Leo Tolstoy Archive
Source: Original Text from Gutenberg.org
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source: RevoltLib.com; 2021
In consequence of their unbelief the art of the upper classes became poor in subject-matter. But besides that, becoming continually more and more exclusive, it became at the same time continually more and more involved, affected, and obscure.
When a universal artist (such as were some of the Grecian artists or the Jewish prophets) composed his work, he naturally strove to say what he had to say in such a manner that his production should be intelligible to all men. But when an artist composed for a small circle of people placed in exceptional conditions, or even for a single individual and his courtiers,—for popes, cardinals, kings, dukes, queens, or for a king’s mistress,—he naturally only aimed at influencing these people, who were well known to him, and lived in exceptional conditions familiar to him. And this was an easier task, and the artist was involuntarily drawn to express himself by allusions comprehensible only to the initiated, and obscure to everyone else. In the first place, more could be said in this way; and secondly, there is (for the initiated) even a certain charm in the cloudiness of such a manner of expression. This method, which showed itself both in euphemism and in mythological and historical allusions, came more and more into use, until it has, apparently, at last reached its utmost limits in the so-called art of the Decadents. It has come, finally, to this: that not only is haziness, mysteriousness, obscurity, and exclusiveness (shutting out the masses) elevated to the rank of a merit and a 80condition of poetic art, but even incorrectness, indefiniteness, and lack of eloquence are held in esteem.
Théophile Gautier, in his preface to the celebrated Fleurs du Mal, says that Baudelaire, as far as possible, banished from poetry eloquence, passion, and truth too strictly copied (“l’éloquence, la passion, et la vérité calquée trop exactement”).
And Baudelaire not only expressed this, but maintained his thesis in his verses, and yet more strikingly in the prose of his Petits Poèmes en Prose, the meanings of which have to be guessed like a rebus, and remain for the most part undiscovered.
The poet Verlaine (who followed next after Baudelaire, and was also esteemed great) even wrote an “Art poétique,” in which he advises this style of composition:—
After these two comes Mallarmé, considered the most important of the young poets, and he plainly says that the charm of poetry lies in our having to guess its meaning—that in poetry there should always be a puzzle:—
Je pense qu’il faut qu’il n’y ait qu’allusion, says he. La contemplation des objets, l’image s’envolant des rêveries suscitées par eux, sont le chant: les Parnassiens, eux, prennent la chose entièrement et la montrent; par là ils manquent de mystère; ils retirent aux esprits cette joie délicieuse de croire qu’ils créent. Nommer un objet, c’est supprimer les trois quarts de la jouissance du poème, qui est faite du bonheur de deviner peu à peu: le suggérer, 82voilà le rêve. C’est le parfait usage de ce mystère qui constitue le symbole: évoquer petit à petit un objet pour montrer un état d’âme, ou, inversement, choisir un objet et en dégager un état d’âme, par une sèrie de déchiffrements.
... Si un être d’une intelligence moyenne, et d’une préparation littéraire insuffisante, ouvre par hasard un livre ainsi fait et prétend en jouir, il y a malentendu, il faut remettre les choses à leur place. Il doit y avoir toujours énigme en poèsie, et c’est le but de la littérature, il n’y en a pas d’autre,—d’évoquer les objets.—“Enquête sur l’évolution littéraire,” Jules Huret, pp. 60, 61.
Thus is obscurity elevated into a dogma among the new poets. As the French critic Doumic (who has not yet accepted the dogma) quite correctly says:—
“Il serait temps aussi d’en finir avec cette fameuse ‘théorie de l’obscurité’ que la nouvelle école a élevée, en effet, à la hauteur d’un dogme.”—Les Jeunes, par Erné Doumic.
But it is not French writers only who think thus. The 83poets of all other countries think and act in the same way: German, and Scandinavian, and Italian, and Russian, and English. So also do the artists of the new period in all branches of art: in painting, in sculpture, and in music. Relying on Nietzsche and Wagner, the artists of the new age conclude that it is unnecessary for them to be intelligible to the vulgar crowd; it is enough for them to evoke poetic emotion in “the finest nurtured,” to borrow a phrase from an English æsthetician.
