or religion is. Or are we religious only upon pay ? What message has a bird, a flower, a summer day, frost, rain, wind, snow ? There are sermons in stones — when we put them there. What message has Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Virgil, or any true poet ? The message we have the power to draw from him, and no two of us will draw the same. Art is a circle; it is complete within itself: it returns forever upon itself. There is no great poetry without great ideas, and yet the ideas must exist as impulse, will, emotion, and not lie upon the surface as formulas. The enemies of art are reflection, special ideas, conscious intellectual processes, because these things isolate us and shut us off from the life of the whole, — from that which we reach through our sentiments and emotions. The æsthetic mood, says Dr. Louis Waldstein, in his recent suggestive little book on The Sùb-Conscious Self, “ is, in its essence, receptive, contemplative, distinctly personal, and therefore free from purpose and conscious selection.” “ Whenever a work of art is the vehicle for an idea or purpose outside of its essential form, it falls short of being a pure art creation, and fails in its appeal to the æsthetic mood, whilst, be it conceded, it may serve some other but secondary purpose, which belongs to the province of the archæologist, the art historian, and the collector,” and, we may add, the moralist and preacher. Wordsworth’s poet was content if he “might enjoy the things that others understood,” and this is always characteristic of the poetic mood. Absorption, contemplation, enjoyment, and not criticism and reflection, are as the air it breathes. Byron was a great poet, but, said Goethe, “ the moment he reflects, he is a child.” It is better that the poet should not be a child when he reflects, but it is much more important that he be a child when he feels. His power as a poet is not in the reflex action of his mind, but in the direct, joyous, solvent power of his spirit.

We do not find our individual selves in great art, but the humanity of which we are partakers. Something is brought home to us ; but not to our partialities, rather to our higher selves. We are never so little selfish and hampered by our individualism as when admiring a great work of the imagination. No doubt our modern world calls for doctors of the soul in a sense that the more healthful and joyous pagan world had no need of. Still, so far as the poet is a doctor or a priest, so far does he fail to live in the spirit of the whole.

It is, I think, in these or similar considerations that we are to look for the justification of the phrase, now almost everywhere disputed, “Art for art’s sake.” It is only saying that art is to have no partial or secondary ends, but is to breathe forth the spirit of the whole. It must be disinterested ; it is to hold the mirror up to nature. It may hold the mirror up to the vices and follies of the age, but must not take sides. It represents ; it does not judge. The matter is self-judged in the handling of the true artist. Didactic poetry or didactic fiction never can rank high. Thou shalt not preach or teach; thou shalt portray and create, and have ends as universal as nature.


Our moral teachers and preachers often fail to see that the first condition of a work of pure art is that it be disinterested, that it be a total and complete product in and of itself ; and that it is its own excuse for being. Its business is to represent, to portray, or, as Aristotle has it, to imitate nature, and not to preach or to moralize. Our ethical and religious writers and speakers are apt to call this artistic disinterestedness indifferentism. If the novelist does not openly and avowedly take sides with his good characters against his bad, or if, as Taine declares his function to be, he contents himself with representing them to us as they are, whole, not blaming, not punishing, not mutilating, transferring them to us intact and separate, and leaving " us the right of judging if we desire it,” — if this is his attitude, says the Reverend Washington Gladden in his late brochure on Art and Morality, he is guilty of indifferentism. “ His work begins to be the work of a malefactor, and he himself is preparing to be fit company for fiends.” Mr. Gladden misapprehends Taine, whom he quotes, and he misapprehends the spirit and method of art. If the artist does really convey to us the impression that he is personally indifferent as to which triumphs in life, good or evil, and that he is as well pleased with the one as with the other, then he is culpable and merits this harsh language.

