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The Artist as Individual

ISSUE:  Summer 1936

All historians of the Renaissance, perhaps following Burckhardt’s lead, have seen that decisive change in European culture as in some sense a passage from collective values to individualism. Though the reality of any collective notion of art is to be questioned, it is true that in the Middle Ages many phases of thought and feeling take on a collective aspect, being controlled by the central authority of a universal church. It is equally true that under such a dispensation individual values are at a discount, and a work of art is valued primarily for what it expresses, and not for the manner of expression. But the survival value of the work of art—the qualities in it which survive the ideas and aspirations of a particular age, to appeal to the aesthetic faculties of succeeding ages—these are the creation of individuals endowed with exceptional skill or sensibility. The Renaissance, therefore, did not bring about a fundamental change in the nature of art; it merely altered the conditions under which the artist worked, freeing him from disciplines and inhibitions and allowing him a specious freedom of action. I say a specious freedom, because in the outcome the artist discovered that he had merely exchanged one kind of dependence for another; he might henceforth be free to express himself, but only on condition that the “self” expressed was a marketable commodity—a form of economic servitude which is still in force, and which has proved no less vile than the spiritual servitude of the preceding epoch.

Such a development does not take place autonomously; it is not the free and disinterested expansion of a doctrine or idea. It is rather the direct reflection of economic processes.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Church committed the fatal mistake of relaxing its rules against usury; it allowed, that is to say, the growth of a system which divorced wealth from production by making money, which had hitherto served merely as a medium of exchange, become in itself a commodity. That seems the essential factor in a complicated historical process in which war and technology played important parts. Whatever the details of the process of change, the final result is not to be mistaken: just as with the decline of the central imperial power the Church had gradually assumed a preponderating influence based on wide possessions and the effective control of wealth, so now there grew up men and corporative bodies wealthy in their own rights and as a result of their own efforts, and these forces soon found themselves in conflict with the Church. Here a republic challenged the authority of the Pope, and elsewhere a king dispossessed the wealthy monasteries; and those are the events which loom large in our history books. More significant, however, is the change of mood and temperament which affected people at large. I am not going to discuss the ways in which the economic changes brought about this change of heart; the actual process consisted, I believe, of an infinite series of small deflections and counter-deflections in which first one force and then another was the determining cause—a zigzag course like the tacking of a vessel against the wind. And as the process developed, it revealed itself as a disintegration; better still, as a differentiation. Granted that the homogeneity of the Middle Ages is to a great extent an effect of distance—of not being able to see in the mass the details which a closer knowledge would reveal—yet nevertheless the fact remains that between the end of the classical civilization of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy, the individual did not strive to express, or did not succeed in expressing, his own personality. He expressed, as an artist, his sensibility; but that sensibility was not used either to reveal a point of view personal to the artist, or to depict what was personal or idiosyncratic in others. But slowly all this changed; the artist declared himself, confessed his humanity, and celebrated the humanity of his fellow men.

A striking clue to this development is found in the rise of portrait painting. Roman art, especially in its sculpture, had expired in a high fever of realism—a portraiture of exact and even mordant skill. Though this desire for self-record did not entirely disappear in the early Christian and Byzantine periods—there are certain etched goldleaf medal- j lions, for example, of startling realism—nevertheless, the face in general was hidden behind the mask, and remained there until the Renaissance once more revealed it.

Sometimes in a medieval work of art—in the corner of a stained-glass window, in the margin of a manuscript—we may discern a tiny figure which on inspection proves to be a summary portrait of the artist, or more likely of the donor of the work to the Church. In the fourteenth century this figure gradually obtrudes itself; it increases in size and relative importance, until, by the time we reach the sixteenth century, the donor may rank equal with the figures of the Holy Legend. But long before we reach the sixteenth century, the donor or the artist has, so to speak, detached himself from the legend, and is portrayed in his own right, separately and distinctly. And for more than a century the whole aim of art seems to be to develop psychological expressiveness, verisimilitude, and actuality, in the representation of the human personality. In that aim the effort of Raphael culminated, and before and after Raphael a whole host of painters and sculptors were animated by that same will.

