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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsInquiries And Opinions - An Apology For Technic
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Inquiries And Opinions - An Apology For Technic Post by :runtonk Category :Nonfictions Author :Brander Matthews Date :May 2012 Read :1084

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Inquiries And Opinions - An Apology For Technic

If the chief end of all art is delight, there is small blame to be attached to most of us in that we are glad to take our pleasure carelessly and to give little thought to the means whereby we have been moved. Properly enough, the enjoyment of most of us is unthinking; and in the appreciation of the masterpieces of the several arts few of us are wont to consider curiously the craftsmanship of the men who wrought these marvels, their skill of hand, their familiarity with the mechanics of their art, their consummate knowledge of technic. Our regard is centered rather on the larger aspects of the masterwork, on its meaning and on its veracity, on its intellectual elevation, and on its moral appeal. No doubt this is best, for it is only by its possession of these nobler qualities that a work of art endures. On the other hand, these nobler qualities by themselves will not suffice to confer immortality, unless they are sustained by the devices of the adroit craftsman. As Massinger asserted long ago:

No fair colors
Can fortify a building faintly joined.

Technic is most successful when its existence is least suspected, and this is one reason why it is often overlooked and neglected in the very achievements which owe to its aid their vitality. Perhaps this happens the more frequently because it is the affectation of many an artist to hurry his tools out of sight as swiftly as he can, and to sweep up the chips of his workshop as soon as may be, so that the result of his effort shall seem almost as if it were the sudden effect of the inspiration that is believed to visit a genius now and again. He may have toiled at it unceasingly for months, joying in the labor and finding keen pleasure in every workmanlike artifice he had used to attain his end; and yet he refrains from confessing his many struggles with his rebellious material, wisely preferring to let what he has done speak for itself, simply and without commentary. But the artists know that the pathway to achievement is never along the line of least resistance; and they smile when they hear Mascarille, in Moliere's little comedy, tell the affected young ladies whom he is seeking to impress that all he did "was done without effort." By this the artists at once perceive the fellow to be a pretender, who had never accomplished anything and who never would. They know, as no others can know, that there is no cable-road to the tops of the twin-peaks of Parnassus, and that he who would climb to these remote heights must trudge afoot,--even if he is lucky enough now and again to get a lift on Pegasus.

What the artists do not care to parade, it is the duty of the commentators to point out; and an understanding of the technic of any art, of its possibilities and of its limitations, is as necessary for the critics as for the creators. Perhaps it is not pedantic to suggest that the critic who seeks to be of service ought to be able to see in every masterpiece the result of the combined action of three forces, without any one of which that work of art could not have come into being. First, there is the temperament of the artist himself, his native endowment for the practise of that special art, his gift of story-telling or of play-making, as the case may be. Second, there is the training of the artist, his preparation for his work, his slowly acquired mastery of the processes of his craft, his technical accomplishments. And, thirdly, there is the man's own character, his intelligence, and energy, and determination, his moral sense, his attitude toward life and its insistent problems. Now, of these three necessary factors--first, his native gift; second, his technic; and, third, his character--only the second is improvable by taking thought. The native gift must remain ever what it is, neither more nor less; and it cannot be enlarged by any effort of will. So also the character, which is conditioned by much that is beyond a man's control,--which can be bettered, perhaps, but only as the man himself climbs upward.

Technic, however, can be had for the asking. Any man can acquire it if he will but pay the price,--the needful study and experiment. Any man can make himself a master of his craft, if he will but serve his apprenticeship loyally. The beginner in painting, for example, can go into the studio of an older practitioner to get grounded in the grammar of his art, and to learn slowly how to speak its language, not eloquently at first, but so as to make his meaning clear. In that workshop he soon awakens to the fact that permanent success is never won by any audacity of ignorance, and that the most famous artists are those who acquainted themselves with every artifice of their craft and with every trick of their trade. They went to school to certain of their elders to acquire that tradition of technic, past along from hand to hand, enriched by the devices of one after another of the strong men who had practised the art, following each in the other's footsteps and broadening the trail blazed by those who went first.