In order that what I am saying may not seem to be mere assertion, I will quote at least a few examples from the French poets who have led this movement. The name of these poets is legion. I have taken French writers, because they, more decidedly than any others, indicate the new direction of art, and are imitated by most European writers.
Besides those whose names are already considered famous, such as Baudelaire and Verlaine, here are the names of a few of them: Jean Moréas, Charles Morice, Henri de Régnier, Charles Vignier, Adrien Remacle, Erné Ghil, Maurice Maeterlinck, G. Albert Aurier, Rémy de Gourmont, Saint-Pol-Roux-le-Magnifique, Georges Rodenbach, le comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac. These are Symbolists and Decadents. Next we have the “Magi”: Joséphin Péladan, Paul Adam, Jules Bois, M. Papus, and others.
Besides these, there are yet one hundred and forty-one others, whom Doumic mentions in the book referred to above.
Here are some examples from the work of those of them who are considered to be the best, beginning with that most celebrated man, acknowledged to be a great artist worthy of a monument—Baudelaire. This is a poem from his celebrated Fleurs du Mal:—
And this is another by the same writer:—
To be exact, I should mention that the collection contains verses less comprehensible than these, but not one poem which is plain and can be understood without a certain effort—an effort seldom rewarded, for the feelings which the poet transmits are evil and very low ones. And these feelings are always, and purposely, expressed by him with eccentricity and lack of clearness. This premeditated obscurity is especially noticeable in his prose, where the author could, if he liked, speak plainly.
Take, for instance, the first piece from his Petits Poèmes:—
Qui aimes-tu le mieux, homme énigmatique, dis? ton père, ta mère, ta sœur, ou ton frère?
Je n’ai ni père, ni mère, ni sœur, ni frère.
Vous vous servez là d’une parole dont le sens m’est resté jusqu’ à ce jor inconnu.
J’ignore sous quelle latitude elle est située.
Je l’aimerais volontiers, déesse et immortelle.
Je le hais comme vous haïssez Dieu.
Et qu ’aimes-tu donc, extraordinaire étranger?
J’aime les nuages ... les nuages qui passent ... là bas, ... les merveilleux nuages!
The piece called La Soupe et les Nuages is probably 86intended to express the unintelligibility of the poet even to her whom he loves. This is the piece in question:—
Ma petite folle bien-aimée me donnait à dîner, et par la fenêtre ouverte de la salle à manger je contemplais les mouvantes architectures que Dieu fait avec les vapeurs, les merveilleuses constructions de l’impalpable. Et je me disais, à travers ma contemplation: “Toutes ces fantasmagories sont presque aussi belles que les yeux de ma belle bien-aimée, la petite folle monstrueuse aux yeux verts.”
Et tout à coup je reçus un violent coup de poing dans le dos, et j’entendis une voix rauque et charmante, une voix hystérique et comme enrouée par l’eau-de-vie, la voix de ma chère petite bien-aimée, qui me disait, “Allez-vous bientôt manger votre soupe, s ... b ... de marchand de nuages?”
However artificial these two pieces may be, it is still possible, with some effort, to guess at what the author meant them to express, but some of the pieces are absolutely incomprehensible—at least to me. Le Galant Tireur is a piece I was quite unable to understand.
LE GALANT TIREUR.
Comme la voiture traversait le bois, il la fit arrêter dans le voisinage d’un tir, disant qu’il lui serait agréable de tirer quelques balles pour tuer le Temps. Tuer ce monstre-là, n’est-ce pas l’occupation la plus ordinaire et la plus légitime de chacun?—Et il offrit galamment la main à sa chère, délicieuse et exécrable femme, à cette mystérieuse femme à laquelle il doit tant de plaisirs, tant de douleurs, et peut-être aussi une grande partie de son génie.
