Chesterton, G. K.: Famous Paintings

From The Chesterton Review, Febr-May 1997

The statement that the work of the Old Masters can be effective for popular education is not such a platitude as it will at first appear. It is both more disputable and more true than it seems. For the truth is that the great art of the past can be used for this purpose where a great many other methods now generally adopted are quite clumsy and futile. Something of this utility is shared by the plays of Shakespeare; and by no other agency I know except the paintings of such men as Titian and Leonardo.

To explain this peculiar kind of public value one must understand one of the deepest of the differences, and perhaps diseases, of our time. It was the mark of the art of the past, especially the art of the Renaissance, that the great man was a man. He was an extraordinary man, but only in the sense of being an ordinary man with something extra. Shakespeare or Rubens went with the plain man as far as the plain man went; they ate and drank, and desired and died as he did. This is what people mean when they say that these gods had feet of clay; their giant boots were heavy with the mire of the earth. That is what people mean when they say that Shakespeare was often coarse; that is what people mean when they say that he was often dull. They mean that a great poet of the elder kind had spaces which were idle and absent-minded; that his sub-consciousness of- ten guided him; that he sprawled; that he was not “artistic.” It is not only true that Homer sometimes nodded; but nodding was part of the very greatness of Homer. His sleepy nod shakes the stars like the nod of his own Jupiter.

The old artists, then, were plain and popular in the more fundamental or (if you will) lower parts of their personality. But the typical modern artist sets out to be a separate and fantastic sort of creature, who feeds and feels in a strange manner of his own. Compare Velazquez with Whistler; compare Shakespeare with Shaw; compare even Addison with Stevenson. Whistler professed to be a butterfly, feasting on strange flowers and following incalculable flights; Stevenson was called by many of his friends an elf; and though this did not mean that he was inhumane, it did mean that he was in a manner disembodied. Bernard Shaw is certainly a fairy: and an Irish fairy, which is worse. Shakespeare, like the Shepherd in Iolanthe, was only a fairy down to the waist. He would undoubtedly, to quote the same work of art, have left his legs kicking behind if he had tried to get through the keyhole. Ben Jonson drinking ale was exactly like Ben Bolt drinking ale; though it might only move Ben Bolt to confused memories of Alice, and might inspire Ben Jonson to offer his lady the disinterested advice that she should drink only with her eyes. But faddists and fairies wish to draw their very sustenance differently; tee totalers live on lemonade and elves upon dew, which I should think would be more sustaining.

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