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The Case for the Artist

Posted by Dave Bull at 12:31 PM, August 16, 2009

by A.A. Milne, 1921
(written for one of the British magazines of the day)

[Note from Dave: although the writing style here is certainly old-fashioned (especially in his rather clumsy introductory section), this little 1500-word piece is definitely worth reading, and his 'conclusion' should provoke some interesting discussion, I think!]

By an "artist" I mean Shakespeare and Me and Bach and Myself and Velasquez and Phidias, and even You if you have ever written four lines on the sunset in somebody's album, or modelled a Noah's Ark for your little boy in plasticine. Perhaps we have not quite reached the heights where Shakespeare stands, but we are on his track. Shakespeare can be representative of all of us, or Velasquez if you prefer him. One of them shall be President of our United Artists' Federation. Let us, then, consider what place in the scheme of things our federation can claim.

Probably we artists have all been a little modest about ourselves lately. During the war we asked ourselves gloomily what use we were to the State compared with the noble digger of coals, the much-to-be- reverenced maker of boots, and the god-like grower of wheat. Looking at the pictures in the illustrated papers of brawny, half-dressed men pushing about blocks of red-hot iron, we have told ourselves that these heroes were the pillars of society, and that we were just an incidental decoration. It was a wonder that we were allowed to live. And now in these days of strikes, when a single union of manual workers can hold up the rest of the nation, it is a bitter refection to us that, if we were to strike, the country would go on its way quite happily, and nine-tenths of the population would not even know that we had downed our pens and brushes.

If there is any artist who has been depressed by such thoughts as these, let him take comfort. We are all right.

I made the discovery that we were all right by studying the life of the bee. All that I knew about bees until yesterday was derived from that great naturalist, Dr. Isaac Watts. In common with every one who has been a child I knew that the insect in question improved each shining hour by something honey something something every something flower. I had also heard that bees could not sting you if you held your breath, a precaution which would make conversation by the herbaceous border an affair altogether too spasmodic; and, finally, that in any case the same bee could only sting you once—though, apparently, there was no similar provision of Nature's that the same person could not be stung twice.

Well, that was all that I knew about bees until yesterday. I used to see them about the place from time to time, busy enough, no douht, but really no busier than I was; and as they were not much interested in me they had no reason to complain that I was not much interested in them. But since yesterday, when I read a book which dealt fully, not only with the public life of the bee, but with the most intimate details of its private life, I have looked at them with a new interest and a new sympathy. For there is no animal which does not get more out of life than the pitiable insect which Dr. Watts holds up as an example to us.

Hitherto, it may be, you have thought of the bee as an admirable and industrious insect, member of a model community which worked day and night to but one end—the well-being of the coming race. You knew perhaps that it fertilized the flowers, but you also knew that the bee didn't know; you were aware that, if any bee deliberately went about trying to improve your delphiniums instead of gathering honey for the State, it would be turned down promptly by the other workers. For nothing is done in the hive without this one utilitarian purpose. Even the drones take their place in the scheme of things; a minor place in the stud; and when the next generation is assured, and the drones cease to be useful and can now only revert to the ornamental, they are ruthlessly cast out.

It comes, then, to this. The bee devotes its whole life to preparing for the next generation. But what is the next generation going to do? It is going to spend its whole life preparing for the third generation... and so on for ever.

An admirable community, the moralists tell us. Poor moralists! To miss so much of the joy of life; to deny oneself the pleasure (to mention only one among many) of reclining lazily on one's back in a snap-dragon, watching the little white clouds sail past upon a sea of blue; to miss these things for no other reason than that the next generation may also have an opportunity of missing them—is that admirable? What do the bees think that they are doing? If they live a life of toil and self-sacrifice merely in order that the next generation may live a life of equal toil and self-sacrifice, what has been gained? Ask the next bee you meet what it thinks it is doing in this world, and the only answer it can give you is, "Keeping up the supply of bees." Is that an admirable answer? How much more admirable if it could reply that it was eschewing all pleasure and living the life of a galley-slave in order that the next generation might have leisure to paint the poppy a more glorious scarlet. But no. The next generation is going at it just as hard for the same unproductive end; it has no wish to leave anything behind it—a new colour, a new scent, a new idea. It has one object only in this world—more bees. Could any scheme of life be more sterile?

Having come to this conclusion about the bee, I took fresh courage. I saw at once that it was the artist in Man which made him less contemptible than the Bee. That god-like person the grower of wheat assumed his proper level. Bread may be necessary to existence, but what is the use of existence if you are merely going to employ it in making bread? True, the farmer makes bread, not only for himself, but for the miner; and the miner produces coal—not only for himself, but for the farmer; and the farmer also Produces bread for the maker of boots, who Produces boots, not only for himself, but for the farmer and the miner. But you are still getting no further. It is the Life of the Bee over again, with no other object in it but mere existence. If this were all, there would be nothing to write on our tombstones but "Born 1800; Died 1880. He lived till then."

