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The Woman Problem & other prose

The Arts are Acquired Tastes

page 159

The Arts are Acquired Tastes

My subject is criticism, the nature and purpose of criticism. We're all, in a sense, natural critics. We all form opinions about things, and people, and events—about pretty well everything that comes our way. I want you to brace yourselves for a bit of heavy going just for a start.

We can say that the tasks of criticism are these: first, to establish the nature of the thing we are dealing with, and, secondly, to assess its value. We ask ourselves first—what is this? Is it prose, or poetry—or neither? Is it music—or merely a collection of noises? Is this painting art—or just a mess on a bit of canvas? Having decided that there is such a thing as art, or music, or literature—and having agreed that the material we are dealing with comes under one of these headings, we can then go on to assess its value. Of course, the two processes often merge into each other. We could, perhaps, use the word 'quality', because that seems to imply both the nature of a thing and its value. But 'value' will serve our present purpose very well. It is this judgement of value that is the really important business of the critic. So let's look into it.

The first point I want to make is this: when you set out to estimate the value of anything, that implies that you have something with which to measure it. There are some things which are so simple that the untutored judgement of the individual is quite capable of assessing them. If you sit on a tack, you don't need to go to any books, or to check your judgement against that of authority, in order to form an opinion. Nor do you need much help in deciding whether your breakfast egg is fit to eat or not. Your standard of measurement, your criterion, is based on the direct evidence of your senses, and is your own private business. But when page 160we come to deal with such complex matters as literature and art, the position is rather different. These things are inseparable from the traditional life of society. They have grown out of the lives of generations of men. They have been developed and refined through long ages. Art is a very highly-organised form of experience; and each of the specialised forms of art has a tradition, without which it is almost meaningless—and this tradition is in turn related to the general tradition of society. The savage, hearing a Beethoven sonata for the first time, is quite unable to comprehend its meaning.

So, in making judgements about art and literature, every individual is thrown back upon the accumulated… and more than accumulated—the organised knowledge and experience of the past. He absorbs a good deal of traditional knowledge—not just facts, but ways of thinking and feeling— in process of being educated and growing up in society. But if he is to come to a proper understanding of literature and the arts, as they exist in civilised society, some specialised training is necessary. Only in that may he get the fullest enjoyment from them—the greatest pleasure, and the greatest enlargement of his experience.

Now, in this long and complex development of the arts, criticism has played a vital part. Every important artist or writer (except perhaps those we call the 'naive') needs to be in some sense of the word a critic. But art is not the private property of artists. It belongs to the living traditions of society as a whole. And it can't exist without its public. Conversely, I think it can be said that no society can live for long in a state of civilisation without a fairly widespread appreciation of the arts—that is to say, without well-organised aesthetic sensibility. And it's not possible to maintain a high degree of sensibility without the aid of systematic criticism. By systematic criticism I mean the building up, and the elaboration and refinement, of a tradition of taste and judgement. The purpose of criticism is to maintain traditional standards—and to guide their development; to increase and to sharpen our awareness, so that the experience of each individual may be enriched.

page 161

Systematic criticism is like the collection of implements we use to cultivate our plot of earth and turn it into a garden. There's one point I'd like to make in passing: we shouldn't be afraid of introducing a few new cuttings from time to time. And if we find a strange plant growing, we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that it's a weed. It may be something very good—or it may be a useful hybrid. Like every other garden, our garden must have bees in it.

Now, I want to make one thing quite clear. I said a moment ago that the standards of criticism we use in under-standing and enjoying the arts are social and traditional. But I don't want you to think that the individual doesn't matter. Humanly speaking, he's all that does matter, when you work it all out. It's quite obvious that the actual experience of enjoying a work of art is always, necessarily, something that happens to the individual. So we see that, underneath all the traditional standards that have been established—underneath all the assumptions we work on, ignorantly or wisely, when we form our opinions—lies the foundation-stone of all our experience of the arts, and that is, quite simply, the appetite of the individual. Not his taste— for that's something that needs to be developed—but his appetite, his simple love of rhythm, and colour, and design, and sound, and so on. You know the type of man who says, "Well, I don't know what's good, but I know what I like.' His attitude is sound, as far as it goes. The only trouble is that it doesn't go far enough. Very often this man doesn't want it to go any further—because of some perverse twist in his temperament. Or he may be merely complacent, he may suffer from the illusion that he's getting all there is to be had from painting, or music, or literature. If his natural appetite were to be educated and disciplined by knowledge, he could get a great deal more of enjoyment, of a sort he has never dreamt is possible.

Among the experts of criticism—the academic people— you'll find a sprinkling of the opposite type of person, the man who has read and studied intensively, and knows all the answers—but who's never really experienced the good and the bad for himself, because he has little or no natural page 162appetite, no palate to be educated. When I run across one of those fellows I always hark back to that comment Edgar Allan Poe made about a certain literary critic. He said this man 'knows no more of literature than a poulterer does of a phoenix'. And then there's that (I think, quite memorable) poem by W. B. Yeats, which he called 'The Scholars'.

Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in Love's despair
To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.
They'll cough in the ink to the world's end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way?

Of course, academic critics—of the good sort—are vastly important in the scheme of things we're discussing. The only ones we have any right to abuse are the dull and stupid ones—the ones who have become victims of the academic vice. And what is the academic vice, you may ask? Well, I think it's simply the tendency to make criticism an end in itself; to dispense altogether with living artists and writers, and to let critical standards become petrified.

You see, the enormous importance of tradition in the arts— the importance of organising our experience, and maintaining continuity—naturally created a tendency for some critics to go the whole hog, and try to lay down permanent and dogmatic laws and opinions on all points. It's very convenient, of course. It settles all the difficult problems. But it must be kept in mind always that art in some sense runs parallel to life. Like life, it is organic, developing—always a little chaotic, always changing—yet in certain quite essential respects remaining always the same. There's a mystery here, but there's no need for us to try to solve it. What we can say with certainty is that there are standards in every art, without page 163which the pictures or the poetry or the music would be practically meaningless, and that these standards do change and develop, while still maintaining the continuity of human experience.

There's another thing that must be said. Art has its own laws, but it can't be dissociated completely from life. Therefore its standards can't be dissociated completely from those of politics, theology, and philosophy. A critic may use some particular philosophy as his general frame of reference and still be a good and useful critic—so long as he never obscures what he is doing. He may be a Marxist critic, or a Catholic critic—and in either case he may help to shed a great deal of light on the matters he's discussing. The artist, I think, is in a rather different position. An artist who is dominated completely by some political or theological dogma is usually a man in chains. (Of course, he may burst his chains—as perhaps Milton may be said to have done—and be all the greater artist for the experience.) On the other side of the question there is this to be said, that the artist who is completely indifferent to the judgements of politics, theology and philosophy will soon be lost in a wilderness of trivialities.

And now, in conclusion, I want to make a point which I think is extremely important. It's really a reiteration of what I was saying earlier. It's just this, that although most of us have the rudiments of taste—a natural liking for colour, rhythm, and so on, which must form the bedrock of our critical enjoyment of the arts—although this is so, it is also true that the fully developed arts of poetry, painting, music, sculpture, and so on as we know them are acquired tastes. The lack of any general experience of this fact leads to a good many misunderstandings. For instance, there's been a great deal of controversy lately about an exhibition of paintings in London—an exhibition of the recent work of Pablo Picasso. Now there's clearly a great deal to be said on behalf of Picasso. He's probably among the first half-dozen draughtsmen of all the ages. There is also a case to be made out against some of his later work—a case that makes sense, I mean—not just silly-season scolding. But it would be a case against European civilisation, and not just against Picasso. The page 164point I want to make, however, is this: that ninety-nine out of every one hundred people who abuse Picasso haven't the remotest idea what he's all about. They may think they know. They may take it for granted that the sole purpose of painting pictures is to create optical illusions—to represent objects in two dimensions instead of three, making them as life-like as possible. That's certainly one of the things a painter can do. But there are at least three or four other things he can set out to do—things that are vastly more interesting, if you understand them, things that sometimes have only a very slight connection with the life-like depictions of objects.

Most of Picasso's bitterest critics obviously have no suspicion that those other (essentially traditional) modes of painting and of aesthetic appreciation even exist. You can tell, from the things they say. And why haven't they any knowledge of the existence of these things, still less any sort of taste for them? Well, in most cases it's simply this—for one reason or other, they're never bothered, or never had the opportunity, to submit themselves to such work, and to acquire a taste. (It may be, of course, that they lack any native capacity for enjoyment of this sort, but that's more unlikely.)

The man who imagines he has some sort of divine right to appreciate a picture fully at first sight, or a bit of music at first hearing, without any training at all, is extremely arrogant and presumptuous—whether he is aware of the fact or not. It can safely be said that most of the hostile criticism one hears of artists, such as Picasso and Epstein, comes from people who really haven't the vaguest notion of what the artists are trying to do or say. It's just as if they were cursing their tobacconist because his tobacco didn't make good firewood. (Well, you buy the stuff in order to bum it, don't you?)

I'll repeat what I said, so you'll be quite clear about my meaning: the arts, as we know them under civilised conditions, are an acquired taste. And the only way in which to acquire a taste in any of the arts (I'm assuming that the student has some natural appetite to begin with, and that it page 165hasn't been tampered with too disastrously by vulgarians) the only way, apart from practising an art, is for the student to spend a considerable time looking at good paintings, of all kinds, or listening to good music—and also, to sharpen his judgement and his powers of appreciation by reading good criticism, and becoming something of a critic on his own account.

The case for criticism is simply the case for order, as against chaos; and for knowledge, as against ignorance. And that's a good, sound case, anywhere, at any time.