Austin Lewis

The Revolt of the Artist

(June 1903)


Source: From International Socialist Review, Vol. 3 No. 12, June 1903, pp. 720–724.
Transcription: Matthew Siegfried.
HTML mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive (2022).
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2022). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


WE are nearing the close of a period which began in an emotional revolt, the frank object was the return to nature, the shaking off the shackles of conventionality, and the being of all hazards, frankly and freely natural, a period which has in its decline flatly contradicted the promise of its youth, and is ending in artificiality and sensationalism.

Emotional revolt, for the Anglo-Saxon, began about the middle of the last century. The intervening years between the close of the eighteenth century and that revolt, which was in effect the beginning of modern art life, were occupied in settling the confusion incident upon the struggles of the preceding century. It was a time of sordid money-getting. The only relief to its universal meanness was to be found in the pioneers, who going forth into the wilderness redeemed for men those waste places, which have since become so important and which now give promise of becoming dominating factors in the affairs of the world.

Succeeding this period of artistic barrenness an epoch dawned in which ardent hope and fierce revolt were manifest. Revolt intellectual, religious, political and consequently artistic dominated all its manifestations. The promises of the great revolution were called upon for fulfillment, the democracy armed itself, and authority tottered on its pedestal.

In 1847 Emerson visited England and it is evident that what he saw there inspired him with much appreciation and with many forebodings, for he says:

“In the absence of the highest aims of the pure love of know ledge and the surrender to nature, there is the suppression of the imagination, the priapism of the senses and the understanding. We have the factitious instead of the natural, tasteless expense, arts of comfort, and the rewarding as an illustrious inventor whosoever will contrive to introduce one impediment more between the man and his object.” (English Traits)

The complaints of Carlyle were still more savage than those of Emerson, until grown weary of his own enigmatic scolding, the great dyspeptic degenerated into a noisy apostle of fate, a " mad mullah” ruined by too little exercise and too much porridge.

But Emerson does not appear to have been able to explain the sterility and apathy, which he saw so clearly. His sympathies were all with the great industrial revolution, for as a citizen of a republic he was bound to rejoice in the promise of greater equality, which, it appeared to him, must necessarily follow from it.

He speaks of the social change in terms of distinct approval. Thus we find him saying:

“The great powers of industrial art have no exclusion of name or blood. The tools of our time, namely steam, ships, printing, money, and popular education belong to those who can handle them and the effect has been that advantages once confined to men of family are now open to the entire middle class.” (English Traits)

The economic effects of the bourgeois revolt were in many respects sad and indeed cruel, but its intellectual and artistic possibilities had not yet made themselves felt. The disappearance of classicism was not yet recognized, and the feeble ghosts of its departed glories still stalked about the land. Turner, Lawrence and Constable overshadowed all, and their influence discouraged, so that the time was well- ripe for a rebellion against artificial authority. No poet had given out a new message, for Tennyson, the pianist of poetry, expresses little more than elegant conventionalities, wonderfully ornamental and particularly well-attuned to catch the ear of those in authority.

Browning, almost contemporary with this period of more or less latent revolt, which flickered and smouldered in riots, Chartist programs and Irish famines, subsequently flared into open rebellion and sedition on the European continent, and culminated in the United States, in the wildest and fiercest struggle of modern times, published Pauline and Luria before 1850. His poems, however, cannot be regarded as in any sense instigators or promoters of the new movement. The fundamental philosophy of his writings was not evident to the men of his times, so bound were they by conventionality and formalism.

Thackeray, it is true, satirised and flayed the aristocracy, but in a style which recommended itself to the privileged classes; the great reading public which could thoroughly appreciate his powers had not yet come into being, and in the works of Dickens alone do we find that healthy naturalism which was destined to appeal to the masses of men and to make itself felt in genuine sympathy and the broadening of humane effort.

In fact, this was one of the most dreadful periods of history. The laboring population toiled under conditions impossible of description, the unrestrained operation of the machine industry was making an Inferno out of what is at the best the purgatory of the life of the laborer, even women and little children were feeling the worst effects of the tyranny of circumstances and the greed for gain. In spite of the growth of the new industry, the landholders still controlled legislation and oppressed the masses by the imposition of heavy duties upon the staple commodities, so that the bulk of the population sprawled helpless between the upper and nether millstones of industrialism and landlordism.

From this chaos sprang almost at once a new creation – the corn laws were abolished, British Free Trade was established, schools were founded, and the worst phases of the bondage of the factory were eliminated.

If we seek economic and material reasons for these changes they are not hard to discover, for the balance of wealth had shift ed from the soil to the factory, and the factory, or rather the system of which the factory is the outward symbol, requires active and energetic individual effort, while the soil demanded merely passive obedience and patient toil.

