R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (1938).



The aesthetician, if I understand his business aright, is not concerned with dateless realities lodged in some metaphysical heaven, but with the facts of his own place and his own time. These, at any rate, are what I have concerned myself with in writing this book. The problems I have discussed are those which force themselves upon me when I look round at the present condition of the arts in our own civilization; and the reason I have tried to solve them is because I do not see how that condition (both of the arts and of the civilization to which they belong) can be bettered unless a solution is found. Our business, as I said before, is to cultivate our garden; but gardens may get into such a state that they are no longer cultivable without help from chemists and engineers and other experts on whom, in happier times, the gardener would look with a hostile eye.

My final question, then, is: how does the theory advanced in this book bear upon the present situation, and illuminate the path to be taken by artists in the immediate future?

To begin by developing a general point already made in the preceding chapter: we must get rid of the conception of artistic ownership. In this sphere, whatever may be true of others, la propriete c'est le vol. We try to secure a livelihood for our artists (and God knows they need it) by copyright laws protecting them against plagiarism; but the reason why our artists are in such a poor way is because of that very individualism which these laws enforce. If an artist may say nothing except what he has invented by his own sole efforts, it stands to reason he will be poor in ideas. If he could take what he wants wherever he could find it, as Euripides and Dante and Michelangelo and Shakespeare and Bach were free, his larder would always be full, and his cookery might be worth tasting.

This is a simple matter, and one in which artists can act for themselves without asking help (which I am afraid they would ask in vain) from lawyers and legislators. Let every artist make a vow, and here among artists I include all such as write or speak on scientific or learned subjects, never to prosecute or lend himself to a prosecution under the law of copyright. Let any artist who appeals to that law be cut by his friends, asked to resign from his clubs, and cold-shouldered by any society in which right-thinking artists have influence. It would not be many years before the law was a dead letter, and the strangle-hold of artistic individualism in this one respect a thing of the past.

This, however, will not be enough unless the freedom so won is used. Let all such artists as understand one another, therefore, plagiarize each other's work like men. Let each borrow his friends' best ideas, and try to improve on them. If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B's poems and publish his own improved version. If X is dissatisfied with Y's this-year Academy picture, let him paint one caricaturing it; not a sketch in Punch, but a full-sized picture for next year's Academy. I will not rely upon the hanging committee's sense of humour to the extent of guaranteeing that they would accept it; but if they did, we should get brighter Academy exhibitions. Or if he cannot improve on his friends' ideas, at least let him borrow them; it will do him good to try fitting them into works of his own, and it will be an advertisement for the creditor. An absurd suggestion? Well, I am only proposing that modern artists should treat each other as Greek dramatists or Renaissance painters or Elizabethan poets did. If any one thinks that the law of copyright has fostered better art than those barbarous times could produce, I will not try to convert him.

Next, with regard to the arts of performance, where one man designs a work of art and another, or a group of others, executes it. Ruskin (who was not always wrong) insisted long ago that in the special case of architecture the best work demanded a genuine collaboration between designer and executants: not a relation in which the workmen simply carried out orders, but one in which they had a share in the work of designing. Ruskin did not succeed in his project of reviving English architecture, because he only saw his own idea dimly and could not think out its implications, which was better done afterwards by William Morris; but the idea he partly grasped is one application of the idea I shall try to state.

In these arts (I am especially thinking of music and drama) we must get rid, to put it briefly, of the stage-direction as developed by Mr. Bernard Shaw. When we see a play swathed and larded with these excrescences, we must rub our eyes and ask: 'What is this? Is the author, by his own confession, so bad a writer that he cannot make his intention clear to his producer and cast without composing a commentary on his play that makes it look like an edition for use in schools? Or is it that producers and actors, when this queer old stuff was written, were such idiots that they could not put a play on unless they were told with this intolerable deal of verbiage exactly how to do it? The author's evident anxiety to show what a sharp fellow he was makes the first alternative perhaps the more probable; but really there is no need for us to choose. Whether it was the author or the company that was chiefly to blame, we can see that such stuff (clever though the dialogue is, in its way) must have been written at a time when dramatic art in England was at its lowest ebb.'

