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An essay by Israel Zangwill

The Artistic Temperament

Title:     The Artistic Temperament
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

There are two aspects of the artistic temperament--the active or creative side, and the passive or receptive side. It is impossible to possess the power of creation without possessing also the power of appreciation; but it is quite possible to be very susceptible to artistic influences while dowered with little or no faculty of origination. On the one hand is the artist--poet, musician, or painter; on the other, the artistic person to whom the artist appeals. Between the two, in some arts, stands the artistic interpreter--the actor who embodies the aery conceptions of the poet, the violinist or pianist who makes audible the inspirations of the musician. But in so far as this artistic interpreter rises to greatness in his field, in so far he will be found soaring above the middle ground, away from the artistic person, and into the realm of the artist or creator. Joachim and De Reszke, Paderewski and Irving, put something of themselves into their work; apart from the fact that they could all do (in some cases have done) creative work on their own account. So that when the interpreter is worth considering at all, he may be considered in the creative category. Limiting ourselves, then, to these two main varieties of the artistic temperament, the active and the passive, I should say that the latter is an unmixed blessing, and the former a mixed curse.

What, indeed, can be more delightful than to possess good aesthetic faculties--to be able to enjoy books, music, pictures, plays! This artistic sensibility is the one undoubted advantage of man over other animals, the extra octave in the gamut of life. Most enviable of mankind is the appreciative person, without a scrap of originality? who has every temptation to enjoy, and none to create. He is the idle heir to treasures greater than India's mines can yield; the bee that sucks at every flower, and is not even asked to make honey. For him poets sing, and painters paint, and composers write. "_O fortunates nimium_," who not seldom yearn for the fatal gift of genius! For _this_ artistic temperament is a curse--a curse that lights on the noblest and best of mankind! From the day of Prometheus to the days of his English laureate it has been a curse

To vary from the kindly race of men,

and the eagles have not ceased to peck at the liver of men's benefactors. All great and high art is purchased by suffering--it is not the mechanical product of dexterous craftsmanship. This is one part of the meaning of that mysterious "Master Builder" of Ibsen's. "Then I saw plainly why God had taken my little children from me. It was that I should have nothing else to attach myself to. No such thing as love and happiness, you understand. I was to be only a master builder--nothing else." And the tense strings that give the highest and sweetest notes are most in danger of being overstrung.

But there are compensations. The creative artist is higher in the scale of existence than the man, as the man is higher than the beatified oyster for whose condition, as Aristotle pointed out, few would be tempted to barter the misery of human existence. The animal has consciousness, man self-consciousness, and the artist over-consciousness. Over-consciousness may be a curse, but, like the primitive curse--labour--there are many who would welcome it!

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Israel Zangwill's essay: Artistic Temperament