A LECTURE ON THE ART OF G. F. WATTS
After the publication of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies the writer who ventures to speak of art and literature in the same breath needs some courage. Since the death of Whistler, his opinions about the independence of art from the moral ideas with which literature is preoccupied have been generally accepted in the studios. The artist who is praised by a literary man would hardly be human if he was not pleased; but he listens with impatience to any criticism or suggestion about the substance of his art or the form it should take. I had a friend, an artist of genius, and when we were both young we argued together about art on equal terms. It had not then occurred to him that any intelligence I might have displayed in writing verse did not entitle me to an opinion about modeling; but one day I found him reading Mr. Whistler’s Ten O’clock. The revolt of art against literature had reached Ireland. After that, while we were still good friends, he made me feel that I was an outsider, and when I ventured to plead for a national character in sculpture, his righteous anger–I might say his ferocity–forced me to talk of something else.
I was not convinced he was right, but years after I began to use the brush a little, and I remember painting a twilight from love of some strange colors and harmonious lines, and when one of my literary friends found that its interest depended on color and form, and that the idea in it could not readily be translated into words, and that it left him wishing that I would illustrate my poems or something that had a meaning, I veered round at once and understood Whistler, and how foolish I was to argue with John Hughes. I joined in the general insurrection of art against the domination of literature. But being a writer and much concerned with abstract ideas, I have never had the comfort and happiness of those who embrace this opinion with their whole being, and when I was asked to lecture, I thought that as I had no Irish Whistler to fear, I might speak of art in relation to these universal ideas which artists hold are for literature and not subject matter for art at all.
I must first say it was not my wish to speak. With a world of noble and immortal forms all about us, it seemed to me as unfitting that words without art or long labor in their making should be advertised as an attraction; that any one should be expected to sit here for an hour to listen to me or another upon a genius which speaks for itself. I was overruled by Mr. Lane. But it is all wrong, this desire to hear and hold opinions about art rather than to be moved by the art itself. I know twenty charlatans who will talk about art, but never lift their eyes to look at the pictures on the wall. I remember an Irish poet speaking about art a whole evening in a room hung round with pictures by Constable, Monet, and others, and he came into that room and went out of it without looking at those pictures. His interest in art was in the holding of opinions about it, and in hearing other opinions, which he could again talk about. I hope I have made some of you feel uncomfortable. This may, perhaps, seem malicious, but it is necessary to release artists from the dogmas of critics who are not artists.
I would not venture to speak here tonight if I thought that anything I said could be laid hold of and be turned into a formula, and used afterwards to torment some unfortunate artist. An artist will take with readiness advice or criticism from a fellow-artist, so far as his natural vanity permits; but he writhes under opinions derived from Ruskin or Tolstoi, the great theorists. You may ask indignantly, Can no one, then, speak about paintings or statues except painters or modelers? No; no one would condemn you to such painful silence and self-suppression. Artists would wish you to talk unceasingly about the emotions their pain of making pictures arouse in you; but, under lifelong enemies, do not suggest to artists the theories under which they should paint. That is hitting below the belt. The poor artist is as God made him; and no one, not even a Tolstoi, is competent to undertake his re-creation. His fellow-artists will pass on to him the tradition of using the brush. He may use it well or ill; but when you ask him to use his art to illustrate literary ideas, or ethical ideas, you are asking him to become a literary man or a preacher. The other arts have their obvious limitations. The literary man does not dare to demand of the musician that he shall be scientific or moral. The latter is safe in uttering every kind of profanity in sound so long as it is music. Musicians have their art to themselves. But the artist is tormented, and asked to reflect the thought of his time. Beauty is primarily what he is concerned with; and the only moral ideas which he can impart in a satisfactory way are the moral ideas naturally associated with beauty in its higher or lower forms. But I think, some of you are confuting me in your own minds at this moment. You say to yourselves: “But we have all about us the works of great artists whose inspiration not one will deny. He used his art to express great ethical ideas. He spoke again and again about these ideas. He was proud that his art was dedicated to their expression.” I am sorry to say that he did say many things which would have endeared him to Tolstoi and Ruskin, and for which I respect him as a man, and which as an artist I deplore. I deplore his speaking of ethical ideas as the inspiration of his art, because I think they were only the inspiration of his life; and where he is weakest in his appeal as an artist is where he summons consciously to his aid ethical ideas which find their proper expression in religion or literature or life.