I am only using Mr. Shaw as an example of a general tendency. The same tendency is to be seen at work in most plays of the later nineteenth century; and it is just as conspicuous in music. Compare any musical score of the late nineteenth century with any of the eighteenth (not, of course, a nineteenth-century edition), and see how it is sprinkled with expression-marks, as if the composer assumed either that he had expressed himself too obscurely for any executant to make sense of the music, or that the executants for whom he writes were half-witted. I do not say that every stage-direction in the book of a play, or every expression-mark in a musical score, is a mark of incompetence either in the author or in the performer. I dare say a certain number of them are necessary. But I do say that the attempt to make a text fool-proof by multiplying them indicates a distrust of his performers [If any one says that these stage-directions are intended not for the theatre, but for the reader, I still object to them on grounds arising out of the author's relation to his audience. I dare say Mr. Shaw thinks that it is not so much the actors, as the public, that are fools. I shall show later on that this is no better.] on the part of the author which must somehow be got rid of if these arts are to flourish again as they have flourished in the past. This cannot be done at a blow. It can only be done at all if we fix our eyes on the kind of result we want to achieve, and work deliberately towards it.

We must face the fact that every performer is of necessity a co-author, and develop its implications. We must have authors who are willing to admit their performers into their counsels: authors who will re-write in the theatre or concert-room as rehearsals proceed, keeping their text fluid while the producer and the actors, or conductor and orchestra, help to shape it for performance; authors who understand the business of performance so well that the text they finally produce is intelligible without stage-directions or expression-marks. We must have performers (including producers and conductors, but including also the humblest members of cast and orchestra) who take an intelligent and instructed interest in the problems of authorship, and are consequently deserving of their author's confidence and entitled to have their say as partners in the collaboration. These two results can probably be best obtained by establishing a more or less permanent connexion between certain authors and certain groups of performers. In the theatre, a few partnerships of this kind are already in existence, and promise a future for the drama that must yield better work on both sides than was possible in the bad old days (not yet, unfortunately, at an end) when a play was hawked from manager to manager until at last, perhaps with a bribe of cash, it was accepted for performance. But the drama or music which these partnerships will produce must in certain ways be a new kind of art; and we must also, therefore, have audiences trained to accept and demand it; audiences which do not ask for the slick shop-finish of a ready-made article fed to them through a theatrical or orchestral machine, but are able to appreciate and enjoy the more vivid and sensitive quality of a performance in which the company or the orchestra are performing what they themselves have helped to compose. Such a performance will never be so amusing as the standard West-end play or the ordinary symphony concert to an after-dinner audience of the overfed rich. The audience to which it appeals must be one in search not of amusement, but of art.

This brings me to the third point at which reform is necessary: the relation between the artist, or rather the collaborative unit of artist and performers, and the audience. To deal first with the arts of performance, what is here required is that the audience should feel itself (and not only feel itself, but actually and effectively become) a partner in the work of artistic creation. In England at the present time this is recognized as a principle by Mr. Rupert Doone and his colleagues of the Group Theatre. But it is not enough merely to recognize it as a principle; and how to carry out the principle in detail is a difficult question. Mr. Doone assures his audience that they are participants and not mere spectators, and asks them to behave accordingly; but the audience are apt to be a little puzzled as to what they are expected to do. What is needed is to create small and more or less stable audiences, not like those which attend a repertory theatre or a series of subscription concerts (for it is one thing to dine frequently at a certain restaurant, and quite another to be welcomed in the kitchen), but more like that of a theatrical or musical club, where the audience are in the habit of attending not only performances but rehearsals, make friends with authors and performers, know about the aims and projects of the group to which they all alike belong, and feel themselves responsible, each in his degree, for its successes and failures. Obviously this can be done only if all parties entirely get rid of the idea that the art in question is a kind of amusement, and see it as a serious job, art proper.

With the arts of publication (notably painting and non-dramatic writing) the principle is the same, but the situation is more difficult. The promiscuous dissemination of books and paintings by the press and public exhibition creates a shapeless and anonymous audience whose collaborative function it is impossible to exploit. Out of this formless dust of humanity a painter or writer can, indeed, crystallize an audience of his own; but only when he has already made his mark. Consequently, it is no help to him just when he most needs its help, while his artistic powers are still immature. The specialist writer on learned subjects is in a happier position; he has from the first an audience of fellow specialists, whom he addresses, and from whom an echo reaches him; and only one who has written in this way for a narrow, specialized public can realize how that echo helps him with his work and gives him the confidence that comes from knowing what his public expects and thinks of him. But the non-specialist writer and the painter of pictures are to-day in a position where their public is as good as useless to them. The evils are obvious; such men are driven into a choice between commercialism and barren eccentricity. There are critics and reviewers, literary and artistic journals, which ought to be at work mitigating these evils and establishing contact between a writer or painter and the kind of audience he needs. But in practice they seldom seem to understand that this is, or should be, their function, and either they do nothing at all or they do more harm than good. The fact is becoming notorious; publishers are ceasing to be interested in the reviews their books get, and beginning to decide that they make no difference to the sales.

