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Art and the Collective Life

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

Art depends upon individuality. We regard every genuine artistic product as personal to, and distinctive of, its author. So true is this that criticism is often able to determine questions of authenticity on internal evidence alone. And our use of the word “original” shows that we accept the human personality as the sole effective source of art. Again, it is often said of the great artists that, though their work is for all time, they are themselves the children of the age they live in. This implies that the form and character of art in every age is determined in general by the type of individuality characteristic of the age. If so, what happens to art in the future will be settled by the course taken by the development of human personality.

What is the present tendency of human personality? Popular ideas on the subject are vague, but they seem to assume that human persons are capable of infinite, or at least indeterminate, perfectibility. The view is independent of, and perhaps discrepant with, the older doctrine of the immortality of the soul. But by an inevitable confusion each has seemed to draw corroboration from the other. The perfectibility theory in one or another form is probably nearly as old as Christianity. A century ago Godwin and Shelley, with their preceptors and disciples, gave a great fillip to its popularity. And in our own day the well advertised guesses of the Spiritualists, asserting with hardihood the persistence and expansion of the empirical self through various orders of being on the far side of death, have done much to entrench the theory in the popular mind. Generally speaking, human beings, complacent as ever in their judgments on themselves, seem quite sure that personality is the culminating point so far touched by the evolutionary process, and that within personality there is irresistibly at work what General Smuts would call a deep holistic trend, making it ever more comprehensive, more harmonious, more complete. Thus do we forge on our own self-flattery the endorsement of the universe.

But if this is the prevalent view, the view ill accords with the prevalent facts. On all sides the pressure of society upon the individual increases, and even from a purely human standpoint the importance of personality seems in many ways to dwindle. It is fairly obvious that the two main social and economic forces of the next hundred years are Americanism and Communism. The former, as the best observers tell us, will overrun Europe and Australasia just as it is already rapidly overrunning America and Canada; the latter will overrun Asia as it has already overrun Russia. Communism is of course consciously based on an anti-individualist philosophy; and in the Communist state, both in theory and in practice, the individual is of value not for his own sake, but in so far as he subserves the ends of the community. The community is the unit; the individual is the fractional ingredient. The theory of Americanism has not yet been so fully formulated, but its practice appears to imply an eventual society whose components should be so mechanized and standardized as to be scarcely more than members of an industrial hive. In both Americanism and Communism the exploration of the remoter possibilities of the personality on a purely aesthetic impulse would be equally uneconomic, equally anti-social, equally revolutionary, and therefore, in practice, equally rigorously discouraged.

It would not necessarily follow that an art-less state would have less of beauty to show than have the states of today with their public libraries and municipal orchestras and their museums. Most of the beauty of the world fortunately comes into being by accident: the art that issues from a conscious aesthetic purpose forms but a small proportion of it. The bulk of beauty that we know is accounted for by mountain and valley, by sea and sky, and by some rare actions of good men. A generous admixture of beauty is also visible in such creations as railway engines, motor-cars, bridges, the geometrical masses of factory machinery, and the undesigned juxtaposition of great buildings—all of them things in whose production the artistic motive is either inoperative or very subordinate. Even mine-dumps can be objects of considerable beauty, as anyone is aware who has been to Johannesburg, South Wales, or Artois; but those who erected them need be suspected of no artistic intentions whatever. Similarly, the art-less state might be rich in beauty. Only, beauty would not be a cult, and there would be no class of society engaged in the endeavor to produce beauty for its own sake. The famous equation of Keats affirmed the identity of beauty and truth. It may be that all the spiritual values which we now think of as ultimate and distinct, are fundamentally one and the same: in which case the art-less state may yet show that perfect utility is also perfect beauty, and Oscar Wilde’s maxim that all art is quite useless will have its proper reply.

