What Is ‘Art’? by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

In former years, we inquiring youngsters in foreign studios were much bewildered by the repetition of a certain phrase. Discussion of almost any picture or statue was (after other forms of criticism had been exhausted) pretty sure to conclude with, “It’s all very well in its way, but it’s not Art.” Not only foolish youths but the “masters” themselves constantly advanced this opinion to crush a rival or belittle a friend. To ardent minds seeking for the light and catching at every thread that might serve as a guide out of perplexity, this vague assertion was confusing. According to one master, the eighteenth-century “school” did not exist. What had been produced at that time was pleasing enough to the eye, but “was not Art!” In the opinion of another, Italian music might amuse or cheer the ignorant, but could not be recognized by serious musicians.

As most of us were living far from home and friends for the purpose of acquiring the rudiments of art, this continual sweeping away of our foundations was discouraging. What was the use, we sometimes asked ourselves, of toiling, if our work was to be cast contemptuously aside by the next “school” as a pleasing trifle, not for a moment to be taken seriously? How was one to find out the truth? Who was to decide when doctors disagreed? Where was the rock on which an earnest student might lay his cornerstone without the misgiving that the next wave in public opinion would sap its base and cast him and his ideals out again at sea?

The eighteenth-century artists and the Italian composers had been sincere and convinced that they were producing works of art. In our own day the idol of one moment becomes the jest of the next. Was there, then, no fixed law?

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The short period, for instance, between 1875 and the present time has been long enough for the talent of one painter (Bastien-Lepage) to be discovered, discussed, lauded, acclaimed, then gradually forgotten and decried. During the years when we were studying in Paris, that young painter’s works were pronounced by the critics and their following to be the last development of Art. Museums and amateurs vied with each other in acquiring his canvases. Yet, only this spring, while dining with two or three art critics in the French capital, I heard Lepage’s name mentioned and his works recalled with the smile that is accorded to those who have hoodwinked the public and passed off spurious material as the real thing.

If any one doubts the fleeting nature of a reputation, let him go to a sale of modern pictures and note the prices brought by the favorites of twenty years ago. The paintings of that arch-priest, Meissonier, no longer command the sums that eager collectors paid for them a score of years back. When a great European critic dares assert, as one has recently, of the master’s “1815,” that “everything in the picture appears metallic, except the cannon and the men’s helmets,” the mighty are indeed fallen! It is much the same thing with the old masters. There have been fashions in them as in other forms of art. Fifty years ago Rembrandt’s work brought but small prices, and until Henri Rochefort (during his exile) began to write up the English school, Romneys, Lawrences, and Gainsboroughs had little market value.

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The result is that most of us are as far away from the solution of that vexed question “What is Art?” at forty as we were when boys. The majority have arranged a compromise with their consciences. We have found out what we like (in itself no mean achievement), and beyond such personal preference, are shy of asserting (as we were fond of doing formerly) that such and such works are “Art,” and such others, while pleasing and popular, lack the requisite qualities.

To enquiring minds, sure that an answer to this question exists, but uncertain where to look for it, the fact that one of the thinkers of the century has, in a recent “Evangel,” given to the world a definition of “Art,” the result of many years’ meditation, will be received with joy. “Art,” says Tolstoi, “is simply a condition of life. It is any form of expression that a human being employs to communicate an emotion he has experienced to a fellow-mortal.”

An author who, in telling his hopes and sorrows, amuses or saddens a reader, has in just so much produced a work of art. A lover who, by the sincerity of his accent, communicates the flame that is consuming him to the object of his adoration; the shopkeeper who inspires a purchaser with his own admiration for an object on sale; the baby that makes its joy known to a parent-artists! artists! Brown, Jones, or Robinson, the moment he has consciously produced on a neighbor’s ear or eye the sensation that a sound or a combination of colors has effected on his own organs, is an artist!

Of course much of this has been recognized through all time. The formula in which Tolstoi has presented his meditations to the world is, however, so fresh that it comes like a revelation, with the additional merit of being understood, with little or no mental effort, by either the casual reader, who, with half-attention attracted by a headline, says to himself, “‘What is art?’ That looks interesting!” and skims lightly down the lines, or the thinker who, after perusing Tolstoi’s lucid words, lays down the volume with a sigh, and murmurs in his humiliation, “Why have I been all these years seeking in the clouds for what was lying ready at my hand?”

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The wide-reaching definition of the Russian writer has the effect of a vigorous blow from a pickaxe at the foundations of a shaky and too elaborate edifice. The wordy superstructure of aphorisms and paradox falls to the ground, disclosing fair “Truth,” so long a captive within the temple erected in her honor. As, however, the newly freed goddess smiles on the ignorant and the pedants alike, the result is that with one accord the æsthetes raise a howl! “And the ‘beautiful,’” they say, “the beautiful? Can there be any ‘Art’ without the ‘Beautiful’? What! the little greengrocer at the corner is an artist because, forsooth, he has arranged some lettuce and tomatoes into a tempting pile! Anathema! Art is a secret known only to the initiated few; the vulgar can neither understand nor appreciate it! We are the elect! Our mission is to explain what Art is and point out her beauty to a coarse and heedless world. Only those with a sense of the ‘beautiful’ should be allowed to enter into her sacred presence.”

Here the expounders of “Art” plunge into a sea of words, offering a dozen definitions each more obscure than its predecessor, all of which have served in turn as watchwords of different “schools.” Tolstoi’s sweeping truth is too far-reaching to please these gentry. Like the priests of past religions, they would have preferred to keep such knowledge as they had to themselves and expound it, little at a time, to the ignorant. The great Russian has kicked away their altar and routed the false gods, whose acolytes will never forgive him.

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Those of my readers who have been intimate with painters, actors, or musicians, will recall with amusement how lightly the performances of an associate are condemned by the brotherhood as falling short of the high standard which according to these wiseacres, “Art” exacts, and how sure each speaker is of understanding just where a brother carries his “mote.”

Voltaire once avoided giving a definition of the beautiful by saying, “Ask a toad what his ideas of beauty are. He will indicate the particular female toad he happens to admire and praise her goggle-eyes and yellow belly as the perfection of beauty!” A negro from Guiana will make much the same unsatisfactory answer, so the old philosopher recommends us not to be didactic on subjects where judgments are relative, and at the same time without appeal.

Tolstoi denies that an idea as subtle as a definition of Art can be classified by pedants, and proceeds to formulate the following delightful axiom: “A principle upon which no two people can agree does not exist.” A truth is proved by its evidence to all. Discussion outside of that is simply beating the air. Each succeeding “school” has sounded its death-knell by asserting that certain combinations alone produced beauty-the weakness of to-day being an inclination to see art only in the obscure and the recondite. As a result we drift each hour further from the truth. Modern intellectuality has formed itself into a scornful aristocracy whose members, esteeming themselves the élite, withdraw from the vulgar public, and live in a world of their own, looking (like the Lady of Shalott) into a mirror at distorted images of nature and declaring that what they see is art!

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In literature that which is difficult to understand is much admired by the simple-minded, who also decry pictures that tell their own story! A certain class of minds enjoy being mystified, and in consequence writers, painters, and musicians have appeared who are willing to juggle for their amusement. The simple definition given to us by the Russian writer comes like a breath of wholesome air to those suffocating in an atmosphere of perfumes and artificial heat. Art is our common inheritance, not the property of a favored few. The wide world we love is full of it, and each of us in his humble way is an artist when with a full heart he communicates his delight and his joy to another. Tolstoi has given us back our birthright, so long withheld, and crowned with his aged hands the true artist.

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