Next to the personality, the artist tried to depict his personal vision and fantasy. No longer hesitating to depict the supernatural figures and scenes with earthly realism, the artists vied with each other in giving their subjects every conceivable accent of originality and extravagance, desiring always to exhibit their own skill and imagination. In their search for fantasy they deserted the sacred legends and turned to the rich field of profane mythology, even mingling the two strains, as, less consciously, the early Christians had done. Finally, they dispensed with the legend altogether, and resorted to the final phase of introspection—the expression of their individual vision. When the painter turned from the telling of a story or the portrayal of a personality to the painting of inanimate subjects—landscapes and still-lifes—he was taking a step of peculiar significance. He was no longer saying, “I paint this subject because I think the incident or the person will interest you,” but rather, “I paint this scene or these objects because I think you will be interested in how I paint them.” The artist like Giotto or Raphael had always been valued for his miraculous skill in rendering nature, but there had always been the saving element which we call the human interest. The artist was now to paint pictures without this human interest, and though the ignorant might still admire the result for its verisimilitude, the public whom the painter was really addressing were asked to admire the personality expressed in a harmony of colours and a coherence of form. And the more the artists developed this tendency, the more they separated themselves from the understanding and appreciation of the common people.

We have now no lack of evidence, and we can distinguish in this period certain relations between art and society whose existence we have had reason to suspect in all periods. On the one side there is the complex mass which we call society or the people, and their demand is for naturalism or realism —for a picture that tells a story. On the other side is the artist, an individual or member of a restricted elite, and his demand is to express himself—his feelings or his thoughts. We have thus set up a tension or opposition between the artist and society which is capable of explaining all the alternations of the history of art since the Middle Ages.

Without following Pareto into the detail of his long and elaborate analysis of society, we may accept as true for the whole of the modern period his conception of a relatively stable body within which a “circulation of elites” takes place. Outside idealistic communities with no historical continuity, civilized society has always shown this division into a comparatively small and closed governing class on the one hand, and on the other hand a large and amorphous mass of “common people”—from which, nevertheless, a new elite in due course arises to displace a governing class grown decadent and effete. Such, at any rate, is the typical formula for European societies from the Renaissance onwards (and I do not mean to imply that it is not the typical formula before the Renaissance). And corresponding to this formula we have a similar division of art, and perhaps a similar process of circulation. The 61ite accumulates power and wealth and leisure; it demands outward symbols of its position, and above all those which reflect its pomp and glory. The art of architecture especially is in requisition, and most of the other arts follow in its wake. Schools and academies are established and there grows up what is variously known as a tradition, or taste; that; is to say, a type of art guaranteed to appeal to the refined sensibilities of an exclusive class. The “taste” of a period does not control or determine the art of a period, any more than the religion of a period does. It is a parallel development, or rather, in the sense I have already explained, a dialectical development within the synthesis we call the culture of a period. The artist creates his work within the limitations of the particular tradition into which he is born, but the condition of his “greatness” or “genius,” or whatever the word is by which we denote his exceptional character, is that he transcends the tradition in some respect, and thereby modifies it. So the taste of a period is moulded and progresses by infinitely small acts and experiments; and the more closed and exclusive the group within which this process is taking place, the more refined and esoteric the product becomes, until its decadent character can no longer be disguised. By that time the group itself is probably ready to disintegrate, and the art and its social foundations perish together, to be replaced by a new elite springing from the general mass of the people, and bringing with it a crude but virile art—an art which will in its turn submit to the process of refinement.

