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THE SERVICE OF CRITICISM

THE greatest art is universal. It transcends the merely local conditions in which it is produced. It sweeps beyond the individual personality of its creator, and links itself with the common experience of all men. The Parthenon, so far as it can be reconstructed in imagination, appeals to a man of any race or any period, whatever his habit of mind or degree of culture, as a perfect utterance. The narrow vault of the Sistine Chapel opens into immensity, and every one who looks upon it is lifted out of himself into new worlds. Shakespeare’s plays were enjoyed by the apprentices in the pit and royalty in the boxes, and so all the way between. The man Shakespeare, of such and such birth and training, and of this or that experience in life, is entirely merged in his creations; he becomes the impersonal channel of expression of the profoundest, widest interpretation of life the world has known. Such art as this comes closest to the earth and extends farthest into infinity, “beyond the reaches of our souls.”

But there is another order of art, more immediately the product of local conditions, the personal expression of a distinctive individuality, phrased in a language of less scope and currency, and limited as to its content in the range of its appeal. These lesser works have their place; they can minister to us in some moment of need and at some point in our development. Because of their limitations, however, their effectiveness can be furthered by interpretation. A man more sensitive than we to the special kind of beauty which they embody and better versed in their language, can discover to us a significance and a charm in them to which we have not penetrated. To help us to the fullest enjoyment of the great things and to a more enlightened and juster appreciation of the lesser works is the service of criticism.

We do not wholly possess an experience until, having merged ourselves in it, we then react upon it and become conscious of its significance. A novel, a play, a picture interests us, and we surrender to the enjoyment of the moment. Afterwards we think about our pleasure, defining the nature of the experience and analyzing the means by which it was produced, the subject of the work and the artist’s method of treating it. It may be that we tell our pleasure to a friend, glad also perhaps to hear his opinion of the matter. The impulse is natural; the practice is helpful. And herein lies the origin of criticism. In so far as an appreciator does not rest in his immediate enjoyment of a work of art, but seeks to account for his pleasure, to trace the sources of it, to establish the reasons for it, and to define its quality, so far he becomes a critic. As every man who perceives beauty in nature and takes it up into his own life is potentially an artist, so every man is a critic in the measure that he reasons about his enjoyment. The critical processes, therefore, are an essential part of our total experience of art, and criticism may be an aid to appreciation.

The function of criticism has been variously understood through the centuries of its practice. Early modern criticism, harking back to the method of Aristotle, concerned itself with the form of a work of art. From the usage of classic writers it deduced certain “rules” of composition; these formulas were applied to the work under examination, and that was adjudged good or bad in the degree that it conformed or failed to conform to the established rules. It was a criticism of law-giving and of judgment. In the eighteenth century criticism extended its scope by the admission of a new consideration, passing beyond the mere form of the work and reckoning with its power to give pleasure. Addison, in his critique of “Paradise Lost,” still applies the formal tests of the Aristotelian canons, but he discovers further that a work of art exists not only for the sake of its form, but also for the expression of beautiful ideas. This power of “affecting the imagination” he declares is the “very life and highest perfection” of poetry. This is a long step in the right direction. With the nineteenth century, criticism conceives its aims and procedure in new and larger ways. A work of art is now seen to be an evolution; and criticism adapts to its own uses the principles of historical study and the methods of scientific investigation. Recognizing that art is organic, that an art-form, as religious painting or Gothic architecture or the novel, is born, develops, comes to maturity, lapses, and dies, that an individual work is the product of “race, environment, and the moment,” that it is the expression also of the personality of the artist himself, criticism no longer regards the single work as an isolated phenomenon, but tries to see it in its relation to its total background.

Present-day criticism avails itself of this larger outlook upon art. But the ends to be reached are understood differently by different critics. With M. Brunetiere, to cite now a few representative names, criticism is authoritative and dogmatic: he looks at the work objectively, refusing to be the dupe of his pleasure, if he has any; and approaching the work in the spirit of dispassionate impersonal inquiry as an object of historical importance and scientific interest, he decrees that it is good or bad. Matthew Arnold considers literature a “criticism of life,” and he values a work with reference to the moral significance of its ideas. Ruskin’s criticism is didactic; he wishes to educate his public, and by force of his torrential eloquence he succeeds in persuading his disciples into acceptance of his teaching, though he may not always convince. Impressionistic criticism, as with M. Anatole France or M. Jules Lemaitre, does not even try to see the work “as in itself it really is,” but is an account of the critic’s own subjective reaction on it, a narrative of what he thought and felt in this chance corner of experience. With Walter Pater criticism becomes appreciation. A given work of art produces a distinctive impression and communicates a special and unique pleasure; this active power constitutes its beauty. So the function of the critic as Pater conceives it is “to distinguish, analyze, and separate from its adjuncts, the virtue by which a picture, a landscape, a fair personality in life or in a book, produces this special impression of beauty or pleasure, to indicate what the source of that impression is, and under what conditions it is experienced.” The interpretative critic represented in the practice of Pater stands between a work of art and the appreciator as mediator and revealer.

