Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
Provincial Note in Art*
a certain sense, and allowing oneself a certain latitude
of meaning, one may say that while good criticism must
always have the cosmopolitan temper, creative work must
always have something of the provincial air about it.
Criticism is the product of civilization, of study,
of deliberate purpose, of self-conscious analysis, and
it presupposes a divorce of reasons from the emotions.
Creative effort, on the other hand, is more native,
untutored, spontaneous, irresponsible, unconscious and
illogical; and presupposes the subordination of the
reason to the emotional nature. Criticism, one easily
sees, must flourish best at the centres of thought in
cities where the racial mind is at its keenest, and
all the conclusions of racial deliberation (if so improbable
a thing could exist) are put in practice; while creation
needs the freedom from distraction only found in provincial
corners of the earth.
will be answered at once that the provincial artist
cannot hope to speak for the better and more sophisticated
persons of his time, that he will be hopelessly out
of touch with the thought of the day, as we call it.
But it is forgotten that the provincial artist is more
surely in touch with the thought of the years. "The
thought of the day," which is the very breath of
life to criticism, is, after all, a secondary consideration
in creative endeavor. The creator concerns himself first
of all with those primitive and enduring human traits
which underlie the chance of fortune and the change
of fashion, which are the foundation of society; his
office is more profound and elementary than that of
the critic, and the complexities of the cosmopolitan
life tend to obscure the main business of his existence.
And I think one sees very often in the art and poetry
of our capitals, in our art and poetry that is inflected
with the cosmopolitan spirit, a baneful influence of
the critical spirit. It seems to grow timid, sophisticated
and petty, if, indeed, it does not grow vulgarly facetious
or cheaply cynical.
do not mean to say that the cosmopolitan spirit, the
critical spirit, is superfluous in fostering a national
art. It is absolutely necessary; but its usefulness
is still a subordinate one, and its aggressive cleverness
should be well guarded against by the artist himself.
That seems rather an absurd thing to say, too. It is
hard, at first blush, to fancy any artist or writer
too open to criticism. Few of us are ept to be overblessed
with the openness of mind implied in the word criticism.
But the artist who lives in the tide of cosmopolitan
thought is likely to be so thoroughly immersed in it
that he does not perceive its drift; he does not know
that he is absorbed in a critical atmosphere. Its influences
are so alluring, so all pervasive, so powerful, he is
swept on their coil far out of his own true course,
and gives his days too often to half-accomplishments,
misdirected effort and wrong ambitions. And all the
while the more important toil his real destiny appointed
for him lies incomplete or unattempted at his side.
critical faculty, so admirable in itself, so needful
to regulate our work, to give us balance and proportion,
to show us where we are, to help us comprehend ourselves
and our place in a larger scheme, is still a sterile
force, incapable of fructifying spirit. It is a governing,
even a dominating power, rather than a cosmical energy.
It modulates, and at its best illumines the results
of the artist's energy, the inventor's skill, the reformer's
purpose; but its very aloofness and coldness keep it
from participating in any of these occupations. Criticism
is the afterthought of the spirit, but creation is its
unthinking natural function; criticism may be a pleasure,
but creation is a joy. Just so the pleasures of life
thrive abundantly in a cosmopolitan current; indeed,
cosmopolitanism makes pleasure its chief business. But
the joys of life abide more undistractedly, if less
vividly in the eddies and backwaters of provincialism.
is hopeless, of course, in dealing with matters of scholarship
and the trend of affairs. It is an incompetent guide
in national undertakings or racial advancement: it must
not be relied on as a safe judge in that complexity
of life which goes by the name of modern civilization;
one could never dream of permitting the provincial note
to be heard in any of the wider activities of criticism.
It is too slow, too instructive and unrational, for
critical undertakings. It relies too much on the natural
heart, as we say, and not enough on hard science. The
quality of being hard-headed is attributed by common
consent to men of affairs, men of science, statesmen
and leaders of cosmopolitan life generally. It is to
them, and to them alone, that matters of pressing importance
of the day can be entrusted with safety. In matters
of art, in matters of the more slowly changing spiritual
life, you may go with greater safety to the provincial
spirit for inspiration. Inspiration does not abide in
walls; they are the home of criticism. And it is because
criticism and inspiration are both necessary to life
that the highest development of art can only be attained
by a blending, or, rather by a mixture, of the provincial
and the cosmopolitan in our existence.
truth of their suggestion appears in the case of the
individual as well as in the more general tendency.
There is in every one a critical power, regulating and
overseeing the moral power. The artistic nature, that
is, the moral nature, finding a bent for its will in
art rather than in action, must be accompanied by some
trace of the critical faculty, however rudimentary.
Otherwise it will spend its precious force in futile
effort more often than not. And yet the critical faculty
must be only a servant to the master passion for creation,
else it will rule the house of art like a domineering
domestic, orderly and sedulous, perhaps, but absolutely
commonplace, well bred, reputable and dull beyond redemption.
provincial note in poetry and art is good, not because
it forgets man and worships nature, but because it considers
man in his truer relation to life. Men's actions and
aspirations must always remain the greater subject for
art, and the interpretation of nature is less important,
however enthralling it may be to many. The point is,
that man degenerates in the mass. As every crowd tends
to become a mob, to lose its human characteristics and
retain only its more brutal instincts in the one direction,
and its more mentalized tendencies in the other, so
the art which is fostered in crowds tends to become
more clever and at the same time more profane.
Provincial Note in Art," Commercial Advertiser,
Dec. 17, 1898 [back]