The Bias Of Judgment
( Originally Published 1903 )
IF discernment was, ours to trace through the maze of fashion and experimental originality the living principle of true art, the caprice of taste would have little to do with the comfort of our convictions or the worth of our investments.
Fallacy has its short triumphs and the persuasive critic or the creator of art values may effect real value but for a day. The limit of the credulity of the public, which Lincoln has immortalized, is the basis of hope.
The public in time rights itself.
Error in discerning this living principle in art is cause for the deepest contrition at the confessional of modern life. Unsigned and unrecognized works by modern masters have been rejected by juries to whom in haste the doors of the Salon or Society have been reopened with apologies. The nation which assumes the highest degree of aesthetic perception turned its back on Millet and Corot and Courbet and Manet and Puvis de Chavannes, rejecting their best, and has honored yesterday what it spurns today. The feverish delirium of the upper culture demands " some new thing," and Athens, Paris, London and New York concede it.
But what has lived ? What successive generations have believed in may be believed by us ; a thought expressed by the author of " Modern Painters " in one magnificent sentence, containing 153 words and too long for quotation. The argument is based on the common sense of man-kind. It has however this objection. Judgment by such agreement is bound to be cumulative. What is good in the beginning is better today, still better tomorrow, then great, then wonderful then divine.
This is the Raphaelesque progression, and if fifty persons were asked who was the greatest painter, forty-nine would say Raphael, without discrimination. The fiftieth might have observed what all painters know, that Raphael was not a great painter, either as colorist or technician. The opinion in this contention of Velasquez that of all painters he studied at Rome, Raphael pleased him least, is a judgment of a colorist and a technician, the more valuable because rendered before the ministrations of oil and granular secretion had enveloped his work in the mystery from which it speaks to us. As a painter and draughtsman Raphael is perhaps outclassed by Bouguereau, Cabanel or Lefevre of our own time, and as a composer of either decorative or pictorial design he has had superiors. But the work of Raphael possesses the loving unction of real conviction and nothing to which he put his well trained hand failed of the baptism of genius. Through this mark, therefore, it will live forever. Nor should any work require more than this for continuous life. Each age should be distinctive.
The bias of judgment through the cumulative regard of successive centuries is what has created the popular disparity between the old and modern masters, and it must not be forgotten that the harmony of color and its glowing quality is largely the gift of these centuries, a fact made cruelly plain to those who have restored pictures and tampered with their secrets.
It will be a surprise to the average man in that realm of perfect truth which lies beyond, to mark, in the association of artists of all ages, when the divisions of schools, periods and petty formulas are forgotten, that Raphael will grasp the hand of Abbott Thayer, saying to him in the never dying fervor of art enthusiasm and with the acknowledgment of limitations, which is one of the signs of greatness ;
" O, that I had had thy glorious quality of technical subtlety in place of the mechanical directness in which I labored ! " and he in turn to be reminded that had he paused for this, the span of his short life were measured long before he had accomplished half his work.
A kindred bias is the eventual acceptance of whatever is persisted in. Almost any form in which a technically good artist may express his idea will in time find acceptance. It has the persuasion of the advertisement, offering what we do not want. In time we imagine we do. Duplications of Cuyp's very puerile arrangement of parts, as in. the " Departure for the Chase " to be found in others of his pictures, work in our minds mitigation for those faults. The belief in self has the singular magnetic potency of drawing and turning us. A stronger magnet must then be the living principle. We find it in unity. Originality compromises this at its peril.
And that discrimination against the prophet in his own country! Under its ban the native artist left his home and dwelt abroad ; but the expatriation which produced pictures of Dutch and French peasants by native painters was in time condemned. The good of the foreign experience lay in the medals which were brought back out of banishment. These turned the tide of thoughtless prejudice, and international competitions have kept it rising.
But the worth of the foreign signature is now of the lesser reckonings ; for with the same spirit in which the native artist would annihilate the tariff on foreign art, have the best painters of Europe declared "there shall be no nationality in art "; for art is individual and submits to the government stamp only by courtesy.
Happy that nation which, when necessary, can believe in its own, not to exclusion, from clannish pride, but on the basis of that simple canon adopted by the world of sport; "Let the best win."
The commonest bias to judgment is also the most vulgar—price. The reply of the man of wealth to the statement that a recent purchase was an inferior example of an artist's work; "I paid ten thousand for it. Of course it's all right," was considered final to the critic. The man whose first judgment concerning an elaborate picture of roses was turned to surprise and wonder when told the price, which in time led to respect and then purchase, may find parallels in most of the collections of Philistia. " The value of a picture is what some one will pay for it " is a maxim of the creators of picture values and upon it the " picture business " has its working basis. And so together with the good of foreign art have the Meyer Von Bremens and the Verbeckhovens, the creations of the school of smiles and millinery, and the failures and half successes of impressionism, together with its good, been cornered, and unloaded upon the ingenuous collector.
The most insidious bias of judgment is that developed by the art historian, the man who really knows.
Serene and above the petty matters which concern the buyer of art and perplex the producer, he pours forth his jeremiads upon the age and its art, subjecting them to indefensible comparisons with the fifteenth century and deploring the materialism of modern times.
The argument is that out of the heart the mouth must speak ; can men gather figs from thistles : is it reasonable to expect great art when men and messages are transported by steam and electricity, in the face of Emerson's contention that art is antagonistic to hurry? The argument neglects the fact that this present complex life is such because it has added one by one these separate interests to those which it has received as an inheritance, each of which in its own narrowing niche having been preserved under the guardianship of the specialist.
The art instinct has never died out; but art, which aforetime was the only thought of the humanists, has been obliged to move up and become condensed. But mark, the priests who keep alive her fires can still show their ordination from the hands of the divine Raphael. The age may be unsympathetic, but for those who will worship, the fire burns. Whereas art was once uplifted by the joyous acclaim of the whole people, she must now fight for space in a jostling competition. But is it not more reasonable that the prophet lay aside his sackcloth and accept the conditions of the new era, acknowledging that art has had its day in the sanctuary and has now come to adorn the home and that of necessity therefore the conditions of subject and of size must be altered ? The impulse which afore-time expressed itself in ideals is now satisfied to become reflective of the emotions. The change which has restricted the range in the grander reaches of the ideal has resulted in the closer and more intimate friendship with nature. The effort which was primarily ideal now turns its fervor into the quality of its means.