Tag: W. Somerset Maugham

Sixpenny Art

Sixpenny Art posted in Eleison Comments on December 4, 2010

The French painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) repudiates modern society for the sake of art, yet the art he made himself free to create does not seem to have brought him peace (EC 175). The English novelist Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) writes a version of Gauguin’s life a few years later which seems to confirm both the repudiation and the lack of peace (EC 176). But why is the modern artist at odds with the society that he reflects, and that supports him? And why is the modern art he produces normally so ugly? And why do people persist in supporting ugly art?

The artist as rebel goes back to the Romantics. Romanticism flourished alongside the French Revolution, which merely broke out in 1789, but has been pulling down throne and altar ever since. Modern artists, reflecting the society in which they live, as artists cannot help doing, steadily more repudiate God. Now if God does not exist, then surely the arts should have flourished serenely in their new-found liberty from that illusion of God that has dominated men’s minds from time immemorial. Yet is modern art serene? Or is it not rather suicidal?

On the other hand, if God exists, and if the artist’s talent is a gift from God to be used for his glory, as countless artists from the past used to proclaim, then the godless artist will be at war with his own gift, and his gift will be at war with his society, and society will be at war with his gift. Is this not rather what we observe all around us, for instance the deep scorn of modern materialists for all the arts, beneath a pretence of respect?

If God exists, at any rate the questions asked above are easy to answer. Firstly, the artist is at odds with modern society because the breath of God within him that is his talent knows that his society is despicable insofar as it is godless. The fact that society supports him despite his scorn makes it merely more despicable. As Wagner once said when his increased orchestra meant eliminating a row of seats in the theatre, “Fewer listeners? So much the better!” Secondly, how can a gift from God that is turned against him produce anything harmonious or beautiful? For anyone to find modern art beautiful he must reverse the meaning of words: “Fair is foul and foul is fair” (Macbeth) – yet when did even a modern artist mistake ugliness for beauty in a woman? And thirdly, modern people will persist in their reversing the meaning of words because they are making war on God, and have no intention of letting up. “Rather the Turk than the tiara,” said the Greeks just before the catastrophic fall of Constantinople in 1453. “Rather Communism than Catholicism,” said American Senators after World War II, and they had their wish.

In brief, Wagner, Gauguin and Maugham and thousands of modern artists of all kinds are right to scorn our sixpenny Christendom, but the answer is not to make even more war on God with modern art. The answer is to stop making war on God, to give him again the glory due to him and to put Christ back into Christendom. How much more ugliness will it take for men to turn back to the tiara and to choose once more Catholicism? Will even World War III be enough?

Kyrie eleison.

Sixpenny Civilization

Sixpenny Civilization posted in Eleison Comments on November 27, 2010

The life of the French painter, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), has been made into a film, a TV series, an opera and at least two novels. Something in that life must speak to modern man: the stockbroker who is putting bread on the table for a wife and five little children and throws it all away to become a revolutionary artist, spurning all of Western civilization on a distant island in the South Pacific. But does not Gauguin’s restless end suggest that he may not have found the solution dreamt of there by so many souls?

One fictional presentation of Gauguin’s life was written 16 years after his death by a well-known British writer of the first half of the 20th century, W. Somerset Maugham, who visited the South Pacific to gather at first hand material for “The Moon and Sixpence.” This title for his short novel based on Gauguin sounds strange, but in fact it goes to the heart of the matter. In 1915 had appeared Maugham’s masterpiece, “Of Human Bondage,” a novel basically autobiographical. A critic had accused the book’s hero of being “so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence (a small British silver-coloured coin of that time) at his feet.” In other words, Maugham was so longing for some unattainable ideal that he was missing out on a lesser but practical happiness available at hand. Maugham retorted, “If you look on the ground for sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.” In other words, there are higher things in life.

The use of this moon-sixpence contrast for his novel’s title shows clearly what Maugham thought of Gauguin. The normal happiness of the middle-class stockbroker and family father is the sixpence. Throwing it all away to become an artist is the moon. Now let nobody think Maugham condones throwing away living and family. Maugham presents the artist Strickland, his Gauguin, as being horrifically selfish, hard-hearted and cruel. Yet Maugham also presents him as being a genius who was basically right to pursue his artistic vocation, whatever the cost may have been in sixpenny happiness to the artist himself and to those around him.

In other words, says Maugham, most people’s lives in today’s Western civilization are sixpenny lives. But life itself is worth much more than sixpence. In the brief span that men are given to live on earth there is something so much more valuable, that in pursuit of it a man is basically right, if need be, to trample any number of sixpenny pieces into the mud.

In real life Gauguin died, at least posthumously, a famous and fulfilled artist, but humanly still restless and rebellious. Maugham has the measure of both the genius validated and the humanity frustrated. But has Maugham solved Gauguin’s unsolved problem? How can genius and life be opposed to one another, and both be human? The problem looks as though it is widespread and deeply rooted. Is there a solution? See next week’s “Eleison Comments.”

Kyrie eleison.