Unless this situation can be altered, there is a real likelihood that painting and non-dramatic literature, as forms of art, may cease to exist, their heritage being absorbed partly into various kinds of entertainment, advertisement, instruction, or propaganda, partly into other forms of art like drama and architecture, where the artist is in direct contact with his audience. Indeed, this has begun to happen already. The novel, once an important literary form, has all but disappeared, except as an amusement for the semi-literate. The easel-picture is still being painted, but only for exhibition purposes. It is not being sold. Those who can remember the interiors of the eighteen-nineties, with their densely picture-hung walls, realize that the painters of to-day are working to supply a market that no longer exists. They are not likely to go on doing it for long.

The rescue of these two arts from their threatened extinction, as arts, depends upon bringing them back into contact with their audience. The kind of contact that is required is a collaborative contact in which the audience genuinely shares in the creative activity. It is, therefore, not to be achieved by any improvement in salesmanship, [A good publisher may, however, help to establish the kind of contact we are seeking, in so far as, instead of merely publishing what authors give him, he tells them (as he should be able to do) what kind of books are wanted. The best publishers already do a good deal of this, and writers who are not too conceited to co-operate with them find it extremely valuable.] for this assumes that the works of art are already complete before being offered to the public, and that the audience's function is limited to understanding them.

In the case of literature, the only way which I can see of establishing such contact is for authors to give up the idea of 'pure literature', or literature whose interest depends not on its subject-matter, but solely on its 'technical' qualities, and write on subjects about which people want to read. This does not mean turning away from art proper to amusement or magic; for the kind of subjects about which I am thinking does not consist of subjects chosen for their power of arousing emotion, whether for discharge in the reading itself or for discharge in the affairs of real life. They are subjects about which people already have emotions, but obscure and confused ones; and in wanting to read about these subjects they are wanting to raise these emotions to the level of consciousness, to become imaginatively aware of them.

For this reason (and this, too, will differentiate such literature from that of amusement and from that of magic) it is not so much a question of the author's 'choosing' a subject; it is a question rather of his letting a subject choose him: I mean, a question of his spontaneously sharing the interest which people around him feel in a certain subject, and allowing that interest to determine what he writes. By so doing, he will have accepted the collaboration of his public from the very inception of his work, and the public thus accepted as collaborators will inevitably become his audience. Some writers will regard this as a lowering of their artistic standard. But that is only because their artistic standard is entangled in a false aesthetic theory. Art is not contemplation, it is action. If art were contemplation, it could be pursued by an artist who constitutes himself a mere spectator of the world around him, and depicts or describes what he sees. But, as the expression of emotion and addressed to a public, it requires of the artist that he should participate in his public's emotions, and therefore in the activities with which these emotions are bound up. Writers are to-day beginning to realize that important literature cannot be written without an important subject-matter. [Cf. Louis MacNiece, 'Subject in Modern Poetry', in Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, vol. xxii (1937), pp. 146-58.] In that realization lies the hope of a thriving literature yet to be written; for the subject-matter is the point at which the audience's collaboration can fertilize the writer's work.

In the case of painting, the same line of advance is open; but the prospect of its being exploited is less good. I write chiefly for English readers and about conditions in England; and it is notorious that English painting is traditionally far less vigorous and far less securely rooted in the life of the country than English literature. In painting, we have hardly begun to emerge from the stupid welter of eccentricities and 'isms' which marked the decay of individualistic nineteenth-century art. I see no such tendency in English painting to-day as I see in English writing, towards utilizing the collaborative energies of the audience by painting subjects which English people, or some large and important section of them, want to see painted.

Nevertheless, painting in this country has improved a great deal in recent years. The Royal Academy's exhibition of 1937 testified to a degree of average competence in a large number of exhibitors which was quite unthinkable ten years ago. Something is certainly happening to English painting; something not unworthy to be compared with what is happening to English literature. Each of them is ceasing to rely on its amusement value to an audience of wealthy philistines, and is substituting for that aim not one of amusement value to an audience of wage-earners or dole-drawers, nor yet one of magical value, but one of genuine artistic competence. But the question is whether this ideal of artistic competence is directed backwards into the blind alley of nineteenth-century individualism, where the artist's only purpose was to express 'himself, or forwards into a new path where the artist, laying aside his individualistic pretensions, walks as the spokesman of his audience.

