Too True to Be Good

I

IT was the custom of one of the greatest of races to carry its invalids down to the street, on their beds, so that anyone who passed by might look the sufferers over and say what he thought would be good for them. The notion was that in this way any non professional medical genius running wild in the town would soon be roped in, to the benefit of the case. About the percentage of cures effected no word remains. But some of the patients may have survived for a time.

We have reason to hope so. For this is one of our favorite ways of doctoring the arts: painting, the theatre, literature — any art will do. First we say it is sick unto death. The poor art itself may assert that it never felt better. But we deal firmly with any hallucination like that. We strap it down on a bed, place the bed on a good open site in Fleet Street or near Covent Garden, and then invite everybody who does not practise this particular art to feel its pulse and look at its tongue, and say what pill he would give.

Of course there is never complete agreement between these wayside practitioners. But now and then a sort of common drift sets in, even in these artless minds, and a fairly general cry arises that some art, or a whole group of arts, is afflicted with some definite and highly dangerous species of‘collywobbles’ from which salvation is only to be had by following a certain drastic course of treatment. For some little time we have had in our ears one of these little choruses. It assures us that more arts than one are ailing from excess of mimicry. They represent people and things with an insalutary fidelity. Portraits are adjudged ‘deplorably like,’ and all the sting of the phrase is meant for the painter, not the sitter. A landscape is said to be ‘too true to be good.’ A statue of Pan may be forgiven for resembling Queen Victoria, but not for being mistakable for Pan. If it is to resemble the god without discredit, it ought to offer itself as a figure of Boadicea or of Industrial Welfare. For then no detractor would say that the artist had squandered his power on the coolie work of a copyist when he should have been heading dead straight for the big æsthetic valuables.

To put it no higher, this new line of comment would have supplied any quantity of munitions to people who make solemn talk about art and are the natural prey of the artists of Punch. But the major fun of the business is that the new wisdom has got beyond crying aloud in the streets. It has poked into studios. A few, at least, of the preachers have gallantly given their proofs — have painted portraits in which the expression of their deepest selves is unsmirched by any recognizable aping of the exterior of anyone else, or even of the general physique of the race. Those deepest selves have not always been readily discernible, either. Still, we have it on their own word, spoken or written, that they have sung, danced, mused, tripped, and brooded in paint, and that they have carried out in it vast structural ideas. Beyond dispute they have painted that which eye hath not seen.

II

But the scope of a vast thought like that is not to be limited to any one art. The vice of so representing persons or things that they can be identified by any untutored eye has not confined its ravages to painting and sculpture. Your fallen artist will slavishly try to make you suppose that it is really Autumn or Mr. Baldwin or Mrs. Wertheimer that has inspired his toils. But actors are as bad. They will shamelessly do to the life some humped, usurping Richard, or fat and whiteheaded Falstaff. Why not abandon all this deadening drudgery? Why pretend to be Wolsey with mediæval London about you, or Shylock with mediæva! Venice instead? Why not simply come on the stage, without any of these shallow pretenses, and give your audience the essence of the matter—just shed around you the brilliance and charm of your genius unalloyed with any paltry make-believe? If you be made of the right air and fire for the job, what need have you of such illusory dross as sables, ermine, cups of sack, and Jewish gaberdines? Away with all this mechanical assimilation to hook-nosed Cæsars and mulberry-nosed Bardolphs. Dramatic art, like other divinities, is a spirit, and must be worshiped in spirit and in truth; let the actor be wholly sincere and original, like a thrush singing or like a child dancing for joy.

Then comes poetry’s turn. Too long, we are told, have the poets wasted their strength on such copyist stuff as the Vergilian and Tennysonian representations of landscape — mere trick work, like metre and rhyme, those obsolete implements of the conventional copycats of all ages. High time for poets to pour out their souls as they come and to hit us direct — not by ricocheting off some laborious description of an old Greek urn or of Autumn standing by a wine press. The art of prose fiction has not yet felt the full weight of the reforming hand. But its case is not seriously different from those of the other offenders. If Hugo or Mr. Hardy, brooding over the life and death of some Gauvain or Jude, has been memorably moved, had n’t he better impart his grand emotion itself, and at once, and not spend some tens or hundreds of thousands of words in working out a kind of effigy of this worthy’s career? ‘Cut, the cackle and come to the ’osses’; give us the laughter or tears without all these heavily wrought simulacra of bulky portions of life.

III

You may feel that this is absurd. So do I. And yet it has a core of rightness. Its absurdity is only the absurdity of all extreme overstatement.

For it is perfectly true that in any great work of art the element of close and literal representation of something outside the mind of the artist is relatively small. As was said by Balzac, the business of art is not to copy Nature, but to express her. Countless works of art. are dull and poor because their authors have not got beyond mere circumstantial reproduction of the physical appearance of the details of their subjects — ‘as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two gray eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.’ Many pictures by artists of considerable skill are mere dead painted schedules of this sort.

