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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - The British Academy Of Letters Post by :John_Culotta Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1275

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - The British Academy Of Letters

(Sidenote:_18 Aug. '10_)

A correspondent writes angrily to me because I have not written angrily about the list of authors recently put forward as Academicians of the proposed new British Academy of Letters. The fact is that the entire scheme of the British Academy of Letters had a near shave of escaping my attention altogether. I only heard of it by accident, being away on a holiday in a land where they have had enough of academies. But for the miracle of a newspaper found on a fishing-boat I might not have even known what on earth my correspondent was raging about. In literary circles such as mine the new British Academy of Letters has not been extensively advertised. In the main I agree with my correspondent's criticisms of the list. But I must say that his ire shows a certain naivete. None but a young and trustful man could have expected the list to be otherwise than profoundly and utterly grotesque. A list of creative artists that did not suffer acutely from this defect could only be compiled by creative artists themselves. Not all, and not nearly all, creative artists would be qualified to sit on the compiling committee, but nobody who was not a creative artist would be qualified. The rest of the world has no sure ground of judgment, for the true critical faculty is inseparable from the creative. The least critical word of the most prejudiced and ignorant creative artist is more valuable than whole volumes writ by dilettanti of measureless refinement and erudition. I am not aware of the identity of the persons who sat down together and compiled the pleasing preliminary list of twenty-seven academicians, but I am perfectly certain that the predominant among them were not original artists. The artist, at the present stage of social evolution, would as soon think of worrying himself about the formation of an academy, as of putting up for the St. Pancras Borough Council. He has something else to do. He fears the deadly contacts with those prim, restless, and tedious dilettanti. And of course he knows that academies are the enemies of originality and progress.

* * * * *

That list was undoubtedly sketched out by a coterie of dilettanti. London swarms with the dilettanti of letters. They do not belong to the criminal classes, but their good intentions, their culture, their judiciousness, and their infernal cheek amount perhaps to worse than arson or assault. Their attitude towards the creative artist is always one of large, tolerant pity. They honestly think that if only the artist knew his business as they know his business, if only he had their discernment and impartiality, and if only he wasn't so confoundedly ignorant and violent--how different he would be, how much nicer and better, how much more effective! They are eternally ready to show an artist where he is wrong and what he ought to do in order to obtain their laudations unreserved. In a personal encounter, they will invariably ride over him like a regiment of polite cavalry, because they are accustomed to personal encounters. They shine at tea, at dinner, and after dinner. They talk more easily than he does, and write more easily too. They can express themselves more readily. And they know such a deuce of a lot. And they can balance pros and cons with astonishing virtuosity. The Press is their washpot. And they are influential in other places. They can get pensions for their favourites. They know the latest methods of pulling an artichoke to pieces. And they will say among themselves, forgiving but slightly pained: "Yes, he's written a very remarkable novel, but he doesn't know how to eat an artichoke." They would be higher than the angels were it not for the fact that, in art, they are exquisitely and perfectly footling. They cannot believe this, the public cannot believe it. Nevertheless, every artist knows it to be true. They have never done anything themselves except fuss around.

* * * * *

As for us, we are their hobby. And since unoriginality is their most striking characteristic, some of us are occasionally pretty nearly hobbied to extinction by them. In every generation they select some artist, usually for reasons quite unconnected with art, and put him exceedingly high up in a niche by himself. And when you name his name you must hush your voice, and discussion ends. Thus in the present generation, in letters, they have selected Joseph Conrad, a great artist, but not the only artist on the island. When Conrad is mentioned they say, "Ah, Conrad!" and bow the head. And in the list, compiled presumably to represent what is finest in English literature at an epoch when the novel is admittedly paramount, there are half a dozen of everything except novelists. There is only one practising novelist, and he is not an Englishman. I said a moment ago that the most striking characteristic of the dilettanti is unoriginality. But possibly a serene unhumorousness runs it close.

* * * * *

The master-thought at the bottom of this scheme is not an Academy of British Letters for literary artists, but an Academy of British Letters for literary dilettanti. A few genuine artists, if the scheme blossoms, will undoubtedly be found in it. But that will be an accident. Some of the more decorative dilettanti have had a vision of themselves as academicians. Hence the proposal for an academy. In the public mind dilettanti are apt to be confused with artists. Indeed, the greater the artist, the more likely the excellent public is to regard him as a sort of inferior and unserious barbaric dilettante. (Fortunately posterity does not make these mistakes.) A genuine original artist is bound to make a sad spectacle of himself in an academy. Knowing this, Anatole France, the greatest man in the Academie Francaise, never goes near the sittings. He has got from the institution all that advantage of advertisement which he was legitimately entitled to get, and he has no further use for the Academie Francaise. His contempt for it as an artist is not concealed. What can academicians do except put on a uniform and make eulogistic discourses to each other under the eyes of fashionably-attired American female tourists? The Authors' Society does more practical good for the art of literature in a year than an Academy of Letters could do in forty years.

* * * * *

The existing British Academy of Learning may or may not be a dignified and serious institution. I do not know. But I see no reason why it should not be. It has not interested the public, and it never will. Advertisement does not enter into it to any appreciable extent. Moreover, it is much more difficult to be a dilettante of learning than a dilettante of letters. You are sooner found out. Further, learning can be organized, and organized with advantage. Creative art cannot. All artistic academies are bad. The one real use of an artistic academy is to advertise the art which it represents, to cause the excellent public to think and chatter about that art and to support it by buying specimens of it. The Royal Academy has admirably succeeded in this business, as may be seen at Burlington Gardens any afternoon in the season. But it has succeeded at the price of making itself grotesque and vicious; and it retards, though of course it cannot stop, the progress of graphic art. Certain arts are in need of advertisement. For example, sculpture. An Academy of Sculpture might, just now, do some good and little harm. But literature is in no need of advertisement in this country. It is advertised more than all the others arts put together. It includes the theatre. It is advertised to death. Be sure that if it really did stand in need of advertisement, no dilettante would have twice looked at it. The one point which interests me about the proposed academy is whether uniforms are comprised in the scheme.

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