While in every other profession the initiated only are judges, in painting all men except the blind think themselves qualified to give an opinion. - Archdeacon Fisher.
I have tried to define the correct attitude of the painter towards the public. What of the public's attitude towards art? I will also presume to advise on that. An almost universal lack in art appreciation, and aesthetics, forces the artist to bow to the common end confident statement, "I don't know anything about pictures, but I know what I like." I like to hear a sincere if unsophisticated expression of opinion on my own work, but to many unfortunate people the mere sight of an original painting excites a critical attitude of mind, and more often than not a tactless expression of dislike based upon a profound ignorance of art. "Such persons" wrote Constable, "stroll about the foot of Parnassus, only to pull down by legs those who are labouriously climbing its sides." It is not altogether a matter of egoism or conceit, because such pseudo-critics prefer to direct their remarks to the artist - Heaven forgive them - but one due rather to a common impression that such an attitude is the correct one, that all paintings should be figuratively mutilated, and that all artists are fair game, or really grateful perhaps for a few tips. Professional terminology, or what they regard as such, is not difficult to acquire. There are always catch-phrases. At the moment rhythm is being run to death. A few years ago the fad was to hunt for S's in painting, and their absence denoted a shocking state of affairs. I have been assured that a road in pictorial art must always turn to the left. It is all very nonsensical. Rhythm is as necessary in a picture as pigment; it is as much a part of painting as of music. It would have been interesting to have taken the searcher for S's to an exhibition of cubist art. I do not know where else he or she could possibly avoid finding them.
But the sublime impertinence, from an artist's standpoint, is the practice - may it never increase in popularity - of holding up one hand before a work of art for the purpose of elimination offending portions. Direct implication of incompetence! he may as well say outright, "You can't draw, you know. All the years you have been practising have been wasted. Why don't you take up something else?" the artist might as justly say to him, "I like your nose, but your abdomen is a trifle protuberant." Thus like might become a trifle more interesting, though the canons of good behaviour might be travestied.
I set out by describing these critical pests as unfortunate. These who can see something admirable in even a child's attempts to record some aspect of beauty, get more joy out of life. The worst daubs of a backward student, provided they are sincere, contain elements of sublimity, if only the mere evidence of effort, which is itself admirable. It would be a pleasure to let our pestilent critic loose where insincere art is concerned. So contrary, however, is human nature, that this is exactly what pleases him.
Let it not be assumed that the artist is so smug as to dislike true criticism. No sincere artist was ever completely satisfied with his labour. He is usually his own best critic, but continuous and prolonged work on one painting will sometimes dull his judgment. A mistake in drawing becomes difficult to detect when the eye is familiar with it. The critic is in demand, but he must be competent. Ernest Carlos, the famous painter of boy-scout pictures, told me that a child often made an excellent critic. We were studying a large painting of his in which St. Paul ans some Roman soldiers figured. The armour shone gaily, and it was around their brilliance that the discussion arose. A boy, as it happened, was the first to intimate that it was polished unduly. "What a bright helmet" he said. And that truly was a fine example of unsophisticated, constructive, pleasant, and polite criticism.
Universal appreciation of art, I suppose, cannot be inculcated by any forceful means, by any amount of propaganda, or plethoric pleading. It belongs to those countries and those ages which are not, or were not, ruled by materialism. Though travel was never so easy, literature on art never so profuse, and works of art never so widely distributed, a real passion for pictures in encountered but rarely. Sir George Beaumont used to carry favourite paintings with him on his journeys. Dr. Munro carried them in his coach. Nobody carries them now.
Two incredible incidents that came within my own experience, predicate the results of indifference, and may serve to relieve the gloom of this gloomy chapter.
In a western city a very fine painting by Rembrandt was exhibited with a good deal of pomp, and much circumstance. Thousands of people went to see it, who had never before seen a painting by that supreme master. It is safe to say that it was an occasion to remember for many of them. An attendant stood at the door of the room in which it was shown. One afternoon a dear old lady stood in front of him and held out her hand.
"Very god, Mr. Rembrandt" she said, "very good indeed. I do hope that you will be able to sell it."
S short time ago a capitalist from the backwoods entered a dealer's gallery in the same city, and asked to see the most expensive picture he had. A Turner water-colour was placed reverently on an easel in front of him and a price quoted of twelve thousand dollars, or thereabouts. he because inquisitive, and further information was offered regarding its authenticity. Among other things the fact that, on the occasion of its sale out of the collection of Lord So-and-so it fetched fourteen thousand dollars. Here the bucolic patron of art interjected suspiciously.
"Huh, second-hand, is it? I don't want a second-hand picture."
And he walked out.