George Bernard Shaw’s little books or pamphlets on Henrik Ibsen and Richard Wagner – The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) and The Perfect Wagnerite (1898) – were so much fun that I rounded out the trilogy with The Sanity of Art (1895). The three essays have been collected under the boooring title Major Critical Essays, but I read online scans of old versions.
The Sanity of Art is a demolition job against Max Nordau’s screed Degeneration (1892) which was having a vogue in England. Nordau’s book is a classic in the “everything is going to hell” genre, especially interesting because 1) the sad, terrible irony of what the Nazis would do with this idea (Nordau was a founder of Zionism), and 2) he goes after all of the wrong targets. It is amazing. Ibsen, Wagner, Tolstoy, Wilde, the pre-Raphaelites, Impressionist painting, and this art is not merely bad or harmful but insane, which is hardly their fault as they are only symptoms of the overall degeneration of the human brain.
Alternatively, Nordau hits all of the right targets, since everything only gets worse, across the board. I mean, if you think Whistler, Monet, and D. G. Rossetti are evidence of the end of civilization, wait’ll you see what Picasso, Kandinsky, and Duchamp are going to do.
Shaw argues that the relevant works are “wholly beneficial and progressive, and in no sense insane or decadent” (29), which is perhaps too easy of an argument, too much of a bug-squashing. He calls it “riveting his book to the counter” with “a nail long enough to go through a few pages by other people as well” (113).
More interesting is watching Shaw work through the central problem of contemporary arts criticism, telling the rotten imitators from the real artists.
Thus you have here again a movement which is thoroughly beneficial and progressive presenting a hideous appearance of moral corruption and decay, not only to our old-fashioned religious folk, but to our comparatively modern scientific Rationalists as well. And here again, because the press and the gossips have found out that this apparent corruption and decay is considered the right thing in some influential quarters, and must be spoken of with respect, and patronized and published and sold and read, we have a certain number of pitiful imitators taking advantage of their tolerance to bring out really silly and rotten stuff, which the reviewers are afraid to expose, lest it, too, should turn out to be the correct thing. (69)
I’m not sure if Shaw is being too hard on the reviewers or too easy. But he is correct that the art of our time almost always looks decadent. No critic is wrong when he complains that there is too much derivative trivia out there, and too much garbage.
Even at such stupidly conservative concerts as those of the London Philharmonic Society I have seen ultra-modern composers, supposed to be representatives of the Wagnerian movement, conducting pretentious rubbish… And then, of course, there are the young imitators, who are corrupted by the desire to make their harmonies sound like those of the masters whose purposes and principles of work they are too young to understand, and who fall between the old forms and the new into simple incoherence. (42-3)
In the identical riff in the section on Impressionists, Shaw says that Whistler’s imitators paint “figures placed apparently in coal cellars,” making them look, if I do not understand what they are doing, insane. If I do understand, they merely look mediocre and derivative.
The Sanity of Art is bracing for a critic, and is only incidentally itself a rant. Do your jobs, critics! Yessir, Mr. Shaw.
Page numbers from the 1907 edition I found at Hathi Trust.