It’s clever, but is it art?
From Oxford Languages:
Art:1. the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.2. the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance
Art is a diverse range of human activities involving the creation of visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), which express the creator's imagination, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Though there is no generally agreed definition of what constitutes art, and ideas have changed over time, general descriptions typically include an idea of imaginative or technical skill stemming from human agency and creation
The line “It’s clever, but is it art?” comes from the poem “The Conundrum of the Workshops” by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).
In "The Conundrum of the Workshops," Kipling asks the meaning of art and to what standard a work should be subjected to reach the lofty goal of being art. According to Kipling, the ability to create without fear of critics should be applauded, as it was in more innocent times when the artist worked for the satisfaction that he derived from his work. Instead, today, the artist has become self-conscious because of art criticism.
This was an analogy for Kipling’s own works. He acknowledges that his work was verse, not what was thought of as a higher plane of “poetry”.
As modern day parallels, is “Blues Brothers” less than “Citizen Kane”? Is Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” superior to “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”, where both films have Death playing chess?
The Conundrum of the Workshops
by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).
When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: "It's pretty, but is it Art?"
Wherefore he called to his wife and fled to fashion his work anew—
The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review;
And he left his lore to the use of his sons—and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled: "Is it Art?" in the ear of the branded Cain.
They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart,
Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks: "It's striking, but is it Art?"
The stone was dropped by the quarry-side, and the idle derrick swung,
While each man talked of the aims of art, and each in an alien tongue.
They fought and they talked in the north and the south, they talked and they fought in the west,
Till the waters rose on the jabbering land, and the poor Red Clay had rest—
Had rest till the dank blank-canvas dawn when the dove was preened to start,
And the Devil bubbled below the keel: "It's human, but is it Art?"
The tale is old as the Eden Tree—as new as the new-cut tooth—
For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth;
And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart,
The Devil drum on the darkened pane: "You did it, but was it Art?"
We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the shape of a surplice-peg,
We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the yolk of an addled egg,
We know that the tail must wag the dog, as the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: "It's clever, but is it Art?"
When the flicker of London's sun falls faint on the club-room's green and gold,
The sons of Adam sit them down and scratch with their pens in the mold—
They scratch with their pens in the mold of their graves, and the ink and the anguish start
When the Devil mutters behind the leaves: "It's pretty, but is it art?"
Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree where the four great rivers flow,
And the wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago,
And if we could come when the sentry slept, and softly scurry through,
By the favor of God we might know as much—as our father Adam knew.
About the poem . . .
Notes from the website of the Kipling Society.
This ballad was first published in The Scots Observer on September 13, 1890.
In The Conundrum of the Workshops, Adam, the first man, draws the first picture in the soil and is then prompted by the Devil to wonder if it is really Art. This question is repeated through the ages from Noah and his Ark to cave-dwellers (See “How the First Letter was Written” and “The Cat that Walked by Himself" in the Just-So Stories) until the modern writers in their London club have the same doubts. The poem concludes with the thought that they are still unlikely to know any more than Adam knew.
The poem is an adaption of “New Lamps for Old”, which appeared in the Pioneer of 1 January 1889.
New lamps for Old was written by Rishi Aurobindo, a philosopher, yogi, guru, poet, and nationalist of India who studied Indian Civil Service at King's College, England. New Lamps for Old was written by him and published in 1893.
New Lamps for Old dwells on mankind’s endless search for something new and something better than the old. Too often people are disappointed in their hopes and betrayed by those who promise great rewards for change. Often it brings disaster.
In the Arabian folk-tale, "Aladdin and the Wonderrful Lamp", a poor boy discovers a magic lamp, which brings him riches. A wicked sorcerer steals the lamp, by offering "New Lamps for Old" to Aladdin's servant, a poor bargain since the old one was priceless. Aladdin succeeds in slaying the sorcerer and recovering the lamp, so all ends well for him.
More and more, throughout his life, Kipling valued continuity with the past, and was hostile to change for its own sake.
New Lamps for Old
- Rishi Aurobindo
WHEN the flush of the new-born sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
A Lying Spirit sat under the Tree and sang, `New Lamps for Old!'
And Adam waked from his mighty sleep, and Eve was at his side,
And the twain had faith in the song that they heard, and knew not the Spirit lied.
