I picked up a biography of James Whistler recently, apparently an irascible artist, vituperatively maligned, so much so that he wrote the book on The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. The artist (unfortunately) famous for his painting of his mother is lesser known for his extraordinary nocturnes (his Nocturne in Blue and Gold, Southhampton Water is a must-see, currently on display at The Arts Institute of Chicago). Thumbing through the biography, I discovered a lecture Whistler gave on art (translated by his close friend, the poet Stephane Mallarme), an excerpt worth a quick read:
In the beginning, man went forth each day – some to do battle – some to the chase – others again to dig and to delve in the field – all that they might gain, and live – or lose and die. – until there was found among them, one, differing from the rest – whose pursuits attracted him not – and so he staid by the tents, with the women, and traced strange devices, with a burnt stick, upon a gourd. –
This man, who took no joy in the ways of his brethren, who cared not for conquest, and fretted in the field – this designer of quaint patterns – this deviser of the beautiful, who perceived in nature about him, curious curvings, – as faces are seen in the fire – This dreamer apart – was the first artist. –
And when, from the field and from afar, there came back the people, they took the gourd and drank from out of it.
And presently there came to this man another – and, in time others – of like nature – chosen by the Gods – and so they worked together – and soon they fashioned, from the moistened earth, forms resembling the gourd – and, with the power of creation, the heirloom of the artist, presently they went beyond the slovenly suggestion of Nature – and the first vase was born, in beautiful proportion –
And the toilers tilled, and were athirst, – and the heroes returned from fresh victories, to rejoice and to feast – and all drank alike from the Artists goblets, fashioned cunningly – taking no note the while of the craftsman’s pride and understanding not his glory in his work – drinking, at the cup, not from choice, not from a consciousness that it was beautiful – but because, forsooth, there was none other! –
And time, with more state, brought more capacity for luxury, and it became well that men should dwell in large houses and rest upon couches, and eat at tables – whereupon the artist, with his artificers, built palaces, and filled them with furniture, beautiful in proportion, and lovely to look upon –
And the people lived in marvels of Art – and eat and drank out of Masterpieces – for there was nothing else to eat and to drink out of – and no bad building to live in – no article of daily life – of luxury, or of necessity that had not been handed down from the design of the Master, and made by his workmen –
And the people questioned not – and had nothing to say in the matter –
So Greece was in its splendour – and Art reigned supreme – by force of fact – not by election – and there was no muddling from the outsider – The mighty warrior would no more have ventured to offer a design for the temple of Pallas Athene, than would the ‘sacred’ poet have proffered a plan for constructing the catapult –
And the Amateur was unknown – and the Dilettante undreamed of –
And history wrote on – and conquest accompanied civilisation – and Art spread – or rather its products were carried by the victors among the vanquished from one country to another – And the customs of cultivation covered the face of the earth – so that all peoples continued to use what the artist alone produced –
And centuries passed in this using, and the world was flooded with all that was beautiful – until there arose a new class who discovered the cheap –
and foresaw fortune in the facture of the sham –
Then sprang into existence, the tawdry – the common – the gewgaw –
The taste of the tradesman, supplanted the science of the artist – and what was born of the million, went back to them – and charmed them – for it was after their own heart – and the great and the small, the statesman and the slave, took to themselves the abomination that was tendered, and preferred it, and have lived with it ever since –
And the Artists occupation was gone – and the manufacurer and the huckster took his place –
And now the heroes filled from the jugs, and drank from the bowls, with understanding – noting the glare of their new bravery, and taking pride in its worth.
And the people, this time, had much to say in the matter – and all were satisfied – and Birmingham and Manchester arose in their might, and Art was relegated to the curiosity shop.