87Plusieurs balles frappèrent loin du but proposé, l’une d’elles s’enfonça même dans le plafond; et comme la charmante créature riait follement, se moquant de la maladresse de son époux, celui-ci se tourna brusquement vers elle, et lui dit: “Observez cette poupée, là-bas, à droite, qui porte le nez en l’air et qui a la mine si hautaine. Eh bien! cher ange, je me figure que c’est vous.” Et il ferma les yeux et il lâcha la détente. La poupée fut nettement décapitée.
Alors s’ inclinant vers sa chère, sa délicieuse, son exécrable femme, son inévitable et impitoyable Muse, et lui baisant respectueusement la main, il ajouta: “Ah! mon cher ange, combien je vous remercie de mon adresse!”
The productions of another celebrity, Verlaine, are not less affected and unintelligible. This, for instance, is the first poem in the section called Ariettes Oubliées.
What “chœur des petites voix”? and what “cri doux que l’herbe agitée expire”? and what it all means, remains altogether unintelligible to me.
And here is another Ariette:—
How does the moon seem to live and die in a copper heaven? And how can snow shine like sand? The whole thing is not merely unintelligible, but, under pretense of conveying an impression, it passes off a string of incorrect comparisons and words.
Besides these artificial and obscure poems, there are others which are intelligible, but which make up for it by being altogether bad, both in form and in subject. Such are all the poems under the heading La Sagesse. The chief place in these verses is occupied by a very poor expression of the most commonplace Roman Catholic and patriotic sentiments. For instance, one meets with verses such as this:—
Before citing examples from other poets, I must pause to 90note the amazing celebrity of these two versifiers, Baudelaire and Verlaine, who are now accepted as being great poets. How the French, who had Chénier, Musset, Lamartine, and, above all, Hugo,—and among whom quite recently flourished the so-called Parnassiens: Leconte de Lisle, Sully-Prudhomme, etc.,—could attribute such importance to these two versifiers, who were far from skillful in form and most contemptible and commonplace in subject-matter, is to me incomprehensible. The conception-of-life of one of them, Baudelaire, consisted in elevating gross egotism into a theory, and replacing morality by a cloudy conception of beauty, and especially artificial beauty. Baudelaire had a preference, which he expressed, for a woman’s face painted rather than showing its natural color, and for metal trees and a theatrical imitation of water rather than real trees and real water.
The life-conception of the other, Verlaine, consisted in weak profligacy, confession of his moral impotence, and, as an antidote to that impotence, in the grossest Roman Catholic idolatry. Both, moreover, were quite lacking in naïveté, sincerity, and simplicity, and both overflowed with artificiality, forced originality, and self-assurance. So that in their least bad productions one sees more of M. Baudelaire or M. Verlaine than of what they were describing. But these two indifferent versifiers form a school, and lead hundreds of followers after them.
There is only one explanation of this fact: it is that the art of the society in which these versifiers lived is not a serious, important matter of life, but is a mere amusement. And all amusements grow wearisome by repetition. And, in order to make wearisome amusement again tolerable, it is necessary to find some means to freshen it up. When, at cards, omber grows stale, whist is introduced; when whist grows stale, écarté is substituted; when écarté grows stale, some other novelty is invented, and so on. The substance 91of the matter remains the same, only its form is changed. And so it is with this kind of art. The subject-matter of the art of the upper classes growing continually more and more limited, it has come at last to this, that to the artists of these exclusive classes it seems as if everything has already been said, and that to find anything new to say is impossible. And therefore, to freshen up this art, they look out for fresh forms.
Baudelaire and Verlaine invent such a new form, furbish it up, moreover, with hitherto unused pornographic details, and—the critics and the public of the upper classes hail them as great writers.
This is the only explanation of the success, not of Baudelaire and Verlaine only, but of all the Decadents.
For instance, there are poems by Mallarmé and Maeterlinck which have no meaning, and yet for all that, or perhaps on that very account, are printed by tens of thousands, not only in various publications, but even in collections of the best works of the younger poets.
