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The Woman Problem & other prose

Artist and Common Man — A Critic's Second Thoughts

page 171

Artist and Common Man
A Critic's Second Thoughts

Sir,—Since you were good enough to publish my talk on Criticism, perhaps you will let me make some further comments, provoked by criticisms that have been made to me privately. I suggested that the only way to appreciate the arts (apart from being a practitioner) is to make oneself familiar with a large body of the best work, of all kinds; and at the same time to study the best critical writing. A. J. G. Fisher expressed to me his doubt whether the direct practice of drawing could be dispensed with at all in teaching people to understand and like pictorial art. And Georg Tintner, as a composer of music, said he thought the reading of music criticism was not necessarily helpful, and might even do some harm. These are salient points. It was only lack of time, and the fact that I was trying to talk about all the arts in one breath, that prevented me from dealing with them more satisfactorily.

New Zealanders are not a particularly musical nation. And I don't think they will ever become musical just by setting up Chairs of Music in the University Colleges, establishing a Symphony Orchestra, listening to music over the air for several hours a day, granting music scholarships, and so on. All these things have their importance. But they are not fundamental.

What is a musical nation? Are the Americans musical because they spend enormous sums of money on their hundreds of orchestras? I'll leave you to answer that one, and content myself by defining a musical nation as one whose womenfolk sing together in harmony as they do the washing up—just as a matter of course. The foundation of page 172musical taste in any community must surely be the ability of nearly everybody to use his voice in singing—not merely the willingness to provide training for the few with special talents. And with this goes, naturally, the habit of singing in harmony on all sorts of social occasions.

There is a great deal of spade-work to be done before the refinements of musical organisation I have mentioned above can become really fruitful. And this spade-work consists in the training of a generation or two of school-children in the art of part-singing—not as 'lessons', but as a form of relaxation and play. This work can only be done by enthusiasts who are more interested in laying the bedrock of musical sensibility than in doing some of the more attractive jobs on the superstructure. We have a number of such people, and they are worth cherishing.

I am not saying for a moment that our other musical activities should be abandoned, or even diminished. Nor am I contending that children should not be taught to play instruments. Nor am I trying to discourage the playing of the world's finest music by orchestras and solo performers. I am just trying to establish an order of importance. Much good work is being done at present among the younger people. But I think that these folk who are teaching singing in the schools, and running children's orchestras, should be given the strongest encouragement, and provided with every facility—as should those, also, who are working on adult education. In our present condition, in which only one person in ten is either able or willing to listen to a Beethoven Symphony, and only one in fifty can sing in harmony (I believe there is a close connection between the two), the job being done by enthusiastic teachers of the young is the most important of any.

When it comes to painting, much the same thing can be said. I doubt if it is possible for any man who hasn't played Rugby football to get the fullest enjoyment out of watching a good game. And I doubt if any person who hasn't at some stage tried to draw, or to smear pigments on a surface, or to model in clay, can really understand and appreciate the lovely texture of a painting by John Piper, or get genuine page 173satisfaction out of the many other qualities that are to be found in the work of fine painters and sculptors. I notice a widespread (but not yet sufficiently general) attempt being made to foster 'child art', and I think this too is extremely important.

In brief, it is unhealthy for any complete gulf to exist between the artist and the common man, however widely they may be separated in point of skill and sophistication. And this gulf can only be filled in when the layman has been able to enjoy some direct experience, however simple and rudimentary, of the practice of the arts. (I am convinced that the ability to put up—and to enjoy putting up—a chicken-house is an essential part of the experience of both the architect and the connoisseur or critic of architecture.)

I should like to see the arts being practised in much the same way as we practise football. Nearly every boy, at an early age, gets some fun out of kicking a ball about the school playground. Nearly everybody understands a good deal about football, and enjoys either playing or watching it. More than that: there are several different codes of football. They don't spend much time attacking one another, but their followers would have a great deal of contempt for a player who 'sold' a game, or a critic who objected that what they were playing wasn't cricket. I don't know that the analogy can be pressed too far, but I find it helpful. Above all—football is played for enjoyment.