Each kind of criticism performs a certain office, and is of use within its own chosen sphere. To the layman, for his purposes of appreciation, that order of criticism will be most helpful which responds most closely and amply to his peculiar needs. A work of art may be regarded under several aspects, its quality of technical execution, its power of sensuous appeal, its historical importance; and to each one of these aspects some kind of criticism applies. The layman’s reception of art includes all these considerations, but subordinates them to the total experience. His concern, therefore, is to define the service of criticism to appreciation.

The analysis of a work of art resolves it into these elements. There is first of all the emotion which gives birth to the work and which the work is designed to express. The emotion, to become definite, gathers about an idea, conceived in the terms of its own medium, as form, or color and mass, or musical relations; and this artistic idea presents itself as the subject or motive of the work. The emotion and artistic idea, in order that they may be expressed and become communicable, embody themselves in material, as the marble of a statue, the pigment of a picture, the audible tones of a musical composition. This material form has the power to satisfy the mind and delight the senses. Through the channel of the senses and the mind the work reaches the feelings; and the aesthetic experience is complete.

As art springs out of emotion, so it is to be received as emotion; and a work to be appreciated in its true spirit must be enjoyed. But to be completely enjoyed it must be understood. We must know what the artist was trying to express, and we must be able to read his language; then we are prepared to take delight in the form and to respond to the emotion.

To help us to understand a work of art in all the components that entered into the making of it is the function of historical study. Such study enables us to see the work from the artist’s own point of view. A knowledge of its background, the conditions in which the artist wrought and his own attitude toward life, is the clue to his ideal; and by an understanding of the language it was possible for him to employ, we can measure the degree of expressiveness he was able to achieve. This study of the artist’s purpose and of his methods is an exercise in explanation.

The interpretation of art, for which we look to criticism, deals with the picture, the statue, the book, specifically in its relation to the appreciator. What is the special nature of the experience which the work communicates to us in terms of feeling? In so far as the medium itself is a source of pleasure, by what qualities of form has the work realized the conditions of beauty proper to it, delighting thus the senses and satisfying the mind? These are the questions which the critic, interpreting the work through the medium of his own temperament, seeks to answer.

Theoretically, the best critic of art would be the artist himself. He above all other men should understand the subtle play of emotion and thought in which a work of art is conceived; and the artist rather than another should trace the intricacies and know the cunning of the magician processes by which the immaterial idea builds itself into visible actuality. In practice, however, the theory is not borne out by the fact. The artist as such is very little conscious of the workings of his spirit. He is creative rather than reflective, synthetic and not analytic. From his contact with nature and from his experience of life, out of which rises his generative emotion, he moves directly to the fashioning of expressive forms, without pausing on the way to scan too closely the “meaning” of his work. Mr. Bernard Shaw remarks that Ibsen, giving the rein to the creative impulse of his poetic nature, produced in “Brand” and “Peer Gynt” a “great puzzle for his intellect.” Wagner, he says, “has expressly described how the intellectual activity which he brought to the analysis of his music dramas was in abeyance during their creation. Just so do we find Ibsen, after composing his two great dramatic poems, entering on a struggle to become intellectually conscious of what he had done.” Moreover, the artist is in the very nature of things committed to one way of seeing. His view of life is limited by the trend of his own dominant and creative personality; what he gains in intensity and penetration of insight he loses in breadth. He is less quick to see beauty in another guise than that which his own imagination weaves for him; he is less receptive of other ways of envisaging the world.

The ideal critic, on the contrary, is above everything else catholic and tolerant. It is his task to discover beauty in whatever form and to affirm it. By nature he is more sensitive than the ordinary man, by training he has directed the exercise of his powers toward their fullest scope, and by experience of art in its diverse manifestations he has certified his judgment and deepened his capacity to enjoy. The qualifications of an authentic critic are both temperament and scholarship. Mere temperament uncorrected by knowledge may vibrate exquisitely when swept by the touch of a thing of beauty, but its music may be in a quite different key from the original motive. Criticism must relate itself to the objective fact; it should interpret and not transpose. Mere scholarship without temperament misses art at its centre, that art is the expression and communication of emotional experience; and the scholar in criticism may wander his leaden way down the by-paths of a sterile learning. To mediate between the artist and the appreciator, the critic must understand the artist and he must feel with the appreciator. He is at once the artist translated into simpler terms and the appreciator raised to a higher power of perception and response.