This, for example, is a sonnet by Mallarmé:—
This poem is not exceptional in its incomprehensibility. I have read several poems by Mallarmé, and they also had no meaning whatever. I give a sample of his prose in Appendix I. There is a whole volume of this prose, called “Divagations.” It is impossible to understand any of it. And that is evidently what the author intended.
And here is a song by Maeterlinck, another celebrated author of to-day:—
Who went out? Who came in? Who is speaking? Who died?
I beg the reader to be at the pains of reading through the samples I cite in Appendix II. of the celebrated and esteemed young poets—Griffin, Verhaeren, Moréas, and Montesquiou. It is important to do so in order to form a clear conception of the present position of art, and not to suppose, as many do, that Decadentism is an accidental and transitory phenomenon. To avoid the reproach of having selected the worst verses, I have copied out of each volume the poem which happened to stand on page 28.
All the other productions of these poets are equally unintelligible, or can only be understood with great difficulty, and then not fully. All the productions of those hundreds of poets, of whom I have named a few, are the same in kind. And among the Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Italians, and us Russians, similar verses are printed. And such productions are printed and made up into book form, if not by the million, then by the hundred thousand (some of these works sell in tens of thousands). For type-setting, paging, printing, and binding these books, millions and millions of working days are spent—not less, I think, than went to build the 95great pyramid. And this is not all. The same is going on in all the other arts: millions and millions of working days are being spent on the production of equally incomprehensible works in painting, in music, and in the drama.
Painting not only does not lag behind poetry in this matter, but rather outstrips it. Here is an extract from the diary of an amateur of art, written when visiting the Paris exhibitions in 1894:—
“I was to-day at three exhibitions: the Symbolists’, the Impressionists’, and the Neo-Impressionists’. I looked at the pictures conscientiously and carefully, but again felt the same stupefaction and ultimate indignation. The first exhibition, that of Camille Pissarro, was comparatively the most comprehensible, though the pictures were out of drawing, had no subject, and the colorings were most improbable. The drawing was so indefinite that you were sometimes unable to make out which way an arm or a head was turned. The subject was generally, ‘effets’—Effet de brouillard, Effet du soir, Soleil couchant. There were some pictures with figures, but without subjects.
“In the coloring, bright blue and bright green predominated. And each picture had its special color, with which the whole picture was, as it were, splashed. For instance in ‘A Girl guarding Geese’ the special color is vert de gris, and dots of it were splashed about everywhere: on the face, the hair, the hands, and the clothes. In the same gallery—‘Durand Ruel’—were other pictures, by Puvis de Chavannes, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley—who are all Impressionists. One of them, whose name I could not make out,—it was something like Redon,—had painted a blue face in profile. On the whole face there is only this blue tone, with white-of-lead. Pissarro has a water-color all done in dots. In the foreground is a cow entirely painted with various-colored dots. The general color cannot be distinguished, however 96much one stands back from, or draws near to, the picture. From there I went to see the Symbolists. I looked at them long without asking anyone for an explanation, trying to guess the meaning; but it is beyond human comprehension. One of the first things to catch my eye was a wooden haut-relief, wretchedly executed, representing a woman (naked) who with both hands is squeezing from her two breasts streams of blood. The blood flows down, becoming lilac in color. Her hair first descends and then rises again and turns into trees. The figure is all colored yellow, and the hair is brown.
“Next—a picture: a yellow sea, on which swims something which is neither a ship nor a heart; on the horizon is a profile with a halo and yellow hair, which changes into a sea, in which it is lost. Some of the painters lay on their colors so thickly that the effect is something between painting and sculpture. A third exhibit was even less comprehensible: a man’s profile; before him a flame and black stripes—leeches, as I was afterwards told. At last I asked a gentleman who was there what it meant, and he explained to me that the haut-relief was a symbol, and that it represented ‘La Terre.’ The heart swimming in a yellow sea was ‘Illusion perdue,’ and the gentleman with the leeches was ‘Le Mal.’ There were also some Impressionist pictures: elementary profiles, holding some sort of flowers in their hands: in monotone, out of drawing, and either quite blurred or else marked out with wide black outlines.”
