The Seven Lively Arts
by Gilbert Seldes

 

The Great God Bogus

(pages 306-319)
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THE GREAT GOD BOGUS 

IF there were an Academy I should nail upon its doors the following beliefs: 

That Al Jolson is more interesting to the intelligent mind than John Barrymore and Fanny Brice than Ethel; 

That Ring Lardner and Mr Dooley in their best work are More entertaining and more important than James B. Cabell and Joseph Hergesheimer in their best; 

That the daily comic strip of George Herriman (Krazy Kat) is easily the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America to-day; 

That Florenz Ziegfeld is a better producer than David Belasco; 

That one film by Mack Sennett or Charlie Chaplin is worth the entire auvre of Cecil de Miller 

That Alexander's Ragtime Band and I Love a Piano are musically and emotionally sounder pieces of work than Indian Love Lyrics and The Rosary; 

That the circus can be and often is more artistic than the Metropolitan Opera House in New York; 

That Irene Castle is worth all the pseudo-classic dancing ever seen on the American stage; and 

That the civic masque is not perceptibly superior to the Elks' Parade in Atlantic City. 

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Only about half of these are heresies, and I am quite ready to stand by them as I would stand by my opinion of Dean Swift or Picasso or Henry James or James Joyce or Johann Sebastian Bach. But I recognize that they are expressions of personal preference, and possibly valueless unless related to some general principles. It appears that what I care for in the catalogue above falls in the field of the lively arts; and that the things to which I compare them (for emphasis, not for measurement) are either second-rate instances of the major arts or first-rate examples of the peculiarly disagreeable thing for which I find no other name than the bogus. I shall arrive presently at the general principles of the lively arts and their relation to the major. The bogus is a lion in the path. 

Bogus is counterfeit and counterfeit is bad money and bad money is better-or at least more effective than good money. This is not a private paradox, but a plain statement of a law in economics (Gresham's, I think) that unless it is discovered, bad money will drive out good. Another characteristic of counterfeit is that, once we have accepted it, we try to pass it off on some one else; banks and critics are the only institutions which don't-or ought not to-continue the circulation. In the arts counterfeit is known as faux bon-the apparently good, essentially bad, which is the enemy of the good. The existence of the bogus is not a serious threat against the great arts, for they 

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have an obstinate vitality and in the end-but only in the end-they prevail. It is the lively arts which are continually jeopardized by the bogus, and it is for their sake that I should like to see the bogus go sullenly down into oblivion. 

Namely: vocal concerts, pseudo-classic dancing, the serious intellectual drama, the civic masque, the high-toned moving picture, and grand opera. 

The first thing about them is that a very small percentage of those who make the bogus arts prosperous really enjoy them. I recall my own complete stultification after hearing my first concert; and the casual way in which I made it evident to all my companions that I had been to a concert is my only clue to the mystery. For at bottom there is a vast snobbery of the 'intellect which repays the deadly hours of boredom we spend in the pursuit of art. We are the inheritors of a tradition that what is worth while must be dull; and as often as not we invert the maxim and pretend that what is dull is higher in quality, more serious, ("greater art" in short than whatever is light and easy and gay. We suffer fools gladly if we can pretend they are mystics. And the fact that audiences at concerts and opera, spectators at classic dances and masques, are suffering, is the final damnation, for it means that these arts are failures. I do not found my belief on any theory that all the arts ought to be appreciated by all the people. I do mean that most of those who read Ulysses or The Pickwick 

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Papers do so because they enjoy it, and they stop the moment they are bored. There is no superiority in having read a book. The lively anticipation of delights which one senses in those going to the Follies or to a circus is wholly absent in the lobby of the Metropolitan or at a performance of Jane Clegg. And the art which communicates no ecstasy but that of snobbism is irretrievably bogus. 