The service of criticism to the layman is to furnish him a clue to the meaning of the work in hand, and by the critic’s own response to its beauty to reveal its potency and charm. With technique as such the critic is not concerned. Technique is the business of the artist; only those who themselves practice an art are qualified to judge in matters of practice. The form is significant to the appreciator only so far as regards its expressiveness and beauty. It is not the function of the critic to tell the artist what his work should be; it is the critic’s mission to reveal to the appreciator what the work is. That revelation will be accomplished in terms of the critic’s own experience of the beauty of the work, an experience imaged forth in such phrases that the pleasure the work communicates is conveyed to his readers in its true quality and foil intensity. It is not enough to dogmatize as Ruskin dogmatizes, to bully the reader into a terrified acceptance. It is not enough to determine absolute values as Matthew Arnold seeks to do, to fix certain canons of intellectual judgment, and by the application of a formula as a touchstone, to decide that this work is excellent and that another is less good. Really serviceable criticism is that which notes the special and distinguishing quality of beauty in any work and helps the reader to live out that beauty in his own experience.

These generalizations may be made more immediate and practical by examples. In illustration of the didactic manner in criticism I may cite a typical paragraph of Ruskin, chosen from his “Mornings in Florence.”

First, look at the two sepulchral slabs by which you are standing. That farther of the two from the west end is one of the most beautiful pieces of fourteenth-century sculpture in this world. . . . And now, here is a simple but most useful test of your capacity for understanding Florentine sculpture or painting. If you can see that the lines of that cap are both right, and lovely; that the choice of the folds is exquisite in its ornamental relations of line; and that the softness and ease of them is complete, though only sketched with a few dark touches, then you can understand Giotto’s drawing, and Botticelli’s; Donatello’s carving, and Luca’s. But if you see nothing in this sculpture, you will see nothing in theirs, of theirs. Where they choose to imitate flesh, or silk, or to play any vulgar modern trick with marble (and they often do) whatever, in a word, is French, or American, or Cockney, in their work, you can see; but what is Florentine, and for ever great unless you can see also the beauty of this old man in his citizen’s cap, you will see never.

The earnest and docile though bewildered layman is intimidated into thinking that he sees it, whether he really does or not. But it is a question if the contemplation of the “beauty of this old man in his citizen’s cap,” however eager and serious the contemplation may be, adds much to his experience; it may be doubted whether as a result of his effort toward the understanding of the rightness and loveliness of the lines of the cap and the exquisiteness of the choice of folds, which the critic has pointed out to him with threatening finger, he feels that life is a fuller and finer thing to live.

An example of the intellectual estimate, the valuation by formulas, and the assignment of abstract rank, is this paragraph from Matthew Arnold’s essay on Wordsworth.

Wherever we meet with the successful balance, in Wordsworth, of profound truth of subject with profound truth of execution, he is unique. His best poems are those which most perfectly exhibit this balance. I have a warm admiration for “Laodameia” and for the great “Ode;” but if I am to tell the very truth, I find “Laodameia” not wholly free from something artificial, and the great “Ode” not wholly free from something declamatory. If I had to pick out poems of a kind most perfectly to show Wordsworth’s unique power, I should rather choose poems such as “Michael,” “The Fountain,” “The Highland Reaper.” And poems with the peculiar and unique beauty which distinguishes these, Wordsworth produced in considerable number; besides very many other poems of which the worth, although not so rare as the worth of these, is still exceedingly high.

Thus does the judicial critic mete out his estimate by scale and measuring-rod. We are told dogmatically what is good and what is less good; but of distinctive quality and energizing life-giving virtues, not a word. The critic does not succeed in communicating to us anything of Wordsworth’s special charm and power. We are informed, but we are left cold and unresponding.

The didactic critic imposes his standard upon the layman. The judicial critic measures and awards. The appreciative critic does not attempt to teach or to judge; he makes possible to his reader an appreciation of the work of art simply by recreating in his own terms the complex of his emotions in its presence. Instead of declaring the work to be beautiful or excellent, he makes it beautiful in the very telling of what it means to him. As the artist interprets life, disclosing its depths and harmonies, so the appreciative critic in his turn interprets art, reconstituting the beauty of it in his own terms. Through his interpretation, the layman is enabled to enter more fully into the true spirit of the work and to share its beauty in his own experience.