What art demands is that the artist’s personal convictions and notions, his likes and dislikes, do not obtrude themselves at all ; that good and evil stand judged in his work by the logic of events, as they do in nature, and not by any special pleading on his part. He does not hold a brief for either side ; he exemplifies the working of the creative energy. He is neither a judge nor an advocate; he is a witness on the stand; he tells how the thing fell out, and the more impartial he is as a witness, the better. We, the jury, shall watch carefully for any bias or leaning on his part. We shall try his testimony by the rules of evidence; in this case, by our acquaintance with other imaginative works and by our experience of life. The great artist works in and through and from moral ideas; his works are indirectly a criticism of life. He is moral without having a moral. The moment a moral or an immoral intention obtrudes itself, that moment he begins to fall from grace as an artist. He confesses his inability to let nature speak for herself. He is inadequate to the logic of events, and gives us a logic of his own. Shakespeare is our highest type of the disinterested artist. Does he do aught but hold the mirror up to nature ? Is his work overlaid with an avowed moral intention? Does he go behind the returns, so to speak ? Does he tamper with the logic of events, the fate of character ? What is the moral of Hamlet ? Has any one yet found out? Yet the plays all fall within the scope of moral ideas ; they treat moral ideas with energy and depth, as Voltaire said of English poetry in general.

We must discriminate between a conscious moral purpose and an unconscious moral impulse. A work of art arises primarily out of the emotions, and not out of the intellect, and is sound and true to the extent to which it repeats the method of nature. Ruskin, whom Mr. Gladden quotes, was of course right when he said that the art of a nation is an exponent of its ethical state. But the condition of first importance with the artist is, not that he should have an ethical purpose, but that he should he ethically sound. He may work with ethical ideas, but not directly for them. The preacher speaks for them ; the poet speaks out of them ; he plays with them, he takes his will of them; they follow, but do not lead him. Again, Ruskin says, “ He is the greatest artist who has embodied in the sum of his works the greatest number of the greatest ideas ; ” but he is an artist only by virtue of having embodied these ideas in an imaginative form. If they run through his work as homilies or intellectual propositions, or lie upon it as moral reflections, they are not within the vital sphere of art.

Art is not thought, but will, impulse, intuition ; not ideas, but ideality. None know this better than Ruskin. Mr. Gladden quotes with approval some strictures of Professor Richardson on the work of Henry James; his novels will not stand the question “ What for ? ” Henry James is an artist, and hence cannot be cornered with the question “ What for ? ” What is creation for ? What are you and I for ? The catechism answers promptly enough, and the artist does not contradict it. But of necessity his answer is not so dogmatic ; or rather, he does not give a direct answer at all, but lets the epitome of life which he brings answer for him. He is not to exhibit the forces of life harnessed to a purpose and tilling some man’s private domain, but he is to show them in spontaneous play and fusion ; obeying no law but their own, and working to universal ends. His work is finally for our edification. If it be also for our reproof, he must conceal his purpose so well that we do not suspect it. He must let the laws of life alone speak for him. Sainte-Beuve has a passage bearing upon this subject which is admirable. He had been censured as a critic for being too lax in his dealings with the morality of works of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Let me quote his reply : “ If there are some readers (and I think I know some) who would prefer to see me censure it oftener and more roundly, I beg them to observe that I succeed much better by provoking them to condemn it themselves than by taking the lead and seeming to try to impose a judgment of my own every time. In the long run, if a critic does this (or an artist either), he always wearies and offends his readers. They like to feel themselves more severe than the critic. I leave them that pleasure. For me, it is enough if I represent and depict things faithfully, so that every one may profit from the intellectual substance and the good language, and be in a position to judge for himself the other, wholly moral parts. There, however, I am careful not to be crucial.” French art is less moral than English art, not because it preaches less, but because it is more given to levity and trifling, because it exaggerates the part one element plays in life, and because it draws less inspiration from fundamental ethical ideas. It may at times be guilty of indifferentism, but against very little English or American art can this charge be made.

The great distinction of art is that it aims to see life steadily and to see it whole. This is its high and unique service: it would enable us to live in the whole and in the spirit of the whole ; not in the part called morality, or philosophy, or religion, or beauty, but in the unity resulting from the fusion and transformation of these varied elements. It affords the one point of view whence the world appears harmonious and complete. The moralist, the preacher, seizes upon a certain part of the world, and makes much of that; the philosopher seizes upon another part, the æsthete upon another ; only the great artist comprehends and includes all these, and sees life and nature as a vital, consistent whole.

