Wyndham Lewis – The Credentials of the Painter

The English Review; Part 1, no. XXXIV (January 1922), 33-38; Part II, no XXXIV (Aprl 1922), 391-96. Reprinted in Creatures of Habit, Creatures of Change, 66-78.

Begins  by arguing that each artist correlates with a certain type of man. He contrasts the painter and the musician. The musician, however austere his music may be (Schoenberg), still cannot help but affect the body of the spectator; whereas the painter, especially the painter of abstract forms, can be completely cold and cut off. However, somewhat contradictorily, he also claims, “the fundamental and trump credential is…that he alones gives you the visual fact of our existence. All attachment to reality by means of the sense of sight is his province or preserve” (69). This mimetic function has he potential make the spectator participate in a certain type of life:

A portrait evidently ceases to be a portrait when it has that transporting effect that makes you feel, not only that you are sharing a moment of life removed by centuries from your own lifetime, but also that you are participating in a heightened life, that living of which only is an event as solitary and fixed as the thing at which you are gazing. (68-69)

Very curious why it must cease to be a portrait. Something here about mimetic comportment and the experience of history…relate to Pater’s fulness, perhaps. Lewis is frank about this contradiction: “that the painter participates more in life itself in one way than any other artist; but in another sense he is most removed from it” (71). NB: Hegel and Adorno will work through a similar contradiction in their aesthetic theories.

Part 2 broadens out the conversation to artists in general. He claims that there are no clear-cut laws that can be universally applied to artistic production. Neither are there universal, rational laws for deciding between good and bad art.

Argument and reflection are certainly very necessary, much as people dislike them, where the finer, or better the finest, art, in any kind, is concerned. But, in the interests of this dialectic, no laws can be adduced of universal application. The work of art, in the end, has to impose itself on men like a living individual. Instead of appealing to their intelligence only, supplying them with a mechanical formula of universal efficacy, it must appeal to their whole make-up, or to their taste. The taste is a sort of higher, more complex intelligence. Every faculty serves it, and is found represented in its composition. (73)

This, so far, is a very Schillerean notion of taste–not necessarily (only) a separate faculty, but the fruit of the development of a range of other faculties. For Lewis, taste serves as “a synthesis of the ego,” something which brings order to otherwise fragmented existence: “it is taste alone that can make him a dependable and ordered being” (73). This is meant as a corrective to metaphysicians who transform the “aesthetics” into an appendage of a philosophical system. He uses Hegel as an example. He also implicitly critiques Kant’s strict association between art and pleasure:

But is [pleasure] not also the object of any other activity higher than bread-winning? To make the majority of men feel comfortable and keep them quiet, the notion of the dignity of toil, in the sense of mechanical labor, was long ago invented. To unrivet the perception form the need, to disentangle art from the practical artifice of life, is the artist’s constant task in his work. (74)

He thus goes on to define his own concept of taste: “Taste, as I have described it, is what would occur of David Hume’s ‘argument and reflection’ became a habit, something that accompanied a man in whatever compartment of his existence he might be passing at the moment” (75).

He concludes by constructing two sides of a dialectic–that between a human world (civilization) and a material world (stones and matter):

If, however, without identifying ourselves with mater entirely, we yet evolved into a total material aceticism, how would it be with art then? One is bound to admit that art has so far been dependent on religion, a luxurious life, or superstitious fancy for its existence. But for any life that we could evolve into, short of identification with matter, or the other extreme of disassociation from it, there would be an art, or “expression.” It is a half-way house, the speech, life, and adornment of a half-way house. Or it is a coin that is used on a frontier, but in neither of the adjoining countries. As we know nothing about these or any other countries, it is impossible for us to say. Art is a coin, if you like, that has no aesthetic value, only an historic one. But it must be composed of a certain metal, and it must ring true. To recognize this ring you depend entirely on your ear. Your eyes, and even your teeth, ca also be brought into play, ANd you can speculate on the character of the stranger who is tendering you the coin. These, taken together, make up your “taste.” (76)

Lots to say about this: coin as medium (gold, exchange, etc.); taste as mediation between two “worlds” (relate to Hegel and art, but also transition to modernism; the way he keeps he make definite claims and then slightly shifting an qualifying them; the “teeth” as part of taste; identification with matter, but not entirely, etc.

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