In contrast to the passage from Arnold is this paragraph from an essay on Wordsworth by Walter Pater.

And so he has much for those who value highly the concentrated presentment of passion, who appraise men and women by their susceptibility to it, and art and poetry as they afford the spectacle of it. Breaking from time to time into the pensive spectacle of their daily toil, their occupations near to nature, come those great elementary feelings, lifting and solemnizing their language and giving it a natural music. The great, distinguishing passion came to Michael by the sheepfold, to Ruth by the wayside, adding these humble children of the furrow to the true aristocracy of passionate souls. In this respect, Wordsworth’s work resembles most that of George Sand, in those of her novels which depict country life. With a penetrative pathos, which puts him in the same rank with the masters of the sentiment of pity in literature, with Meinhold and Victor Hugo, he collects all the traces of vivid excitement which were to be found in that pastoral world the girl who rung her father’s knell; the unborn infant feeling about its mother’s heart; the instinctive touches of children; the sorrows of the wild creatures, even their home-sickness, their strange yearnings; the tales of passionate regret that hang by a ruined farm-building, a heap of stones, a deserted sheepfold; that gay, false, adventurous, outer world, which breaks in from time to time to bewilder and deflower these quiet homes; not “passionate sorrow” only, for the overthrow of the soul’s beauty, but the loss of, or carelessness for personal beauty even, in those whom men have wronged their pathetic wanness; the sailor “who, in his heart, was half a shepherd on the stormy seas;” the wild woman teaching her child to pray for her betrayer; incidents like the making of the shepherd’s staff, or that of the young boy laying the first stone of the sheepfold; all the pathetic episodes of their humble existence, their longing, their wonder at fortune, their poor pathetic pleasures, like the pleasures of children, won so hardly in the struggle for bare existence; their yearning towards each other, in their darkened houses, or at their early toil. A sort of biblical depth and solemnity hangs over this strange, new, passionate, pastoral world, of which he first raised the image, and the reflection of which some of our best modern fiction has caught from him.

Here is the clue to Wordsworth’s meaning; and the special quality and power of his work, gathering amplitude and intensity as it plays across the critic’s temperament, is reconstituted in other and illuminating images which communicate the emotion to us. The critic has felt more intimately than we the appeal of this poetry, and he kindles in us something of his own enthusiasm. So we return to Wordsworth for ourselves, more alert to divine his message, more susceptible to his spell, that he may work in us the magic of evocation.

Criticism is of value to us as appreciators in so far as it serves to recreate in us the experience which the work was designed to convey. But criticism is not a short cut to enjoyment. We cannot take our pleasure at second hand. We must first come to the work freshly and realize our own impression of it; then afterwards we may turn to the critic for a further revelation. Criticism should not shape our opinion, but should stimulate appreciation, carrying us farther than we could go ourselves, but always in the same direction with our original impression. There is a kind of literary exercise, calling itself criticism, which takes a picture or a book as its point of departure and proceeds to create a work of art in its own right, attaching itself only in name to the work which it purports to criticise. “Who cares,” exclaims a clever maker of epigrams, “whether Mr. Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery-coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its elaborate symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best, in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those wonderful sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England’s Gallery.” A very good appreciation of Ruskin, this. But the answer is that such writing as is here attributed to Ruskin is magnificent: it may be art; but it is not true criticism. A work of art is not “impressive” merely, but “expressive” too. Criticism in its relation to the work itself has an objective base, and it must be steadied and authenticated by constant reference to the original feet. Criticism is not the source of our enjoyment but a medium of interpretation.