But the revolt, though in its political aspect, the revolt of a class, was in its moral aspect the revolt of sentiment, and with the sentimentalists, at all events, the first fruits of victory rested. It was sentiment and that the highest and the finest which caused the first investigations to be made into the conditions of the laboring classes and religious sentiment, of an, up to that time, almost unheard-of type, which sent the priests of the Church of England, awakened to a sense of duty by the Tractarian movement, into the slums of the great cities, and set them grappling with the monsters which they discovered there. Sentiment, too, it was, which caused Maurice and Kingsley to espouse the cause of the downtrodden, and sentiment which sent the New England missionaries from village to village to preach the liberation of the chattel-slave.

But, however, much the world owes to the sentimental enthusiasm of the church and the philanthropists during the transition period, it is no less indebted to the artists of that time, and to one group of artists in particular.

In 1848 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, entered the studio of Madox Brown, from which time a rejuvenescence of art may be dated, a new birth of independence and of individuality, and the beginning of a tendency which was far other than the youthful Pre-Raffaelites had in mind. The value of this movement lay in the fact that it was a movement, that it was a revolt, a new departure, a flinging to the winds of the traditions of centuries, and a call to a new mission, and new work for the artist. The school failed in itself, was smothered in its own details and subtleties, but what does not art on both sides of the Atlantic owe to its impulse?

But it was the motto rather than the actual accomplishments of the Pre-Raffaelites which inspired so many struggling artists and lifted the yoke of oppressive authority from their shoulders. The school demanded and insisted upon a return to nature. That Brown and the others misunderstood the meaning of the expression and thought that the real return to nature lay in a slavishly imitative copying of detail, does not affect the value of their proclamation, which must still remain the watchword of all true artists, and a perpetual incentive.

The Pre-Raffaelites, however, did not appeal to the populace for the idea of popularity was repugnant to the members of the school, who were artists in the most exclusive sense of the term. Their acknowledged adherents were few in number; in more than one sense they constituted a narrow clique and their artistic for tunes, are a matter of interest to specialists and historians, rather than to the general reader. The pioneers of revolutions always suffer from the same defects of temperament. They are doctrinaires, narrow, fanatic, and dogmatic beyond measure, with an absolute faith in the complete soundness of their position, and a no less absolute contempt for any ideas which may clash with their own. Hence, they in themselves accomplish apparently but little, still, insensibly to themselves they break the inertia of conventional submission and set in motion a mass the direction of which will be probably quite other than that intended by the movers.

And so the Pre-Raffaelites with all their zeal for a return to nature persisted in not returning. The school found its impulse in medieval life and it never could dissociate itself from its origin, for it was not of its time, and could never appeal to living men and women of the nineteenth century. High ideals and good work cannot of themselves gain recognition for their possessors, comprehensibility is essential, and it was just in comprehensibility that the Pre-Raffaelites were lacking. Idealization and the power of handling detailed work were theirs in a very marked degree, but they failed utterly to understand human needs and for this reason were ignored by ordinary men and women.

This was a matter of small concern to the Pre-Raffaelites, and so to the development of art, for the artists now having become fairly imbued with the spirit of revolt, and breaking away, more and more, from tradition, launched into all descriptions of experiment so that the later art development has been in the direction of greater and greater individuality, until peculiarity of style has become almost a necessary prerequisite of success and popularity.

It has hence come about that idealism has ebbed away from the conceptions of art, and that technical considerations have become more and more the main tests of excellence and real power. Art is now considered apart from any moral import, it is no longer a matter of ethics, but purely of esthetics. Thus, by a curious meeting of extremes we find art threatened with sterilization and that for reasons just the opposite of those which con fronted it when the Pre-Raffaelites made their fight. At that time a weight of authority crushed it into the ground and pre vented the full expression of individuality, to-day, freedom of expression has smothered true individuality and is causing an increasing glorification of technique.

In one direction, that of decorative art, the work of the Pre-Raffaelites has not been without effect, and that not consciously but by a sort of indirection. The efforts of William Morris towards the rehabilitation of beauty in matters of ordinary, everyday life, the common tools of ordinary toil, the common implements of ordinary use, the books which we handle, the walls on which we have to look, and the furniture which we need for our ordinary comfort, have undoubtedly accomplished much, and these efforts owe their inception to the movement in the direction of revolt which took the cry of a return to Nature as its watch word. But even this movement has been largely vitiated by conscious quackery, and its comparative failure as an effort to incorporate the esthetic instinct in the visible works of the hands of our civilized workmen, is evident from the fact that there is no successor to Morris worthy of the name.

Still, perhaps, in what is known as the Arts and Crafts movement may be found the germs of a more representative art than we have yet enjoyed in these latter years, and at all events there can be little doubt that the efforts of the great English craftsman and his coworkers have contributed not a little to the general dissemination of esthetic education, which must necessarily, in the course of time, produce some more worthy results.

Top of the page

Last updated on 11 June 2022