Artists and Potboilers. A Chapter on the Incentive of Gain

Let Us Forget !
Little apology is needed for the scanty mention of the European War in this chapter. In the contest every kind of cannon has now been used ; every variety of dismemberment and death been suffered ; the whole thing is now grown monotonous and dull. When the French plains and the Flemish fields, the hills of Russia and the hills of Italy have been sufficiently dunged with rotten death to please the masters, the fighting nations will see that, far from any good coming to them from the bloodshed, it has resulted in a silly national division of the workers, which is not good, nor anywhere near good.

Let people for a moment forget all the ephe­meral “Commissions,” “Reports,” “Investigations,” “Leading Articles,” ”Booklets, and “Volumes” that are born of the war, and turn to matters of permanent interest ; let people turn from the Newspapers to the Classic Books, from Cannon to Galleries, and they will see that the old delicate dramas, the fine new stuff, the sweetness of the masters in painting of Spain and France and Italy, the sunny Dutch work, the pallid Japanese, all the singular inspiration of China, the philosophy of Germany, all do, not merely at one time or another, but all times, peace or war, show the harmony of talents and disclose the comradeship of genius. The greatest of all nations are brotherly, and their fraternal work will help to bring peace permanently at last on earth : it will not be done with siege-guns, no matter how massive they be nor what powder they spittle. All Art nourishes the spirit of revolution ; against the shape and cut of a book or chair or house as Morris did ; against the shape or cut of the earth, as in Shelley.

Our masters know this and have in all ages endeavoured to alter the vital secular character of Art into a something vapid and servile ; it must be changed, they said, from the passionate and wayward to the didactic and mechanical : they spoke with tongues of fire and their syllables were prisons. Artists were driven into all kinds of occupations quite alien to them : chisel­ling ships and barrels of muskets, allegories, chapel-altars. Samaritans, Virgin Man’s, colour­ing monastaries, till a daring Italian boy of the thirteenth century started dreaming by his flock on the hills of Padua, and in the end found that the sight of his pregnant ewes was quite as inspiring as a pregnant Virgin. A new, self-reliant epoch commenced for Art, and the masters’ fires, prisons, and titles since then have only scared the unsound, bribed the less keen and valuable, and filled the archives Paying of Art with chronicles of sorrow.

Paying the Price
Whether they be ancient or modern, whether they be Russian novellists, Dutch or French landscapists or English poets, they have prepared, and must prepare, in youth, for a life of affliction and a ceremonious funereal ; must have thought, must now think, that if the funeral ostentation is forgotten or neglected, posterity will, with bronze busts and posthumous marble, compensate them for the dismal doom they suffered and the misery they endured.

Marvellous boys like Chatterton, are not prepared to suffer the fate tbat the stupid and mercenary arrange ; rather than a piecemeal death they end it all at once with a little acid. They think the worst acid better than the best editor. Some live on and fight. For this crime Dostoievsky is, in Russia, sentenced to death. The sentence is afterwards mitigated ; instead of death he is sent to Siberia (which he named the House of the Dead) for ten years. Out of Norfolk we get a hard instance. Old Crome, “the glory of the English landscape school” as he is now called by preface writers, was set on coach painting in Norwich. In the evenings and on Saturday afternoons, when he was not lining spokes and yellowing wheels, he did, in oils, the moons over Norfolk pastures, over massive scalloped cows ; shipping by the riversides he did after the manner of Hobbema, and Mousehold Heath with its chalk pits, donkeys, characteristic mills, as only Crome could—the lot to be sold for not many shillings. That picture of his in the London National Gallery was once divided in two and the the halves, when separately sold, brought him four guineas. It is very hard when a Preface Writer cannot say an artist’s unhappiness is due to a girl. Gainsborough, too, had to leave his “Market Carts,” his “Stricken Oaks,” his “Pools,” his “Sunsets over Devonshire Moors,” and for his pence, with his oils, flatter the fussy Duchess and the soft Earl.

The Martyrdom of Genius
Also there was a Dutch painter born in a windmill some few hundreds of years ago Rembrandt van Ryn. He put his hand to the pallette and passed many a terrible day, for he did as his genius dictated. The feudal owners of much of the Dutch wealth did not like his Rabbis and washerwomen and singular mills and did not buy them. He was in the end driven from his Amsterdam shanty ; he took his wife, children, and paints from house to hovel and then along to humbler hovel. His name is now highest on the auction-room price list.

