what of the relation between the artist and his public?
For that, after all, is the important thing. The critic
(or reviewer) and his duties are quite secondary, and
one might be tempted to treat them with some complexion
of severity. But when we speak of the artist and his
place in the Commonwealth, we speak of something much
more important and vital to our civilization.
modern artist or writer, I suppose, has given more thought
to his craft and its relation to life than the late
William Morris. And I was surprised at one thing he
said on the subject. It was last spring. I was taken
by a friend to that well-known house in Hammersmith.
We skirted the riverfront for half a mile, after leaving
the train line, and at last came to his door, and were
shown into the front room on the left-that plain study
and workshop, with its great oak table littered with
pipes and pencils and uncorrected proofs. After Mr.
Morris had shown us the New Chaucer, then all completed
save the binding, he brought out his own last volume
made at the Kelmscott Press, and his own work, as a
writer, he was careful to explain, was given gratuitously
to the public. The published price of the work covered
only the cost of making and selling. His labor as a
writer and artist was given for nothing. I asked him
if his idea was that the artist should live by some
other means than his art, and he said "Yes."
The artist (as I remember his conversation) can only
do a certain limited amount of work, and if that work
is to be good, he must do it for love only. It must
not be his means of livelihood. And since he can only
work to the best advantage for a small part of each
day or each week, the rest of his time may be devoted
to useful and remunerative employment.
no writer ever wrote less for the public and more for
his own sole pleasure than Mr. Morris. His standards
were all within himself. His labor was full of purpose,
and he had the good of his fellows constantly at heart.
But the sanctions and demands of the public influenced
his writing not a jot. No other writer of our time paid
less heed to his critics, or insisted more strenuously
on the right of the creative artist to follow his own
bent. And Mr. Morris was a socialist. Did he then think
of the fine arts as a phase of human activity quite
without the range of social order? Is the mere artist
a citizen unworthy of a wage?
look at the question in another light. The fine arts
have their rise in the human need for expression; they
are primarily different modes of giving vent to the
idea of beauty and the inward exhilaration of life.
We dance and sing not for others' amusement, but for
our own satisfaction, to give play to our feelings of
joy. This is the beginning of art. It has no more part
in the constitution of the State than prayers or weeping.
It is an outward embodiment of emotion; it is expression.
But presently, if our voice is good and our dancing
graceful, this artistic performance of our attracts
attention. It is admired by those who have the same
feelings and delight as ourselves, but lack the ability
to express themselves so beautifully. They are not only
glad to hear us sing, they wish us to sing especially
for them. They are willing to pay us for the performance.
Then we become professionals. However conscientious
the execution, we are no longer creative artists; we
are professional entertainers, with our legitimate place
in the social scheme. And as such we are entitled to
our living at its hands.
poets like Morris or Browning, are they not in a similar
case? They write as simply and instinctively as a young
girl sings. They have no eye for the public, I mean.
Their work is born of the inward impulse alone. It has
no commercial origin. It is pure art. As soon, however,
as they print it and publish it, and cast it abroad,
they become to that extent professionals. People are
willing to buy the books because they wish to have their
own ideas and aspirations expressed in a more beautiful
form than they themselves could utter them. They are
willing that such men should share the world's goods;
or, to take a more telling instance, they are willing
that a man who could give them so much pleasure as Du
Maurier should secure a fortune in reward of his labor.
Art is not paid for according to its absolute and artistic
merit, but according to its popularity. And this does
not seem to me unjust. For the absolute and artistic
merit of a piece of art are not always immediately discoverable;
and from the very nature of the case and the inspirational
character of art, the artist must always be willing
to bide his time, confident of his own genius, content
with frugal reward. When work that is new and original
and sincere has also by chance some quality that takes
the public fancy, so that the creator is generously
supported by his fellows, it is a happy and an unusual
coincidence, nothing more. In short it is not for painting
a picture that the artist is paid, but for parting with
it after it is done. And since it is to a poet like
Morris we are indebted for the pleasure of reading his
"Earthly Paradise," quite as much as to the
printer and publisher who place it in our reach, I cannot
see why he is not entitled to a just share of the wage
from the book.
there is a further reason why Mr. Morris's position
in regard to the artist seems to me doubtful. It is
this. The artist or writer who spends two hours a day
at his painting or his desk is very probably working
at the height of his powers. He needs a wider margin
of leisure than the craftsman or the professional man.
