Week_1-1 - 5 Charles Baudelaire(1821—1867 ‘Critical...

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Unformatted text preview: 5 Charles Baudelaire (1821—1867) ‘Critical Method — on the Modern Idea of Progress as Applied to the Fine Arts’ There can be few occupations so interesting, so attractive, so full of surprises and revelations for a critic, a dreamer whose mind is given to generalization as well as to the study of details — or, to put it even better, to the idea of an universal order and hierarchy - as a comparison of the nations and their respective products. When I say ‘hierarchy’, I have no wish to assert the supremacy of any one nation over another. Although Nature contains certain plants which are more or less holy, certain forms more or less spiritual, certain animals more or less sacred; and although, following the promptings of the immense universal analogy, it is legitimate for us to conclude that certain nations (vast animals, whose organisms are adequate to their surroundings) have been prepared and educated by Providence for a determined goal —— a goal more or less lofty, more or less near to Heaven; —— nevertheless all I wish to do here is to assert their equal utility in the eyes of Him who is indefinable, and the miraculous way in which they come to one another’s aid in the harmony of the universe. 486 Modernity and Bourgeois Life Any reader who has been at all accustomed by solitude (far better than by books) to these vast contemplations will already have guessed the point that I am wanting to make; and, to cut across the periphrastics and hesitations of Style with a question which is almost equivalent to a formula, I will put it thus to any honest man, always provided that he has thought and travelled a little. Let him imagine a modern Winckelmann (we are full of them; the nation overflows with them; they are the idols of the lazy). What would he say, if faced with a product of China ~— something weird, strange, distorted in form, intense in colour and sometimes delicate to the point of evanescence? And yet such a thing is a specimen of universal beauty; but in order for it to be understood, it is necessary for the critic, for the spectator, to work a transformation in himself which partakes of the nature of a mystery —- it is necessary for him, by means ofa phenomenon of the will acting upon the imagination, to learn of himself to participate in the surroundings which have given birth to this singular flowering. Few men have the divine grace of cosmopolitanism in its entirety; but all can acquire it in different degrees. The best endowed in this respect are those solitary wanderers who have lived for years in the heart of forests, in the midst of illimitable prairies, with no other companion but their gun — contemplating, dissecting, writing. No scholastic veil, no university paradox, no academic utopia has intervened between them and the complex truth. They know the admirable, eternal and inevitable relationship between form and function. Such people do not criticize; they contem— plate, they study. If, instead ofa pedagogue, I were to take a man of the world, an intelligent being, and transport him to a faraway country, I feel sure that, while the shocks and surprises of disembarkation might be great, and the business of habituation more or less long and laborious, nevertheless sooner or later his sympathy would be so keen, so penetrating, that it would create in him a Whole new world of ideas, which would form an integral part of himself and would accompany him, in the form of memories, to the day of his death. Those curiously~shaped buildings, which at first provoke his academic eye (all peoples are academic when they judge others, and barbaric when they are themselves judged); those plants and trees, which are disquieting for a mind filled with memories of its native land; those men and women, whose muscles do not pulse to the classic rhythms of his country, whose gait is not measured according to the accustomed beat, and whose gaze is not directed with the same magnetic power; those perfumes, which are no longer the perfumes of his mother’s boudoir; those mysterious flowers, whose deep colour forces an entrance into his eye, while his glance is teased by their shape; those fruits, whose taste deludes and deranges the senses, and reveals to the palate ideas which belong to the sense of smell; ~ all that world of new harmonies will enter slowly into him, will patiently penetrate him, like the vapours of a perfumed Turkish bath; all that undreamt—of vitality will be added to his own vitality; several thousands of ideas and sensations will enrich his earthly dictionary, and it is even possible that, going a step too far and transforming justice into revolt, he will do like the converted Sicambrian [Clovis] and burn what he had formerly adored — and adore what he had formerly burnt. Or take one of those modern ‘aesthetic pundits’, as Heinrich Heine calls them [Salon of 1831] — Heine, that delightful creature, who would be a genius if he turned more often towards the divine. What would he say? what, I repeat, would he write