HE LAY FIGURE: ON THE
HARM DONE BY THE CLICHES
" Most theories in art," said the Reviewer,
"remind me of caterpillars ; they feed on the thing
which they seem to beautify for a time. Perhaps
nothing is more harmful to art than a theory."
"I hate theories," returned the Journalist; "they
play hide-and-seek among my pet convictions, and
disturb me most when I wish to make ' copy' out
of the said convictions. But, somehow, they force
me to think—at times. And this curious fact
enables me to disagree with you. I cannot see
why a theory that provokes thought should be
harmful to your delicate goddess, Art."
" Nor I, either," the Student chimed in. "The
things which trouble me are not theories but the
cliches of art-criticism—the stock words and phrases,
things of many indefinite meanings, to which
every writer attaches a varied significance of his
own, though he rarely thinks it worth his while to
say what his own shades of meaning chance to be
at the moment of writing. I may be more sensitive
on this point than I ought to be, but I can't help
thinking that the art-critics would do themselves a
lot of good if they went to school for a few months
to Bradley and his philosophy. That would teach
them not to use words at random, as though the
meaning of a word were as devious as a golf-ball."
" The boy speaks his mind fairly," chuckled the
Reviewer, with approval; "and I'll take his side.
I am ready to maintain that criticism would
benefit enormously if its devotees were to discard
all the stock terms, such as ' realism,' ' ideal-
ism,' 'impressionism,' 'originality,' 'individuality,'
'romanticism,' and the rest of the ubiquitous
cliches, that prevent writers from thinking
clearly on artistic subjects. To use these terms,
these stereotyped hindrances to thought, is to
speak in a kind of cipher, the key of which is a
thing of doubt, if not of dispute, to nine persons
out of ten. Get rid of the silly things altogether,
and think till you can express yourself lucidly with-
out the least wish to fall back upon them for
The Man of Letters whistled.
" That's heroism with a vengeance," he laughed.
"Critics have never to write against time, I suppose?
Their life is one of leisure, you believe ? "
" I don't care what their life may be !" the other
replied sharply. " That doesn't concern me in the
least. The thing of importance to me is their
subject-matter, and I have a right to wish that
their subject-matter should be as clear in quality of
expression as it can be made, so that every one
who reads it may understand its full and complete
meaning. Now I hold that stock phrases and
stereotyped cipher-terms prevent clarity of expres-
sion, making the writer's meaning vague and
"By Jove, you've hit it !" cried the Student
excitedly. " How in the world is any art subject
to be made readable, let alone popular, if the
critics pelt us with disputable terms, having
each a dozen shades of significance ? "
"Ah, well," sighed the Man of Letters, throw-
ing a look of mild reproach at the Reviewer, " let
us be quite reasonable, and give the cliches of
criticism whatever praise may be due to them.
Surely it must be owned that modern criticism
could not be carried on, were it forbidden to use
such apt phrases and such proverbial labels as
those which Matthew Arnold made current and
generative in the speech of cultivated men. Do
you ask us not to speak of 'distinction,' 01
' urbanity,' of ' Philistinism,' of ' the note of pro-
vinciality,' of'the Zeit-Geist,'of 'Arminius,' and
of ' Bottles,' not to mention the rest of Arnold's
pregnant short-hand? Is your mind so vast that
portable aphorisms are lost in it ? "
" I've no present quarrel with Matthew Arnold,"
the Reviewer answered after a moment's hesitation.
" He invented many admirable phrases, and put
telling labels on many qualities that needed apt
description, in both art and literature. To these
things Arnold himself attached a definite meaning,
and it is not his fault that the meaning should
have been done to death by the thousand-and-one
writers who have used the Arnold shorthand
without being sure of its significance. Arnold's
phrases, thus staled by the wear and tear of
journalism, remind me of the occasional pieces of
fine music which the barrel-organs torture and
mutilate in the streets. They need a long rest;
and modern criticism would show its vitality by
inventing a new stock of convenient, pithy
" For my part," said the Man with the Briar
Pipe, " I'm quite at one with you. Art criticism
as a rule is uncommonly queer stuff to read. It
not only gets clogged in my mind, but it some-
how seems like cotton-wool there; and this is
chiefly owing to the slap-dash inconsequence
of the writers, who seldom tell me what
professional secrets are locked up in their many
The Lay Figure.