The Glass Walking Stick



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ON THE TRUE ARTIST


1926

IT has lately been noted that the artists who started with entirely new artistic methods have now themselves returned to more realistic methods, and what some would call more reasonable methods. According to the pioneer theory of progress, of which we have all heard so much, they ought by this time to have shot far out of sight, and be enjoying the society of our great-great-grandchildren. For it is supposed to be the duty of this singular sort of pioneer to lose sight entirely of the army which he leads.

Of course, the whole metaphor is a muddle; most of that modern theory of progress is a muddle of metaphors. A pioneer does not lead an army; he is merely a man who walks in front of it and is as much under the orders of the general command as the last man who walks behind it. But, accepting the vague imagery of those who talk of a pioneer when they mean a prophet, it is clear that the pioneer sometimes falls back on the main body of the advance. In other words, the prophet sometimes gets tired of the society of the babe unborn (who may be an uncommunicative companion) and seeks for companions even among contemporaries. I cannot pronounce upon the case of pictorial art, but in the parallel case of literature there is perhaps something to be said about the tests of such a return to society, and of whether and when it is a return to sanity.

The first truth involved is a truism, but a truism often as little understood as any mystery. It is that the artist is a person who communicates something. He may communicate it more or less easily and quickly; he may communicate it to a larger or smaller number of people. But it is a question of communication and not merely of what some people call expression. Or rather, strictly speaking, unless it is communication it is not expression. I know that for some time past it has been the custom to talk of the artist expressing something as if it only meant his getting rid of something. It may be natural that the artist should want to get rid of his art; especially when we consider what it is sometimes like. But it is not his business only to deliver himself; It is, I say very solemnly, his business to deliver the goods. This, as I say, is a truism, but it is one that is strangely forgotten in a great deal of the fashionable fuss about artistic self-expression. The artist does ultimately exhibit himself as being intelligent by being intelligible. I do not say by being easy to understand, but certainly by being understood.

Yet there is still a vast amount of talk about the isolated and incommunicable spirit of the man of genius; about how he has in him things too deep for expression and too subtle to be subject to general criticism. I say that that is exactly what is not true of the artist. That is exactly what is true of the ordinary man who is not an artist. That is exactly what is true of the man who is called a Philistine. He has subtleties in his soul which he cannot describe; he has secrets of emotion which he can never show to the public. He it is who dies with all his music in him. But it should obviously be the aim of the musician to die with all his music out of him; even if this ideal state of things can seldom be achieved.

The point is here; however, that it is not enough that the musician should get his music out of him. It is also his business to get his music into somebody else. We should all be reasonable enough to recognize that the somebody else will depend to some extent on the sort of music. But if all he can say is that he has a secret of sealed-up power and passion, that his imagination is visited by visions of which the world knows nothing, that he is conscious of a point of view which is wholly his own and is not expressed in anything common or comprehensible — then he is simply saying that he is not an artist, and there is an end of it.

The real truth to be recognized on the other side is this. The expression of a unique point of view, so that somebody else shall share it, is a very difficult and delicate matter. It will probably take the artist some time, and a number of experiments, to make his meaning clear. And it seems to me that the moment when he returns to a more normal style is, very often, simply the moment when he has managed to make it clear. The time when he is wild and revolutionary and unfathomable and ferociously original is the time when he is trying to do it. The time when he is called ordinary is the time when he has done it.

It is true that there is a sort of bad parody of this good process. There generally is of all good processes; diabolus simius Dei. It does sometimes happen that a man who had revolutionary ideals in his youth sells them for a merely snobbish conformity. But I do not think this is true of the modern artists whose return to a more normal manner has recently been remarked in this connexion. Theft work has still an individual character, even when it becomes intelligible as well as individual.

I am only pointing out that the moment when artists become intelligible is the moment when they become truly and triumphantly individual. It is the time when the individual first appears in the world with which art is concerned; the world of receptivity and appreciation. Every individual is an individual; and I am one of those who think that every individual is an interesting individual. But, anyhow, there are a very large number of individuals who would be interesting if they had the power of arousing our interest. But the moment of creation is the moment of communication. It is when the work has passed from mind to mind that it becomes a work of art.





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