I suggest, then, that the coming conflict is between personality and the group-mind. Art, we have seen, belongs to personality. Or, in more eloquent language:

Poetry is founded on the hearts of men:
Though in Nirvana or the Heavenly courts
The principle of beauty shall persist,
Its body of poetry, as the body of man,
Is but a terrene form, a terrene use,
That swifter being will not loiter with:
And, when mankind is dead and the world cold,
Poetry’s immortality will pass.

Yet it seems possible that this passage may take place before the world goes cold, and that mankind, even in advance of its final doom, may elect to renounce personality and its competitive delights and miseries, in favor of the orderly ecstasies of the co-operative life. In other words, man, having failed of salvation along the path of personal freedom, may seek it in the collective Nirvana of the termitary.


That human life should come to take the termite, the ant, or the bee for model is neither so fantastic nor perhaps so undesirable as at first it may seem. A few years ago Maurice Maeterlinck wrote an account of the life of the white ant which attracted a good deal of attention when it was published. In it he makes plain what humanity very imperfectly realizes, namely, that the termites are not only one of the oldest but one of the most inventive and adaptable of the races which inhabit the earth. No one can read without astonished admiration of their gigantic buildings, so much more ambitious, relatively, than any structure to which man has yet put his hand. Their economic and social organization is peaceful, productive, and harmonious to an extent which no form of human grouping has even distantly approached. In the termitary there results from the division of labor and the interaction of the castes and classes a fric-tionless balance of interests which disaffection from no quarter ever disturbs. The checks and controls which prevent the undue self-assertion of any section of the community are perfect in their ingenious and effective simplicity. An equal perfection marks the termites’ solution of the problems of nutrition and food-supply, of transport, and of traffic control. The heating and ventilation of the termitary is carried out in a manner that no human hygienist could cavil at. Its inhabitants manage their water-supply by means which human science not only cannot contrive, but cannot yet fully understand. David Livingstone conjectured that the termites, by some unknown process, succeeded in combining the oxygen of the atmosphere with the hydrogen of their vegetable food. No one seems to have been able to improve on his guess, which is finding favor with an increasing number of scientists. In any case, it is evident that the termites are chemists from whom we may have much to learn.

The termitary is the ideal Communist state. It would probably serve also as a complete working model for all human Utopias, were it not for two things. The termite is not a person, as we mean personality, and it is not free, as we mean individual freedom. And it is clear that the termitary, as a form of society, owes its unique success to the fact that its members are neither. Thus we return again to the crucial question. In order to secure the social, political, and economic advantages of the termitary, would it be worth man’s while to discard personality and freedom, just as the termite has discarded sex and sight?

The fact is that we of the West have never made up our mind whether the individual possesses ultimate value per se, or whether his proper destiny is to be a mere cell in some vast spiritual organism. Christianity, with its doctrine of salvation and the Holy Catholic Church, and with the consequent efforts of Christians towards personal holiness, has tried to have it both ways. Far be it from me to suggest that such an attempt is doomed to failure. I merely note, as Bertrand Russell has noted, that, partly as the result of Christian teaching, Western man has developed an ego harder, more self-contained, and sharper-edged than would belong to natural man, and that this development has appreciably complicated his social and political life. It seems to be true that among people with whom Christian ideas have not made headway (for instance, many of the native peoples of Africa and Asia), the individual has a far more vivid and continuous awareness of contact with the universal life beyond his own. To him personality appears less a fixed exclusive shape than a shifting point of experience having an indefinite peripheral field that overlaps other similar fields, and even the fringe of the Anima Mundi itself. However that may be, it is significant that the movement towards personal freedom which began with the Renaissance, and went via the French Revolution right on into nineteenth-century liberalism, was a purely European movement, and that even today, after four hundred years, it has only a limited appeal outside Christendom. With Western man himself it has notably slowed down, and it may be brought to a full stop by the increased organization that industrialism, whether of the communistic or capitalistic type, demands. In short, personal freedom has begun to conflict seriously with other ends on whose realization mankind is no less intent.

