Essays on Art by A. Clutton-Brock


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Page 3

Men must free themselves from the contempt of effort and the desire to
conceal it, they must be content with the perpetual, passionate failure
of art, before they can see its beauty or demand that beauty from the
artist. When they themselves become like little children, then they see
that the greatest artists, in all their seeming triumphs, are like
little children too. For in Michelangelo and Beethoven it is not the
arrogant, the accomplished, the magnificent, that moves us. They are
great men to us; but they achieved beauty because in their effort to
achieve it they were little children to themselves. They impose awe on
us, but it is their own awe that they impose. It is not their
achievement that makes beauty, but their effort, always confessing its
own failure; and in that confession is the beauty of art. That is why it
moves and frees us; for it frees us from our pretence that we are what
we would be, it carries us out of our own egotism into the wonder and
value of the artist himself.

Consider the beauty of a tune. Music itself is the best means which man
has found for confessing that he cannot say what he would say; and it is
more purely and rapturously beauty than any other form of art. A tune is
the very silencing of speech, and in the greatest tunes there is always
the hush of wonder: they seem to tell us to be silent and listen, not to
what the musician has to say, but to what he cannot say. The very
beauty of a tune is in its reference to something beyond all expression,
and in its perfection it speaks of a perfection not its own. Pater said
that all art tries to attain to the condition of music. That is true in
a sense different from what he meant. Art is always most completely art
when it makes music's confession of the ineffable; then it comes nearest
to the beauty of music. But when it is no longer a forlorn hope, when it
is able to say what it wishes to say with calm assurance, then it has
ceased to be art and become a game of skill.

Often the great artist is imperious, impatient, full of certainties; but
his certainty is not of himself; and he is impatient of the failure to
recognize, not himself, but what he recognizes. Michelangelo, Beethoven,
Tintoret, would snap a critic's head off if he did not see what they
were trying to do. They may seem sometimes to be arrogant in the mere
display of power, yet their beauty lies in the sudden change from
arrogance to humility. The arrogance itself bows down and worships; the
very muscle and material force obey a spirit not their own. They are
lion-tamers, and they themselves are the lions; out of the strong comes
forth sweetness, and it is all the sweeter for the strength that is
poured into it and subdued by it. What is the difference, as of
different worlds, between Rubens at his best and Tintoret at his best?
This: that Rubens always seems to be uplifted by his own power, whereas
Tintoret has most power when he forgets it in wonder. When he bows down
all his turbulence in worship, then he is most strong. Rubens, in the
"Descent from the Cross," is still the supreme drawing-master; and
painters flocking to him for lessons pay homage to him. But, in his
"Crucifixion," it is Tintoret himself who pays homage, and we forget the
master in the theme. We may say of Rubens's art, in a new sense, "C'est
magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." The greatest art is not
magnificent, but it is war, desperate and without trappings, a war in
which victory comes through the confession of defeat.

Man, if he tries to be a god in his art, makes a fool of himself. He
becomes like God, he makes beauty like God, when he is too much aware of
God to be aware of himself. Then only does he not set himself too easy a
task, for then he does not make his theme so that he may accomplish it;
it is forced upon him by his awareness of God, by his wonder and value
for an excellence not his own. So in all the beauty of art there is a
humility not only of conception, but also of execution, which is mere
failure and ugliness to those who expect to find in art the beauty and
finish of nature, who expect it to be born, not made. They are always
disappointed by the greatest works of art, by their inadequacy and
strain and labour. They look for a proof of what man can do and find a
confession of what he cannot do; but that confession, made sincerely and
passionately, is beauty. There is also a serenity in the beauty of art,
but it is the serenity of self-surrender, not of self-satisfaction, of
the saint, not of the lady of fashion. And all the accomplishment of
great art, its infinite superiority in mere skill over the work of the
merely skilful, comes from the incessant effort of the artist to do more
than he can. By that he is trained; by that his work is distinguished
from the mere exclamation of wonder. He is not content to applaud; he
must also worship, and make his offerings in his worship; and they are
the best he can do. It was not only the shepherds who came to the birth
of Christ; the wise men came also and brought their treasures with them.
And the art of mankind is the offering of its wise men, it is the
adoration of the Magi, who are one with the simplest in their worship--

Wise men, all ways of knowledge past,
To the Shepherd's wonder come at last.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 28th Feb 2020, 13:35