Every generation is privileged to stand on the shoulders of its predecessors, and it is taller by what they accomplished. The art of fiction, for example, is a finer art to-day than it was yesterday; and so is every other art, even tho the artists themselves are no greater now than then, and even tho genius is no more frequent than it was formerly. Ghirlandajo and Marlowe and Cervantes were men of genius; but their technic is seen to-day to be as primitive as their native talent is indisputable. We can perceive them doubtfully feeling for a formula, fumbling in the dark, for want of the model which they themselves were to aid in establishing and which every novice nowadays has ready to his hand, even tho he may lack the temperament to profit by what is set before him.

It is significant that not a few of the masters, in the days when they were but novices, found so much satisfaction in this mere acquiring of the secrets of the craft, that they chose to linger in the apprentice-stage longer than might seem necessary. In their earlier work they were content modestly to put in practise the technical principles they had just been acquiring; and for a little while they sought scarcely more than mere technical adroitness. Consider the firstlings of Shakspere's art and of Moliere's; and observe how they reveal these prentice playwrights at work, each seeking to display his cleverness and each satisfied when he had done this. In 'Love's Labor's Lost,' Shakspere is trying to amuse by inventive wit and youthful gaiety and ingenuity of device, just as Moliere in the 'Etourdi' is enjoying his own complicating of comic imbroglios, not yet having anything of importance to say on the stage, but practising against the time when he should want to say something. Neither in the English comedy nor in the French is there any purpose other than the desire to please by the devices of the theater.

There is so little hint of a deeper meaning in either 'Love's Labor's Lost' or the 'Etourdi,' of a moral, so to speak, of a message of ulterior significance, that, if Shakspere and Moliere had died after these plays were produced, nobody would ever have suspected that either youthful playwright had it in him to develop into a philosophic observer of the deeper realities of life. Of course, neither of them was long satisfied with this dexterous display of technical adroitness alone; and, as they grew in years, we find their plays getting richer in meaning and dealing more seriously with the larger problems of existence. But technic was never despised; and, if it was not always the chief end of the playwright, it remained the means whereby he was enabled to erect the solid framework of masterpieces like 'Othello' and 'Tartuffe,' in which the craftsmanship is overshadowed by the nobler qualities, no doubt, but in which the stark technical skill is really more abundant than in the earlier and emptier plays.

As Shakspere and Moliere matured mentally and morally, so also did they grow in facility of accomplishment, in the ease with which they could handle the ever-present problems of exposition and construction. The student of dramaturgy notes with increasing delight the ingenuity with which the first appearance of Tartuffe is prepared; and he finds an almost equal joy in the bolder beginnings of 'Romeo and Juliet' and of 'Hamlet,' where the difficulty was less, it may be, but where the interest of the craftsman in the excellence of his device is quite as obvious. Shakspere was the greatest of dramatic poets and Moliere was the greatest of comic dramatists; and both of them were good workmen, taking an honest pride in the neatness with which they finished a job. In his later years, Shakspere seems to have relaxed a little his interest in technic, and the value of his work is at once seen to suffer. Altho his mind is as powerful as ever up to the last years of his stay in London, 'Cymbeline' and 'A Winter's Tale' are far inferior to 'Hamlet' and to 'Macbeth'; and the cause is apparently little more than a carelessness of technic, an unwillingness to take the trouble needful to master his material and to present it in due proportion.

If Shakspere and Moliere ever meet in that other world which was so much in the mind of the one and so little in the thought of the other, and if they chance to fall into chat--Shakspere spoke French, pretty certainly, even if Moliere knew no English--we may rest assured that they will not surprize each other by idle questions about the meaning of this play or that, its moral purpose or its symbolic significance. We may be confident that their talk would turn promptly to technic; and, perhaps, Shakspere would congratulate Moliere on his advantage in coming later, when the half-open, semi-medieval playhouse, with which the English dramatist had perforce to be contented, had been superseded by a more modern theater, roofed and lighted and set with scenery. And, in his turn, Moliere might be curious to inquire how the English playwright was able to produce upon the spectators the effect of a change of scene when, in fact, there was no actual scenery to change.

To suggest that these two masters of the dramatic art would probably confine their conversation to matters of mere technic is not so vain or adventurous as it may seem, since technic is the one theme the dramatists from Lope de Vega to Legouve have always chosen to discuss, whenever they have been emboldened to talk about their art in public. Lope's 'New Art of Writing Plays' is in verse, and it has taken for its remote model Horace's 'Art of Poetry,' but none the less does it contain the practical counsels of a practical playwright, advising his fellow-craftsmen how best to succeed on the stage; and it is just as technical in its precepts as Mr. Pinero's acute lecture on the probable success of Robert Louis Stevenson as a dramatist, if only the Scots romancer had taken the trouble to learn the rules of the game, as it is played in the theater of to-day.