Hence it is that a work of pure art is a complete product in a sense that no other production of a man’s mind is ; or, as Ruskin says, “ it is the work of the whole spirit of man,” and faithfully reflects that spirit. The intellect may write the sermon, or the essay, or the criticism, but the character, the entire life and personality, are implicated in a creative work.

Disinterestedness means no more in art, in letters, than it means in life. In our kind deeds, our acts of charity, in love, in virtue, we act from disinterested motives. We have no ulterior purpose. These things are their own reward. A noble life is disinterested ; it bestows benefits without thought of self. But it is not indifferent. Indifference is personal, — it is a state in which one personal motive cancels another; whereas disinterestedness is impersonal, — it is the complete effacement of self. It is a high, heroic moral state, while indifference is a lax or negative state. We are disinterested when we rescue a child from drowning or stop a runaway horse, but we are not indifferent. A novelist is disinterested when he has no motives but those inherent in his story, no purpose but to hold the mirror up to nature. He is interested and departs from his high calling when he seeks to enforce a particular moral, or to indoctrinate his reader with a particular set of ideas. And yet if he betrays indifference as to the issues of right and wrong, that is a vice ; it is contrary to the self-effacement which art demands. To obtrude your indifference is of the same order of faults as to obtrude your preferences. The innate necessities of the situation may alone speak.

To suppress or ignore the world of vice and sin is not to be moral; to portray it is not to be immoral. But to gloat over it, to dwell fondly upon it, to return to it, to exaggerate it, to roll it under the tongue as a sweet morsel, — that is to be immoral; and to treat it as time and nature do or as the great artists do, as affording contrasts and difficulties, and disturbing but not destroying the balance of life, is within the scope of the moral. Art must make us free of the whole ; every work must in a measure reflect the whole of life ; if it dwells too much on that part called sin and evil, it is false to its ideal ; it must keep the balance ; it must be true to the integrity of nature. All things are permissible in their place and proportion. That a thing is real and true is no reason why it should go into the artist’s picture ; but that it belongs there, that it is organic there, a part of a vital whole, arid that that whole is a fair representation of human life, — in this is the justification. Not every scene in nature composes well into a picture, and not every phase of human life is equally significant in a creative work. That nature does this or that is no reason why the artist should do it, unless he can show an equal insouciance and an equal prodigality and power. He must take what he can make his own and imbue with the spirit of life. I lately read a novel by one of our most promising young novelists, in which there was a streak of vulgar realism, forced in, evidently, under the pressure of a theory, — the theory that art is never to shrink from the true. It offended because it was entirely gratuitous ; there was no necessity for it. If it was true, it was not apt; if it was real, it was not fit; it jarred ; it was dragged in by main force ; it was a false note. Is not anything disagreeable in a novel of the imagination a false note ? Disagreeable, I mean, not by reason of the subject matter, but by reason of the treatment. Dante makes hell fascinating by his treatment.

There are three ways of treating the underside of nature : there is the childlike simplicity of the Biblical writers, who think no evil : there is the artistic frankness of the great dramatic poets, who know the value of foils and contrasts, and who cannot ignore any element of life ; and there is the license and levity of the lascivious poets, who live in the erotic alone. Both Ibsen and Tolstoi have been condemned as immoral only because their artistic scheme embraces all the elements that are potent in life. Of levity, of exaggeration, they are not guilty. If Zola is to be condemned. it is probably because he makes too prominent certain things, and thus destroys the proportion. In nature nothing is detached. Her great currents flow on and purify themselves. The ugly, the unclean, are quickly lost sight of ; the sky and the sun cover all, bathe all. But art is detachment: our attention is fixed upon a few points, and a drop or two too much of certain things spoils it all. In nature a drop or two too much does not matter; we quickly escape, we find compensation. A bad odor in the open air is of little consequence; but in Zola’s books the bad odors are as in a closed room, and we soon pray to be delivered from them.

John Burroughs.