THE LAY FIGURE. IS CRITI-
CISM USELESS ?
" It's like my luck," grumbled the
Journalist. " Whenever I find time for a
debauch of serious reading, I come upon some-
thing which unfits me for the daily work I have to
do. On this paper, for instance, there's a quota-
tion from one of Goethe's letters to Schiller, and
I'm a 'peppercorn and a brewer's horse' if it does in it
unsettle all my old views as to the value of
" I know the passage," said the Lay Figure.
" It begins with the remarks that no sympathy,
however valuable, can teach us anything, and that
neither is any species of censure of any use."
"And it runs on thus," said the Journalist: " 'As
long as a work does not exist no one can form any
idea of the possibility of its existence, and, as soon
as it does exist, praise and blame are in all cases
subjective, and many, who cannot be denied to
possess taste, will wish something added to or
taken from it, whereby, possibly, the whole work
would be destroyed ; so that not even the actual
negative value of the critic, which is perhaps
always the most important, can be of any benefit
"That seems reasonable," said the Man with a
Clay Pipe. "Artists would certainly go mad if they
tried to profit by the thousands of various expert
criticisms passed upon their finished work."
The Philosopher laughed. "You all know, of
course," said he, " that Turner and Ruskin soon
arrived at Goethe's conclusion."
" Ruskin ? " cried the Art Critic. " Nonsense!"
" It's true," replied the Philosopher. " Ruskin's
comments on this point were written in 1862, and
you will find them quoted in Francis Turner Pal-
grave : His Journals and Memories of his Life, a
book published last year. You will do well to
consider them side by side with the familiar
dictum as to criticism being the vanity of the
"What do you mean by that?" asked the
" Simply this : that criticism is an infinitely
varied result of man's inborn egotism and self-
satisfaction. Throughout life we are moved by an
irresistible wish to draw attention to ourselves by
speaking of what we like and dislike ; and the ex-
pression we give to this vanity is affected by our
temperaments, characters, prejudices, and many
other things. You will notice, for -instance, that
those who know much about the history of art are
very apt to believe that their knowledge has en-
dowed them with a faultless good taste."
"To believe that," said the Lay Figure, "is to
imply that such knowledge not only kills all
prejudices, but frees its possessors from a very
potent influence in all criticisms—namely, the
spirit of the age. Was it not inevitable that
Shakespeare's greatness should seem barbarous
during the artificial times which followed the death
of Ben Jonson ? "
"And we may be sure," exclaimed the
Journalist, " that the present revival of militancy
in our national life will not be friendly to any artist
of a piece with our Pre-Raphaelites, whose epicene
and luxurious greatness marks a coddled epoch in
our history. But this is not the main point. Is
criticism really useful ? "
"I think it should be," the Lay Figure answered.
" Good ! " cried the Art Critic. " You believe,
I suppose, that the province of the critic is to lay
down rules for the guidance of the artist as well as
for the instruction of the public ? "
" Not so fast," said the Lay Figure. " Have you
ever visited a painting class ? If so, you must have
noticed that no two students either express the
same feeling or see precisely the same forms or
precisely the same colours. How, then, are you to
lay down rules for the aesthetic guidance of those
who neither feel as you do nor see what you see ?
The notion that critics should be dictatorial
pedagogues in all matters of aestheticism is sheer
nonsense. They may be dogmatic when they
ridicule eccentricities of taste, or when they correct
bad drawing, wrong perspective, or any other fault
in the grammar of Art; and, when speaking of our
nation's art as a whole, they should fight for those
qualities which time has proved to be the best in
our national character."
"That's important," said the Man with a Clay
Pipe; "but how should we deal with Art in its
separate manifestations ? "
" Surely," replied the Lay Figure, " we should
remember that each true artist has his own aistheti-
cism, and that we cannot understand it unless we
identify ourselves with the artist's character and
temperament, and put ourselves in visual possession
of the conditions among which he lived or lives.
This is what Mr. Ruskin did in his admirable
defence of Rubens, teaching us to understand that
in Rubens was quintessentialized the masterful
virility for which his countrymen had long been
especially famous. This form of criticism is im-
personal,-historical,-and dramatic; and I find it
useful." The Lay Figure.