In thus centering the interest of their public utterance upon the necessities of craftsmanship, the dramatists are in accord with the customs of the practitioners of all the other arts. Consider the criticism of poetry by the poets themselves, for example,--how narrowly it is limited to questions of vocabulary or of versification, whether the poet-critic is Dryden or Wordsworth or Poe. Consider the criticism of painting by the painters themselves,--how frankly it is concerned with the processes of the art, whether the painter-critic is Fromentin or La Farge. It is La Farge who records that Rembrandt was a "workman following his trade of painting to live by it," and who reminds us that "these very great artists"--Rembrandt and his fellows--"are primarily workmen, without any pose or assumption of doing more than a daily task." What they did was all in the day's work. One of the most distinguished of American sculptors was once standing before a photograph of the Panathenaic frieze, and a critical friend by his side exprest a wonder as to "what those old Greeks were thinking of when they did work like that?" The professional artist smiled and responded: "I guess that, like the rest of us, they were thinking how they could pull it off!"

The method, the tricks of the trade, the ingenious devices of one kind or another, these are what artists of all sorts like to discuss with fellow-practitioners of the art; and it is by this interchange of experiences that the means of expression are multiplied. The inner meaning of what they have wrought, its message, its morality, its subtler spirit, the artists do not care ever to talk over, even with each other. This is intangible and incommunicable; and it is too personal, too intimate, to be vulgarized in words; it is to be felt rather than phrased. Above all, it must speak for itself, for it is there because it had to be there, and not because the artist put it there deliberately. If he has not builded better than he knew, then is the result of his labor limited and narrow. A story is told of Thorwaldsen in his old age, when a friend found him disconsolate before a finished statue and inquired if he was despondent because he had not been able to realize his ideal. And the sculptor responded that, on the contrary, he had realized his ideal, and therefore he was downcast; for the first time his hand had been able to accomplish all that his mind had planned.

"Neither in life, nor even in literature and in art, can we always do what we intend to do," M. Brunetiere once asserted, adding that, "in compensation, we have not always intended to do all that we have actually accomplished." Often no one is more astonished than the artist himself--be he poet or painter--at what the critics sometimes find in his work; and he is frankly unaware of any intention on his part to do all the fine things which he is told that he has done. But the critics may be justified, despite the disclaimer of the artist; and the fine things are, of a truth, to be discovered even tho they get into the work by accident, as it were, and even tho they may be the result of an intention which was either unconscious on the artist's part, or subconscious.

We cannot help feeling the sublimity so obvious in the frescos of the Sistine Chapel; and yet it is equally obvious--if we care to look for the evidence--that while he was at this work the mind of Michelangelo was absorbed by the conquest of a host of technical difficulties. Of course, it would be going too far to assert that the great artist did not actually intend the sublimity that we admire and wonder at; but we may be sure that this sublimity is not something deliberately planned and achieved by him. It is there because the theme evoked it, and because Michelangelo was himself a man of the noblest character and of the loftiest imagination. It was inherent and latent in him, and it had to come out, inevitably and mightily, when he was engaged on a piece of work that tasked all his powers.

An ideal, a significance, a moral, that has to be inserted into a work of art and that might have been omitted, is not likely to be firmly joined; and it is liable to fall apart sooner or later. Morality, for example, is not something to be put in or left out, at the caprice of the creator; it is, as Mr. Henry James once called it, "a part of the essential richness of inspiration." Therefore the artist need not give thought to it. If his own soul is as clean as may be, and if his vision is clear, the moral of his work may be left to take care of itself. Nearly always when an artist has been over-anxious to charge his work with a moral message, written so plain that all who run may read, he has failed to attain either of his ends, the ethical or the esthetic. There is a purpose plainly exprest in Miss Edgeworth's 'Moral Tales' and in her 'Parent's Assistant'; and the result is that healthy girls and wholesome boys are revolted. There was no moral intent in her ever-delightful 'Castle Rackrent'; and yet it has an ethical significance which few of its readers can have failed to feel.

Perhaps 'Castle Rackrent' is the finest of Miss Edgeworth's stories, because it is the only one in which she had set herself a technical problem of exceeding difficulty. She chose to use the faithful old retainer to tell the tale of the family's downfall in consequence of its weakness, its violence, and its vice. Thady has never a word of blame for any son of the house he has served generation after generation. Indeed, he is forever praising his succession of masters; but so artfully does the author utilize the device of transparency that the reader is put in possession of the damning facts, one by one, and is soon able to see the truth of the matter which Thady himself has no thought of revealing,--which, indeed, he would probably deny indignantly if it was suggested by any one else.

The chief reason why the novel is still held to be inferior to the drama is to be found in its looseness of form. The novel is not strictly limited, as the play must be by the practical necessities of the theater; and the practitioners of the art of fiction permit themselves a license of structure which cannot but be enfeebling to the artists themselves. Few of the novelists have ever gone about a whole winter with a knot in their foreheads, such as Hawthorne carried there while he was thinking out the 'Scarlet Letter.' And only by strenuous grappling with his obstacles was he able to attain the masterly simplicity of that Puritan tragedy. A resolute wrestling with difficulty is good not only for the muscles but also for the soul; and it may be because they know this, that artists are inclined to go afield in search of difficulties to be overthrown, that they set themselves problems, that they accept limitations. Herein we may see a cause for the long popularity of the sonnet, with its restricted scheme of rimes. Herein, again, we may see a reason for the desire of the novelist to try his fate as a dramatist. "To work successfully beneath a few grave, rigid laws," so Mr. James once declared, "is always a strong man's highest ideal of success." The novelist often fails as a dramatist, because he has the gift of the story-teller only, and not that of the play-maker, but more often still because the writing of fiction has provided him with no experience in working beneath any law other than his own caprice.

The modern sculptor, by the mere fact that he may now order marble of any shape and of any size, finds his work far easier and, therefore, far less invigorating than it was long ago, when the artist needed to have an alerter imagination to perceive in a given piece of marble the beautiful figure he had to cut out of that particular block and no other. Professor Mahaffy has suggested that the decay of genius may be traced to the enfeebling facilities of our complex civilization. "In art," he maintained, "it is often the conventional shackles,--the necessities of rime and meter, the triangle of a gable, the circular top of a barrel--which has led the poet, the sculptor, or the painter, to strike out the most original and perfect products of their art. Obstacles, if they are extrinsic and not intrinsic, only help to feed the flame." Professor Butcher has declared that genius "wins its most signal triumphs from the very limitations within which it works." And this is what Gautier meant when he declared that the greater the difficulty the more beautiful the work; or, as Mr. Austin Dobson has paraphrased it:

Yes; when the ways oppose--
When the hard means rebel,
Fairer the work outgrows,--
More potent far the spell.


Not only has a useful addition to the accepted devices of the craft been the guerdon of a victorious grapple with a difficulty, but the successful effort to solve a purely technical problem has often led to an ennobling enlargement of the original suggestion, with which the artist might have rested content if he had not been forced to the struggle. From the history of sculpture and of architecture here in the United States during the last years of the nineteenth century, it is easy to select two instances of this enrichment of the fundamental idea, as the direct consequence of an unexpected obstacle which the artist refused to consider a stumbling-block, preferring to make it a stepping-stone to a loftier achievement.

When the city of New York was making ready to welcome the men of the navy on their return from Manila and Santiago, the Architectural League offered to design a triumphal arch. The site assigned, in front of Madison Square, just where Broadway slants across Fifth Avenue, forced the architect to face a difficulty seemingly unsurmountable. The line of march was to be along Fifth Avenue, and, therefore, the stately monument was set astride that street. But the line of approach, for most of the multitude certain to come to gaze on the temporary addition to civic beauty, was along Broadway; and the arch built squarely across the avenue would seem askew to all who first caught sight of it from the other street. To avoid this unfortunate effect the designer devised a colonnade, extending north and south, up and down the avenue. Thus he corrected the apparent slant by emphasizing the fact that it was the avenue in which the arch was placed and not the more popular highway that chanced to cut across it. But this colonnade, invented solely to solve a difficulty, lent itself readily to rich adornment. It became at once an integral element of the architectural scheme, to which it gave breadth as well as variety. It was accepted instantly as a welcome modification of the tradition,--as an amplification not to be wantonly disregarded by any architect hereafter called upon to design a triumphal arch.

To this illustration from architecture may be added another from sculpture, as suggestive and as useful in showing how a conquest of technical difficulty is likely ever to increase the resources of the art. The sculptor of the statue of Lincoln, which ennobles a park of Chicago, was instructed that the work of his hands was to stand upon a knoll, visible from all sides, stark against the sky, unprotected by any background of entablature or canopy. The gaunt figure of Lincoln is not a thing of beauty to be gazed at from all the points of the compass; and the stern veracity of the artist would not permit him to disguise the ill-fitting coat and trousers by any arbitrary draperies, mendaciously cloaking the clothes which were intensely characteristic of the man to be modeled. To shield the awkwardness of the effigy when seen from the rear, a chair was placed behind it; and so the sculptor was led to present Lincoln as the Chief Magistrate of the Republic, arisen from the chair of state, to address the people from whom he had received his authority. And thus, at that late day, at the end of the nineteenth century, Mr. Saint-Gaudens did a new thing; altho there had been standing statues and seated statues, no sculptor had ever before designed a figure just rising from his seat.

It is by victories like these over technical difficulties that the arts advance; and it is in combats like these that the true artist finds his pleasure. The delight of battle is his, as he returns to the attack, again and again, until at last he wins the day and comes home laden with the spoil. The true artist hungers after technic for its own sake, well knowing the nourishment it affords. He even needlessly puts on fetters now and again, that he may find sharper zest in his effort. This ravenous appetite for technic leads many an artist to go outside his own art in search of unforeseen but fascinating difficulties. The painter is tempted to stretch his muscles by a tussle with the unknown obstacles of the sculptor; and the sculptor in his turn contends with the limitations of the painter. Michelangelo called himself a sculptor and pretended to be no more; but in time he took up the craft of the architect, of the painter and of the poet. And this interchange of field in search of new worlds to conquer seems to be characteristic of the great periods of artistic activity and achievement. In all such periods, the more accomplished craftsmen have never wearied of technical experiment to the constant enrichment of the processes of their art.

It is the uncreative critics, it is never the creative craftsmen, who dwell on the danger of taking too much interest in technic. The critics may think that the more attention the artist pays to his manner, the less he has for his matter, and that he is in peril of sacrificing content to form. But the craftsmen themselves know better; they know that no one may surely separate manner and matter, form and content, Siamese twins often, coming into being at a single birth. Furthermore, the artist knows that technic is the one quality he can control, every man for himself, every man improving himself as best he can. His native gift, his temperament,--this is what it is; and what it is it must be; and no man can better it by any effort. His character, also, the personality of the artist, that which gives a large meaning to his work,--how little can any man control this result of heredity and environment?

If an artist has anything to say it will out, sooner or later, however absorbed he may be in finding the best way of saying it. If he has nothing to say, if he has no message for the heart of man, he may at least give some pleasure to his contemporaries by the sheer dexterity of his craftsmanship. There would have been no more meaning in Poe's verse, if there had been less melody, if the poet had less devotedly studied the "book of iambs and pentameters." There would have been no larger significance in the painted epigrams of Gerome, if that master of line had cared less for draftsmanship. There would have been no more solid value in the often amusing plays of Sardou, if he had not delighted in the ingenuity of his dramaturgical devices. At bottom, Sardou, Gerome, and Poe, had little or nothing to say; that is their misfortune, no doubt; but it is not their fault, for, apparently, each one of them made the best of his native gift.

In his time Milton was the most careful and conscientious of artists in verse-making, and so, in his turn, was Pope, whose ideals were different, but whose skill was no less in its kind. So, again, was Tennyson untiring in seeking to attain ultimate perfection of phrase, consciously employing every artifice of alliteration, assonance and rime. But, if Milton's verse seems to us now noble and lofty, while Pope's appears to us as rather petty and merely clever, surely this is because Milton himself was noble and his native endowment lofty, and because Pope himself was petty and his gift only cleverness; surely it is not because they were both of them as much interested in the mechanics of their art as was Tennyson after them.

One of the wittiest critics of our modern civilization, the late Clarence King, remarked, some ten years ago, that the trouble with American fiction just then lay in the fact that it had the most elaborate machinery,--and no boiler. But the fault of our fiction at that time was to be sought in the absence of steam,--and not in the machinery itself which stood ready to do its work, to the best advantage and with the utmost economy of effort, just so soon as the power might be applied.

(1904.)

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