Last century a sad French boy worked a plough in Normandy. Until he was twenty, in his little leisure, he did, with charcoal only, snatches of beautiful country or the raw-boned, decrepit Frenchmen on the neighbouring’ farms. Eventually this mighty ploughman lived in Barbizon, a sad, colourless village jostled by massive, dark woods. He did then, as Rembrandt in Holland, follow where his talent of sorrow led. The Frenchman’s end was similar to the Dutchman’s. If joy isn’t yet, persecution is international. No one for many years would buy his “Dung Spreaders,” his “Peasants Reposing,” his “Potato Diggers”; so his suffering was distinctly hard, even in the catalogue of the hardships of artists. “My wife will be confined next month and there is nothing in the house. I do not know where to get my month’s rent” he wrote to Theodore Rousseau. He was found without fire or food. He was praised a little in the Press, but critics “Charm ache with air and agony with words.” Christy’s and Agnew’s know the man—they have lately sold one of his six-inch by five canvasses, of a “Shepherdess knitting,” for a thousand guineas. He painted “The Gleaners” and “The Angelas”-his name is immortal, Jean Francois Millet.

An Odious Comparison
Under capitalism the man with colour schemes is no match in the market for the man with financial schemes : it is the nightingale against the vulture.

I could give instance after instance of the sorrow and pain which the talented in an enslaved community must endure if they watch or listen to the loveliness of the earth and then in any way tell it to others. The good men will cross the world, and, while a masterful class holds factory and field, while the democracy is content to be put off with an education, incomplete, suitable for commerce and nothing more, they must go without encouragement from the mass, without money from the opulent ; their telescopes will be broken in two, they will be sent, starved and pale, to their pallettes, and in rags to their violins.

But where in this record does the incentive of gain crop up ? If, as the merry masters say, it is for gain the best and the worst work, why do not the greatest leave their permanent, sincere work (which leaves them lean) and win gold with the transitory, the false, and the easily understood ? To hear our rulers speak one would think the poet sings because he wants butcher’s meat and wholemeal bread. He sings for nothing of the kind. He sings, as he draws breath, naturally, and he would die if he did not. It is idiocy to think he sings because it is hard to live, because engines and lands are privately owned, and would cease to sing to a wider world under Socialism. It is impertinence to say he sings at the bidding of silver and gold magnates and wouldn’t sing to a supreme democracy. As long as skies are blue and hills are green he will compose, whether dividends change or do not, whether money is or is not, whether the world listens or does not.

That, too, is the secret of the strength of the influence of minorities.

One Word about Potboilers
One word about potboilers : we must never let them take up too much time. The artist is only hard hit when he stands tenaciously by his ideals. Some are, however, forced into apontacy or monotony, endeavour to repeat old masters, not because they are born rogues, not through any natural or youthful desire to emulate what is glorious, but because potboilers pay better. So we have a houseful of Academicians like La Thangue, with his geese, puddles, and red-hot, boozy-looking suns, his grizzly stacks with one star out beside a skinny, stippled moon ; a host of others doing silly, whitish Samaritans on shivering rags in a somewhat English, damp Egypt ; Leader who decorates Devonshire pro­perty with honeysuckle, spin and span labourers, Flaxman china, best food, best wives, best children. It will not profit us much to consider the yellow lies and pink apostacy of the other fellows who settle or pervert the national learning or taste in art. I need only say that a literate democracy would not have repetitions of dead masters, being familiar with the originals ; being atheistic, would not care whether the pallid Nazarene was in Egypt or out of it; being intimate with the fields would detest Leader’s landscape puddings. Under Socialism we will with our schools banish ignorance, with our Science banish Paradise, with our Art banish Academy sunsets and in consequence banish Academicians.

The work of the potboilers is made to be understood : it is fitted for dronish intellects ; it prospers under the hand of the aristocrat. On the other hand the work of the artist is always bewildering to the characterless slaves of his own particular generation and becomes the wonderment and delight of a remote posterity. But through illiteracy, which the Board Schools of the masters are instrumental in perpetuating, the worker takes small interest in Art. By cunning he is deprived of intellectual health and liberty, as he is of bodily entertainment and rest ; he is separated from Beethoven and Corot as from his loom and meadow.

It will be seen from the few illustrations I have given that while a few millions master the wonders and riches of the earth, the pictures, like the plough, the beautiful and the useful, will be the property of those who have too much gut to be satisfied with food and too little brain to be edified with Art.

The poem like the engine, the landscape picture like the land, to do good must be freely held by the democracy. To get this we must, by the unity of the workers of the world, destroy the tyranny of those who have not enough intelligence to produce any music nor sufficient diligence to sow wheat. Socialism means the ownership, by the community, of all society’s vital machines and land, and a redistribution, in consequence, of that possession, of books, pencils, and violins. With these things, and the life-long love of comrades, we will become the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon.

H. M. M.

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