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An essay by A. Clutton-Brock

The Artist And His Audience

Title:     The Artist And His Audience
Author: A. Clutton-Brock [More Titles by Clutton-Brock]

According to Whistler art is not a social activity at all; according to Tolstoy it is nothing else. But art is clearly a social activity and something more; yet no one has yet reconciled the truth in Whistler's doctrine with the truth in Tolstoy's. Each leaves out an essential part of the truth, and they remain opposed in their mixture of error and truth. The main point of Whistler's "Ten o'clock" is that art is not a social activity. "Listen," he cries, "there never was an artistic period. There never was an art-loving nation. In the beginning man went forth each day--some to battle, some to the chase; others again to dig and to delve in the field--all that they might gain and live or lose and die. Until there was found among them one, differing from the rest, whose pursuits attracted him not, and so he stayed by the tents with the women, and traced strange devices with a burnt stick upon a gourd. This man, who took no joy in the ways of his brethren, who cared not for conquest and fretted in the field, this designer of quaint patterns, this deviser of the beautiful, who perceived in Nature about him curious curvings, as faces are seen in the fire--this dreamer apart was the first artist."

Then, he says, the hunters and the workers drank from the artists' goblets, "taking no note the while of the craftsman's pride, and understanding not his glory in his work; drinking at the cup not from choice, not from a consciousness that it was beautiful, but because, forsooth, there was none other!" Luxury grew, and the great ages of art came. "Greece was in its splendour, and art reigned supreme--by force of fact, not by election. And the people questioned not, and had nothing to say in the matter." In fact art flourished because mankind did not notice it. But "there arose a new class, who discovered the cheap, and foresaw fortune in the manufacture of the sham." Then, according to Whistler, a strange thing happened. "The heroes filled from the jugs and drank from the bowls--with understanding.... And the people--this time--had much to say in the matter, and all were satisfied. And Birmingham and Manchester arose in their might, and art was relegated to the curiosity shop."

Whistler does not explain why, if no one was aware of the existence of art except the artist, those who were not artists began to imitate it. If no one prized art, why should sham art have come into existence? According to him it was the sham that made men aware of the true; yet the sham could not exist until men were aware of the true. But the account he gives of the decadence of art is historically untrue as well as unintelligible. We know little of the primitive artist; but we have no proof that he was utterly different from other men, or that they did not enjoy his activities. If they had not enjoyed them they would probably have killed him. The primitive artist survived, no doubt, because he was an artist in his leisure; and all we know of more primitive art goes to prove that it was, and is, practised not by a special class but by the ordinary primitive man in his leisure. Peasant art is produced by peasants, not by lonely artists. Some, of course, have more gift for it than others, but all enjoy it, though they do not call it art. Whistler saw himself in every primitive artist; and seeing himself as a dreamer apart misunderstood by the common herd, he saw the primitive artist as one living in a primitive White House, and producing primitive nocturnes for his own amusement, unnoticed, happily, by primitive critics.

But his view, though refuted both by history and by common sense, is still held by many artists and amateurs. They themselves make much of art, but do not see that their theory makes little of it, makes it a mere caprice of the human mind, like the collecting of postage stamps. If art has any value or importance for mankind, it is because it is a social activity. If no one but an artist can enjoy art, it seems to follow that no art can be completely enjoyed except by him who has produced it; for in relation to that art he alone is an artist. All other artists, even, are the public; and, according to Whistler, the public has nothing to do with art; it flourishes best when they are not aware of its existence. He is very contemptuous of taste. All judgment of art must be based on expert knowledge, for art, he says, "is based upon laws as rigid and defined as those of the known sciences." Yet whereas "no polished member of society is at all affected by admitting himself neither engineer, mathematician, nor astronomer, and therefore remains willingly discreet and taciturn upon these subjects, still he would be highly offended were he supposed to have no voice in what clearly to him is a matter of taste." So to Whistler art has no more to do with the life of the ordinary man than astronomy or mathematics. His mention of engineering is an unfortunate slip, for, although we are not engineers we all knew, when the Tay Bridge broke down and threw hundreds of passengers into the water, that it was not a good bridge. We are all concerned with engineering in spite of our ignorance of it, because we make use of its works. Whistler assumes that we make no use of works of art except as objects of use; and since pictures, poems, music are not objects of use, we can have no concern with them whatever--which is absurd.

But here comes Tolstoy, who tells us that all works of art are merely objects of use and are to be judged therefore by the extent of their use. A work of art that few can enjoy fails as much as a railway that few can travel by. "Art," Tolstoy says, "is a human activity, consisting in this--that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them." So it is the essence of a work of art that it shall infect others with the feelings of the artist. Now certainly a work of art is a work of art to us only if it does so infect us, but Tolstoy is not content with that. The individual is not to judge the work of art by its infection of himself. He is to consider also the extent of its infection. "For a work to be esteemed good and to be approved of and diffused it will have to satisfy the demands, not of a few people living in identical and often unnatural conditions, but it will have to satisfy the demands of all those great masses of people who are situated in the natural conditions of laborious life."

