Wednesday, July 20, 2005

art for the layman . . .

On one of my many rummagings through thrift stores and suchlike, I came upon an old dilapidated tome called simply The Arts. There's a certain intrinsic weight, a gravity, that an old thick volume like this has. Published in New York in 1937, its pages have changed color, taking on the inevitable grey-yellow tint of time. It even smells like an old forgotten artifact! The author was a Dutch gentleman who was born in 1885. On the page before an elegant frontispiece, more or less as a kind of explanatory note or a declaration of intent, he writes:

This book was written and illustrated by
Hendrik Willem Van Loon
to give the general reader
(who perhaps had always considered
this a rather remote subject)
a better understanding and a greater appreciation
of everything that has been done within the
realm of painting and architecture and
music and sculpture and the theater
and most of the so-called minor
arts from the beginning of
time until the moment we
come so close to them that
we begin to lose our perspective.

I just love the florid language he employs throughout this didactic treatise on the history of the arts. His archaic phrasings are vestiges, I'm sure,of some long-gone-by victorian elsewhere. I also love that it's a book that comes with instructions on how to use it! (charming).

633 pages later . . . he attaches to this ambitious opus a closing essay which I think nicely touches on the significance which we bestow upon the phenomenon of art and its influence on our lives. It moved me enough to decide to transcribe it so that I may share it with others online.

an afterthought

On How to Use this Book

I did not write this book to give you a lot of facts, for the facts I mention have all of them been known for quite a long time and they are to be found in any volume devoted to architecture or painting or music. I merely gathered them together because I thought that would be the best way to give the reader a feeling for the "universality" that underlies all of the arts. Neither did I write these pages to air a few of my own esthetic theories and hobbies. Some of these have, of course, crept in, but try and keep them out in a discussion of anything as completely personal as a philosophical contemplation of the arts!

Then why did I take the trouble to write this vast tract and why did I want you to read it?

Merely to invite you to join us and by "us" I mean all those who feel that we can occasionally do without dinner or breakfast, but that life without a few extra dishes of music or painting is hardly worthwhile.

Now that sort of statement (like all more or less rhetorical utterances) is apt to be most beautifully distorted and misunderstood. For it comes very close to that terrible old slogan of "art for art's sake," which has ruined more careers than I care to think of. The last thing I want to do, is to take you away from a comfortable and decent mode of making a living and then turn you loose upon a cold and indifferent world, to spend the rest of your days as disgruntled and indifferent pseudo artists, spending miserable days and nights in an uncomfortable old attic, subsisting on stale spaghetti and contemplating the glorious revolution that will at last bring you recognition. The revolution may come, but it will hardly bring you the recognition you so eagerly desire. On the contrary, it is more likely to put a pickax in your hands and to tell you to make yourself useful digging sewers for the benefit of your less fortunate neighbors. Of course, should you really have been touched by the divine fire and should the good Lord in His wisdom have chosen you among His anointed few, then the urge to create will be so strong that nothing between Heaven and Hell can stop you. In that case, the cold attic and the stale spaghetti are of no consequence. You will take them in your stride, for you are kept warm by the fire that is burning inside your heart and a crust of bread, devoured before your easel, will taste better than all the delicacies of old Raymond Orteig's most excellent cuisine. That, however, is a matter you will have to decide for yourself and I carefully refrain from all advice.

But there is a sort of compromise and since all of life is bound to end in a compromise, I want to draw your attention to the way in which you can bring yourself much closer to the delightful garden of the Muses (and it is indeed a most delectable garden) than you had ever thought possible before this matter was brought to your attention.

There must be something you like to do and can do. You may like to draw or to sing or to play the piano or go in for dramatics. Is there any reason why you shouldn't do so if it adds to the fun of being alive? I don't know of any.