But it is not all, because—and here I strike my breast proudly—because of us artists. Not only can we write on Shakespeare's tomb, "He wrote Hamlet" or "He was not for an age, but for all time," but we can write on a contemporary baker's tomb, "He provided bread for the man who wrote Hamlet," and on a contemporary butcher's tomb, "He was not only for himself, but for Shakespeare." We perceive, in fact, that the only matter upon which any worker, other than the artist, can congratulate himself, whether he be manual-worker, brain-worker, surgeon, judge, or politician, is that he is helping to make the world tolerable for the artist. It is only the artist who will leave anything behind him. He is the fighting-man, the man who counts; the others are merely the Army Service Corps of civilization. A world without its artists, a world of bees, would be as futile and as meaningless a thing as an army composed entirely of the Service Corps.

Possibly you put in a plea here for the explorer and the scientist. The explorer perhaps may stand alone. His discovery of a peak in Darien is something in itself, quite apart from the happy possibility that Keats may be tempted to bring it into a sonnet. Yes, if a Beef-Essence-Merchant has only provided sustenance for an Explorer he has not lived in vain, however much the poets and the painters recoil from his wares. But of the scientist I am less certain. I fancy that his invention of the telephone (for instance) can only be counted to his credit because it has brought the author into closer touch with his publisher.

So we artists (yes, and explorers) may be of good faith. They may try to pretend, these others, in their little times of stress, that we are nothing—decorative, inessential; that it is they who make the world go round. This will not upset us. We could not live without them; true. But (a much more bitter thought) they would have no reason for living at all, were it not for us.


Following comment posted by: Peter Miller on August 17, 2009 12:03 AM

Milne argues that art gives meaning to life. Note the verb: If this is the argument, it won't do. He could argue until the cows come home, but no amount of ratiocination will persuade the 'practical' people who view art as decoration. (These are the same people who spend days or weeks choosing their draperies or neckties or cars.) No, art exists in a different dimension, both higher and lower -- visceral and abstract at the same time. It gives us the very forms through which we see the world, a so-called 'real' world constructed from the materials of imagination. The continuity of our whole existence depends on our fitting it into a framework of visual understanding -- which has been supplied by artists.

From time to time, the artistic programming of our perceptions changes. Such was the dawn of Impressionism, which radically altered how we experience nature, and is still our 'template' for the good outdoor life. Despite the inroads made by those who advance a malevolent view, very few people apart from the scribbling classes who are constantly arguing something or other, and their followers among museum trustees, accept this. Still, styles change. But such change is only creative when it evokes a visceral response to new forms, colors, tones, lines, composition (or whatever the equivalent might be in literature or music). Argument, conceptual baggage, art-history dressed-up as art -- these are ubiquitous these days, but no sooner do they appear than they are forgotten, deservedly. Impressionism and a very few other styles live, while so many other purported 'revolutionary' efforts have come to naught.

Following comment posted by: Marc Kahn on August 17, 2009 2:14 PM

It seems to me that Mr. Milne had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he wrote this essay. In the first paragraph, he defines who are the "artists", including himself twice along with the reader ("You", capitalized), in other words... Everyone is an artist. He then goes on to explain how "everyone else" merely plays a supporting role. Huh?

As Winnie the Pooh once said, "Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known."

A. A. Milne certainly had an elegant way with words!


Following comment posted by: Dave on August 17, 2009 4:59 PM

It is indeed in a quite 'light' style; I have dozens of his essays here, and this one is very typical of the genre - 'familiar' and written for the general reader. There actually, is a bit of overlap between the kind of stuff he submitted to the magazines and papers in those days, and some of the things I do for my own 'Story a Week' ... that is, the overt 'story' may be familiar and light, but we get the sense that there might be an important point in play here.

And I think this piece is typical of that. Yes, he's joking around with the bee analogy, but I am sure that he was also trying to make sure that the readers gave some thought to the idea of the position in society of the 'artists'.

It's also worth mentioning that at the time he was producing these little essays - at the rate of a couple a week, on commission - 'Pooh' was still some way in the future. Milne at this time was known mostly as a dramatist.

Following comment posted by: Dave on August 17, 2009 6:31 PM

Thinking about this 'topic' a bit more ... and after mentioning 'Story a Week' just now ... I poked around over there, and found this story. Hah! No doubt where the idea for that piece must have come from, as this Milne book has been on my shelves for many years ... more than 20 at least.

Following comment posted by: Julio Rodriguez on August 18, 2009 1:07 AM

Very timely post, I was in deep thought this weekend as I watched a group of busy bees build a hive in the lid of my recycle garbage container. The hive now seems to be about 5-7 inches long by about 2-3 inches wide and seems to be attracting maybe 20-25 bees. Part of me wants to reclaim my garbage container and send them flying (hopefully not my way !)with a good spray from my garden hose...and part of me is inspired by their hard work and hates to see all that hard work go for naught. Situation is only going to get worse as the hive grows in size and an unsuspecting garbage collector ( or one of my family members)could get the worse of it if things are left as is.... I guess this 'artist' is going to have to be the bad guy...

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