The popular art, like the art of the elite, is there all the time, and just as it existed in other well defined periods, like the Egyptian and the early Christian, so it existed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and may still be found today, often where it is least suspected (in aeroplanes and motor cars, in films and sport accessories). Such art is always diffused, appealing to a wide undifferentiated public, and generally not recognized or acknowledged as art at the time of its creation. But certain theorists, looking back on the history of art, and seeing the inevitable rise of such types of art in any given period, are apt to make a qualitative judgment, and say that what is popular is therefore best. Herein lies a definite danger. A certain type of art is popular at any given time, and perhaps there are certain characteristics of such popular art which are universal and permanent —it is generally realistic, for example. But it is illogical, and false to the very nature of the dialectical process of history, to take that further step which demands that the art of a particular period should be popular. The typical art of a period is the art of the elite, and it is contradictory to assert that the art of an elite can or should have the characteristics of popular art. Such a demand can only be made for that hypothetical state of society, the classless society, which has no elite. Incidentally, it is to be observed that the classless state, as conceived by Marx and Engels, and as most explicitly defined by Lenin in his “State and Revolution,” by no means involves the abolition of elites. Elites are a reflection of a natural differentiation in the talents and abilities of men, and to attempt to suppress them would be to go contrary to the unalterable facts of our human nature.

But granted this hypothetic classless society, it is still necessary to ask whether popular art as it has been known in the past, and as it is known today, can possibly satisfy all the requirements of a full aesthetic sensibility. This we must doubt, and for the following reasons.

The artist, the individual endowed with exceptional sensibilities and exceptional faculties of apprehension, stands in psychological opposition to the crowd—to the people, that is to say, in all their aspects of normality and mass action. That very acuteness of perception in the artist is purchased at the price of maladaptation, of non-conformity and revolt. I do not wish, on this occasion, to examine the psychology of the artist, but you have only to look at your comic papers, indeed at the whole literature and iconography of the artist as a type, to see him universally branded as a freak. Behind all this popular derision and contempt is a recognition of the truth which Plato recognized on a sublimer plane—namely, that the artist is an eccentric element in any well-ordered or egalitarian community. He is an exception, and because he is an exception he becomes in some sense a parasite—but a parasite, not of the people, but of the elite whom he can flatter and amuse, and who will in return give him the means of subsistence.

The cynic, and a Philistine like Mr. Wells, can leave it at that, failing to recognize that the artist’s exceptional faculties give him more than manual dexterity, more than sensuous refinement, that “more” which is an intuition of the nature of reality, and justifies us in regarding art as an indispensable mode of knowledge. There are these two aspects to every artist’s work; its technical externals or craftsmanship and its inherent truth or expressiveness. Both the dilettante at one extreme and the uneducated mass of people at the other extreme concentrate on the externals, the one on the subtleties and refinements of technique, the other on the blatant display of skill, by which is always meant the creation of an illusion of reality. But the artist, in the degree of his greatness, has to avoid these temptations and the flattery or popularity which they bring. “The artist,” as Cezanne was to realize, “can only appeal to an extremely restricted number of people.” In a letter to his mother this great painter shows how clearly he realized the sacrifice required of him. He was then thirty-five years old, and still completely unrecognized. “I am beginning to find myself stronger than any of those around me, and you know that the good opinion I hold of myself has not come to me without good reason. I must go on working, but not in order to attain a finished perfection, which is so much sought after by imbeciles. And this quality which is commonly so much admired is nothing but the accomplishment of a craftsman, and makes any work produced in that way inartistic and vulgar. I must not try to finish anything except for the pleasure of making it truer and wiser.” And again, late in his life, he indicates the essential quality which the artist must possess to save him from vulgarity. “It is only the initial force,” he writes, “id est temperament, that can carry one to the goal one is seeking.” And by temperament he means, of course, those characteristics of heightened sensibility, of imaginative apprehension, and other allied faculties which together constitute the uniqueness of the artist.

If the artist were condemned to isolation, he would be stultified. His faith is that the extremely restricted number of people to whom alone he can hope to appeal directly will in their turn influence a wider circle of people, that by degrees and in the course of time his truth and wisdom may be assimilated by the people, and become a part of the culture of his period. Such indeed is the process of integration which the anthropologists speak of. But even in his immediate task of appealing to a restricted number of people, the artist must select what we might call a mode of conveyance. His emotions and feelings are individual—always fundamentally the sensational awareness of a particular nervous organization. He can satisfy himself—express himself—entirely by these means, but if he is to reach outside himself he must operate within some more or less restricted communal emotional unity corresponding to the collective representations which are the natural possession of primitive peoples and of peoples professing a universal religious unity. Reason has destroyed such collective spirituality in the modern world, with the result that the artist must seek a substitute, which may be a residue of religious superstition, but is more probably some form of idealism, The history of art since the Renaissance is mainly a history of its dalliance with various forms of idealism.

