Literature and Life (Complete)

Author: William Dean Howells


The whole affair was very amusing at first, but it has since put me upon thinking (I like to be put upon thinking; the eighteenth-century essayists were) that the attitude of the audience towards this deplorable reprobate is really the attitude of most readers of books, lookers at pictures and statues, listeners to music, and so on through the whole list of the arts. It is absolutely different from the artist’s attitude, from the connoisseur’s attitude; it is quite irreconcilable with their attitude, and yet I wonder if in the end it is not what the artist works for. Art is not produced for artists, or even for connoisseurs; it is produced for the general, who can never view it otherwise than morally, personally, partially, from their associations and preconceptions.

Whether the effect with the general is what the artist works for or not, he, does not succeed without it. Their brute liking or misliking is the final test; it is universal suffrage that elects, after all. Only, in some cases of this sort the polls do not close at four o’clock on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, but remain open forever, and the voting goes on. Still, even the first day’s canvass is important, or at least significant. It will not do for the artist to electioneer, but if he is beaten, he ought to ponder the causes of his defeat, and question how he has failed to touch the chord of universal interest. He is in the world to make beauty and truth evident to his fellowmen, who are as a rule incredibly stupid and ignorant of both, but whose judgment he must nevertheless not despise. If he can make something that they will cheer, or something that they will hiss, he may not have done any great thing, but if he has made something that they will neither cheer nor hiss, he may well have his misgivings, no matter how well, how finely, how truly he has done the thing.

This is very humiliating, but a tacit snub to one’s artist-pride such as one gets from public silence is not a bad thing for one. Not long ago I was talking about pictures with a painter, a very great painter, to my thinking; one whose pieces give me the same feeling I have from reading poetry; and I was excusing myself to him with respect to art, and perhaps putting on a little more modesty than I felt. I said that I could enjoy pictures only on the literary side, and could get no answer from my soul to those excellences of handling and execution which seem chiefly to interest painters. He replied that it was a confession of weakness in a painter if he appealed merely or mainly to technical knowledge in the spectator; that he narrowed his field and dwarfed his work by it; and that if he painted for painters merely, or for the connoisseurs of painting, he was denying his office, which was to say something clear and appreciable to all sorts of men in the terms of art. He even insisted that a picture ought to tell a story.

The difficulty in humbling one’s self to this view of art is in the ease with which one may please the general by art which is no art. Neither the play nor the playing that I saw at the theatre when the actor was hissed for the wickedness of the villain he was personating, was at all fine; and yet I perceived, on reflection, that they had achieved a supreme effect. If I may be so confidential, I will say that I should be very sorry to have written that piece; yet I should be very proud if, on the level I chose and with the quality I cared for, I could invent a villain that the populace would have out and hiss for his surpassing wickedness. In other words, I think it a thousand pities whenever an artist gets so far away from the general, so far within himself or a little circle of amateurs, that his highest and best work awakens no response in the multitude. I am afraid this is rather the danger of the arts among us, and how to escape it is not so very plain. It makes one sick and sorry often to see how cheaply the applause of the common people is won. It is not an infallible test of merit, but if it is wanting to any performance, we may be pretty sure it is not the greatest performance.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Literature and Life (Complete)

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Literature and Life (Complete)

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: William Dean Howells, "2," Literature and Life (Complete), ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in Literature and Life (Complete) (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed October 5, 2022,

MLA: Howells, William Dean. "2." Literature and Life (Complete), edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in Literature and Life (Complete), Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 5 Oct. 2022.

Harvard: Howells, WD, '2' in Literature and Life (Complete), ed. . cited in 1909, Literature and Life (Complete), Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 5 October 2022, from