Again, it is perfectly true that middling actors will often miss the spirit of a part and take the life out of it by their overabsorption in trivial points of accuracy in the outward trappings of the man. Many novels, too, are wrecked on that shoal. For nothing short of an authentic passion for concrete detail, in the mind of the author himself, can give the saving gusto and animation which carry off safely the long inventories of utensils, articles of food, and attire in Scott and Defoe. Anything that a competent artist loves well enough he can make lovable to any good reader. But love it must be; and the higher quality of the work, its power to move a fit spectator or reader, depends on the measure in which some free and vehement expression of this emotion of the artist’s emerges out of the primary business of recalling certain external objects to the mind’s eye.

So, with great caution and many reserves, you may perhaps divide the work of a writer or painter into two halves and call one higher and the other lower. Already I feel inclined, for my own part, to snatch back this concession, so repugnant do I find it to allow that there is anything short of perfection in any part whatever of the divine self-indulgence of artistic construction. Still, let it stand; in a certain sense it is valid. It may give us a lift on the way to clear thinking if for the moment we think of the murder scene in Othello as being divisible into two elements — one of them a certain abstract tragic beauty, a splendid sombre emotion communicable from the author or the actor, or both, to an audience; the other a succession of effects to call up before us veracious images of a bedroom, a bed, pillows, a lighted candle, a woman asleep, a man speaking to himself, making gestures, and finally attacking and killing the woman. I can comprehend, at any rate, the idea that the evocation of all these material images, the inventing of the furniture and the devising of appropriate bodily movements for Othello and for Desdemona, is a less exalted or a less exacting function of imaginative genius than the keeping track of all the dark and swift movements of passion in the depths of their minds. But it is not so easy to think of these two functions as so completely separable in practice that either of them can be discharged to the greatest effect by an artist without his discharging the other at all. I try to think of that scene in Othello without a bed or pillows, or a lighted candle, or a dark-skinned face working passionately — of nothing but certain bodiless intensities of emotion. But nothing is left. It is as if I were told not to think of a beautiful eye, but of the beauty of that eye, to banish every visual image of the actual feature, in the flesh, and to fasten my whole mind upon some incorporeal essence of loveliness that is its but not it. I can’t do it. Can anyone?

IV

There seems to be a natural — or, some would say, a scientific — distinction between two groups of arts.

On the one side are those arts which have the habit of representing either concrete things or persons or else concrete symbols or emblems of thoughts, emotions, or events. Your painter represents the Pyramids or the Doge Loredano, or Autumn, or Hope, or the Crucifixion, or Alfred neglecting the cakes, or the surrender of Calais or Breda. Your sculptor represents John Bright or Peter Pan or Mr. Carnegie or Famine or Maternal Love, or Dawn, or Bacchus in drink, or the snakes strangling Laocoön. Your actor represents a hunchbacked usurper brimming with venomous vitality, or a testy and generous dotard butting his head against some of the uglier facts of human nature. Your dramatist or novelist represents figures typical of frustrated ambition or love or of humbug, unctuous or flamboyant. And in doing this they have almost always said or assumed that a recognizable faithfulness in the representation was their right aim. This conviction of theirs is recorded in scores of familiar passages. Actors are ' to hold, as ’t were, the mirror up to nature.’ The good sculptor ‘would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape. His work is

. . . life as lively mocked as ever
Still sleep mocked death.

In the other group of arts are architecture, music, and dancing. In these, as a rule, there is not a representation of something preëxistent, but a presentation of something new, the direct product and expression of some personal calculation or emotion, or both. A fine new town hall or church is never an attempt to represent some other town hall or cathedral. It may remind you of some Renaissance palace or Greek temple, but so far as it is a copy of one, a mere holder-up of a mirror, it is null and void as a work of art. Resemblance to something older is not its aim or essence, but an accident or a defect.

So too a fine piece of music or a fine dance does not, as a rule, excel in proportion to the fidelity with which it represents something concrete, some object of bodily sense. The typical masterpiece of music or dancing attempts to present to us some emotion of the artist’s quite directly and without any incidental imitation or representation of anything outside him, just as the best architect seeks to present, as directly and simply as he can, the comeliest possible fulfillment of certain practical requirements.

V

So broad a distinction as this is not to be whittled away by showing that some distinguished practitioner or other of one of the presentative arts has cut down a good deal the representative demand in his work. Whistler did so in many of his pictures. His ‘Cremorne’ made little attempt at likeness to anything that was commonly known at the time by that name. A good many poets have tried to represent people, places, or things with their forms and colors half-effaced by a twilight vagueness. The blurred outlines of Mr. Yeats may be placed in contrast with the labored lucidity, the sharp-edged particularity, of the representation of modern Rome in Zola’s novel of that name. Perhaps you may say that in Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ the railway engine is not represented in the sense in which contemporary dress is represented in Frith’s ‘Derby Day.’ So too, on the other side, there have been pieces of music that try, in some slight degree, to represent the sounds of warfare or of village life or the voices of a farmyard. Occasionally a dance, like Pavlowa’s Dance of the Dying Swan, has attempted some little measure of visible representation of movements previous to its own. But such works are commonly felt by sensitive people to stand lower than the masterpiece of their several arts. Any strong critical instinct recognizes in them something of the freak, the tour de force, the astonishingly clever attempt to achieve something that cannot wholly be done or that is not worth doing. And so they only fortify the broad distinction between the essentially representative and the essentially presentative arts, the arts in which an artist expresses himself in relation to some specific objects or incidents outside him, and the arts in which he expresses himself without this restriction — without this aid, as you may prefer to call it.

