A Word From G.K. Chesterton

Walking through the coffee shops and art galleries of Atlanta and the surrounding area You may see a lot of different art. Some of it good, some of it strange, and some of it you aren’t quite sure what to think, is it art or not? If you go to one of the hipster art shows in midtown, you hear a lot of talk. While some artists are honest and paint or draw or create, with whatever medium they specialize in, from the heart; others make it more about an image, like most of the people of our generation. It is all about “raising awareness” or even stoops as low as to just be a means to get laid. It is especially obvious in the music industry, but visual art suffers from this bane as well. When I hear an artist talking incessantly about all kinds irrelevancies I can’t help but think about what Chesterton said about the wannabe hipsters and artists of his day, the so called “cultured” elite.

“A man who thinks a great deal about himself will try to be many sided, attempt a theatrical excellence at all points, will try to be an encyclopedia of culture, and his own real personality will be lost in that false universalism.”

He goes on to talk of the modern man’s adoption of Nietzsche’s cynicism, which I believe carries over into today’s art and music world, and then he goes on to point out how draining it is on the soul,

“Nietzsche, who represents most prominently this pretentious claim of the fastidious has a description somewhere – a very powerful description in a purely literal sense – of the disgust and disdain which consume him at the sight of the common people with their common faces, their common voices, and their common minds. As I have said this attitude is almost beautiful if we may regard it as pathetic. Nietzsche’s aristocracy has about it all the sacred-ness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overwhelming omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anyone who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired on a crowded omnibus. Everyone has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a burning fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humor and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.”

“Any man with a vital knowledge of the human psychology ought to have the most profound suspicion of anybody who claims to be an artist, and talks a great deal about art. Art is a right and human thing, like walking or saying ones prayers; but the moment it begins to be talked about very solemnly, A man may be fairly certain that the thing has come into a congestion and a kind of difficulty.

The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being. It is healthy for every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. Artists of large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes the pressure, and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament. “

Chesterton goes on elsewhere to say that art comes from the deep places of the soul. The same place that faith and love come from, and that when it starts to get bogged down and made into a “profession” rather than an expression of depths of your being. That is when art dies. He uses the example of ballet that a skeptic of his time talked about, and how ballet, though beautiful, shouldn’t be considered the only way in which people dance. He insists that dance should be expressed by everyone, not just “professionals.” That being said, there is nothing wrong with the perfection of an art, but the intentions behind it are important.

“But let us ask ourselves… what are the ballets of Alhambra? The ballets of Alhambra are institutions in which a particular selected row of persons in pink go through an operation known as dancing. Now, in all commonwealths dominated by religion – in the Christian common wealths of the middle ages and in many rude societies – this habit of dancing was a common habit with everybody, and was not necessarily confined to a professional class. A person could dance without being a specialist; a person could dance without being pink. And in proportion as Mr. McCabe’s scientific civilization advances – that is in proportion as religious civilization (or real civilization) decays – the more and more “well trained,” the more and more pink, become the people who dance, and the more and more numerous become the people who don’t… If Mr McCabe were really religious he would be happy. If Mr McCabe were really happy he would dance.”


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