Art is an eminently earthly thing.
—Pierre Revardy (1927)
Beautiful things are those which please when seen—and, of course, I mean mentally seen, and therefore pleasing to the mind . . . . Anything is beautiful if it be made in such a way as to give pleasure to the mind which perceives it, and the question as to what should or should not give pleasure to the mind is no more and no less difficult than the question as to what should or should not give annoyance.
–Eric Gill, letter to The Architects Journal (1931)
It is a melancholy discovery—readers who take as gospel words put into the fictional mouths of characters in novels. We are endeared to Waugh’s Cordelia Flyte for her abiding loyalty. That does not oblige us to embrace the character’s blanket dismissal of “Modern Art” (those capitals!) any more than her taste for meringue at The Ritz.
What appears in print is indelible, preserved on the page like a fly in amber. Living authors, however, can change their minds even about what they have previously written. Waugh did just that. Five years after Brideshead Revisited (1945) was published, Waugh confided in a letter to Graham Greene that, on re-reading his own novel, he “was appalled” by aspects of it. He introduced a later edition by admitting second thoughts. We are free to hope young Cordelia’s peremptory anathema was among the things retrospection deemed “distasteful” to him.
Etienne Gilson delivered the 1957 Mellon Lectures within the same decade as Waugh’s self-reassessment. Published as Painting and Reality in 1959, the lectures are a welcome testament to the fundamental differences between artists and philosophers and, by extension, between making art and—in today’s phrase—doing theology. Gilson opens with a re-evaluation of his own:
My first publication concerning the philosophy of art was written in November-December, 1915, and published the next year . . . under the title Art et métaphysique. That was forty years ago, and during this long space of time, many things have happened to art as well as to my own metaphysics.
Rather than dismiss modern art, Gilson retires the author of the 1915 tract and turns a receptive eye on the intentions of modern artists themselves:
In art, we have witnessed the boldest creative experiment ever attempted during the whole evolution of the art of painting. With admirable and penetrating lucidity, the artists themselves have done their utmost to explain to their public the meaning of initiatives by which, not feeling their inner necessity, even the onlookers of good will could not help being puzzled.
Subtle and suggestive, Painting and Reality is a welcome alternative to the willful myopia—not to say crudity—of “Modern Art is all bosh.” What was an entertaining line in the narrative context of a novel turns sour when it is brandished, more than a half century later, as a considered judgment on the entirety of modern production in the arts. Gilson did sometimes gild the lily in favor of art itself. Yet, overall, he is more compelling—certainly to me—than the oft-quoted Jacques Maritain who more frequently tilted, ponderously, toward art as a handmaiden to metaphysics. (Creative intuition, after all, is hardly located exclusively in the arts. There are instances where it even seems to abandon the arts altogether.) Gilson adhered to a conscientious decision to stay tethered to John Constable’s insistence that the world should “look to painters for information on painting.” That is quite enough.
Both scholars were advocates for the art of their time. Not all of it, to be sure. Still, they refused to look over their shoulder to an irretrievable past.
Gilson deserves the last word in his chapter “Painters and the Talking World”:
As to the never-ending flow of discourse about painting that springs from non-painters, perfectly legitimate in itself as it certainly is, the main question it raises is to know to what extent it truly is about painting.