This was in 1894; the same tendency is now even more strongly defined, and we have Böcklin, Stuck, Klinger, Sasha Schneider, and others.
The same thing is taking place in the drama. The play-writers give us an architect who, for some reason, has not fulfilled his former high intentions, and who consequently climbs on to the roof of a house he has erected and tumbles down head foremost; or an incomprehensible old woman 97(who exterminates rats), and who, for an unintelligible reason, takes a poetic child to the sea and there drowns him; or some blind men, who, sitting on the seashore, for some reason always repeat one and the same thing; or a bell of some kind, which flies into a lake and there rings.
And the same is happening in music—in that art which, more than any other, one would have thought, should be intelligible to everybody.
An acquaintance of yours, a musician of repute, sits down to the piano and plays you what he says is a new composition of his own, or of one of the new composers. You hear the strange, loud sounds, and admire the gymnastic exercises performed by his fingers; and you see that the performer wishes to impress upon you that the sounds he is producing express various poetic strivings of the soul. You see his intention, but no feeling whatever is transmitted to you except weariness. The execution lasts long, or at least it seems very long to you, because you do not receive any clear impression, and involuntarily you remember the words of Alphonse Karr, “Plus ça va vite, plus ça duer longtemps.” And it occurs to you that perhaps it is all a mystification; perhaps the performer is trying you—just throwing his hands and fingers wildly about the key-board in the hope that you will fall into the trap and praise him, and then he will laugh and confess that he only wanted to see if he could hoax you. But when at last the piece does finish, and the perspiring and agitated musician rises from the piano evidently anticipating praise, you see that it was all done in earnest.
The same thing takes place at all the concerts with pieces by Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz, Brahms, and (newest of all) Richard Strauss, and the numberless other composers of the new school, who unceasingly produce opera after opera, symphony after symphony, piece after piece.
98The same is occurring in a domain in which it seemed hard to be unintelligible—in the sphere of novels and short stories.
Read Là-Bas by Huysmans, or some of Kipling’s short stories, or L’annonciateur by Villiers de l’Isle Adam in his Contes Cruels, etc., and you will find them not only “abscons” (to use a word adopted by the new writers), but absolutely unintelligible both in form and in substance. Such, again, is the work by E. Morel, Terre Promise, now appearing in the Revue Blanche, and such are most of the new novels. The style is very high-flown, the feelings seem to be most elevated, but you can’t make out what is happening, to whom it is happening, and where it is happening. And such is the bulk of the young art of our time.
People who grew up in the first half of this century, admiring Goethe, Schiller, Musset, Hugo, Dickens, Beethoven, Chopin, Raphael, da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Delaroche, being unable to make head or tail of this new art, simply attribute its productions to tasteless insanity and wish to ignore them. But such an attitude towards this new art is quite unjustifiable, because, in the first place, that art is spreading more and more, and has already conquered for itself a firm position in society, similar to the one occupied by the Romanticists in the third decade of this century; and secondly and chiefly, because, if it is permissible to judge in this way of the productions of the latest form of art, called by us Decadent art, merely because we do not understand it, then remember, there are an enormous number of people,—all the laborers and many of the non-laboring folk,—who, in just the same way, do not comprehend those productions of art which we consider admirable: the verses of our favorite artists—Goethe, Schiller, and Hugo; the novels of Dickens, the music of Beethoven and Chopin, the pictures of Raphael, Michael Angelo, da Vinci, etc.
If I have a right to think that great masses of people do 99not understand and do not like what I consider undoubtedly good because they are not sufficiently developed, then I have no right to deny that perhaps the reason why I cannot understand and cannot like the new productions of art, is merely that I am still insufficiently developed to understand them. If I have a right to say that I, and the majority of people who are in sympathy, with me, do not understand the productions of the new art simply because there is nothing in it to understand and because it is bad art, then, with just the same right, the still larger majority, the whole laboring mass, who do not understand what I consider admirable art, can say that what I reckon as good art is bad art, and there is nothing in it to understand.