Before we turn to criticism, therefore, we must first, as Pater suggests, know our own impression as it really is, discriminate it, and realize it distinctly. Only so shall we escape becoming the dupe of some more aggressive personality. In our mental life suggestion plays an important and perhaps unrecognized part. In a certain frame of mind we can be persuaded into believing anything and into liking anything. When, under the influence of authority or fashion, we think we care for that which has no vital and consciously realized relation to our own experience, we are the victims of a kind of hypnotism, and there is little hope of our ultimate adjustment over against art. It is far better honestly to like an inferior work and know why we like it than to pretend to like a good one. In the latter case no real progress or development is possible, for we have no standards that can be regarded as final; we are swayed by the authority or influence which happens at that moment to be most powerful. In the former case we are at least started in the right direction. Year by year, according to the law of natural growth, we come to the end of the inferior work which up to that time has been able to minister to us, and we pass on to new and greater works that satisfy the demands of our deepening experience. It is sometimes asked if we ought not to try to like the best things in art. I should answer, the very greatest things we do not have to try to like; the accent of greatness is unmistakable, and greatness has a message for every one. As regards the lesser works, we ought to be willing to grow up. There was a time when I enjoyed “Robinson Crusoe” in words of one syllable. If I had tried then to like Mr. George Meredith, I should not really have enjoyed him, and I should have missed the fun of “Robinson Crusoe.” Everything in its time and place. The lesser works have their use: they may be a starting-point for our entrance into life; and they furnish a basis of comparison by which we are enabled to realize the greatness of the truly great. We must value everything in its own kind, affirming what it is, and not regretting what it is not. But the prerequisite of all appreciation, without which our contact with art is a pastime or a pretense, is that we be honest with ourselves. In playing solitaire at least we ought not to cheat.

So the layman must face the situation squarely and accept the responsibility of deciding finally for himself. On the way we may look to criticism to guide us to those works which are meant for us. In art as in the complex details of living, there is need of selection; and criticism helps toward that. In literature alone, to name but a single art, there is so much to be left unread which the length of our life would not otherwise permit us to escape, that we are grateful to the critic who aids us to omit gracefully and with success. But the most serviceable criticism is positive and not destructive. The lesser works may have a message for us, and it is that message in its distinctive quality which the critic should affirm. In the end, however, the use we make of criticism should not reduce itself to an unquestioning acceptance of authority. In the ceremonial of the Roman service, at the moment preceding the elevation of the Host, two acolytes enter the chancel, bearing candles, and kneel between the congregation and the ministrants at the altar; the tapers, suffusing the altar in their golden radiance, throw the dim figures of the priests into a greater gloom and mystery. So it happens that art often is enshrouded by the off-giving of those who would seem to illuminate it; and “dark with excess of light,” the obscurity is intensified. The layman is told of the virginal poetry of early Italian painting; he is bidden to sit at the homely, substantial feast of the frank actuality of Dutch art; he listens in puzzled wonder to the glorification of Velasquez and Goya; he reads in eloquent, glowing language of the splendor of Turner. He is more than half persuaded; but he does not quite understand. From this tangle of contending interests there seems for the moment to be no way out. It is assumed that the layman has no standard of his own; and he yields himself to the appeal which comes to him immediately at the instant. The next day, perhaps, brings a new interest or another judgment which runs counter to the old. Back and forth and back again, without purpose and without reason; it is only an endless recurrence of the conflict instead of development and progress. Taking all his estimates at second hand, so for his opinion even of a concert or a play he is at the mercy of a critic who may have dined badly. Some boy, caught young at the university and broken to miscellaneous tasks on a big newspaper, is sent to “do” a picture-exhibition, a concert, and the theatre in the same day. He is expected to “criticise” in an hour the work of a lifetime of struggle and effort and knowledge and thought and feeling. This is the guide of opinion and the foundation of artistic creed. I have stated the reduction to absurdity of the case for authority in criticism. If the layman who leans too heavily upon criticism comes to realize the hopelessness of his position and thinks the situation through to its necessary conclusion, he sees that the authority of criticism is not absolute, but varies with the powers and range of the individual critic, and that at the last he must find his standard within himself.

There are, of course, certain standards of excellence recognized universally and certain principles of taste of universal validity; and to these standards and these principles must be referred our individual estimates for comparison and correction. Given a native sensibility to the worth of life and to the appeal of beauty, the justice of our estimate will be in proportion to the extent of our knowledge of life and of our contact with art. Our individual judgment, therefore, must be controlled by experience, our momentary judgments by the sum of our own experience, and our total judgment by universal experience. In all sound criticism and right appreciation there must be a basis of disciplined taste. We must guard ourselves against whims and caprice, even our own. So the individual may not cut loose altogether from external standards. But these must be brought into relation to his personal needs and applied with reference to his own standard. Finally, for his own uses, the individual has the right to determine the meaning and value to him of any work of art in the measure that it links itself with his own actual or possible experience and becomes for him a revelation of fuller life. For beauty is the power possessed by objects to quicken us with a sense of larger personality; and art, whether the arts of form or of representation, is the material bodying forth of beauty as the artist has perceived it and the means by which his emotion in its presence is communicated. Upon this conception of beauty and this interpretation of the scope and function of art rests the justice of the personal estimate.