Yes! Why is this the chief characteristic of our art? What secret instincts are responsible for this inveterate distaste? But, first, is it true that we have it?
To stand still and look at a thing for the joy of looking, without reference to any material advantage, and personal benefit, either to ourselves or our neighbours, just simply to indulge our curiosity! Is that a British habit? I think not.
If, on some November afternoon, we walk into Kensington Gardens, where they join the Park on the Bayswater side, and, crossing in front of the ornamental fountain, glance at the semicircular seat let into a dismal little Temple of the Sun, we shall see a half-moon of apathetic figures. There, enjoying a moment of lugubrious idleness, may be sitting an old countrywoman with steady eyes in a lean, dusty-black dress and an old poke-bonnet; by her side, some gin-faced creature of the town, all blousy and draggled; a hollow-eyed foreigner, far gone in consumption; a bronzed young navvy, asleep, with his muddy boots jutting straight out; a bearded, dreary being, chin on chest; and more consumptives, and more vagabonds, and more people dead-tired, speechless, and staring before them from that crescent-shaped haven where there is no draught at their backs, and the sun occasionally shines. And as we look at them, according to the state of our temper, we think: Poor creatures, I wish I could do something for them! or: Revolting! They oughtn’t to allow it! But do we feel any pleasure in just watching them; any of that intimate sensation a cat entertains when its back is being rubbed; are we curiously enjoying the sight of these people, simply as manifestations of life, as objects fashioned by the ebb and flow of its tides? Again, I think, not. And why? Either, because we have instantly felt that we ought to do something; that here is a danger in our midst, which one day might affect our own security; and at all events, a sight revolting to us who came out to look at this remarkably fine fountain. Or, because we are too humane! Though very possibly that frequent murmuring of ours: Ah! It’s too sad! is but another way of putting the words: Stand aside, please, you’re too depressing! Or, again, is it that we avoid the sight of things as they are, avoid the unedifying, because of what may be called “the uncreative instinct,” that safeguard and concomitant of a civilisation which demands of us complete efficiency, practical and thorough employment of every second of our time and every inch of our space? We know, of course, that out of nothing nothing can be made, that to “create” anything a man must first receive impressions, and that to receive impressions requires an apparatus of nerves and feelers, exposed and quivering to every vibration round it, an apparatus so entirely opposed to our national spirit and traditions that the bare thought of it causes us to blush. A robust recognition of this, a steadfast resolve not to be forced out of the current of strenuous civilisation into the sleepy backwater of pure impression ism, makes us distrustful of attempts to foster in ourselves that receptivity and subsequent creativeness, the microbes of which exist in every man: To watch a thing simply because it is a thing, entirely without considering how it can affect us, and without even seeing at the moment how we are to get anything out of it, jars our consciences, jars that inner feeling which keeps secure and makes harmonious the whole concert of our lives, for we feel it to be a waste of time, dangerous to the community, contributing neither to our meat and drink, our clothes and comfort, nor to the stability and order of our lives.
Of these three possible reasons for our dislike of things as they are, the first two are perhaps contained within the third. But, to whatever our dislike is due, we have it–Oh! we have it! With the possible exception of Hogarth in his non-preaching pictures, and Constable in his sketches of the sky,–I speak of dead men only,–have we produced any painter of reality like Manet or Millet, any writer like Flaubert or Maupassant, like Turgenev, or Tchekov. We are, I think, too deeply civilised, so deeply civilised that we have come to look on Nature as indecent. The acts and emotions of life undraped with ethics seem to us anathema. It has long been, and still is, the fashion among the intellectuals of the Continent to regard us as barbarians in most aesthetic matters. Ah! If they only knew how infinitely barbarous they seem to us in their naive contempt of our barbarism, and in what we regard as their infantine concern with things as they are. How far have we not gone past all that–we of the oldest settled Western country, who have so veneered our lives that we no longer know of what wood they are made! Whom generations have so soaked with the preserve “good form” that we are impervious to the claims and clamour of that ill-bred creature–life! Who think it either dreadful, or ‘vieux jeu’, that such things as the crude emotions and the raw struggles of Fate should be even mentioned, much less presented in terms of art! For whom an artist is ’suspect’ if he is not, in his work, a sportsman and a gentleman? Who shake a solemn head over writers who will treat of sex; and, with the remark: “Worst of it is, there’s so much truth in those fellows!” close the book.