I once saw the injustice of such condemnation of the new art with especial clearness, when, in my presence, a certain poet, who writes incomprehensible verses, ridiculed incomprehensible music with gay self-assurance; and, shortly afterwards, a certain musician, who composes incomprehensible symphonies, laughed at incomprehensible poetry with equal self-confidence. I have no right, and no authority, to condemn the new art on the ground that I (a man educated in the first half of the century) do not understand it; I can only say that it is incomprehensible to me. The only advantage the art I acknowledge has over the Decadent art, lies in the fact that the art I recognize is comprehensible to a somewhat larger number of people than the present-day art.
The fact that I am accustomed to a certain exclusive art, and can understand it, but am unable to understand another still more exclusive art, does not give me a right to conclude that my art is the real true art, and that the other one, which I do not understand, is an unreal, a bad art. I can only conclude that art, becoming ever more and more exclusive, has become more and more incomprehensible to an ever-increasing number of people, and that, in this its 100progress towards greater and greater incomprehensibility (on one level of which I am standing, with the art familiar to me), it has reached a point where it is understood by a very small number of the elect, and the number of these chosen people is ever becoming smaller and smaller.
As soon as ever the art of the upper classes separated itself from universal art, a conviction arose that art may be art and yet be incomprehensible to the masses. And as soon as this position was admitted, it had inevitably to be admitted also that art may be intelligible only to the very smallest number of the elect, and, eventually, to two, or to one, of our nearest friends, or to oneself alone. Which is practically what is being said by modern artists:—“I create and understand myself, and if anyone does not understand me, so much the worse for him.”
The assertion that art may be good art, and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number of people, is extremely unjust, and its consequences are ruinous to art itself; but at the same time it is so common and has so eaten into our conceptions, that it is impossible sufficiently to elucidate all the absurdity of it.
Nothing is more common than to hear it said of reputed works of art, that they are very good but very difficult to understand. We are quite used to such assertions, and yet to say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good but that most people can’t eat it. The majority of men may not like rotten cheese or putrefying grouse—dishes esteemed by people with perverted tastes; but bread and fruit are only good when they please the majority of men. And it is the same with art. Perverted art may not please the majority of men, but good art always pleases everyone.
It is said that the very best works of art are such that 101they cannot be understood by the mass, but are accessible only to the elect who are prepared to understand these great works. But if the majority of men do not understand, the knowledge necessary to enable them to understand should be taught and explained to them. But it turns out that there is no such knowledge, that the works cannot be explained, and that those who say the majority do not understand good works of art, still do not explain those works, but only tell us that, in order to understand them, one must read, and see, and hear these same works over and over again. But this is not to explain, it is only to habituate! And people may habituate themselves to anything, even to the very worst things. As people may habituate themselves to bad food, to spirits, tobacco, and opium, just in the same way they may habituate themselves to bad art—and that is exactly what is being done.
Moreover, it cannot be said that the majority of people lack the taste to esteem the highest works of art. The majority always have understood, and still understand, what we also recognize as being the very best art: the epic of Genesis, the Gospel parables, folk-legends, fairy-tales, and folk-songs are understood by all. How can it be that the majority has suddenly lost its capacity to understand what is high in our art?
Of a speech it may be said that it is admirable, but incomprehensible to those who do not know the language in which it is delivered. A speech delivered in Chinese may be excellent, and may yet remain incomprehensible to me if I do not know Chinese; but what distinguishes a work of art from all other mental activity is just the fact that its language is understood by all, and that it infects all without distinction. The tears and laughter of a Chinese infect me just as the laughter and tears of a Russian; and it is the same with painting and music and poetry, when it is translated into a language I understand. The songs of a Kirghiz 102or of a Japanese touch me, though in a lesser degree than they touch a Kirghiz or a Japanese. I am also touched by Japanese painting, Indian architecture, and Arabian stories. If I am but little touched by a Japanese song and a Chinese novel, it is not that I do not understand these productions, but that I know and am accustomed to higher works of art. It is not because their art is above me. Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone. The story of Joseph, translated into the Chinese language, touches a Chinese. The story of Sakya Muni touches us. And there are, and must be, buildings, pictures, statues, and music of similar power. So that, if art fails to move men, it cannot be said that this is due to the spectators’ or hearers’ lack of understanding; but the conclusion to be drawn may, and should be, that such art is either bad art, or is not art at all.
