The Art of the Future

David Park Barnitz

The fact most obvious in all the arts at the end of the century is the breaking up of the boundaries which distinguish them one from another. The second and equally obvious fact is that the exponents of this breaking up, who number all the important exponents of art at all, are none of them of the first technical importance.

Both these phenomena, which are symptoms of the transition, are perhaps most obvious in the art of music. In music it is necessary to consider only Germany. France has had no composer who was more than interesting since Berlioz (Cesar Franck I do not include as a Frenchman). In end-of-the-century Italy, Dom Perosi, who stands alone among a host of opera-writers, is more significant of the past than of the future; and those opera-writers themselves, of whom there are almost a dozen of the cleverest, are only more or less faithful followers of the great Verdi. There is something that is interesting in the new Italian music and in that of contemporary Paris; but they both give the impression of waiting for something, and of not themselves knowing quite what. In Germany it is different. There the forward impulse has followed to its logical conclusion the idea of Wagner, which attempted to make music articulate by means of words and to make it paint pictures without words. The present height of the last tendency is astonishing. It may be said broadly that all modern music is painting. At almost any concert one may hear a landscape done into tone, perhaps a moon-view or a river-scene. The river will burble in the wood-wind, or the moon will rise in soft arpeggio. The survival of the old forms in Brahms and César Franck, whose ideas were often modern enough, is only an exception to the general rule. If Wagner and Berlioz and Tchaikowsky portrayed emotions and landscapes in tone, the living Herr Richard Strauss has boldly attempted to portray ideas: music has gone from painting to metaphysic; and we may perhaps expect translations of Kant and Hegel after the manner of 'Also sprach Zarathustra.' Herr Strauss, as the boldest exponent of expression against formal beauty in music, is certainly, from the point of view of the future, quite the most important composer now living. He does not mind filling the earth with cacophonies, if he can manage at the same time to express a few ideas.

In the art of painting the point of interest is Paris; and, in Paris, Monet. In England there has been during the last half-century little of interest outside the Pre-Raphaelite school, and that school his left no children. The same must be said of Böcklin in Germany, who, though individually more interesting than anything that Paris has for many years had to show, was an isolated phenomenon. That, however, can only increase the admiration which we feel for this great man who was able in himself to put life into German art, and who may be said to show the new in the spirit of his work as Monet does in the execution. As there is nothing national in the work of American painters, we are compelled to say that we have great American artists, but no American art, unless perhaps Mr. Whistler will be willing to admit that L'art d 'Amérique, c'est moi! In Paris it is obvious that Monet is, so far, the last word in painting. But it is equally obvious that his principle possesses no more than a transitional value. For Monet and his school have come to an impasse. In his attempt to represent absolutely the values of nature, he has, as far as it seems possible to succeed, succeeded. But this invention, in its almost mechanical carrying out by himself and his followers, has resulted in no art equal to the art of the old method. After Monet's invention, landscape cannot logically go back to its former station. It would be death to stay where he has left it, and just where it is going to advance it is difficult to see.

In literature there seems to be more solid accomplishment and less indication of the new than elsewhere. In England, Mr. George Meredith, who is certainly the greatest of English novelists, who is perhaps the most truly creative mind in English letters after Shakespeare and who to many not the least discerning seems the nineteenth-century England, is now only a great memory and possession. Mr. Hardy's talent seems to become more and more obscured than clearer with time. His truly great work is now so continually mixed with bad that he is a great writer to be admired with great reserves. Mr. Stephen Phillips, whose Marpessa volume promised a gorgeous dawn in the land of Keats, has since then published two undramatic plays where a self-conscious striving after phrases produces only echoes of the greater dead. It is unnecessary to say anything about a number of very clever London writers, though Mr. Bernard Shaw is a playwright as witty as Oscar Wilde, and though Mr. Max Beerbohm, sadly reminiscent of the great age gone by, still gives us at intervals too rare his embroidered argott of Petronius. In the cheapness of present-day English literature we can still look up to the one idol in the person of Mr. Henry James, who long ago made delicacy sublime, and who continues—in writings continually more subtile, more wonderful, and more unknown—to be our one writer of perfection. The other writers of English have no certainty of style at all.

