Go to Page Number Go to Page Number
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Egoist, 5 (Apr 1918) 61

It is perhaps not too late to call attention to an article which appeared two months ago (January 31) in the Literary Supplement of The Times. The article was entitled “Professionalism in Art.” 1 Like most of the leading articles in The TimesLiterary Supplement, it is altogether on the high plane; its tone is so refined and agreeable, its author so evidently one of ourselves, that we hesitate to take exception. It is in fact so delightful that we ought not to expose it to further publicity. But its thesis is not only one which may reasonably be called wrong, but importantly wrong. The author is quite against what he calls the professional; and this attitude is so thoroughly British that if it is wrong it is certainly important, and if it is wrong in art may provide some clue as to why British Art is no better than it is. We cannot be absolutely sure, after reading the article several times, what is actually the definition of the professional; the professional is not contrasted with anything definite; and the writer engages our sympathy by charging the worst lines of Milton and Wordsworth to professionalism. Here are two of his statements:

Professionalism is a device for making expression easy. Decadence in art is always caused by professionalism.

An attitude which might find voice in words like these is behind all of British slackness for a hundred years and more: the dislike of the specialist. It is behind the British worship of inspiration, which in literature is merely an avoidance of comparison with foreign literatures, a dodging of standards. It goes to explain, for instance, why in English literature there are so few really well-written novels.

The opposite of the professional is not the dilettante, the elegant amateur, the dabbler who in fact only attests the existence of the specialist. The opposite of the professional, the enemy, is the man of mixed motives. Conspicuously the Victorian epoch is anti-professional; Carlyle as an historian, Ruskin as an economist; Thackeray who could write such good prose as the Steyne episode, and considered himself a kindly but penetrating satirist; George Eliot who could write Amos Bartonand steadily degenerate. Decadence in art is caused by mixed motives. The art of the Victorians is spoiled by mixed motives, and Oscar Wilde finally added ingredients to the mixture which made it a ludicrous emetic. 2

The writer in The Times, belittling technique, appears to identify technique with what may be learned from a manual of prosody. This is making technique easy. If mathematics consisted in learning the multiplication table up to 1,000,000, that would be making mathematics easy. Technique is more volatile; it can only be learned, the more difficult part of it, by absorption. Try to put into a sequence of simple quatrains the continuous syntactic variety of Gautier or Blake, or compare these two with A. E. Housman. 3 Surely professionalism in art is hard work on style with singleness of purpose.

* * * * * *

In some writers, non-professionalism is a radical vice; in others, rather an imperfection. It is possible that Mr. Gilbert Cannan’s belongs to the latter type, and that The Stucco Housemight be rewritten into literature. 4 If he would really write his novels, they might be literature; as it is, The Stucco Houseis merely a deposit. Mr. Cannan’s material is interesting; he has put considerable thought into the book; and the book is a very interesting book. The writer really understands the kind of domestic warfare with which James and Catherine occupy their lives. But it is seldom quite the understanding of a novelist; it is the understanding of a man who has assumed a cause; Mr. Cannan’s hatred is even stronger than...

Published By:   Faber & Faber logo    Johns Hopkins University Press