Art is differentiated from activity of the understanding, which demands preparation and a certain sequence of knowledge (so that one cannot learn trigonometry before knowing geometry), by the fact that it acts on people independently of their state of development and education, that the charm of a picture, of sounds, or of forms, infects any man whatever his plane of development.
The business of art lies just in this—to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible. Usually it seems to the recipient of a truly artistic impression that he knew the thing before but had been unable to express it.
And such has always been the nature of good, supreme art; the Iliad, the Odyssey, the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the Hebrew prophets, the psalms, the Gospel parables, the story of Sakya Muni, and the hymns of the Vedas: all transmit very elevated feelings, and are nevertheless quite comprehensible now to us, educated or uneducated, as they were comprehensible to the men of those times, long ago, who were 103even less educated than our laborers. People talk about incomprehensibility; but if art is the transmission of feelings flowing from man’s religious perception, how can a feeling be incomprehensible which is founded on religion, i.e. on man’s relation to God? Such art should be, and has actually, always been, comprehensible to everybody, because every man’s relation to God is one and the same. And therefore the churches and the images in them were always comprehensible to everyone. The hindrance to understanding the best and highest feelings (as is said in the gospel) does not at all lie in deficiency of development or learning, but, on the contrary, in false development and false learning. A good and lofty work of art may be incomprehensible, but not to simple, unperverted peasant laborers (all that is highest is understood by them)—it may be, and often is, unintelligible to erudite, perverted people destitute of religion. And this continually occurs in our society, in which the highest feelings are simply not understood. For instance, I know people who consider themselves most refined, and who say that they do not understand the poetry of love to one’s neighbor, of self-sacrifice, or of chastity.
So that good, great, universal, religious art may be incomprehensible to a small circle of spoiled people, but certainly not to any large number of plain men.
Art cannot be incomprehensible to the great masses only because it is very good,—as artists of our day are fond of telling us. Rather we are bound to conclude that this art is unintelligible to the great masses only because it is very bad art, or even is not art at all. So that the favorite argument (naïvely accepted by the cultured crowd), that in order to feel art one has first to understand it (which really only means habituate oneself to it), is the truest indication that what we are asked to understand by such a method is either very bad, exclusive art, or is not art at all.
104People say that works of art do not please the people because they are incapable of understanding them. But if the aim of works of art is to infect people with the emotion the artist has experienced, how can one talk about not understanding?
A man of the people reads a book, sees a picture, hears a play or a symphony, and is touched by no feeling. He is told that this is because he cannot understand. People promise to let a man see a certain show; he enters and sees nothing. He is told that this is because his sight is not prepared for this show. But the man well knows that he sees quite well, and if he does not see what people promised to show him, he only concludes (as is quite just) that those who undertook to show him the spectacle have not fulfilled their engagement. And it is perfectly just for a man who does feel the influence of some works of art to come to this conclusion concerning artists who do not, by their works, evoke feeling in him. To say that the reason a man is not touched by my art is because he is still too stupid, besides being very self-conceited and also rude, is to reverse the rôles, and for the sick to send the hale to bed.
Voltaire said that “Tous les genres sont bons, hors le genre ennuyeux”; but with even more right one may say of art that Tous les genres sons bons, hors celui qu’on ne comprend pas, or qui ne produit pas son effet, for of what value is an article which fails to do that for which it was intended?
Mark this above all: if only it be admitted that art may be art and yet be unintelligible to anyone of sound mind, there is no reason why any circle of perverted people should not compose works tickling their own perverted feelings and comprehensible to no one but themselves, and 105call it “art,” as is actually being done by the so-called Decadents.
The direction art has taken may be compared to placing on a large circle other circles, smaller and smaller, until a cone is formed, the apex of which is no longer a circle at all. That is what has happened to the art of our times.