Its first resource was to that type of idealism which had been so fruitful in the past—the pagan idealism of Greece. That resuscitated idealism was to undergo many modifications between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries, but it remained the essential basis of what we rightly call the classical tradition. But already in the eighteenth century we have the rise of an alternative ideal, at first not wholly dissociated from classicism, which we shall call moralism; and finally, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we get a series of modifications and reversions most of which may be included within the concept of romanticism—even that extreme form of individualism which would reject all compromise with idealism, and depend for its appeal on the bare sensationalism of form and colour.

In all this process the artist is contending, not only with his own technical problem, which is to reconcile his aesthetic sensations with an external ideological motive, but with the no less acute problem of securing himself a livelihood in a world which has reduced all labour to a cash basis. The work of art, that is to say, has become a commodity which the artist must sell in the open market, or perish. The conditions of his work are such that the price he must put on his commodity is one which only the rich can afford. That is to say, art becomes not merely a commodity, but more precisely a luxury product. The means to commission or purchase luxuries belong only to those who have inherited the wealth of rich individuals, and to those who have the control of public expenditure. There have, let it be freely admitted, always been exceptions, but as a general rule such individuals are, in all matters of sensibility and taste, both vulgar and stupid. They are, by definition, men of action; that is to say, men in whom the contemplative faculties necessary to imaginative creation have been inhibited. The history of art during and since the Renaissance is full of instances of the tragic misunderstanding that has arisen between the artist and his patron.

An incident which proved to be the turning point in Rembrandt’s life will serve as a typical illustration. There had grown up in Holland at that time a custom of commissioning group-portraits—just as we still commission group-photographs of football teams and wedding parties—and Rembrandt was not above undertaking such a commission. In 1642 he agreed to paint a group-portrait of a body of special constables under the leadership of a certain Captain Franz Banning Cocq, for which he was to be paid 1600 gulden, each member of the corps contributing an equal share to this total sum. Rembrandt had reached the full command of his technique and invention, and in due course produced the painting we know as “The Night Watch.” But this was very different from the conventional group-portraits to which his patrons were accustomed, and which they might reasonably expect Rembrandt to paint. For in the past he had supplied the standard article to complete satisfaction; he had painted —for example, in “The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp,” a work done ten years earlier—group-portraits in which each member of the group was painted with equal care and on the same relative scale. But the result, for Rembrandt, had been dull and uninspired. Now, under the stress of his inspiration, he made a composition which is all liveliness and variety; an active play of light and shade, of animated mass and riotous colour. As a composition it is a triumph of the painter’s art. But though Captain Cocq and his chief lieutenant are: sufficiently in the limelight, the fifteen other officers who had paid their share of the cost were not slow to point out that their countenances had been obscured, their dignity destroyed, their very bodies cut in half to satisfy the exigencies of the artist’s composition. And there was no hesitation about the verdict. Rembrandt was dismissed as a bad bungler and from that moment his fame as a painter declined, until he died poor and neglected twenty-six years later.

Such is the fate of the artist who insists on maintaining his artistic standards in the face of bourgeois vanity and ignorance. Other patrons may not be so ignorant, but their vanity is unfailing, and the lot of any typical dependent on oligarchic, aristocratic, or monarchic patronage is no happier than Rembrandt’s. The death or displeasure of a patron may leave the artist in distress, and the life of an artist such as Poussin is a melancholy story of insecurity and intrigue. But we are not so much concerned with the personal fate of the artist under such a system, as with the effect of the system on his work. For in spite of the system, there have been great artists. An artist like Poussin, for example, maintained his standards no less firmly than Rembrandt, and was scarcely neglected. Nevertheless, his idealism was well calculated to appeal to the snobbery and luxury of his patrons, and it was only in the course of time that the restricted circle who appreciated Poussin in his lifetime for the aesthetic qualities of his work grew to the dimensions of a general public. In the whole of this phase of history there is scarcely a great artist in whom we have not to discount a certain element of compromise due to his servile position in society.

