It is not true, though it has so often been asserted, that criticism is of no use or of little use to art. This notion prevails so widely only because among us at least — criticism has not been criticism. To criticize is to judge; to judge requires judicial qualification; and this is quite a different thing from a natural sensitiveness to beauty, however much that sensitiveness may have become heightened by converse with refined and beautiful objects of nature and works of art. “Criticism,” which has been the outcome only of such sensitiveness and such converse, may be, and often is, delightful reading, and is naturally far more popular than criticism which is truly judicial. At times it appears that the masses are resistant and in extreme cases incapable of the intellectual aspects of art. The pseudo-criticism, of which we have had such floods during the past half-century, delights by sympathy with, and perhaps expansion of, our own sensations; true criticism appeals to the intellect and rebukes the reader as often as it does the artist for his ignorance and his mistakes. Such criticism may not be able to produce good art; but bad art collapses at the contact of its breath, as the steam in the cylinder of an engine collapses on each admission of the spray of cold water; and thus, although good criticism cannot produce art, it removes endless hindrances to its production, and tends to provide art with its chief motive-power, a public prepared to acknowledge it.
The enunciation of a single principle has sometimes, almost at a blow, revolutionized not only the technical practice of an art but the popular taste with regard to it. Strawberry Hill Gothic vanished like a nightmare when Pugin for the first time authoritatively asserted and proved that architectural decoration could never properly be an addition to constructive features, but only a fashioning of them. The truth was manifest at once to amateur as well as to architect; this one principle proves to have contained which followed during the next fifty years. And it has done nothing but good, whereas the latter kind of writing, together with much good, has done much harm. Pugin’s insight did not enable him to discover the almost equally clear and simple principle which governs the special form of decoration that properly characterizes each of the great styles of architecture.
Therefore, while his law of constructional decoration compelled all succeeding “critics” to keep within its bounds, they were still free to give the reins to mere fancy as to the nature of the decoration itself; and this has been becoming worse and worse in proportion as critics and architects of genius, but of no principle, have departed from the dry tradition of decorative form which prevailed in Pugin’s day, and which finds its orthodox expression in Parker’s Glossary and the elementary works of Bloxam and Rickman. Sensitiveness or natural ” taste,” apart from principle, is, in art, what love is apart from truth in morals. The stronger it is felt, the further it is likely to go wrong. Nothing can be more tenderly “felt” than a school of painting which is now much in favor; but, for want of knowledge and masculine principle, it has come to delight in representing ugliness and corruption in place of health and beauty. Venus or Hebe becomes, in its hands, nothing but a Dame aux Camillas in the last stage of moral and physical deterioration. A few infallible and, when once uttered, self-evident principles would at once put a stop to this sort of representation and in the longer term lead to much better art.
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