The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

Realism in Letters


    THE question of realism in art after all must be surely one of quantity and proportion. Every one must agree that a certain amount of realism is needed; the difficulty is only to know how much. That art must be an image of nature goes without saying. It is the business of art to create a mimic world in which we may take delight. The features of that world must in the main resemble those of our own old and well-loved universe, else we should be set to wander through a country so strange that we should soon be lost.

    Perhaps our first pleasure in art is a childish delight at its verisimilitude. “How true to life,” we exclaim, as the eye recognizes in the human creation a likeness to something [Page 115] in the outward world. Unmitigated realism would in truth give us nothing else. And the pleasure which a great many people get from current fiction and contemporary art depends on having this very simple and childish sense gratified. They like stories about places that are familiar to them, and concerning types of character entirely within their range of comprehension. Anything exceptional and unusual demands an effort of the imagination before it can be appreciated; and this effort the average mind is unwilling to make, — so lethargic and timid are we for the most part in facing the unknown.

    But the best art and literature are always exceptional. There is always a quality of adventure in them. They represent the courageous daring of the artist in creating new forms, in propounding new truths, in establishing newer and nobler standards of conduct and enjoyment. They reflect the progress of humanity. Not only that; they foretell and direct progress. All the ideals which [Page 116] humanity has put in practice with so much pains and toil were first enunciated by the artist, and by him presented to us in alluring and intelligible shape. It is never enough, and it never had been enough, that the arts should give us only image of things we know, and proclaim accepted truths. They have always had another trend as well; they have always been employed in expressing novel truths, no less important than the old, and in clothing those truths in new forms no less beautiful than the older forms to which we have been accustomed.

    Art and literature, therefore, have never been mere copies of nature; they have always contained the element of novelty, — a novelty more radical and profound than the fortuitous variations of nature. The forms of nature are, indeed, beautiful, varied, and satisfying; and the forms of art must have these qualities, too. At the same time they must have much greater flexibility and power of adaptation than the forms of nature. Nature, [Page 117] so far as we can observe, proceeds by a law so stable as to seem unchanging. The growth of man proceeds in the guidance of a questioning and illimitable imagination. So that the settled and infinitely deliberate procedure of nature will not serve his restless purposes at all. Unless he can add thought to nature, — unless he can introduce imagination and forethought and invention and hope and aspiration into life, — how much better is he than the creatures?

    Now whatever comes under the head of art, whether literature or painting, music or sculpture or acting or architecture, being the expression of man, must reflect his inward life, — his words and thoughts, his instant desires and his far-offs hopes or fears. If art were no more than an imitation of nature in faithful guise, it would surely never have been born. Certainly it could never have attained any exalted place in our esteem such as we have accorded it; nor could it have wielded that incalculable influence which we know it [Page 118] has always possessed. It is only because art and literature are supernatural that they pull at our hearts for ever. It is only because they partake at times of the superhuman, deriving an inspiration we know not whence, that they offer us an unfailing source of refreshment and power. They embody for us average men and women suggestions for a life more fair and perfect than ever occurred to us. They not only indicate an existence more worthy and beautiful than our own, they actually portray it. That is why we enjoy them; and that is the only reason that we enjoy them without satiety. Once given the perilous gift of self-consciousness, the large slow contentment of nature is no longer possible. We must have ideals, however faulty, and beliefs and opinions, however erroneous. These beliefs and ideals it has always been the destiny of art to embody. That is the one great business of art. And as our beliefs and ideals grow with our growth, they find new housing for themselves first of all in the arts. [Page 119]

    Realism, then, is essential, but it is not everything. The Palace of Art is built to house a more admirable company than any of our present acquaintance. The members of that company may even seem at times almost more than human. And yet they must remain like ourselves, and the Palace must remain a possible palace, else we lose interest. The soul can only be touched with emulation by what comes within range of its own power. Art must be realistic, or it will have no hold on our interest; it must be more than realistic, or it will not be able to make that hold permanent. It must present the ideal at least as vividly as it does the real, for the one is as important as the other.

    As we go about this lovely world, scenes and incidents attract us and enchant us for a moment or for longer. And these scenes we delight to recall. We travel, and we bring home photographs of the places we have visited, reminders of our happy hours. It would seem that nothing could be more faithful than [Page 120] these mechanically accurate reproductions of the face of nature. And yet they are not wholly satisfying; a fleeting glimpse preserved in a sketch in pencil or water-colour may be far more satisfactory. The photograph reproduces a hundred details which the eye missed when it first came upon the scene; and at the same time misses the charm and the atmosphere with which we ourselves may have endowed the place as we gazed upon it. The sketch, on the other hand, omits these details, just as our eye omitted them originally, and yet preserves the atmosphere of our first delighted vision. Can it be said then that the photograph is more true than the painting? More true to the object, yes; but not more true to our experience of the object. And that is the important thing; that is what art must always aim at. [Page 121]