Exceptions exist, but they are not necessarily the greatest artists. They might perhaps be divided into two groups; those who revolt against the system, and those who evade it. Revolt involves what iis essentially a moral protest, and such is the attitude of painters like Hogarth and Daumier. Evasion is the escape into some private world, which we call romanticism. But the artist must still cash in on an economic market, and for that reason, as rebel or as romantic, he is faced by the choice between starving and giving his art that popular appeal the limitations of which we have already discussed. Let us look a little closer at a typical artist of each type—Hogarth and Delacroix.

If I take Hogarth as an example of the revolutionary type, I do not mean to impute to him any fundamental revision of the concepts of either art or society. It would be nearer the truth to say that Hogarth was the first painter to discover the advantages of a large-scale production in art. He was a typical representative of the new middle class. He may have been conscious of the choice before him: abject dependence on the patronage of the wealthy upper classes such as Holbein or Van Dyck had to put up with, or some method of reaching a poorer but a wider market. Whether by accident or design, Llogarth took the latter course. He made his paintings merely the prototypes or originals on which numerous engravings could be based, and these engravings he sold by the hundred and the thousand at a few shillings apiece. So systematic and determined was he in this commercialization of art, that he agitated for and secured a special law of copyright to protect his commodities.

In order to secure this new basis of livelihood, it was not merely the methods of production and distribution that Hogarth had to change; he was also compelled to modify the subject-matter of art. That subject-matter is too well known to need any description; I shall merely point out its present significance. Hogarth rejected in its entirety the classical tradition of the Renaissance, the conventions and idealism of the Grand Manner. He claimed, as every artist in revolt is apt to claim, that he returned to the humility and truth of nature. Actually he turned to that humouristic and realistic transcription of nature already embodied in the fiction and drama of his period. Hogarth even confessed that “he wished to compose pictures on canvas, similar to the representations on the stage.” “I have endeavoured,” he said, “to treat my subject as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures are to exhibit a dumb show.” We may remark that he followed this aim far too literally, the composition of his pictures too often taking on the restricted limits and conventional poses of the actual stage. But more significantly he adopted the satirical purpose and narrative style of his literary contemporaries. A few dates are worth noting. Fielding’s first comedy, “Love in Several Masques,” was produced in 1728, the year which saw the immense success of “The Beggar’s Opera”; Hogarth’s first narrative series, “A Harlot’s Progress,” was completed in 1731. For the next twenty years Hogarth was to keep in step with the literary mode. When, in 1742, Fielding discovered, with “Joseph Andrews,” a “new Province of Writing,” Hogarth might legitimately feel that he had discovered a new province of painting; and the same general qualities of burlesque and satire are common to both men. But there was this essential difference: Fielding was taking up a form of literature which had hitherto been crude and immature and giving it depth and extension and various graces of style and expression; Hogarth, on the other hand, was practising an art which had already developed a high degree of formal dignity and technical craftsmanship, and in these respects he was to add nothing. Indeed, he was to default in these very particulars, for however much we may esteem Hogarth, it cannot be on the basis of his design and execution. We admire Hogarth, if at all, for his matter rather than his manner; for the way in which he reflects the life of his time, for his human sympathies and for his scourging of vice and folly. And there is ample evidence that in his own day too he was admired for these reasons, and that even his contemporaries were not blind to his deficiencies as a painter.

The question we must ask in this present context is whether there is any connection as of cause and effect, between the direction which Hogarth gave to his painting and its technical deficiencies. Or to put the question in a different way, did Hogarth misuse the particular talents with which he was naturally endowed? That somewhat isolated miracle of his, “The Shrimp Girl,” shows with what vividness and inspired brushwork he could render the essential vitality of a subject; and at the other end of the scale, a deliberate essay in the Grand Manner like his “Sigismunda” shows how dull and uninspired he was when the exercise of the imagination was involved. Between these two extremes lies the main bulk of his work, always vigorous, lively, mordant, and full of interest. But the satire is apt to be too obvious, the symbolism quite commonplace, the moral without wit or subtlety. And one cannot avoid the conclusion that whether Hogarth supplied these qualities deliberately, or whether they were part of a coarse mental fibre, in any case they were the price of popularity.