Meanwhile, the vast organizations which are gradually taking charge of the world produce a sense of impotence in man as individual, leading to a decay of individual effort. On the other hand, the same organizations produce a sense of power in every man qua member of his group, and this leads to an increase of collective effort. Thus human groups of all kinds, including even nations, already begin to pride themselves on collective rather than individual achievements. In the United States, says Bertrand Russell, men are prouder of skyscrapers, railway stations, and bridges, than of poets or men of science. If we may accept his account of Russia, the same attitude pervades the civilization of the Soviets. In both countries some demand for personal heroes persists, but largely as a matter of journalistic convenience. Russell sardonically remarks that “In Russia personal distinction belongs to Lenin: in America to athletes, pugilists, and movie stars. But in both cases the heroes are either dead or trivial, and the serious work of the present is not thus associated with names of eminent individuals.” Even if we do not share Russell’s emotional bias, we are still led to the conclusion that the things which people regard as important tend more and more to become collective rather than individual activities. For work that one man would cheerfully have taken responsibility for in the past, we now need a Board or a Commission. Even the fearful ferment of war, that traditional forcing-ground of heroic figures, does not throw up outstanding individuals as it used. Rich men find their way into heaven more readily than the latter-day field marshal turns into a legend, even when assisted by all the alchemy of the popular press. Field marshals have always been a truculent race, but the twentieth century furnishes an effective damper to their self-assertiveness, not in the authority of superiors, but in the collective aim implied in the organized system of which they are parts.

Probably we should hesitate before deploring such changes as mere loss and retrogression. Civilized man is plainly much more remote than were his ancestors from the great sea of life whence all animate creation derives. To realize this remoteness it is only necessary to contrast with the modern spirit the spirit that gave shape to the fragrant mythology of Greece. The division is largely the work of the discursive reason and its self-consciousness. Our communion with the Anima Mundi has been submerged below the conscious level and is now maintained, if at all, by the subconscious mind alone. Is it not likely that our progress along the road of self-consciousness and personality would mean further isolation? May not the taking of that road have been the specific human mistake, Adam’s true fall? If personality is the condition of original sin, we have a natural contradiction of the idea that great benefit might arise from the enlargement of the brain, upon the size of which the scope of the discursive reason appears in some way to depend.

Some may answer that the weakness of personality is not that it has developed too far, but that it has not developed far enough. If every man were merely ten times more intelligent than the most intelligent among us, what a paradise would be ours, and how confidently we should be able to despise the termite and all its ways. It may be so; and we cannot say it is impossible that man should one day succeed in enlarging the brain, his specific organ, as the termites have succeeded in enlarging the mandibles of their soldiers and the ovaries of their queens. But actually man does not yet exercise the smallest control in the matter, and he shows no sign of attaining to any of that polymorphism which the termite uses with such astonishing mastery and such prodigious effect. The termite creates, according to the needs of the community, five or six kinds of individual so different that they seem scarcely to belong to the same species. Is not this an invention that penetrates far deeper into the secrets of nature than wireless telegraphy, or the aeroplane, or man’s breeding of plants and stock? Is it not, as Maeterlinck suggests, a decisive step forward into the mysteries of generation and creation? Could it have been made except by some intimate contact, which man has lost or never known, with the very wellsprings of life and mind?

We can at least see that within the termitary there live and move a form of society and a mode of civilization alternative to man’s own, and in many ways remarkably more effective. It would be most unsafe to assert that the termite’s is in any sense whatever a lower way of life than ours. The contrast between instinct and reason is often invoked to bear witness to the superiority of human endeavor. But I question whether it is much in point. It certainly is not, if by instinct is understood something mechanical and blind. Every feature of termite society is informed throughout by rational purpose — is, in other words, deliberately willed, which is much more than can be said of the poor bungling civilizations of humanity. True, the will that governs the termitary is neither self-conscious nor personal: yet it is not the less intelligent for that. It is, in precise terms, a corporate will: and if it is not free in our common acceptation, that is because it belongs to an order where freedom and necessity are irrelevant distinctions. Divine intelligence has assumed one form, one incarnation in the termite, and another in man—that is all. In both it retains the basic character of rationality. If it lost this, it would no longer be intelligence.


