British Art since 1900: An Anthology

British Art since 1900: An Anthology

British Art since 1900: An Anthology

British Art since 1900: An Anthology

Excerpt

There exists, so far as I am aware, no picture-book of British art of the present century. By way of introduction to this, the first of its kind, I propose to offer a few reflections about the activities and environment of painters, sculptors and draughtsmen in this country since 1900. These reflections are offered with diffidence, first because the judgement of contemporaries, as Henry James noted, is 'the most difficult of all forms of criticism'; second because there is today a degree of critical confusion without precedent. Hemmed in by the trees, the contemporary critic has but an imperfect notion of the wood's character -- but perhaps jungle would be a more accurate description of those places where the arts are made, evaluated and sold. His efforts at perspective are frustrated by an imprecise idea of his own location in the wood, and his attempts to do justice by his inability to gauge the effects of his own prejudices and of the insidious pressures of fashion. But these are difficulties which beset all critics of contemporary activities at all times. The critic of today, however, has a unique difficulty to contend with. In all earlier periods there existed certain clearly recognized traditions which exercised a wide authority, and which were clearly recognized even at times when, as was generally the case, they were in transition. These traditions provided standards whereby the new things might be evaluated. The ideas of Ingres were not so remote from those of Delacroix or Courbet as to preclude closely reasoned debate, and even a measure of agreement. In the aesthetic of Delacroix, for example, classical ideas played a crucial part. But today traditional standards of any kind, far from being accepted as standards whereby the new thing may be judged, are deeply suspect, or else rejected outright. In brief, the historic respect for tradition is today replaced by its opposite: extreme mistrust, and a corresponding disposition to put faith in the new and the untraditional simply as the new and the untraditional. This 'demon of progress', as Wyndham Lewis called it, is not of course confined to the arts. Faith in the inevitability of progress -- in the continuous replacement of the new by the different and the better -- is an integral part of the prevailing pattern of thought with regard to many, perhaps most, spheres of human activity. That it should be held to be valid in relation to the fine arts might on first consideration strike us as singular, for it is contradicted with overwhelming authority by the facts of history. Lord Macaulay, one of the most optimistic of historians, advanced -- in his essay on Milton -- the view that 'as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines', that it is in a rude state of society 'that we expect to find the poetical temperament in its highest perfection' and that 'the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilized age'. Macaulay's contention, which he applies to music, painting and sculpture, as well as to poetry, is difficult to refute, and a glance through any general history of art will be sufficient to show that the arts do not progress. How then does it come about that there is today a widespread conviction to the contrary -- a conviction by no means confined to the unthinking? It springs mainly from the circumstance that during the past century a galaxy of audaciously innovating masters appeared who were consistently held up to ridicule and abuse or else ignored, and the patronage and the honours with insignificant exceptions were reserved for those whose names and works are long forgotten. Daumier and Millet lived in poverty; Degas and Cézanne had, or came to have, other means of support than the practice of their art; Pissarro could barely maintain his family; Van Gogh was . . .

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