The two views are utterly irreconcilable. According to Whistler the public are not to judge art at all because they have no concern with it, and it flourishes most when they do not pretend to have any concern with it. According to Tolstoy the individual is to judge it, not by the effect it produces on him, but by the effect it produces on others, "on all those great masses of people who are situated in the natural conditions of laborious life."

Now, if we find ourselves intimidated by one or other of these views, if we seem forced to accept one of them against our will, it is a relief and liberation from the tyranny of Whistler's or Tolstoy's logic to ask ourselves simply what does actually happen to us in our own experience and enjoyment of a work of art. The fact that we are able to enjoy and experience a work of art does liberate us at once from the tyranny of Whistler; for clearly, if we can experience and enjoy a work of art, we are concerned with it. It is vain for Whistler to tell us that we ought not to be, or that we do injury to art by our concern. The fact of our enjoyment and experience makes art for us a social activity; we know that our enjoyment of it is good; we know also that the artist likes us to enjoy it; and we do not believe that either the primitive artist or the primitive man was different from us in this respect. There is now, and always has been, some kind of social relation between the artist and the public; the only question is how far that relation is the essence of art.

Tolstoy tells us that it is the essence of art, because the proper aim of art is to do good. This is implied in his doctrine that art can be good only if it is intelligible to most men. "The assertion that art may be good art and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number of people, is extremely unjust; and its consequences are ruinous to art itself." The word unjust implies the moral factor. I am not to enjoy a work of art if I know that others cannot enjoy it, because it is not fair that I should have a pleasure not shared by them. If I know that others cannot share it, I am to take no account of my own experience, but to condemn the work, however good it may seem to me. From this logic also I can liberate myself by concerning myself simply with my own experience. Again, if I experience and enjoy a work of art, I know that my experience of it is good; and, in my judgment of the work of art, I do not need to ask myself how many others enjoy it. I may wish them to enjoy it and try to make them do so, but that effort of mine is not æsthetic but moral. It does not affect my judgment of the work of art, but is a result of that judgment. And, as a matter of fact, if I am to experience a work of art at all, I cannot be asking myself how many others enjoy it. Judgments of art are not formed in that way and cannot be; they are, and must be, always formed out of our own experience of art. If art is to be art to us, we cannot think of it in terms of something else. There would be no public for art at all if we all agreed to judge it in terms of each other's enjoyment or understanding. Each individual of "the great masses of people who are situated in the natural conditions of laborious life" would also have to ask himself whether the rest of the masses were enjoying and understanding, before he could judge; indeed, he would not feel a right to enjoy until he knew that the rest were enjoying. That is to say, no individual would ever enjoy art at all. The fact is that art is produced by the individual artist and experienced by the individual man. Tolstoy says that it is experienced by mankind in the mass, and not as individuals; Whistler that it is not experienced at all, either by the mass or by the individual. Each is a heretic with some truth in his heresy; what is the true doctrine?

It is clear that every artist desires an audience, not merely so that he may win pudding and praise from them, nor so that he may do them good; none of these aims will make him an artist; he can accomplish all of them without attempting to produce a work of art. It is also clear that his artistic success is not his success in winning an audience. Those "great masses of people who are situated in the natural conditions of laborious life" are a figment of Tolstoy's mind. No conditions are natural in the sense in which he uses the word; nor do any existing conditions make one man a better judge of art than another. There is no multitude of simple, normal, unspoilt men able and willing to enjoy any real art that is presented to them. The right experience of art comes with effort, like right thought and right action; and no Russian peasant has it because he works in the fields. Nor, on the other hand, are there any artists who are mere "sports" occupied with a queer game of their own self-expression which no one else can enjoy. There is a necessary relation between the work of art and its audience, even if no actual audience for it exists; and the fact that this relation must be, even when there is no audience in existence, is the paradox and problem of art. A work of art claims an audience, entreats it, is indeed made for it; but must have it on its own terms. Men are artists because they are men, because they have a faculty, at its height, which is shared by all men. In that Croce is right; and his doctrine that all men are artists in some degree, and that the very experience of art is itself an æsthetic activity, contains a truth of great value. But his æsthetic ignores, or seems to ignore, the fact that art is not merely, as he calls it, expression, but is also a means of address; in fact, that we do not express ourselves except when we address ourselves to others, even though we speak to no particular, or even existing, audience. Yet this fact is obvious; for all art gets its very form from the fact that it is a method of address. A story is a story because it is told, and told to some one not the teller. A picture is a picture because it is painted to be seen. It has all its artistic qualities because it is addressed to the eye. And music is music, and has the form which makes it music, because it is addressed to the ear. Without this intention of address there could be no form in art and no distinction between art and day-dreaming. Day-dreaming is not expression, is not art, because it is addressed to no one but is a purposeless activity of the mind. It becomes art only when there is the purpose of address in it. That purpose will give it form and turn it from day-dreaming into art. Even in an object of use which is also a work of art, the art is the effort of the maker to emphasize, that is, to point out, the beauty of that which he has made. It is this emphasis that turns building into architecture; and it implies that the building is made not merely for the builder's or for anyone else's use, but that its aim also is to address an audience, to speak to the eye as a picture speaks to it. Art is made for men as surely as boots are made for them.