To ask him to spend another five or six hours a day
in another employment is to dull and coarsen his zest
for his art, to deplete him of energy and depreciate
his value to the community. To compass the achievement
of a Browning or a Puvis de Chavannes is undertaking
enough for one man. It does not seem to me that poetry
or art is such a casual thing, play of genius though
it is, that it can be done at odd moments or in leisure
hours merely. "For a great poet is made as well
as born." And I believe we mistake if we think
anything is to be accomplished in arts without single,
life-long and unflinching devotion and courage.
us for the present, then, admit the worker in fine arts
to a place in our social structure, and pay him the
wage which Mr. Morris thought him not entitled to. Let
us consider him for the moment an integral part of the
common life of the world. What are his relations to
it? What privileges should we accord him, and what obligations
bind him in turn? What conditions are most necessary
the first place, I should say, his greatest potential
at the hands of society is freedom. Not freedom of conduct
beyond that of other men, for he is one of them and
must share their concessions and restrictions, but freedom
of thought and freedom of expression. It seems to me
we should accord the artist absolute freedom of expression
in his art. The wildest vagary of sensationalism had
better be tolerated, killed by silence alone, rather
than that the sincere artist should feel himself hampered
by the least annoyance. And he, on his part, in return
for such liberty, will feel himself under an obligation
to use it only under the stress of great sincerity and
conviction. He will play no pranks on his fellow mortals;
he will never be fantastic or brutal or extremely intimate
without the gravest belief in its necessity. He will
write from the cue of his genius, as indeed he so often
does; and we will offer him full sway, as indeed we
the morality of art and the moral obligations of the
artist. Who touches that subject, touches a hornet's
nest. I think the great difficulty is that we look upon
art as the servant and child of religion; whereas, the
truth is that religion is quite as much the child of
art. All our religions of which we boast, and which
we have upheld with so much obloquy and bloodshed, have
their origin in the inspired utterances of single men.
They have been formed by incrustations of the dead letter
around a living word. We call the founders of churches
and sects inspired men, and so they were. Genius was
uttering itself in a memorable form. So it did in Camden
and out at Concord. We cannot tell where it will appear
next, but we may quite safely leave that event to take
care of itself. It will be our best policy to instruct
ourselves in openmindedness and tolerance. For if the
breath of inspiration is so imminent it may well take
us by surprise. And that same inspiration, that same
touch of genius, which we look upon as oracular in the
prophets, we must not look upon with scepticism in the
poets. The Bibles of the world differ in degree, not
in kind, from the epics and novels. And the more our
hold on the miraculous explanation of things is shaken,
the more need we to transfer our allegiance and faith
to the human and possible.
that I incline to think the broadest latitude for the
artist the only one. If his code of ethics does not
square with our own that is no reason for berating him.
(I speak, of course, of his work, not of himself or
his conduct. For these must be amenable to the world
in which he dwells.) He may be right, and if he is not,
time will very quickly obliterate him. Anything like
a censorship over art is a ludicrous and antiquated
error. There can be no authority set over the artist,
for the simple reason that the highest authority, the
only sanction by which he speaks at all, abides in the
artist himself. If Emerson and Whitman and Browning
and Shelley were subversive of our conventional notions,
so much the worse for the notions. They had a grip of
the truth; we were only chasing its shadow.
would have every man, therefore, who sets pen to paper
or brush to canvas, follow his own genius, whim, fancy,
taste or whatever he may call it, bidding a long adieu
to the comment of his neighbors. Indeed, if he heeds
their witticisms at his expense he must have an angel's
temper not to be ruffled and unsteadied for his work.
among ourselves, who haunt the purlieus of literature,
and assume the office of critic with so light a heart,
I could wish for a good deal more geniality and receptivity
towards what is novel, and a much less frequent exhibition
of the condescending tone. There are really only two
persons who can speak with cocksureness in matters of
ęsthetics-the genius and the ignoramus; and the chances
are that we none of us belong in the former category.