Provided that you realize your own limitations. We live, unfortunately, in a country of competition and publicity. I have known perfectly good, average tennis or golf players who could have derived great pleasure from playing a reasonably good game, but they were unhappy all their livelong days because they could not play their games as well as Bill Tilden or Walter Hagen. I don't know Hagen but I do know Tilden and he would be the last person in the world to encourage you in such a belief. He would tell you to go out and get the exercise and do as well as you could and not worry when you have to accept the brutal fact that that rather unpleasant Jones girl next door can beat you every time you give her a chance. He might even suggest that you would learn more from getting beaten, playing against a really good player, than by being victorious against a weaker competitor and coming home with a perfect score.

Now the arts and sport have a great deal in common. I shall never forget one evening in my own home when Ty Cobb and Knute Rockne got engaged in a discussion on some obscure point in the noble craft of base sliding and the two of them, in their eagerness to prove that they were right, went through a sort of slow-motion demonstration of their respective schools of sliding and the show they put on was as good as the best Russian ballet I have ever seen. And I am sure that I never quite understood the real beauty of greek sculpture until I saw the Babe knock out a home run in the last inning of a very important game. George may not be particularly interested in the Elgin Marbles (he may even think that they are something he used to play with as a boy) but he came as close to being a living reincarnation of some of the best work of classical Greece as anything that was ever brought to my attention. Perhaps the diving boys in the harbor of Honolulu were his nearest competitors for such high honors. I am not quite sure but then it really does not matter, for the point I want to make is this: you need not be as good as the best professional in any of the arts to be still a very decent artist in your own right, just as you need not be an automobile racer to get a lot of fun out of the old flivver. But you can and will lead an infinitely happier and fuller existence if you adopt one of the arts as your stepchild and you will be surprised how far you can get by devoting a few of your leisure moments to the practice of whatever art you have chosen, whether it be photography or cooking or painting or etching or making stage models.

Of course, keep this fact firmly in mind -- in the arts (just as in nature) there are no short-cuts. Success is not a matter of inspiration but a matter of patience and more patience and then still more patience. Without inspiration, you may never be able to scale the greatest heights, but all the inspiration in this entire inspired universe will not do you any good without a vast amount of very hard work and slow painstaking and conscientious work, at that.

So much for the general theory and now for a few practical hints. In the first place, do not think it necessary to specialize. All the arts (as you must have learned from this book) have but one single purpose, to contribute to the art of living and therefore they are closely related to each other and support each other and help each other out, like the members of a well-balanced family. You will be a much better draftsman for knowing something about the structure of a symphony. At the age of fifty-five I still patiently play my part in an orchestra. It takes a lot of time but it is the most practical way for me to learn a great deal about the structure of some music with which I am not yet familiar, and that again helps me in understanding how I should draw my pictures.

For years I have had my etching press, just a small one but good enough for my own simple needs. I don't expect to become a professional etcher. I shall never sell any of the products of my press. But my own struggles with copperplates and with acids and with different ink mixtures make it possible for me to realize infinitely better than I could ever hope to do in any other way just what the most successful etchers of the past have tried to accomplish.

The same holds true for a personal and intimate study of the works of the great masters of the past. I do not mean in a merely imitative manner. You may have seen the copyists in our museums painting away at their pitiful daubs, and you may well have asked yourself, "What is the use of all this wasted effort? These poor devils had better go out and milk a cow or do something a little more useful.!"

Again I agree, but that is not what I meant by "studying the masters of the past." You should do this merely for your own entertainment and instruction. Once you taken the trouble to copy in your own way some drawing by Dürer or to dissect a painting of some very complicated artist like El Greco, you will (for the moment at least) creep into the skin of those incredibly competent craftsmen and then you may at last begin to suspect something of what was in their minds when they themselves struggled with the unwilling material and the awkwardness of the human hand.

You will tell me that you cannot do this because art books are very expensive and you cannot afford them. Who said that you should buy those twenty- and thirty-dollar volumes which look so tempting in the windows of our bookstores? You can get catalogues in museums for nothing, or next to nothing. A good picture postal card is often quite as instructive as an expensive reproduction.