In France much the same conditions hold as in England. What one sees there is the careful and conscientious use of wornout methods, and the best things in French literature of the present are the reverse of new. M. Zola, who is still formidably at the head of French letters, at least in the eye of the world, works his method now as successfully as when he began. Between Thérèse Raquin, the first successful example of it, and Fécondité, the last, there is really no essential difference at all. And one wonders if it is worth while to have produced so much ennui and to have gone such a little way. M. Zola stands for a great success which can justify itself entirely without the aid of the Graces. But he is not open to any new lights, and he is not considered by the younger writers among his countrymen to belong to literature at all. The lesser literary thrones at Paris are obviously occupied by MM. Bourget, Lemaître, and Anatole France. M. Brunetière stands alone. M. Bourget was never, I think, to Americans, anything but a novelist of chic; and he is no longer that, even to them. M. Lemaître 's vigorous, neat, but never penetrating mind, which said, however, perfectly well what it had to say, seems now sadly weakened and dulled. Very much the same process, which is perhaps no more than the process of age, has affected M. France, who was associated, somewhat unaccountably to his American readers, with M. Lemaître in the Dreyfus affaire. M. Brunetière, who is more important than any of these gentlemen, continues to dogmatize and to prophesy. But, after his recent declaration that he is at last ready to accept the supernatural, he cannot be considered anything but a prophet of the past.

An obvious exception to the statement that there is nothing new in Paris is the existence of that school who are not recognized at all by their recognized fraternity, who do not lecture at Harvard, and who, seen from my far-off Cantabrigian divan, seem to me the most delightful of contemporary French writers. I allude to the decadents, to the symbolistes, to the hydropaths, to the trombomistes, to M. Gustave Kahn, to M. Jean Moréas, and the one hundred poets of Paris. I allude also to M. Péladan (or, if he should prefer his more Assyrian title, Sár). I alude to many others. Stéphane Mallarmé, the possessor of an exquisite talent, and a respectable member of this group, is lately dead. And we have for some time had to lament the death of its one man of genius, the one lyrical singer of France since Villon,—Paul Verlaine.

All these slaves of the opal, as one of their obscurest members proclaims them, with their one great man and their hundred pathetic poets, it is surely a fitting thing to admire. "How nice of them," one feels like saying, "to be so dear!" They have not produced a new art, but they have amused. "Children" Renan called them : it is their fitting encomium. In that case, their prose representative, M. Huysmans, is assuredly, it must he said, a very bad child: we have to thank the strange pages of A Rebours and of La Bàs for a great deal of extraordinary corruption and for Apuleian phrases. But a change has come over M. Huysmans: he becomes devot, he becomes dull. As through the pages of En Route and of La Cathédrale I behold M. Huysmans disappearing in the shadow of the monastery, I am reminded that we cannot serve God and the Graces. And in his old manner M. Pierre Loti, tirelessly tooting his little horn, writes sad volumes of foreign lands, so that we are quite bored with the exotic. Japan palls upon us, and we find only ennui in the southern seas.

I have not thought it necessary to say anything of the literature of contemporary Germany, of Russia, or of America. In Germany, although Herr Hauptmann, Herr Sudermann, and the others, each in his very different field, are of the greatest interest and importance, yet these writers are, for the most part, indebted for their tradition either to Norway or to Paris— especially to Norway. And the modern Norwegian school, with Ibsen at its head, has done its work, and so does not enter into the discussion of the future. In Russia, as in Norway with Ibsen, so we come to the close of an era with the old age of Tolstoy; and there is no indication of the next. In Italy, D'Annunzio stands alone; but the purity of his art cannot be appreciated by the Anglo-Saxon readers of this magazine, as the music of his style cannot be heard by one who does not read his tongue.

Of contemporary America, really nothing need be said. A discussion which concerns itself only with the altitudes of literature cannot descend to the enumeration of magazine writers whose chief point of interest is the record of their sales, and whose only critic is Mr. Howells. To Mr. Howells be it left to distinguish between a dozen different kinds of mediocrity, and to tell us how many "poets" there are on the western side of the Mississippi and how many on the eastern.

As we are going in for a cosmopolitan outlook, and as we have wandered so far over the West, we may as well go the rest of the way and step into the East. Of Turkey on the one hand and of Japan on the other, we may say that they are doomed for a long time to come to a Europeanized literature. While in Turkey and Japan the native languages are used to express European ideas, it looks as though in India the English language, in the hands of the Hindus may give rise to a real literature of the soil. Persia, alone among civilized nations, shows no European influence. Her philosophers sit in the seats of their forefathers; and her poetry, which is still voluminously produced, is of the same form and essence with that of Firdausí and Háfiz. (May their fame be everlasting!) The beautiful genius of Persia, as perfect as that of Hellas, sleeps, but is not dead. The inimitable Ká'ání lived as late as the middle of this century; and the Bábí movement, which is destined to make all things new in Persia, may in time produce a literature all its own. Indeed, who that has read the sublime ghazals of the poetess Kurratu'l-'Ayn, to speak only of her, will deny that this literature is already begun?

I have no knowledge of Chinese, but I am told by a friend that the divine poet Li-Tai-Po is in no danger of contemporary rivalry. We may expect a new Chinese literature, a new Persian literature, a new Indian literature, a new literature in the East, a long time after this, when China, Persia, India, are themselves made new, and when the East is come to its own.