People do not naturally appraise progress in terms of quality. In our dreams of betterment we usually appear just as we are now, only more so. The change is imagined as merely quantitative. This explains the average man’s extraordinary attachment to his own personality: he thinks his well-being and advancement consist in his becoming a bigger and bigger person. The belief is so passionately held that he refuses to contemplate for himself any mode of being but the personal. This is surprising, because, seen from a detached standpoint, personality has many disadvantages. Its walls, shadowy as they are, constitute a woefully substantial barrier between ourselves and all the beauty and love and truth that lie outside; so much so that many have doubted whether personality is compatible with any enduring spiritual satisfaction. Everyone who has ever felt deeply must have been aware of his own personality as an intolerable prison, and it is hardly too much to say that in those moments of intensest experience, which afterwards we hoard wistfully as the great prizes of living, our dominating aspiration is to escape from our personality, to pass beyond it. This contradiction at the core of personality is most obtrusive when we are in the presence of great beauty, as the following sonnet testifies:

Goodness and truth are perfect; at their hearts
Vibrates the deep peace of resolved discord.
The mind wherein they operate is lord
Of its own powers; all acts of all its parts
Deepen the harmony, and there upstarts
No challenge to the categorical Word.
Yet beauty, prince of all powers, bringeth a sword
Not peace, scorning the harmonizing arts.

Something in beauty wars against the whole.
Its sweetness tortures, it can give no rest,
Only delighted agony, joyous despair.
Oh, traitor beauty, Judas of the soul,
That, greeting with a kiss, deliverest
To scourgings thy meek master scarce can bear.

But, odd as it may be, Western man does on the whole look on personality as the sole repository, and often as the sole factory, of spiritual value. As long as he retains it, he remains in God’s image, in which the book of Genesis tells him he was created; therefore he will not part with it at any price. Indeed, personality and the free growth of its distinctive attributes have become thickly entangled with our ideals. This was probably inevitable, because, historically, reasonable freedom of individual action, freedom of speech, and even such freedom of thought as we yet enjoy, have cost so many centuries of arduous effort to win, that we now instinctively allot to them a value commensurate with the difficulty of their acquisition. The all-important question whether they are really worth what we have paid for them, we very humanly decline to consider. If the bargain was a good one, the enquiry is waste of time; if it was a bad one, the less we hear about our dupedom, the better.

The contention that the advance of civilization means the declension of art and its influence, is by no means new. It is the same dragon which Shelley’s Defence of Poetry was designed to destroy. Peacock stung Shelley to controversy by the argument that the creative imagination and all its products were giving place, and ought to give place, to the pursuit of utility. Shelley’s reply, which in spite of its incompleteness remains one of the most stimulating contributions to the whole subject, is that imagination is, and must always be, the prime source of all that has intrinsic value in life. Knowledge and power largely fail us because for want of imagination we have not sympathy in our hearts, and do not feel what we know. The imagination is the chosen instrument of that hidden glory which works within the world, a soul of goodness even in things evil, contending with obstruction, and striving to penetrate and transform the whole mass. Its voice is as the voice of the mountain, which, if a whole nation could hear it with a poet’s ear, would “repeal large codes of fraud and woe.” It is, for Shelley, literally the resurgent Christ, immanent redeemer of mankind and of the world, by its own plastic stress gradually ascending through the recalcitrant lump of nature into heaven, there to take seat in its full power and splendor at the right hand of God on that distant “third day” when time shall pass into Eternity.