VI

Passing fits of disregard for such distinctions, or of mutiny against them, arc characteristic of periods of relative sterility and depression in art. Every art, at its best, is immovably sane. It may hang out any number of wildlooking flags of fantasy, but it hangs them out from the battlements of the fortress of reason. It has an English sense of evidence, the moderation of Greece, and the common sense of Molière. And, as long as it is in health and the world not against it, it practises these bourgeois virtues, not as a matter of painful submission to a necessary discipline, but just for the joy of the thing. For it has a good hold on the great secret of life — it can see the shining novelty of old things and feel the thrill that there is in commonplaces; it finds common sense exciting, and it sticks to middle courses with a delighted consciousness of keeping a precarious and vital balance, like a man walking on high on a tight rope. You feel it all in Horace’s essay on poetry and in Dryden’s upon the writing of plays. Such men, writing with the exhilaration of a great creative period in their minds, do not feel any need of paradox, of startling novelty, or of any sort of sensational forcing of notes or loosing of waters. The ordinary thing is too deliciously intoxicant for that.

But there come other ages. A Peloponnesian or a European war lays its blight on whole peoples, deranges their life, upsets their standard of judgment, and lowers their spirits. It interrupts and corrupts the education of their young. As customers of arts it wears their nerves and deadens their palates so much that they tend to turn from the diet of health; they find it insipid and cry out for sharper sauces and more spice; they want to be titillated with something novel, flamboyant, and sensational, something that, anyhow, nobody could have thought first-rate long ago. Hence many unlucky adventures in letters and art since the Great War — the labored unreserve of aphrodisiac novels and plays, the labored unmelodiousness of much minor verse, the labored rebellion of many minor painters and sculptors against the nature of their medium and the experience and tradition of their arts. Whenever the wellsprings of an art run a little dry and the choric spheres grow rather husky, there is apt to be this kind of nervous and noisy running to and fro in quest of some new recipe that will enable a middling or tired performer to outshine Garrick and Goldsmith and Reynolds. Commonly, it is one of the principles of this search that any important generalization or deep distinction hitherto accepted by the chief practitioners of the art concerned shall be treated as false. And in this way it comes to be said by many vivacious persons that a portrait should not resemble a particular person any more than a symphony does, and that an actor or a novelist should no more give you a character ‘done to the life’ than a dancer should dance an impersonation of somebody else.

You cannot usefully argue against such a doctrine. It would become serious only if there were any notable exception to the creative impotence which prevails where the doctrine is accepted. We have already waited ten years since the war for signs of any considerable new outburst of creative power in any art, and also for any outburst of the greater sort of criticism — the sort that can raise obvious facts from the dead and make an old bit of veracity flash like a jewel. So far we seem to be about as likely to see a boom in the cotton trade or a mad rush to buy shares in railways.

These wonders may come yet. And so may another heyday for the arts. Painting, poetry, fiction, the drama — all may yet pass right across the region of doldrums in which they are now flapping listless sails, without enough way on them to steer in any special direction. And with the close of this long post-war interlude of immobility and middlingness there will also end a good deal of the barren, theoretic talk with which slight, facile thinkers have tried to shorten or to enliven the tedium of waiting. When the winds of the creative impulse are blowing great guns again, no imaginative painter or writer will wait to discuss, with himself or anyone else, how far Nature ought to be represented in the work that he does at her instance. He will do the work first, — do it as his passion bids him, — and then sit and listen, with a twinkle in his eye, to the buzz of all these intelligent midges.

VII

But why — that question remains — may we guess that the representative artist will go on representing? Simply because the delight of doing it is too great for him to forgo. And the delight is so great because what we call representing is, to his sense, creating.

The Falstaff or Mrs. Gamp that we know may represent some knight or nurse known to Shakespeare or Dickens. But in that case what might have been mere copying was, at every turn, the creation of something wonderfully enhanced and supervitalized at the instance of something relatively commonplace. A Rembrandt portrait of some old Dutchwoman represents that particular crone, but the representation is made a vehicle for the conveyance of enormously more than the obvious facts of her face; in it or through it there is created, among other things, a kind of beautiful and sombre descant on old age and human fortitude and dignity and individual loneliness. And yet representation and creation are so intermingled that the artist could not and would not distinguish them. Like the lover whose imagination makes a goddess of some commonplace young woman, the artist delights in keeping his creative work in close relation to the face and figure which suggested its inception. The expression of himself and the getting of a likeness to the sitter, or to the landscape before him, are not, to him, rival aims or requirements. Each appears to him as a condition of the attainment of the other; he prosecutes the two as one, and he is bewitched to find that each step toward either brings him nearer to both.

So it may very well be that in his off time, when the creative impulse is weak and no subject fires him, an artist in paint or in letters will toy with the notion of not representing anything in particular, or of emitting his personality for our advantage without reference to one subject more than another. But let the hot fit come, and he will hoot at the notion.