THE ARTISTS MIND.
In the March number of The American Mercury appeared an article by one, Thomas Craven, entitled “Have Painters Minds?” The title, like the views expressed in the body of the article, was calculated to “rile” those of its readers who sympathize temperamentally, if not always wisely, with some of the Mercury victims who are periodically punctured by the poison darts from its blow-guns.
The most irritating thing about the typical Mercury, writers, especially those who ape the style of its waspish editor, is the cynical cock-sureness and stubbornly one-sided point of view which refuses to see any exceptions to an arbitrary rule, or to consider any extenuating circumstances which a fair investigation of almost any case might disclose. If a seeming exception is occasionally made in favor of some individual whose case is under discussion, it is usually merely to pave the way for an after- following attack with an added sting at the end of it.
To be kind, to show mercy, to be generous to a foe, to be discriminating seems to be entirely foreign to the policy of the Mercury writers. They are out to “get” their game. Like the head- hunters of Borneo, they are never happy until they have hunted down, ambushed and decapitated their victim; and then, by some secret devils process of their own, have eviscerated, compressed, dried, smoked, shrivelled and otherwise manhandled the poor head until it is reduced to pigmy size, ready to be hung up and permanently displayed on their wall as a trophy, but still retaining a perceptible likeness to the original.
Mr. Thomas Craven was especially venomous in his attack upon the portrait painters, for whom he has no use except as targets for his blow-gun. Photography, he holds, has deprived the portrait painters of their raison detre and relegated them to oblivion. Those who are trying to maintain their place in the sun and keep their pots a boiling the critic professes to see as mere prettifiers, servile flatterers, obsequiously complaint with the whims of their sitters who demand that they shall “improve upon nature” and hand them down to posterity in counterfeit presentment as paragons of pulchritude. The poor shrimps will even comply with the request of those who bring a favored photograph with them and request that they be “painted like that” “that”, in most cases being a print from a negative that has been retouched out of all likeness to reality, however true to life it may have been in its original state.
It is commonly said that cameras, like fingers, do not lie, which as a figure of speech is quite true; but who does not know that the average retoucher “is a liar and the truth is not in him.” Granting that there are exceptions to the rule of venal and incompetent photographers, (Mr. Thomas Craven does not even admit that there are such incompetents all photographers are perfect for him), why not admit similar exceptions among the portrait painters? Why condemn a whole profession because individuals perhaps even a majority fail to measure up to the higher standards?.
In this bitter and bigoted spirit Mr. Thomas Craven reviews several branches of the painters art and their representatives, and comes to the foregone conclusion that the painter is not to be regarded as un homme desprit. His article concludes with a tirade which is one of the grossest exhibitions of wholesale condemnation, prejudice, brutality, and virulence it has ever been my misfortune to read.
“The modern painter,” he says,” is an inferior being. He is dumb and dull and conceited, an anti-social coward who dwells in miserable cocklofts, and run frantically to his dealer and back again, bleating like a sheep about his soul, his poverty, and his unappreciated genius. If he is lucky enough to have a little money he hurries off to Europe to steep his tender susceptibilities in the atmosphere of the past, or to destroy himself in the dives of Paris.
Of all the workers in the arts he is the least alive no man of brains and education could possibly waste his life in performances which are not only paltry and mechanical, but also totally divorced from current affairs. The general public has no conception of the feebleness, the stupidity and ignorance of the painter. He is inarticulate and proud of it; in any society he is a nonentity. Intellectually, our most celebrated painters not the contemptible small fry, but those periodically acclaimed as moder masters are much lower in the scale than such writers as Harold Bell Wright, James Oliver Curwood, Stratton Porter and Margaret Pedler,” etc.
“Can you beat it?”.
The question may arise why any physician should be moved to take up the cudgels in defense of portrait painters. What has a doctor to do with painters besides treating them if they happen to become his patients, or perchance employing one of them to paint his own portrait is he has happily attained that degree of affluence which will permit him to pay for it?.
Just a fellow-feeling, outraged sentiments and ideals, thats all. Probably the perception that Mr. Craven might, with eight justification, have substituted doctors for painters as targets for his darts had something to do with it. And why not add clergymen and lawyers and authors as well? We are all in the same boat, as the Cervantes, the Voltaires, the Tom Paines, the Upton Sinclairs and the Sinclair Lewises all very well know. Let us not forget the Hebrew prophets and St. Paul, and even the Saviour Himself, in their fierce denunciations of the sins and shortcomings of mankind. But none of these were without mercy and most of them had the saving grace of humor. Mr. Thomas Craven has “out-Heroded Herod”.
Perhaps the particular reason for this article will appear more definitely if the question be stated in a different way. Let us see.
Has the physician anything in common with the portrait painter? What in general is the relation between art and medicine?.
Here opens up a large subject so large that only a few of its many phases can be touched upon in this article.
First, then, the practice of medicine, like the practice of painting, is an art, in which each devotee exercises such degree of skill as he has in his efforts to comply with its requirements. Underlying, or interwoven with the art, in both cases, of course, are certain general principles which constitute science; for art and science are inseparable. Each art has its principles, its rules, its methods, its media, some of which are common to both. Painters and physicians alike are potentially artists.
Whether or not they fully develop their potentialities as individuals is another matter. Some of them do, but most of them do not mores the pity and Mr. Craven is justified in aiming his darts at the runts and the renegades. Blow-gun and poisoned dart against the hypodermic syringe is permissible and good Homoeopathy besides, Similia Similibus Curentur! Let similars be treated by similars.
One of the principles common to the portrait painter and the physician is Individualization. By that standard both may be judged in a broad way. The painter and the physician alike must study the individual before them; the one to transfer the characteristic lineaments of his sitter to the canvas; the other to portray his symptomatic likeness in order to select his remedy, make his diagnosis and lay out his general plan of treatment. Technically speaking, one constructs a portrait the other a case; but both, if they are true artists, work along strictly individualistic lines.
In primitive periods the would-be artist was able only to sketch his rude figures in outline upon the wall of his cavern, upon some rocky cliff or boulder, or perhaps upon his pottery. His attempts at portraiture were limited to the drawing and perhaps coloring of some emblem or totem by which the individual might be roughly identified as a member of his tribe or clan. His progress from mere outline sketching to something more definite and individual was very slow. His art passed through many stages before it reached anything like adequacy.
Similarity, medical men have passed and are still passing through many stages of development and degeneration. Unfortunately their progress in the line of true individualization seems to have been even slower than that of the portrait painters. The great majority of physicians have not even yet progressed beyond the totem stage. In their study of diseases, for example, they have, for the most part, contented themselves with delineating mere outlines. Certain signs and symptoms have been arbitrarily grouped and named without regard to the always-existing differences between individuals.
In nature no two individuals are ever affected exactly alike by the same disease. Pathological “types” exist only in imagination. They are “composite pictures,” blurred and nebulous, and unrecognizable as individuals. Under this system the pathological group or clan to which an individual case belongs may be identified with comparative ease; but the particular form which the disease takes in the individual is indefinite. The patient is seen only as one of a crowd without any distinguishing personal features. Consequently he can be treated only empirically, in hit-or-miss fashion, by the ordinary physician.