Essays on Art by A. Clutton-Brock


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Page 2

Yet it is a distinction that we remain constantly aware of. In spite of
Signor Croce and all the subtlety and partial truth of his theory, we do
not believe that we make beauty when we see it, or that the artist makes
it when he sees it. Nor do we believe that that beauty which he makes is
of the same nature as that which he has perceived in reality. Rather he,
like us, values the beauty which he perceives in reality because he
knows that he has not made it. It is something, independent of himself,
to which his own mind makes answer: that answer is his art; it is the
passionate value expressed in it which gives beauty to his art. If he
knew that the beauty he perceives was a product of his own mind, he
could not value it so; if he held Signor Croce's theory, he would cease
to be an artist.

And, in fact, those who act on his theory do cease to be artists.
Nothing kills art so certainly as the effort to produce a beauty of the
same kind as that which is perceived in nature. In the beauty of nature,
as we perceive it, there is a perfection of workmanship which is
perfection because there is no workmanship. Natural things are not made,
but born; works of art are made. There is the essential difference
between them and between their beauties. If a work of art tries to have
the finish of a thing born, not made, if a piece of enamel apes the
gloss of a butterfly's wing, it misses the peculiar beauty of art and is
but an inadequate imitation of the beauty of nature. That beauty of the
butterfly's wing, which the artist like all of us perceives, is of a
different kind from any beauty he can make; and if he is an artist he
knows it and does not try to make it. But all the arts, even those which
are not themselves imitative, are always being perverted by the attempt
to imitate the finish of nature. There is a vanity of craftsmanship in
Louis Quinze furniture, in the later Chinese porcelain, in modern
jewelry, no less than in Dutch painting, which is the death of art. All
great works of art show an effort, a roughness, an inadequacy of
craftsmanship, which is the essence of their beauty and distinguishes it
from the beauty of nature. As soon as men cease to understand this and
despise this effort and roughness and inadequacy, they demand from art
the beauty of nature and get something which is mostly dead nature, not
living art.

We can best understand the difference between the two kinds of beauty if
we consider how beauty steals into language, that art which we all
practise more or less and in which it is difficult, if not impossible,
to imitate the finish of natural beauty. There is no beauty whatever in
sentences like "Trespassers will be prosecuted" or "Pass the mustard,"
because they say exactly and completely all that they have to say. There
is beauty in sentences like "The bright day is done, And we are for the
dark," or "After life's fitful fever he sleeps well," because in them,
although they seem quite simple, the poet is trying to say a thousand
times more than he can say. It is the effort to do something beyond the
power of words that brings beauty into them. That is the very nature of
the beauty of art, which distinguishes it from the beauty of nature; it
is always produced by the effort to accomplish the impossible, and what
the artist knows to be impossible. Whenever that effort ceases, whenever
the artist sets himself a task that he can accomplish, a task of mere
skill, then he ceases to be an artist, because he no longer experiences
reality in the manner necessary to an artist. The great poet is aware of
some excellence in reality so intensely that it is to him beauty; for
all excellence when we are intensely aware of it is beauty to us. There
is that truth in Croce's theory. Our perception of beauty does depend
upon the intensity of our perception of excellence. But that intensity
of perception remains perception, and does not make what it perceives.
That the poet and every artist knows; and his art is not merely an
extension of the process of perception, but an attempt to express his
own value for that excellence which he has perceived as beauty. It is an
answer to that beauty, a worship of it, and is itself beautiful because
it makes no effort to compete with it.

Thus in the beauty of art there is always value and wonder, always a
reference to another beauty different in kind from itself; and we too,
if we are to see the beauty of art, must share the same value and
wonder. To enter that Kingdom of Heaven we must become little children
as the artist himself does. Art is the expression of a certain attitude
towards reality, an attitude of wonder and value, a recognition of
something greater than man; and where that recognition is not, art dies.
In a society valuing only itself, believing that it can make a heaven of
itself out of its own skill and knowledge and wisdom, the difference
between the beauty of nature and the beauty of art is no longer seen,
and art loses all its own beauty. The surest sign of corruption and
death in a society is where men and women see the best life as a life
without wonder or effort or failure, where labour is hidden underground
so that a few may seem to live in Paradise; where there is perfect
finish of all things, human beings no less than their clothes and
furniture and buildings and pictures; where the ideal is the lady so
perfectly turned out that any activity whatever would mar her
perfection. In such societies the artist becomes a slave. He too must
produce work that does not seem to be work. He must express no wonder
or value for patrons who would be ashamed to feel either. What he makes
must seem to be born and not made, so that it may fit a world which
pretends to be a born Paradise populated by cynical angels who own
allegiance to no god. In such a world art means, beauty means, the
concealment of effort, the pretence that it does not exist; and that
pretence is the end of art and beauty in all things made by man. There
is a close connexion between the idea of life expressed in Aristotle's
ideal man and the later Greek sculpture. The aim of that sculpture, as
of his ideal man, was proud and effortless perfection. Both dread the
confession of failure above all things--and both are dull. In
Aristotle's age art had started upon a long decline, which ended only
when the pretence of perfection was killed, both in art and in life, by
Christianity. Then the real beauty of art, the beauty of value and
wonder, superseded the wearisome imitation of natural beauty; and it is
only lately that we have learnt again to prefer the real beauty to the
false.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 15th Sep 2019, 16:42