As for art, there is of course no art in Muhammadan countries. Japanese art, the art of Hokusai, has ceased to influence Europe, and is extinct at home. The enormous figure of the mediocre Bouguereau, with one foot in the houses of the millionaires of San Francisco, has the other planted on the islands of Japan. Of the music of the Orient, I have listened only to that of China. It speaks to me with a loud voice, indeed, but in a strange tongue.

We have now taken a rapid view of the contemporary world in respect to the arts of music, literature, and painting. We see that the great spirit is dead, that the practisers of these arts have no greatness and no promise of greatness. Indeed, there is a commercial dullness and petty triviality about fin de siecl è art which must make a person who is at home with Pindaros and Aiskulos ask himself whether it be worth while to review it at all. Were it not better to write a masterpiece one's self rather than to review things which are not masterpieces, and which consume time better spent with women and wine? We look on contemporary Paris, on contemporary London, and exclaim, "This is surely not that great art of which we have dreamed!"

The very word "art" is become canting and trivial. The reason for this triviality of art has been found in many things: that artists do not write for the people; that they are not muscular and optimists; that they do not believe in God. But the plain reason is just that art has fallen into trivial hands, that the exponents of it are trivial persons, persons who strive to be chic, who exist to be talked about. They call themselves naturalist, impressionist, symbolist, and a score of other things. These words produce oceans of drool in the newspapers and bore one in parlors; but the bearers of them fail to remark that the important thing is not to belong to a school, but to produce a masterpiece.

A serious consideration, therefore, of contemporary art and its developments must seem somewhat trivial, especially when we consider the really important developments which have occurred and are now occurring in religion and philosophy and the far vista which these open to our vision; for, in religion and philosophy, not only is the old seen to be dying, but the new has already appeared.

The decay of old religions is apparent all over the world, It is the same decay which is lamented in the Pope's Latin ode, which is confessed by the mullahs of Islam, which is ancient history in Japan, and which the Protestant clergymen of America propose to remedy by wholesale reading of the Bible! This decay manifests itself in European art, and manifests itself evilly because European art has nothing with which to replace it.

But with us,—I say it boldly,—not only is the past dead, but the future is born. It is this which His Holiness, in his creeping alcaics, fails to remark. We have indeed thrown away our heritage, but it is because we have a better one. We are not the converted of any new prophet. No Messiah brings hope to us. In Persia the Báb has appeared, but not for us. Nietzsche and Whitman are our prophets, indeed, but solely because they please us: we do not forget that Whitman was illiterate (like all prophets), nor that Nietzsche was a pedagogue. Neither are we made glad by any return to that old belief in a millennium, nor by any revival of belief in the supernatural: it would be too stupid if humanity must go back again to that kind of thing. But science has changed all that. Our confidence and gladness depend upon nothing whatever outside ourselves nor upon any belief in anything: we are confident because we are confident; we are glad because we are glad. We have no desire to humble ourselves, nor to deny ourselves. We do not desire to return to Greece, nor to the Middle Ages, nor to the Cave Period. We are very tired of that mediaeval humiliation, of that howling for mercy and that crouching in the dust; we are very tired of disproved and shameless lies; we are tired of patriotism, of legality, and of the betisê of false morality; we are tired of so many things!

The depressed conditions of art in all its branches seem to point with unmistakable finger, like the paling stars of morning, to a new future and to a great dawn. It is certain that the art of the future will be, from all the standards of the past, a vast change and regeneration; and in this new youth, if any nation more than the whole earth is to be distinguished, it is certain that nation shall be America. Excepting Russia, the nations of Europe and of the East have had both their noon and their twilight. America, even more than Russia, has not yet seen its dawn.

We have as yet done nothing in America: we are all in the future, The writers of New England are not in question; for the writers of New England are writers of a provincialism, and to the world in general they are not, except for Emerson and Hawthorne, either significant or interesting. Besides these writers, America has had one man of genius in Edgar Poe; but Poe, apart from his immaculate art, was immersed in provincialism, and was strangled by it. The one man belonging no more to America than to the world, who has announced the future with a great voice, is Whitman; and in him, with colossal roughness and colossal eloquence, America speaks. He is our Homer and our prophet. He has, as it were, foretold, in its height and its breadth, our music, our art, and our literature.

That music, that art, have yet to come; that literature is as yet only superbly announced. But we may not doubt that beauty, in the great art of the future as in the great art of the past, with a fuller message and a more superb eloquence, will reign. We may not doubt that Germany will bow to our symphonies, and Greece, the admiration and exemplar of all time, to our monuments. As for the poetry in which from the Atlantic to the Pacific a continent shall find utterance, let those who doubt that all the splendor of dawn will make it glorious remember Whitman and that prophecy which he in large measure made true, "that the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung."

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