Story type: Essay
We have not by any means got to the bottom of Realism. It matters very little what the novelists and critics say about it–what it is and what it is not; the attitude of society towards it is the important thing. Even if the critic could prove that nature and art are the same thing, and that the fiction which is Real is only a copy of nature, or if another should prove that Reality is only to be found in the Ideal, little would be gained. Literature is well enough in its place, art is an agreeable pastime, and it is right that society should take up either in seasons when lawn-tennis and polo are impracticable and afternoon teas become flavorless; but the question that society is or should be interested in is whether the young woman of the future–upon whose formation all our social hopes depend–is going to shape herself by a Realistic or an Ideal standard. It should be said in parenthesis that the young woman of the passing period has inclined towards Realism in manner and speech, if not in dress, affecting a sort of frank return to the easy-going ways of nature itself, even to the adoption of the language of the stock exchange, the race-course, and the clubs–an offering of herself on the altar of good-fellowship, with the view, no doubt, of making life more agreeable to the opposite sex, forgetting the fact that men fall in love always, or used to in the days when they could afford that luxury, with an ideal woman, or if not with an ideal woman, with one whom they idealize. And at this same time the world is full of doubts and questionings as to whether marriage is a failure. Have these questionings anything to do with the increasing Realism of women, and a consequent loss of ideals?
Of course the reader sees that the difficulty in considering this subject is whether woman is to be estimated as a work of nature or of art. And here comes in the everlasting question of what is the highest beauty, and what is most to be desired. The Greek artists, it seems to be well established, never used a model, as our artists almost invariably do, in their plastic and pictorial creations. The antique Greek statues, or their copies, which give us the highest conceptions of feminine charm and manly beauty, were made after no woman, or man born of woman, but were creations of the ideal raised to the highest conception by the passionate love and long study of nature, but never by faithful copying of it. The Romans copied the Greek art. The Greek in his best days created the ideal figure, which we love to accept as nature. Generation after generation the Greek learned to draw and learned to observe, until he was able to transmute his knowledge into the forms of grace and beauty which satisfy us as nature at her best; just as the novelist trains all his powers by the observation of life until he is able to transmute all the raw material into a creation of fiction which satisfies us. We may be sure that if the Greek artist had employed the service of models in his studio, his art would have been merely a passing phase in human history. But as it is, the world has ever since been in love with his ideal woman, and still believes in her possibility.
Now the young woman of today should not be deceived into the notion of a preferable Realistic development because the novelist of today gets her to sit to him as his model. This may be no certain indication that she is either good art or good nature. Indeed she may be quite drifting away from the ideal that a woman ought to aim at if we are to have a society that is not always tending into a realistic vulgarity and commonplace. It is perfectly true that a woman is her own excuse for being, and in a way she is doing enough for the world by simply being a woman. It is difficult to rouse her to any sense of her duty as a standard of aspiration. And it is difficult to explain exactly what it is that she is to do. If she asks if she is expected to be a model woman, the reply must be that the world does not much hanker after what–is called the “model woman.” It seems to be more a matter of tendency than anything else. Is she sagging towards Realism or rising towards Idealism? Is she content to be the woman that some of the novelists, and some of the painters also, say she is, or would she prefer to approach that ideal which all the world loves? It is a question of standards.
It is natural that in these days, when the approved gospel is that it is better to be dead than not to be Real, society should try to approach nature by the way of the materialistically ignoble, and even go such a pace of Realism as literature finds it difficult to keep up with; but it is doubtful if the young woman will get around to any desirable state of nature by this route. We may not be able to explain why servile imitation of nature degrades art and degrades woman, but both deteriorate without an ideal so high that there is no earthly model for it. Would you like to marry, perhaps, a Greek statue? says the justly contemptuous critic.
Not at all, at least not a Roman copy of one. But it would be better to marry a woman who would rather be like a Greek statue than like some of these figures, without even an idea for clothing, which are lying about on green banks in our spring exhibitions.