Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Shaw's Corner Twitter feed recently incorporated a Shaw quotation that had been posted by Vintage Books. The quotation reads as follows: 

The source of the quotation is quite easy to find. Towards the end of "As Far As Thought Can Reach," the fifth and last part of Back to Methuselah, the She-Ancient supports Ecrasia's impression that art brings happiness to one's life. 

ECRASIA. You have no right to say that I am not sincere. I have found a happiness in art that real life has never given me. I am intensely in earnest about art. There is a magic and mystery in art that you know nothing of.
THE SHE-ANCIENT. Yes, child: art is the magic mirror you make to reflect your invisible dreams in visible pictures. You use a glass mirror to see your face: you use works of art to see your soul.

The first time one reads this quotation (at least the bit quoted by Vintage Books), you may have the impression that both Ecrasia and the She-Ancient support a view of art that is not in consonance with Shaw's personal ideas. Nothing new there. After all, why would all Shaw characters think like "the master of puppets"?

However, I must admit that I have omitted some of the She-Ancient's words. Specifically, her final sentence suggests that art as a medium to experience life - and the Life Force - must be superseded by more direct means in order to achieve the ultimate stage in the realization of human beings. 

THE SHE-ANCIENT. [...] But we who are older use neither glass mirrors nor works of art. We have a direct sense of life. When you gain that you will put aside your mirrors and statues, your toys and your dolls.

Thus, these words should perhaps be understood along the lines of the many other instances of Shavian contempt for "art for art's sake". Among these, two oft-quoted passages stand out. The first, from the Epistle Dedicatory to Man and Superman, summarizes Shaw's views on the necessary didacticism of art (and drama): 

"No doubt I must recognize, as even the Ancient Mariner did, that I must tell my story entertainingly if I am to hold the wedding guest spellbound in spite of the siren sounds of the loud bassoon. But 'for art’s sake' alone I would not face the toil of writing a single sentence."

Shaw, Belloc e Chesterton

The other example is from Caesar and Cleopatra, where Apollodorus is the quintessential example (comically distorted, in this case) of the aesthete whose motto is "art for art's sake."

SENTINEL. So you are the carpet merchant
APOLLODORUS (hurt). My friend: I am a patrician.
SENTINEL. A patrician! A patrician keeping a shop instead of following arms!
APOLLODORUS. I do not keep a shop. Mine is a temple of the arts. I am a worshipper of beauty. My calling is to choose beautiful things for beautiful Queens. My motto is Art for Art's sake.
SENTINEL. That is not the password.
APOLLODORUS. It is a universal password.

Even in the preface to one of his latest plays (Farfetched Fables), Shaw could not help but insist on this idea that "the Shavian idiosyncrasy...disgusts the Art for Art's Sake Faction."

It is not difficult to trace this neglect for this idea of art to the seemingly antithetical views that Shaw and Oscar Wilde held in this respect. Indeed, this notion seems to have caught on among critics, because the Introduction to Arms and the Man (written by some mysterious "M.") includes a clear definition of Shavian poetics with special reference to the "Art for Art's sake" controversy: 

"There never was an author who showed less predilection for a specific medium by which to accomplish his results. He recognized, early in his days, many things awry in the world and he assumed the task of mundane reformation with a confident spirit. It seems such a small job at twenty to set the times aright. He began as an Essayist, but who reads essays now-a-days?—he then turned novelist with no better success, for no one would read such preposterous stuff as he chose to emit. He only succeeded in proving that absolutely rational men and women—although he has created few of the latter—can be most extremely disagreeable to our conventional way of thinking.
As a last resort, he turned to the stage, not that he cared for the dramatic art, for no man seems to care less about "Art for Art's sake," being in this a perfect foil to his brilliant compatriot and contemporary, Wilde. He cast his theories in dramatic forms merely because no other course except silence or physical revolt was open to him."

Of course, as was always the case with Shaw, his approach to aestheticism and the theory of literary art is far more complex than these lines can possibly express, even summarily. Others have tried their hand at that, luckily for me. Be that as it may, and regardless of your personal philosophical preferences, we may as well sit back and enjoy good drama, whether for art's sake, for world betterment, or simply for fun. This is something the a Monty Python Flying Circus gag does exceedingly well. 


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