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The What And The How In Art
by [?]

One of the things always enforcing itself upon the consciousness of the artist in any sort is the fact that those whom artists work for rarely care for their work artistically. They care for it morally, personally, partially. I suspect that criticism itself has rather a muddled preference for the what over the how, and that it is always haunted by a philistine question of the material when it should, aesthetically speaking, be concerned solely with the form.


The other night at the theatre I was witness of a curious and amusing illustration of my point. They were playing a most soul-filling melodrama, of the sort which gives you assurance from the very first that there will be no trouble in the end, but everything will come out just as it should, no matter what obstacles oppose themselves in the course of the action. An over-ruling Providence, long accustomed to the exigencies of the stage, could not fail to intervene at the critical moment in behalf of innocence and virtue, and the spectator never had the least occasion for anxiety. Not unnaturally there was a black-hearted villain in the piece; so very black-hearted that he seemed not to have a single good impulse from first to last. Yet he was, in the keeping of the stage Providence, as harmless as a blank cartridge, in spite of his deadly aims. He accomplished no more mischief, in fact, than if all his intents had been of the best; except for the satisfaction afforded by the edifying spectacle of his defeat and shame, he need not have been in the play at all; and one might almost have felt sorry for him, he was so continually baffled. But this was not enough for the audience, or for that part of it which filled the gallery to the roof. Perhaps he was such an uncommonly black-hearted villain, so very, very cold-blooded in his wickedness that the justice unsparingly dealt out to him by the dramatist could not suffice. At any rate, the gallery took such a vivid interest in his punishment that it had out the actor who impersonated the wretch between all the acts, and hissed him throughout his deliberate passage across the stage before the curtain. The hisses were not at all for the actor, but altogether for the character. The performance was fairly good, quite as good as the performance of any virtuous part in the piece, and easily up to the level of other villanous performances (I never find much nature in them, perhaps because there is not much nature in villany itself; that is, villany pure and simple); but the mere conception of the wickedness this bad man had attempted was too much for an audience of the average popular goodness. It was only after he had taken poison, and fallen dead before their eyes, that the spectators forbore to visit him with a lively proof of their abhorrence; apparently they did not care to “give him a realizing sense that there was a punishment after death,” as the man in Lincoln’s story did with the dead dog.


The whole affair was very amusing at first, but it has since put me upon thinking (I like to be put upon thinking; the eighteenth-century essayists were) that the attitude of the audience towards this deplorable reprobate is really the attitude of most readers of books, lookers at pictures and statues, listeners to music, and so on through the whole list of the arts. It is absolutely different from the artist’s attitude, from the connoisseur’s attitude; it is quite irreconcilable with their attitude, and yet I wonder if in the end it is not what the artist works for. Art is not produced for artists, or even for connoisseurs; it is produced for the general, who can never view it otherwise than morally, personally, partially, from their associations and preconceptions.