In literature, those who chiefly matter have made the choice, and made it rightly. The credit for this belongs in the main to one great poet, who has set the example by taking as his theme in a long series of poems a subject that interests every one, the decay of our civilization. Apart from one or two trifles, Mr. Eliot has never published a line of 'pure literature'. Looking back, one sees the whole of his early verse as a succession of sketches and studies for The Waste Land. [He has said it himself. The words 'why then He fit you', at the end of The Waste Land, introduce the passage in The Spanish Tragedy where Hieronimo brings out the play he wrote 'when in Tolledo there I studied', explaining that this youthful work will fit the present occasion (Act iv, scene i).] First with a gentle irony in Prufrock, pretending to be merely a minor poet with a disillusioned eye for the emotions of others, then with deepening intensity in Gerontion and growing savagery in the Sweeney poems, he found himself (that self which to the outward eye seemed arch-highbrow, another Henry James, steeped in literature and innocent -- as he was called by one who should have known better -- of public-spiritedness) by degrees shaping his mouth to the tremendous howl of Marlowe's Mephistophilis -- 'Why this is hell'.

The decay of our civilization, as depicted in The Waste Land, is not an affair of violence and wrong-doing. It is not exhibited in the persecution of the virtuous and in the flourishing of the wicked like a green bay tree. It is not even a triumph of the meaner sins, avarice and lust. The drowned Phoenician sailor has forgotten the profit and loss; the rape of Philomel by the barbarous king is only a carved picture, a withered stump of time. These things are for remembrance, to contrast with a present where nothing is but stony rubbish, dead tree, dry rock, revealed in their nakedness by an April that breeds lilacs out of the dead land, but no new life in the dead heart of man. There is no question here of expressing private emotions; the picture to be painted is not the picture of any individual, or of any individual shadow, however lengthened into spurious history by morning or evening sun; it is the picture of a whole world of men, shadows themselves, flowing over London Bridge in the winter fog of that Limbo which involves those who, because they never lived, are equally hateful to God and to his enemies.

The picture unrolls. First the rich, the idle man and his idle mistress, surrounded by all the apparatus of luxury and learning; but in their hearts there is not even lust, nothing but fretted nerves and the exasperation of boredom. Then the public-house at night; the poor, no less empty-hearted: idle recrimination, futile longing for a good time, barren wombs and faded, fruitless youth, and an awful anonymous voice punctuating the chatter with a warning 'Hurry up please it's time'. Time for all these things to end; time's winged chariot, the grave a fine and private place, and mad Ophelia's good-night, the river waiting for her. And then the river itself, with its memories of idle summer love-making, futile passionless seductions, the lover whose vanity makes a welcome of indifference, the mistress brought up to expect nothing; with contrasting memories of the splendours once created by Sir Christopher Wren, the pageantry of Elizabeth, and Saint Augustine for whom lust was real and a thing worth fighting.

Enough of detail. The poem depicts a world where the wholesome flowing water of emotion, which alone fertilizes all human activity, has dried up. Passions that once ran so strongly as to threaten the defeat of prudence, the destruction of human individuality, the wreck of men's little ships, are shrunk to nothing. No one gives; no one will risk himself by sympathizing; no one has anything to control. We are imprisoned in ourselves, becalmed in a windless selfishness. The only emotion left us is fear: fear of emotion itself, fear of death by drowning in it, fear in a handful of dust.

This poem is not in the least amusing. Nor is it in the least magical. The reader who expects it to be satire, or an entertaining description of vices, is as disappointed with it as the reader who expects it to be propaganda, or an exhortation to get up and do something. To the annoyance of both parties, it contains no indictments and no proposals. To the amateurs of literature, brought up on the idea of poetry as a genteel amusement, the thing is an affront. To the little neo-Kiplings who think of poetry as an incitement to political virtue, it is even worse; for it describes an evil where no one and nothing is to blame, an evil not curable by shooting capitalists or destroying a social system, a disease which has so eaten into civilization that political remedies are about as useful as poulticing a cancer.

To readers who want not amusement or magic, but poetry, and who want to know what poetry can be, if it is to be neither of these things, The Waste Land supplies an answer. And by reflecting on it we can perhaps detect one more characteristic which art must have, if it is to forgo both entertainment-value and magical value, and draw a subject-matter from its audience themselves. It must be prophetic. The artist must prophesy not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but in the sense that he tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artist is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is not, as the individualistic theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need him is that no community altogether knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death. For the evils which come from that ignorance the poet as prophet suggests no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community's medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness.