Monday, April 3, 2017

WITHOUT ART, THE CRUDENESS OF REALITY WOULD MAKE THE WORLD UNBEARABLE

A couple of days ago, ISS member George Austin, from New Zealand, shared with me the following newspaper clipping: 



He told me that in his capacity as marketing person for the Thames Society of Arts, he had chosen this Shaw quotation as the best way to synthesize why groups like theirs are so necessary in today's world. Of course, I asked for permission to reproduce the advertisement as an excuse to share the source of this quotation with you. 

As many of you may already know, this pithy sentence is originally from Part V of Back to Methuselah: "As Far as Thought Can Reach." 

THE HE-ANCIENT. And you, Ecrasia: you cling to your highly artistic dolls as the noblest projections of the Life Force, do you not?
ECRASIA. Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.

That is why I thought I'd provide a few extra references by authors who have discussed this quotation in their Shaw-related scholarship. 

To begin with, several authors have included this quotation in compilations of the "wit and wisdom" of Bernard Shaw. Among them, we can mention Stephen Winsten, who used it on page 10 of his The Quintessence of G.B.S.


Perhaps more apropos is Stanely Weintraub's discussion of the extended context of this quotation in his edited collection of Shaw's art criticism: Bernard Shaw on the London Art Scene, 1885-1950 (p. 32-33): 

"But Arjillax, having matured from abbreviated adolescence, "cannot pretend to be satisfied now with modelling pretty children," although the immature Ecrasia maintains with the steadfastness of youth, "Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable'" To her the She-Ancient suggests better wisdom. "Yes, child: art is the magic mirror you make to reflect your invisible dreams in visible pictures. You use a glass mirror to see your face: you use works of art to see your soul. But we who are older use neither glass mirrors nor works of art. We have a direct sense of life. When you gain that you will put aside your mirrors and statues, your toys and your dolls." Yet the art-starved Ancients are unhappy and bored, their lives long but bleak, their brave new world gained at great price."

This paragraph is also reproduced, verbatim, in the section on "Shaw in the Picture Galleríes and the Picture Galleries in Shaw's Plays" in The Unexpected Shaw, by the same author (p. 86).

Other Shaw scholars have chosen to paraphrase this quotation --without mentioning it-- in order to illustrate Shaw's stance on art at large and in relation to more pragmatic pursuits. 

Michael Holroyd, for example, explains in Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition (p. 84) that in the 1880s


A similar tension between art and 'reality' (whether it be economics or philosophy) is expressed by Charles A. Berst in Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama (p. xiii): 


But these notions also pervade Shaw's dramatic texts. Remember, for instance, Caesar's words (and the discussion thereof in Elise Adam's Bernard Shaw and the Aesthetes, p. 114 - full text available online):



All of the above should be taken as part and parcel of Shaw's philosophy. After all, as one of his characters would put it in Immaturity (1879)


By the way, the "somebody" who says that life witout art (and artists) is "brutality" is probably John Ruskin. As Eric Bentley reminds us in his Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950 (p. 34): 


Well, I hope I made these last few minutes worth the while. Because, what is life without art?




Monday, March 6, 2017

FINE ART IS THE ONLY TEACHER EXCEPT TORTURE

Sometimes one gets carried away when browsing the Internet, and you end up reading an article published eight years ago. In this case, the alleged Shaw quotation is one of those that, to quote the Italian dictum, "se non è vero è ben trovato." A truly Shavian turn of phrase. 

Unknown painter - The Torture of St Victor - WGA23584


Indeed, it doesn't take long to confirm that the sentence in question appears in one of Shaw's plays. Well, actually, it is from the preface to one of them. Misalliance to be precise. You can either read the preface (and the whole play) here. Or you may choose to listen to the preface in the voice of Robert Shaw here

Whatever the case, you'll soon come across the relevant passage: 

Art Teaching
"By art teaching I hasten to say that I do not mean giving children lessons in freehand drawing and perspective. I am simply calling attention to the fact that fine art is the only teacher except torture. I have already pointed out that nobody, except under threat of torture, can read a school book. The reason is that a school book is not a work of art. Similarly, you cannot listen to a lesson or a sermon unless the teacher or the preacher is an artist."

It should come as no surprise that Shaw compares education to torture, given his personal experience with formal schooling and his success as a self-taught genius. 

But being the avid linguist I am, I was more interested in finding out whether Shaw resorted to drawing parallels with torture with any frequency. I wanted to shed some light on what things or issues Shaw (or his characters) compares to torture. The answer (below) may surprise you - although I hope it is more bearable than its subject matter. 


DOYLE [...]. If you want to interest him in Ireland you've got to call the unfortunate island Kathleen ni Hoolihan and pretend she's a little old woman. It saves thinking. It saves working. It saves everything except imagination, imagination, imagination; and imagination's such a torture that you can't bear it without whisky. [With fierce shivering self-contempt] At last you get that you can bear nothing real at all: you'd rather starve than cook a meal; you'd rather go shabby and dirty than set your mind to take care of your clothes and wash yourself; you nag and squabble at home because your wife isn't an angel, and she despises you because you're not a hero; and you hate the whole lot round you because they're only poor slovenly useless devils like yourself...

Of course, it should not be forgotten that in the very preface to this play ("Preface for Politicians") Shaw argues that hanging "is the least sensational form of public execution: it lacks those elements of blood and torture for which the military and bureaucratic imagination lusts."

For precisely "blood and torture" can help us gauge a man of true military disposition, but with a classic Shavian twist. As Shaw explains in a letter to Frank Harris (20 October 1916):

"There is an old story, told sometimes about Mazarin, sometimes about Richelieu, of a minister's antechamber hung with pictures: those on one side being all idyllic landscapes and scenes of domestic sentiment: those on the other scenes of battle and blood and torture. The minister, when he wanted to size up a new man, watched how he took the pictures. If he clung to the battle pictures, the minister knew that he was a timid man of peace, for whom action and daring were full of romantic fascination. If he wallowed in cottage senti­ment and the Maiden's Prayer, he was immediately marked down for military preferment and [a] dangerous job."

But once again Shaw returns to art as the ultimate form of torture. His letter to Arnold Bennett (20 October 1921) begins thus: 

"My dear Bennett
The art of pleasing an audience is a very easy one compared to the art of torturing it. Last Tuesday night the artistic torture which was the object of the style of execution adopted was inevitably mixed up with the non-artistic torture of a terrible strain of nervousness, of the mental indigestion of half assimilated parts, of bewilderment, of voices that could be steady at first only by forcing them, and of the excitement and terror of parts that felt wonderful but were quite incomprehensible. That alloy of non-artistic terror will, I hope, presently disappear, and make the difficult parts as smooth and certain as the easy parts were last night. But the artistic torture will be all the more poignant; for none of the difficulties are shirked. Strictly between ourselves, the production was hurried under finan­cial pressure."


THE DEVIL. [...] Hell is a place far above their comprehension: they derive their notion of it from two of the greatest fools that ever lived, an Italian and an Englishman. The Italian described it as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture.


"...we have been judging and punishing ever since Jesus told us not to; and I defy anyone to make out a convincing case for believing that the world has been any better than it would have been if there had never been a judge, a prison, or a gallows in it all that time. We have simply added the misery of punishment to the misery of crime, and the cruelty of the judge to the cruelty of the criminal. We have taken the bad man, and made him worse by torture and degradation, incidentally making ourselves worse in the process. It does not seem very sensible, does it?"

No, it doesn't.


The-torture-of-prometheus-jean-louis-cesar-lair