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Essays on Art   By: (1868-1924)

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First Published in 1919


These essays, reprinted from the Times Literary Supplement with a few additions and corrections, are not all entirely or directly concerned with art; but even the last one Waste or Creation? does bear on the question, How are we to improve the art of our own time? After years of criticism I am more interested in this question than in any other that concerns the arts. Whistler said that we could not improve it; the best we could do for it was not to think about it. I have discussed that opinion, as also the contrary opinion of Tolstoy, and the truth that seems to me to lie between them. If these essays have any unity, it is given to them by my belief that art, like other human activities, is subject to the will of man. We cannot cause men of artistic genius to be born; but we can provide a public, namely, ourselves, for the artist, who will encourage him to be an artist, to do his best, not his worst. I believe that the quality of art in any age depends, not upon the presence or absence of individuals of genius, but upon the attitude of the public towards art.

Because of the decline of all the arts, especially the arts of use, which began at the end of the eighteenth century and has continued up to our own time, we are more interested in art than any people of the past, with the interest of a sick man in health. To say that this interest must be futile or mischievous is to deny the will of man in one of the chief of human activities; but it often is denied by those who do not understand how it can be applied to art. We cannot make artists directly; no government office can determine their training; still less can any critic tell them how they ought to practise their art. But we can all aim at a state of society in which they will be encouraged to do their best, and at a state of mind in which we ourselves shall learn to know good from bad and to prefer the good. At present we have neither the state of society nor the state of mind; and we can attain to both not by connoisseurship, not by an anxiety to like the right thing or at least to buy it, but by learning the difference between good and bad workmanship and design in objects of use. Anyone can do that, and can resolve to pay a fair price for good workmanship and design; and only so will the arts of use, and all the arts, revive again. For where the public has no sense of design in the arts of use, it will have none in the "fine arts." To aim at connoisseurship when you do not know a good table or chair from a bad one is to attempt flying before you can walk. So, I think, professors of art at Oxford or Cambridge should be chosen, not so much for their knowledge of Greek sculpture, as for their success in furnishing their own houses. What can they know about Greek sculpture if their own drawing rooms are hideous? I believe that the notorious fallibility of many experts is caused by the fact that they concern themselves with the fine arts before they have had any training in the arts of use. So, if we are to have a school of art at Oxford or Cambridge, it should put this question to every pupil: If you had to build and furnish a house of your own, how would you set about it? And it should train its pupils to give a rational answer to that question. So we might get a public knowing the difference between good and bad in objects of use, valuing the good, and ready to pay a fair price for it.

At present we have no such public. A liberal education should teach the difference between good and bad in things of use, including buildings. Oxford and Cambridge profess to give a liberal education; but you have only to look at their modern buildings to see that their teachers themselves do not know a good building from a bad one... Continue reading book >>

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