There is something hopeless about opera as we know it in the United States; and the fact that ten or fifteen operas are among the permanent delights of civilized existence does not alter the fact. (Three of them: Chovanstchina, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni, are not in the repertoire of the Metropolitan; nor are Falstaff and Otello; nor does the ballet proceed beyond Coq d'Or; nor it seems would the Metropolitan hold it within its dignity to produce The Mikado, although Schumann-Heink was ready to sing Katisha.) Here is an art-form hundreds of years old, prospered by an enormous publicity, favoured by extraordinary windfalls-the voice of Caruso, the "personality" of Farrar-able to set into motion nearly every appeal to the senses in colour, tone, movement -it has song and action and dance-and what exactly is the final accomplishment? The pale maunderings of Puccini, the vulgarity of Massenet, and the overpowering dulness of our domestic try-outs. Wag ner? A philosopher drunk with divine wisdom is reported (by Goethe) to have cried out that he could 

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discern shortcomings even in God; and the melancholy truth is that the welding of three arts into one succeeded only in Wagner's brain, for on the boards we lose Wagner as we attend to the stage, and regain him as we return to the music. This is not true of Boris or of Figaro-so much less pretentious, both; and the director may arise who will know how to fuse Wagner into one harmonious and beautiful object. 

At the moment, one takes the Metropolitan with its vast seating capacity, its endless sources of appeal to the multitude, and one knows that it isn't a success. If it isn't losing money it is paying its way through social subventions. Eighty per cent of the music heard there is trivial in comparison with either good jazz or good symphonic music; ninety per cent of the acting is preposterous; and the settings, Costumes, and properties are so far below popular musical comedy standards that in the end Urban and Norman-Bel Geddes have had to be called in to save them, and haven't been given scope or freedom enough to succeed. The Metropolitan is, I am told, the finest opera house in the world and loses money because it is still several leaps ahead of its clientele which insists on more Puccini and no Coq d'Or. Also I have had the supreme pleasure of hearing Chaliapin there and I am not ungrateful. The Metropolitan has difficulties happily unknown to us and is unquestionably an eminent institution. It is opera as we know it, that calls down the curse, opera which has 

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to call itself "grand" to distinguish itself from the popular, superior, kind. For it is pretentious and it appeals not to our sensibilities but to our snobbery. It neither excites nor exalts; it does not amuse. Over it and under it and through it runs the element of fake; it is a substitute for symphonic music and an easy expiatory offering for ragtime. Ecrasez Pinfdme! 

Audiences at the opera have, however, been thrilled bv a voice. What is there to say for the uncommunicative, uninspired, serious-minded intellectual drama which without wit, or intensity, "presents a problem" or drearily holds the mirror up to nature! Those little scenes from domestic life, those secondhand expositions of other people's philosophies, those unflinching grapplings with "the vital facts of existence" which year by year are held to be great plays? Let me be frank; let me face my vital facts. I have never found my brain inadequate to grapple with their grapplings, for it is almost in the nature of the case that if a man has anything profound to express he will flee from the theatre where everything is dependent upon actors usually unintelligent and is reduced to the lowest common factor of human intelligence. Bernard Shaw writes his ideas into his prefaces because they can't be fully stated on the stage; Henry James tried to be delicate and failed. It remains for Ferencz Molnar and Augustus Thomas to succeed-with borrowed and diminished ideas. 

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Still speaking of modern serious plays (because the Medea of Euripides and the tragedy of Othello are not involved) what is bogus in them is their spurious appeal to our sentimentality or our snobbery. It is their pretence to be a great and serious art when they are simply vulgarizations. I have no quarrel with any man for the subject matter of his work of art, and I should allow every freedom to the artist. The whole trouble with our modern serious drama is that it is usually such bad drama; the tedium of three hours of Jane Clegg isn't worthy sitting through because of the desperate effort of the dramatist and the producer to create the illusion of reality by reproducing the rhythm of reality. The essential distortion, caricature, or transposition which you find in a serious work'of art or in a vaudeville sketch, is missing here. And the efforts to ram this sort of play home by pretending that only morons do not like it is exactly and precisely bunk. Most plays fail because they are bad plays; and the greater part of the intellectual drama following this divine LAW, fails. A good manipulator of the theatre like Molnar can put over Lillom, which has no more of a great idea than Seven Keys to Baldpate and is almost as good drama, if he knows in what proportion to mingle his approaches to our meaner and higher sensibilities. For we are not altogether lost yet. 