How remote to-day appears fulfilment, or any hope of fulfilment of Shelley’s radiant prophecies. But in truth they only seem remote if we assume personality with its conscious artistic faculty to be the necessary medium of their fulfilment. There is a sense in which fulfilment is already attained by another route in a society such as the termite’s. Bacon, in one of his profound aphorisms, observes that in poetry we have “the shows of things submitted to the desire of the mind.” Assuredly the central urge of man is to be living in a significant world, a world whose meaning and purpose he can grasp and support, “a world,” as Lascelles Abercrombie puts it, “in which nothing happens out of relation with the whole of things, in which everything must perfectly cohere with the rest, and nothing can appear irrelevantly, a world in which each is for all and all is for each.” Man makes very passionate endeavors to read such meaning, such purpose, and such coherence into the world of actuality, and even to impose them upon it. But he never succeeds, and so long as he remains man, never will succeed, for his endeavor is the endeavor of the finite to comprehend and master the infinite. So, to satisfy his formative desire, he falls back upon imagination, fashioning with its aid an ideal world, the world of art, of which he is lord and creator and only true God, where all is systematic interrelation and where every part is manifestly held in place by the whole, and the whole is the structure to which the function of every part is adapted. In it, his mind’s desire has absolute sovereignty over the shows of all things. Art is the revenge which his infinite longings take upon his finite capabilities.


But in the termitary there is no such divorce of the actual from the ideal, and there is therefore no need of art as a separate and perhaps isolated phase of life. The entire life of the race has been submitted to the desire of the termite mind. The termite’s poetry flows and pulses throughout the institutions of termite society in the ordered rhythm of their operation, and it differs from the poetry of man not essentially in its inspiration and general substance, but in the kind of expression given to it. Termite society is, in a word, a superb example of collective art—of an order, due to the imagination, which, in Shelley’s language, “beholding the beauty of the order, created it out of itself, according to its own idea.” Shelley himself said of old Rome: “the true poetry of Rome lived in its institutions; for whatever of beautiful, true, and majestic they contained, could have sprung only from the faculty which creates the order in which they consist.” The judgment is truer still of the termitary, and will become increasingly true of human life as it approaches nearer to the de-individualized communism towards which it seems to be tending.

Man’s imagination will express itself directly in the shape to which it moulds organized human society, and the communal life, in its depth and intensity, will absorb all his purposive activities, including those which we now know as artistic. Ant and life will be one. On the frontier of human experience significant changes are already taking place. We no longer think that permanently valid patterns of the good man and the good society are embalmed in any sacred tradition or even laid up in heaven. The old idealism of living up to an achieved or revealed standard is making way for the new idealism of searching for and, if necessary, creating a standard worth living up to. There is a new confidence in the existence of unused abilities in men by which social life may be transformed.

The phenomena of mass psychology are as yet very imperfectly understood, but what we know suffices for recognition of their very great importance. In a crowd a curious kind of mental explosion seems to take place. If you detonate a slab of gun-cotton, the solid matter passes into rapidly expanding gases which require for their occupation hundreds of times more space than the slab did. Similarly, in a crowd where some exciting idea or emotion is at work, the individual, by an often involuntary surrender of his solid identity, swiftly expands into an undifferentiated section of a huge, vaporous, impersonal, mental field. His psychical relation to the other individuals composing the crowd suddenly changes from one of mere aggregation to one of multiplication. The new common field in which the individual fields are thus fused and enlarged, wields an influence which is frequently out of all proportion to the strength of the exciting idea, or the personal feelings of the component individuals—so much so that the latter can, while they remain under the mass influence, scarcely be said to persist as personalities at all.

Man has not yet begun to establish control over the immense energies generated in this remarkable way, but they evidently represent a whole new spiritual continent awaiting his exploration. The physicists of our day are much preoccupied with the problem of breaking down the atom in order to release the incalculable electrical forces which sustain it. The atoms which we call persons challenge psychic science with a similar riddle.


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