But not as Tolstoy thinks, for any particular class of men or even for the whole mass of existing mankind. The artist will not and cannot judge his work by its effects on any actual men, any more than we can or will judge it by its effects on anyone except ourselves. As we, in our experience of it, must be completely individual; so must he in his production of it. He is not a public servant, but a man speaking for himself, and with no thought of effects, to anyone who will hear. His audience consists only of those who will hear, of those individuals who can understand his individual expression which is also communication. In his art he seeks the individual who will hear. He has something to say; but he can say it only to others, not to himself; it is what it is because he says it to others. Yet he says it also for its own sake and not for theirs. The particular likes and dislikes, stupidities, limitations, demands, of individual men or classes are nothing to him. The condition of his art is this alone, that he does address it to an audience. So the relation between the artist and his audience is the most important fact of his art, even if he has no actual audience. It is his attitude towards the audience that makes him do his best or his worst, makes him a good artist or a bad one, that sets him free to express all he has to say or hampers him with inhibitions. His business is not to find an audience, but to find the right attitude towards one, the attitude which is that of the artist and not of the tradesman, or peacock, or philanthropist. And it is plain that in his effort to find this right attitude he may be helped or hindered much by his actual fellow-men. The artist is also a man and subject to all the temptations of men. Whistler, when he said that art happens, ignored this fact, ignored the whole social relation of mankind and the whole history of the arts; while Tolstoy ignored no less the mind of the artist, and the minds of all those who do actually experience art. To Whistler the artist is a Chimæra bombinans in vacuo; to Tolstoy he is a philanthropist. For Whistler the public has no function whatever in relation to art; for Tolstoy the artist himself has no function whatever except a moral one. In fact he denies the existence of the artist, as Whistler denies the existence of the public. Whistler's truth is that the public must not tell the artist what he is to do; Tolstoy's, that a public with a right relation to the artist will help the artist to have a right relation to the public.

Artists are not "sports," but men; and men engaged in one of the most difficult of human activities. They are subject to æsthetic temptation and sin, as all men are subject to temptation and sin of all kinds. Their public may tempt them to think more of themselves than of what they have to express, either by perverse admiration or by ignorant contempt. An actual audience may be an obstruction between them and the ideal audience to which every artist should address himself. Every artist must desire that his ideal audience should exist, and may mistake an actual audience for it. In the ideal relation between an artist and his audience, it is the universal in him that speaks to the universal in them, and yet this universal finds an intensely personal expression. Art, which is personal expression, tells, not of what the artist wants, but of what he values. But if his ego is provoked by the ego in a particular audience, then he begins to tell of what he wants or of what they want. The audience may demand of him that he shall please them by indulging their particular vanities, appetites, sentimental desires, that he shall present life to them as they wish it to be; and if he yields to that demand it is because of the demands of his own particular ego. There is a transaction between him and that audience, in its essence commercial. His art is the particular supplying some kind of goods to the particular, not the universal pouring itself out to the universal.

The function of the audience is not to demand but to receive. It should not allow its own expectations to hinder its receptiveness; to that extent Whistler is right. Art happens as the beauty of the universe happens; and it is the business of the audience to experience it, not to dictate how it shall happen. It has been said: It is not we who judge works of art; they judge us. The artist speaks and we listen; but still he speaks to us and by listening wisely we help him to speak his best, for man is a social being; and all life, in so far as it is what it wishes to be, is a fellowship. Never is it so completely a fellowship as in the relation between an artist and his audience. There Tolstoy is right, but the fellowship has to be achieved by both the artist and the audience. There is no body of simple peasants, any more than there are rich or cultured people, to whom he must address himself or whose demands he must satisfy. Art that tries to satisfy any particular demand is of use neither to the flesh nor to the spirit. It is neither meat nor music. But where all is well with it, the spirit in the artist speaks to the spirit in his audience. There is a common quality in both, with which he speaks and they listen; and where this common quality is found art thrives.

[The end]
A. Clutton-Brock's essay: Artist And His Audience