if III» The Conditions of Art 487 faced with such unfamiliar phenomena? The crazy doctrinaire of Beauty would rave, no doubt; locked up within the blinding fortress of his system, he would blaspheme both life and nature; and under the influence of his fanaticism, be it Greek, Italian or Parisian, he would prohibit that insolent race from enjoying, from dreaming or from thinking in any other ways but his very own. 0 ink—smudged science, bastard taste, more barbarous than the barbarians themselves! you that have forgotten the colour of the sky, the movement and the smell of animalityl you whose wizened fingers, paralysed by the pen, can no longer run with agility up and down the immense keyboard of the universal correspondences! Like all my friends I have tried more than once to lock myself up within a system in order to preach there at my ease. But a system is a kind of damnation which forces one to a perpetual recantation; it is always necessary to be inventing a new one, and the drudgery involved is a cruel punishment. Now my system was always beautiful, spacious, vast, convenient, neat and, above all, water—tight; at least so it seemed to me. But always some spontaneous, unexpected product of universal vitality would come to give the lie to my childish and superannuatcd wisdom w that lamentable child of Utopia! It was no good shifting or stretching my criterion — it always lagged behind universal man, and never stopped chasing after multiform and multi-coloured Beauty as it moved in the infinite spirals of life. Condemned unremittingly to the humiliation of a new conversion, I took a great decision. To escape from the horror of these philosophical apostasies, I haughtily resigned myself to modesty; I became content to feel; I returned to seek refuge in impeccable nai'vzté. I humbly beg pardon of the academics of all kinds who occupy the various workrooms of our artistic factory. But it is there that my philosophic conscience has found its rest; and at least I can declare m in so far as any man can answer for his virtues — that my mind now rejoices in a more abundant impartiality. Anyone can easily understand that if those whose business it is to express beauty were to conform to the rules of the pundits, beauty itself would disappear from the earth, since all types, all ideas and all sensations would be fused in a vast, impersonal and monotonous unity, as immense as boredom or total negation. Variety, the sine qua non of life, would be effaced from life. So true is it that in the multiple productions of art there is an element of the ever—new which will eternally elude the rules and analyses of the school! That shock of surprise, which is one of the great joys produced by art and literature, is due to this very variety of types and sensations. The aesthetic pundit — a kind of mandarin—tyrant « always puts me in mind of a godless man who substitutes himself for God. With all due respect to the over—proud sophists who have taken their wisdom from books, I shall go even further, and however delicate and difficult of expression my idea may be, I do not despair of succeeding. The Beautzfid is always strange. I do not mean that it is coldly, deliberately strange, for in that case it would be a monstrosity that had jumped the rails of life. I mean that it always contains a touch of strangeness, of simple, unpremeditated and unconscious strangeness, and that it is this touch of strangeness that gives it its particular quality as Beauty. It is its endorsement, so to speak — its mathematical characteristic. Reverse the proposition, and try to imagine a commonplare Beauty! Now how could this necessary, irreducible and infinitely varied strangeness, depending upon the environment, the climate, the manners, the race, the 488 Modernity and Bourgeois Lite religion and the temperament of the artist w how could it ever be controlled, amended and corrected by Utopian rules conceived in some little scientific temple or other on this planet, without mortal danger to art itself? This dash of strangeness, which constitutes and defines individuality (without which there can be no Beauty), plays in art the role of taste and of seasoning in cooking (may the exactness of this comparison excuse its trivialityl), since, setting aside their utility or the quantity of nutritive substance which they contain, the only way in which dishes differ from one another is in the idea which they reveal to the palate. Therefore, in the glorious task of analysing this fine exhibition, so varied in its elements, so disturbing in its variety, and so baffling for the pedagogues, I shall endeavour to steer clear of all kind of pedantry. Others enough will speak the jargon of the studio and will exhibit themselves to the detriment of the pictures. In many cases erudition seems to me to be a childish thing and but little revealing ofits true nature. I would find it only too easy to discourse subtly upon symmetrical or balanced composition, upon tonal equipoise, upon warmth and coldness of tone, etc. 0 Vanity! I choose instead to Speak in the name of feeling, of morality and of pleasure. And I hope that a few people who are learned without pedantry will find my ignorance to their liking. The story is told of Balzac (and who would not listen with respect to any anecdote, no matter how trivial, concerning that great genius?) that one day he found himself in front of a beautiful picture ~ a melancholy winter—scene, heavy with hoar—frost and thinly sprinkled with cottages and mean—looking peasants; and that after gazing at a little house from which a thin wisp of smoke was rising, ‘How beautiful it isl’, he cried. ‘But what are they doing in that cottage? What are their thoughts? What are their sorrows? has it been a good harvest? No doubt they have bills to pay?’ Laugh if you will at M. de Balzac. I do not know the name of the painter whose honour it was to set the great novelist’s soul a—quiver with anxiety and conjecture; but I think that in his way, with his delectable nai‘veté, he has given us an excellent lesson in criticism. You will often find me appraising a picture exclusively for the sum of ideas or of dreams that it suggests to my mind. Painting is an evocation, a magical operation (if only we could consult the hearts of children on the subjectl), and when the evoked character, when the reanimated idea has stood forth and looked us in the face, we have no right — at least it would be the acme of imbecility! — to discuss the magician’s formulae of evocation. I know of no problem more mortifying for pedants and philosophizers than to attempt to discover in virtue of what law it is that artists who are the most opposed in their method can evoke the same ideas and stir up analogous feelings within us. There is yet another, and very fashionable, error which I am anxious to avoid like the very devil. I refer to the idea of ‘progress’. Transported into the sphere of the imagination — and there have been hotheads, fanatics of logic who have attempted to do so ~ the idea of progress takes the stage with a gigantic absurdity, a grotesqueness which reaches nightmare heights. The theory can no longer be upheld. The facts are too palpable, too well known. They mock at sophistry and confront it without flinching. In the poetic and artistic order, the true prophets are seldom preceded by forerunners. Every efflorescence is spontaneous, individual. Was Signorelli really the begetter of Michelangelo? Did Perugino contain Raphael? The artist stems only from IIID The Conditions ofArt 489 himself. His own works are the only promises that he makes to the coming centuries. He stands security only for himself. He dies childless. He has been his own king, his own priest, his own God. It is just the same with the nations that joyfully and successfully cultivate the arts of the imagination. Present prosperity is no more than a temporary and alas! a very short~termed guarantee. There was a time when the dawn broke in the east; then the light moved towards the south, and now it streams forth from the west. It is true that France, by reason of her central position in the civilized world, seems to be sum— moned to gather to herself all the ideas, all the poetic products of her neighbours and to return them to other peoples, marvellously worked upon and embroidered. But it must never be forgotten that nations, those vast collective beings, are subject to the same laws as individuals, They have their childhood, in which they utter their first stammering cries and gradually grow in strength and size. They have their youth and maturity, the period of sound and courageous works. Finally they have their old age, when they fall asleep upon their piled—up riches. It often happens that it is the root principle itself that has constituted their strength, and the process of development that has brought with it their decadence « above all when that root principle, which was formerly quickened by an all—conquering enthusiasm, has become for the majority a kind of routine. Then, as I half suggested a moment ago, the vital spirit shifts and goes to visit other races and other lands. But it must not be thought that the newcomers inherit lock, stock and barrel from their predecessors or that they receive from them a ready-made body of doctrine. It often happens (as happened in the Middle Ages) that all being lost, all has to be re-fashioned. Anyone who visited the Exposition Universelle with the preconceived idea of finding the children of Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo among the Italians, the spirit of Durer among the Germans, or the soul of Zurbaran and Velasquez among the Spaniards, would be preparing himself for a needless shock. I have neither the time, nor perhaps sufficient knowledge, to investigate what are the laws which shift artistic vitality, or to discover why it is that God dispossesses the nations sometimes for a while only, and sometimes for ever; I content myself with noting a very frequent occurrence in history. We are living in an age in which it is necessary to go on repeating certain platitudes - in an arrogant age which believes itself to be above the misadventures of Greece and Rome. [. . . ] ...
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