The same holds good for music. Our modern phonographs are about as perfect as anything mechanical can ever hope to be. Save those dollars which you would otherwise spend on something that is not really very important (you will be surprised how much cash you waste everyday on useless gadgets) and start a record collection of your own. And listen to them too, for if you want to be a good amateur musician , you should be thoroughly familiar with everything the great composers of the past have written, just as you should know a few of the gambits of Marshall or Capablanca, if you are a devotee of chess. Knowing their gambits won't, of course, make you a Marshall or a Capablanca, but they will make it possible for you to play a much better game than you had ever done before.

And now another practical hint. If you have taken one of the arts as your hobby, it is not enough to practice it once in a while, on alternate Saturdays and Sundays in Lent. You should make your hobby your steady companion as if it were a pet dog.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by this rather cryptic statement.

Somewhere in this book there is a picture of the old Brooklyn Bridge, proving that in its own way it is quite as beautiful as the Taj Mahal. You may never see the Taj Mahal but you probably catch a glimpse of the Brooklyn Bridge (or some other bridge or building) every morning you go to your office. In those days when I worked downtown in New York I always traveled by the elevated. During a short twenty-minute trip I saw enough sights to provide me with ideas for pictures for at least an entire fortnight. I did not have the time to draw them in detail (no more than you) but this was no labor lost, for something remained behind all those many impressions and something that I could use afterwards in any number of ways.

I realize that all this is not easy to do. As a nation we are rather self-conscious when it comes to any of the arts and I know businessmen who carefully hide their love for music or for some form of literature for fear that their neighbors will laugh at them. We simply shall have to get over that feeling or we shall never get anywhere at all.

You may not want to be a martyr for the good cause but if, for example, you are interested in drawing, do as I have always done. Carry a few small cards in your pocket and when nobody's looking, make a short pictorial note of what you have just seen. Those notes will never find their way to a museum, to be exposed next to the sketches which poor Rembrandt drew on the backs of his unpaid bills, but they will teach you an amazing amount of detail and will sharpen your powers of observationto a point you had never deemed possible.

And when you have a chance, experiment with all sorts of media, for every new approach (oil, pastel, ink) makes you familiar with an entirely different technique and it is really like visiting so many foreign countries. Don't be afraid of the expense. No need of buying yourself one of those sixty-dollar contraptions filled with all the colors of the rainbow and with brushes at a dollar per. You will be astonished how much you can do with the little box of pencils which your small son discarded as one of his less welcome Christmas presents (he really wanted a flying machine, just as next year he will want those pencils!), and water-color boxes, sufficient for your needs and within the reach of your purse, can be had in any toy store.

As for the amateur musicians, if possible they should practice every day with the same regularity with which they take their morning's exercices. Once they get into the habit (if only for fifteen minutes a day) those minutes will soon grow into hours. The piano is the handiest of all instruments because it gives you the best chance to study orchestral compositions. But the piano is not the only instrument in the world.

For example, should you be an amateur fiddler, you will discover that there is a lot of fun in nosing around in the hock shops. Some day you may really find something really good. The chances are about one to ten thousand, but these are less than the chances you take when you put your money on a ticket in the Irish sweepstakes, so why not try?

I must not make this chapter any longer than I can help but I am sure you are beginning to realize what I am driving at. When it comes to the details of such a "plan of campaign" I cannot really be of any help to you or give you any definite advice. There are two thousand million people in this world and there are , therefore, two thousand million different tastes. You will have to decide what you want to do for and by yourself but whether you go in for making ship models or writing songs or spending your summer vacation painting the rocks of Maine or laying out a small suburban garden, enlist right away among the humble followers of the Muses. They are very exacting teachers. But they are the most satisfactory of friends, for in return for your devotion and loyalty they will ocassionally let you stroll into their own private garden and then you will catch a glimpse of a world of such beauty and such perfection that those few moments will most fully compensate you for any pains you may have taken to become one of the elect who have come to understand the true meaning of life at its best.

Lucas Point,
Old Greenwich, Conn.
May 8, 1937

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