They plucked a lamp from the Eden-tree (the ancient legend saith),
And lighted themselves the Path of Toil that runs to the Gate of Death;
They left the lamp for the joy of their sons, and that was a glorious gain,
When the Spirit cried, `New Lamps for Old!' in the ear of the branded Cain.
So he gat fresh hope, and builded a town, and watched his breed increase,
Till Tubal' lighted the Lamp of War from the flickering Lamp of Peace;
And ever they fought with fire and sword and travailed in hate and fear,
As the Spirit sang, `New Lamps for Old!' at the change of the changing year.
They sought new lamps in the Morning-red, they sought new lamps in the West,
Till the waters covered the pitiful land and the heart of the world had rest
Had rest with the Rain of the Forty Days, but the Ark rode safe above,
And the Spirit cried, `New Lamps for Old!' when Noah loosened the Dove.
And some say now that the Eden-tree had never a root on earth;
And some say now from an eyeless eft our Father Adam had birth;
And some say now there was never an Ark and never a God to save;
And some say now that Man is a God, and some say Man is a slave;
And some build altars East and West, and some build North and South;
And some bow down to the Work of the Hand and some to the Word of the Mouth.
But wheresoever a heart may beat or a hand reach forth to hold,
The Spirit comes with the coming year, and cries, `New Lamps for Old!'
And the sons of Adam leave their toil who are cursed with the Curse of Hope,
And hang the profitless past in a noose of the thundering belfry's rope,
And tear the branch from the laurel-bush with feastings manifold,
When the cry goes up to the scornful stars, `New Lamps! New Lamps for Old!'
Though all the lamps that ever were lit have winked at the world for years,
The sons of Adam crowd the streets with laughter and sighs and tears;
For they hold that new, strange lamps shall shine to guide their feet aright,
And they turn their eyes to the scornful stars and stretch their arms to the night.
And the Spirit gives them the Lamp of War that burns at the cannonlip,
As it blazed on the point of Tubal's blade and the prow of the battleship;
And the Lamp of Love that was Eve's to snatch from Lilith under the Tree;
And the Lamp of Fame that is old as Strife and dim as Memory;
And the Lamp of Faith that was won from Job, and of Shame that was wrung from Cain;
And the Lamp of Youth that was Adam's once, and the cold blue Lamp of Pain;
And last is the terrible Lamp of Hope that every man must bear,
Lest he find his peace ere the day of his death by the light of the Lamp Despair.
We know that the Eden Lamp is lost,—if ever were Eden made,
And the ink of the Schools in the Lamp of Faith has sunk a world in the shade;
But ever we look for a light that is new, and ever the Spirit cries,
`New Lamps for Old!' and we take the lamps, and—behold, the Spirit lies!
Kipling was drawn into a literary dispute in 1890.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was published that year, and covered much of the same ground as Kipling's recently completed novel The Light that Failed, was not admired by the Scots Observer, in which a review suggested it was written for “outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph-boys”.
Wilde, who identified Kipling with the Scots Observer and W. E. Henley, its Editor, retaliated with letters to the paper and to the Nineteenth Century, in the September edition of which he described Kipling as 'a reporter who knows vulgarity better than anyone has ever known it.' Lycett writes:
Rudyard rose to the bait: he resurrected an old India poem (“New Lamps for Old”) as “The Conundrum of the Workshops”, which pointed out that Wilde’s criticism of art (in Dorian Gray) were not new; some devil was always asking, of people’s efforts; ‘It’s clever (or pretty) but is it art ’With the years, Rudyard’s views on this matter firmed. in his memoirs, he referred to the ‘suburban Toilet-Club school favoured by the late Mr. Oscar Wilde [Something of Myself, p. 217][A Toilet Club was a barber's shop which, in the 19th century, offered reduced charges to clients who paid a regular quarterly or yearly subscription: OED]
Craig Raine in an article titled “Kipling and Modernism” states that Kipling was aware from the beginning of his career that his work was not elevated:
At the outset of his long literary career, Rudyard Kipling was apparently content to recognise the distinction between verse and poetry, and, if we are to judge from his letter to Caroline Taylor of 9 December 1889, equally content to accept that his own place was below the salt: ‘I am not a poet and never shall be—but only a writer who varies fiction with verse.’
Raine refers to Kipling’s work as “the literature of the underdog”.
Readers may be happy or saddened to know that the above post is the last for Art Week. Hopefully there have been some items of interest and spome new perspectives.
Stay safe, readers.