Life, we might say, is universally preoccupied with creating. We reproduce, we build, we write, we paint, we grow. As a species, we have created systems of language and maths; we’ve made machines and synthetic materials. Of course, as both history and the earth bear witness, we have also been preoccupied with destruction. Even at our worst moments, we often destroy in order to create. Whether we destroy cultures, populations, habitats, traditions, abandoned buildings, or whole cities, it is not usually to leave a vacuum or a void–but rather to create or replicate something in its place–sometimes good, sometimes evil. But even when we clear a place of waste, it is often so that life can once again build and create. The very nature of life means that we are committed to production rather than absence.
In that way, almost all human endeavours can be related to the production of art. Without getting into the marxist complexities of commodification and alienation of labor, in an ideal world every architect must surely see their work as a piece of art: so must the clockmakers, the builders, and the butchers. We say there is an art to teaching, or raising children, or casting out a line. Is art creation or skill? What is the “proper” subject for art?
J.Leslie Mitchell’s narrator of his Polychromata cycle of stories writes:
In the squatting-places of the dawn-men also was the telling [of] the story. They honoured the stylist long before there was the written style. Art was of art, not of life. But to me the tale without theme, the poem without purpose – it is salt without meat. The theme is the man.“The Epic”
For the most part, it is Leslie’s sentiments echoed here, though missing his typical, but rarely gentle, outcry for the injustices faced by the most marginalized populations. Occasionally, Mitchell can seem quite bitter about a certain approach to and type of art. He consciously opposed the idea of “art for art’s sake”. In an essay “The End of the Maya Old Empire” published in Smeddum, Mitchell suggests that end might be linked to an inability to cope with and resist dramatic change. He makes this argument by reading later stages of Mayan art “grown flamboyant and decoratively archaistic” as evidence of “a flagging of the cultural impulse, a low spiritual vitality.”
In his essay “A Novelist looks at the Cinema,” Mitchell disparages theater as “a bastard art, calling for acute faith from the audience to supplement its good works” and lambasts contemporary cinema for its treatment of the artistic Muse:
She is tarred and feathered or sprayed with saccharine in the likeness of a Christmas cake; and unendingly, instead of walking fearless and free, she sidles along with her hands disposed in a disgustingly Rubens-like gesture.“A Noveslist Looks at the Cinema”, Smeddum
In his essay “Glasgow” in Scottish Scene, he writes that “there is nothing in culture or art that is worth the life and elementary happiness of one of those thousands who rot in the Glasgow slums.” In the context of the lives of those unhappy thousands, he argues that any discussions of the arts is “no more than the chatter and scratch of a band of apes, seated in a pit on a midden of corpses.”
At first glance, this appears to be a particularly hard, if not hypocritical, attitude for a man who chose to pursue a career that barely provided the utter essentials for his wife and children. Perhaps, his condemnation of purely aesthetic art stems, in part, from his own guilt for choosing to pursue his own art over work more profitable. Most importantly, however, we must consider Mitchell’s criticisms in the context of the period and his own experiences. Both in the country and in the cities, Mitchell found many struggling to survive. The Depression, labor strikes, industrial working conditions, failing crops, increased economic disparities, violence–Mitchell could never turn his sight away from the factors of modern life that caused harm to the most vulnerable. For Mitchell, then, it was the duty of all artists to expose the reality of human suffering. Art must work to raise awareness, to motivate change, to inspire. It can never ignore or raise itself above life; it cannot be only artificial or purely ornamental.
Mitchell, in his criticism, seems to oppose the attitudes towards art made famous at the end of the 19th century. The Aesthetic movement in the Victorian period proclaimed that art must be valued for it’s own sake; the purpose of art is art itself. This movement was associated with the Decadence movement that praised artifice, human creativity, and sophistication over the more natural and simple. Proponents of these movements in Britain included Walter Pater, Aubrey Beardsley, and A.C. Swinburne. The most notorious literary figure associated with aestheticism and decadence was Oscar Wilde. In his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde writes “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. . . No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. . . All art is quite useless.”
While any reader of The Picture of Dorian Gray would certainly challenge the notion that it is useless or without deeper purpose, we might see Wilde’s dictates as a description of the type of artistic production that seemed to outrage Mitchell. But it is necessary to read some of his criticisms with suspicion. Afterall, Mitchell’s portrayal of local landscapes do not strictly require the lyricism and rhythm that make them so beautiful and pleasing to read. His more fantastical works like Gay Hunter and Three Go Back sometimes sacrifice the complexities of ideological meaning for the beauty and effect of a more romantic approach. Even in Sunset Song, as Isobel Murray has noted in her essay “Gibbon’s Chris: A Celebration With Some Reservations”, we might find fault with the scene where Chris inspects her beautiful, nude body in the mirror on a cold winter night. Was that scene a moment of proto-feminist self-awareness and body possitivity, or simply the male gaze meditating on something beautiful and pleasing in form?
In his private writings, unintended for publicatioyn, we see a much more mellow approach to art. In an early letter sent to Ray, Leslie Mitchell seems to take pleasure in style for stye’s sake: writing in a tone and penmanship, exaggerated even for himself, while extolling the virtues of Ray’s writing and critiquing the excess of his own:
I love your straight-forward clean-cut style. You do not beat about the bush, and I, whom am myself so prone to do so, read your letters with something of an admiring awe!
Given Ray’s personality, it is unlikely that Leslie would have written in flourished style in order to impress her. We might conclude that he adopted affectation for the sake of his own play and pleasure. Such artistic playfulness, a sort of decadence, is even more clear in a “happy-thoughts album” presented to Rebecca Middleton in 1923:
May Art’s own children, singers with spendid song,
Adorn these pages,
So that, going down the dim far years
To after ages--
(When winters come not, and the Golden Age
When no tears fall, and undreamt Brotherhood
Has cast out fear)--
Some musing girl with heart and eyes
(Turning these time-sered leaves, while all about)
Red Autumn moors
--Even as we knew them--stretch beneath the sun)
Grave-eyed, shall say:
‘Sure, Love and friends
and gracious days and
fair Blessed Lady Re!’---“Lines written", Smeddum
As William Malcolm writes in A Blasphemer and Reformer:
Mitchell himself never seemed quite sure as to the precise function of art, including his own. Indeed, he appears to have swung from one extreme to the other on this matter, for his early work projects the purist view of the artist as an elite figure working from a cloistered and self-indulgent viewpoint, whereas latterly he subscribed to the opposite opinion, identifying art as propaganda created with some ulterior didactic motive.xv
Ultimately, as we mark the last few days of the Arbuthnott Art and Craft exhibit, we might think about art as artifact and art as story. In his studies of the Mayans, Mitchell often talks of various sculptures, architecture, ceramics, and carvings: the treasure of an archeologist. Much of the political and ideological value of these items have been lost to time. We may never know what prompted a particular style of etching or the raising of specific stones. But, decadent or no, “useless” or no, propaganda or no, the art of the past still speaks its stories of life to us. We may no longer understand some of the language, but it is a story nonetheless. And from mediums and textures, shapes and colors, figures and designs, we come to see a little more of what it means to have lived.
The Mitchell Literary Estate is held at the National Library of Scotland on behalf of the Grassic Gibbon Center.