If the civic masque and classic dancing continue much longer we will be lost entirely. These arty 

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conglomerations of middle-high seriousness and bourgeois beauty are not so much a peril as a nuisance. The former is the "artistic" counterpart of the Elks Parade and since I cannot speak with decent calm about its draperies and mummery, I recommend Mr R. C. Benchley's chapter on the same subject in Of All Things! The civic masque is fake medivalism, the sort of thing which, if ridicule could kill, should 

have gone out after W. S. Gilbert's couplets appeared in Patience. Alas the instinct for trumpery art persists and on it has been grafted the astounding idea of communal artistic effort-a characteristic thing, too, for the communal efforts of ancient Greece were war and Bacchanalia, and of the middle ages, the crusades; the municipal celebrations after which the civic masque is patterned were created in cities which were unself-conscious and were doing something out of vanity and joy. I cannot imagine the six million of New York or the six thousand of Vine land, Arkansas, growing suddenly mad with joy over the fact that they live in no mean city. I neither like the civic consciousness nor believe deeply in its honest existence. And when it takes to expressing itself as the symbol of the corn and such-like idiocy it isn't as funny as the induction scene of the Ziegfeld Follies (which the Forty-niners took off as "I am the spirit of Public School Number 146") and it isn't any more moving or intelligent. Certainly it has never been so beautiful. Faced with the vast 

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myths of the American pasts, our poets simply haven't found the medium for projecting them. The dime novel and the Wild West film both failed for 

of imaginative power, and that treasure remains undisturbed. It is sealed and guarded and the civic masque nibbles at it, dislodges a fragment, and comes dancing awkwardly into the foreground waving the shadow of an illusion like a scarf over its head. 

For obviously classic dancing is the natural form of expression for this pseudo-civism. I have never had the patience to discover the beginnings of the fatuous craze for imitations of presumably ancient dances. Certainly the first of the notable dancers I saw was not before 1907-in the person of Isadora Duncan. It would be absurd to recall those renditions of the Seventh Symphony and what not at this date. If Miss Duncan is a great artist and a great personality now, so much the better, for her early success had much to do with breaking down the gates of our decent objection to fake and her imitators swept over us like a flood. Bogus again, these things; they interpret in dance things which had already been all too clear in music or drama. They know, it seems, the science of eurhythmics, which ought to mean good rhythm, and they employ it to produce in pantomime an obvious, brutally flat version of the Fall of Troy. They haven't as yet added one single thing to our stock of interest and beauty-as the Russian Ballet did, as the old five-position ballet 

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dance did, as modern ballroom and stage dancing does. The costuming is almost always silly; the music chosen is almost always obvious; and the postures assumed are lethally monotonous. The old ballet, based on five definite positions, made each slight variation count, and Pavlowa with her stricken face and tenderness of movement knew it by heart, or by instinct. The new dancers have no internal discipline and no freedom; and only the accident that the human body is at times not displeasing to look upon makes them tolerable. One could forgive them much if the pretensions were not so unutterably lofty and the swank so ignorant and the results so ugly. Fat women leaping with chaplets in their hair, in garments of grey gauze, are not the poetry of motion, and Irene Castle in a black evening dress dancing Irving Berlin's music is-just as surely as Nijinsky was. What is more, these two dancers, whom I choose at the extremes of the dance, both have reference to our contemporary life; and the classic dancing of Helen Moeller and Marion Morgan and Mr Chalif and the rest have absolutely nothing to say to us. We've lost that "simplicity," thank God, or haven't found it yet. We are an alert and lively people-and our dance must actually express that spirit as no fake can do. 

Our existence is hard, precise, high spirited. There is no nourishment for us in the milk-and-water diet of the bogus arts, and all they accomplish is a genteel 

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corruption, a further thinning out of the blood, a little extra refinement. They are, intellectually, the exact equivalent of a high-toned lady, an elegant dinner or a refined collation served in the saloon, and the contemporary form of the vapours. Everything about them is supposed to be "good taste," including the kiss on the brow which miraculously, cc ruins) I a perfect virgin-and they are in the physical sense of the word utterly tasteless. The great arts and the lively arts have their sources in strength or in gaiety-and the difference between them is not the degree of intensity, but the degree of intellect. But the bogus arts spring from longing and weakness and depression! A happy people creates folk songs or whistles rag; it does not commit the vast atrocity of a "community sing-song"; it goes to Olympic games or to a race track, to Iphigenza or to Charlie Chaplin-not to hear a "vocal concert." 

The bogus arts are corrupting the lively onesbecause an essential defect of the bogus is that they pretend to be better than the popular arts, yet they want desperately to be popular. They borrow and spoil what is good; they persuade people by appealing to their snobbery that they are the real thing. And as the audience watches these arts in action the comforting illusion creeps over them that at last they have achieved art. But they are really watching the Quanto pili, un' arte Porta seco fatica di corpo, tanto pil a vilet Pater, who quotes this of Leonardo, calls it "princely." 


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