To prove my underlying contention, that there is an inherent contradiction between art and vulgarism (or, to confine ourselves to aesthetic terms, between art and realism), it would be necessary to take the case of an approved artist who had followed the same moral aims as Hogarth and who had at the same time retained his artistic standards, with consequences marked by failure and unpopularity. The case of Daumier might serve. It is true that Daumier was not without his public during his lifetime, and as a caricaturist he might even be described as popular. But his popularity was never of the kind nor the extent of Hogarth’s; his lacerating satire did not spare any class, least of all the bourgeoisie with whom, a hundred years before, Hogarth had been so popular. Daumier worked too hard and too continuously not to have left behind him work which is in no sense “major”; but neither is it in any sense commonplace or vulgar. In every sketch, in every line, there is evidence of a sensitive and discriminating mind.

In Daumier’s case, as in Hogarth’s, moralism presented itself as a way out of the intolerable dilemma of the artist in a capitalist epoch. The ethical appeal is infinitely wider than the aesthetic appeal; it is an appeal to our more immediate interests. But the ethical appeal involves two factors which are inimical to art: a rational or intellectual judgment and a realistic mode of representation. The emotions which inspire a satirist like Hogarth may be spontaneous and genuine, but as emotions they have no necessary connection with the aesthetic faculties, which are primary. For much the same reason the deliberate act of observation and imitation implied by realism inhibits the essential methods of the artist, which are intuitive and sensational. The psychological explanation for this contradiction is not far to seek, but it must be left aside for the moment. What we should now observe is that many artists in the last two centuries have realized, perhaps unconsciously, this underlying inconsistency, and have reacted against realism to the degree which we call romanticism. The typical example is Delacroix. Delacroix realized, perhaps more: acutely than any of his contemporaries, that art must appeal to something beyond the immediate interests of mankind; and since that “beyond” could no longer be the beyond of a supernatural religion, it had to be the beyond of an imaginative conception: a world of fantasy. But again the mind or intellect intervenes; for however much the faculties of the artist may be in need of extra-sensational, extra-technical, and extra-material concepts to give them a more than hedonistic function, there is a vital difference between concepts which are sought and concepts which are found. That may seem too cryptic, but we shall never discover the secret of art, the very condition of its origin and life, unless we learn to distinguish between mental processes which are the deliberate act of a conscious will, and mental processes which normally take place below the level of consciousness and only occasionally, and precisely on the occasion which constitutes the artist’s inspiration, emerge to the surface of awareness and are given plastic expression.

That is the conclusion to which we are driven by an examination of the history of art. The artist is a unit of a necessary social organization and cannot arrive even at the threshold of his potentialities without the conditions which a culture provides. But having reached that threshold, he must be left to proceed alone, as an individual. For he can cross that threshold only within his own self. Across the threshold is the subliminal self; a self which is more than the conscious entity of the ego, limited as that is by all the restrictions and conventions of the compromise we call civilization; a self which is in fact another order of reality, profounder and more extensive than any known to our daily perceptions. It is just because the artist can cross that threshold into the subconscious world and bring back some knowledge of its meaning that he is supreme among his fellow men.

A. romantic artist like Delacroix is nearer than any other artist of the age of reason to a realization of this truth. Again and again he stumbles over that threshold. But it took another century to convert romanticism into superrealism. I use a dangerous word. Superrealism has become the label of a party whose members are sometimes as determined in their irrationality as any devotee of the goddess of reason. Superrealism in its wider sense should be used to denote that total reality which is the subject not only of our senses and the knowledge we have built up on the evidence of these senses and which we call science, but also of our instincts and intuitions, which is the knowledge embodied in art. And by art, of course, I mean not only the plastic arts which have been our main consideration in this essay, but with them the arts of poetry, music, and dance.


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