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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Function of the Artist
By Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
 
From the ‘Opera and Drama’: Translation of William Ashton Ellis

TO raise the strangely potent language of the orchestra to such a height, that at every instant it may plainly manifest to feeling the unspeakable of the dramatic situation,—to do this, as we have already said, the musician inspired by the poet’s aim has not to haply practice self-restraint; no, he has to sharpen his inventiveness to the point of discovering the most varied orchestral idioms, to meet the necessity he feels of a pertinent, a most determinate expression. So long as this language is incapable of a declaration as individual as is needed by the infinite variety of the dramatic motives themselves; so long as the message of the orchestra is too monochrome to answer these motives’ individuality,—so long may it prove a disturbing factor, because not yet completely satisfying: and therefore in the complete drama, like everything that is not entirely adequate, it would divert attention toward itself. To be true to our aim, however, such an attention is absolutely not to be devoted to it; but through its everywhere adapting itself with the utmost closeness to the finest shade of individuality in the dramatic motive, the orchestra is irresistibly to guide our whole attention away from itself, as a means of expression, and direct it to the subject expressed. So that the very richest dialect of the orchestra is to manifest itself with the artistic object of not being noticed,—in a manner of speaking, of not being heard at all; to wit, not heard in its mechanical but only in its organic capacity, wherein it is one with the drama.  1
  How must it discourage the poet-musician, then, were he to see his drama received by the public with sole and marked attention to the mechanism of his orchestra, and to find himself rewarded with just the praise of being a “very clever instrumentalist”! How must he feel at heart,—he whose every shaping was prompted by the dramatic aim,—if art-literarians should report on his drama, that they had read a text-book and had heard, to boot, a wondrous music-ing by flutes and fiddles and trumpets, all working in and out?  2
  But could this drama possibly produce any other effect, under the circumstances detailed above?  3
  And yet! are we to give up being artists? Or are we to abandon all necessary insight into the nature of things because we can draw no profit thence? Were it no profit then to be not only an artist, but a man withal; and is an artificial know-nothingness, a womanish dismissal of knowledge, to bring us more profit than a sturdy consciousness, which, if only we put all seeking-of-self behind us, will give us cheerfulness, and hope, and courage above all else, for deeds which needs must rejoice ourselves, how little soever they be crowned with an outward success?  4
  For sure! Even now, it is only knowledge that can prosper us; whilst ignorance but holds us to a joyless, divided, hypochondriacal, scarcely will-ing and never can-ing make-believe of art, whereby we stay unsatisfied within, unsatisfying without.  5
  Look round you, and see where ye live, and for whom ye make your art! That our artistic comrades for the representment of a dramatic art work are not forthcoming, we must recognize at once, if we have eyes the least whit sharpened by artistic will. Yet how greatly we should err, if we pretended to explain this by a demoralization of our opera-singers due entirely to their own fault; how we should deceive ourselves if we thought necessary to regard this phenomenon as accidental, and not as conditioned by a broad, a general conjuncture! Let us suppose for an instant that in some way or other we acquired the power of so working upon performers and performance, from the standpoint of artistic intelligence, that a highest dramatic aim should be fully carried out,—then for the first time we should grow actively aware that we lacked the real enabler of the art work: a public to feel the need of it, and to make its need the all-puissant fellow-shaper. The public of our theatres has no need for art work: it wants to distract itself, when it takes its seat before the stage, but not to collect itself; and the need of the seeker after distraction is merely for artificial details, but not for an artistic unity. If we gave it a whole, the public would be blindly driven to tear that whole to disconnected fragments, or in the most fortunate event it would be called upon to understand a thing which it altogether refuses to understand; wherefore, in full consciousness, it turns its back on any such artistic aim. From this result we should only gain a proof why such a performance is absolutely out of the question at present, and why our opera singers are bound to be exactly what they are and what they cannot else be.  6
  To account to ourselves for this attitude of the public towards the performance, we must necessarily pass to a judgment on this public itself. If we cast a look at earlier ages of our theatric history, we can only regard this public as involved in an advancing degradation. The excellent work, the pre-eminently fine work that has been done already in our art, we surely cannot consider as dropped upon us from the skies; no, we must conclude that it was prompted withal by the taste of those before whom it was produced. We meet this public of fine taste and feeling at its most marked degree of active interest in art production, in the period of the Renaissance. Here we see princes and nobles not only sheltering art, but so engrossed with its finest and its boldest shapings that the latter must be taken as downright summoned into being by their enthusiastic need. This noble rank,—nowhere attacked in its position; knowing nothing of the misery of the thralls whose life made that position possible; holding itself completely aloof from the industrial and commercial spirit of the burgher life; living away its life of pleasure in its palaces, of courage on the field of battle,—this nobility had trained its eyes and ears to discern the beautiful, the graceful, nay, even the characteristic and energetic; and at its commands arose those works of art which signal that epoch as the most favored artistic period since the downfall of Greek art. The infinite grace and delicacy in Mozart’s tone-modelings—which seem so dull and tedious to a public bred to-day on the grotesque—were delighted in by the descendants of that old nobility; and it was to Kaiser Joseph that Mozart appealed, from the mountebankish shamelessness of the singers of his ‘Figaro.’ Nor will we look askance at those young French cavaliers whose enthusiastic applause at the Achilles aria in Gluck’s ‘Iphigenia in Tauris’ turned the wavering balance in favor of that work; and least of all will we forget that whilst the greater courts of Europe had become the political camps of intriguing diplomats, in Weimar a German royal family was listening with rapt attention to the loftiest and most graceful poets of the German nation.  7
  But the rulership of public taste in art has passed over to the person who now pays the artists’ wages, in place of the nobility which erstwhile recompensed them; to the person who orders the art work for his money, and insists on ever novel variations of his one beloved theme, but at no price a new theme itself: and this ruler and this order-giver is—the Philistine. As this Philistine is the most heartless and the basest offspring of our civilization, so is he the most domineering, the crudest and foulest, of art’s bread-givers. True, that everything comes aright to him; only, he will have nothing to do with aught that might remind him that he is to be a man,—either on the side of beauty, or on that of nerve. He wills to be base and common, and to this will of his has art to fit herself; for the rest—why! nothing comes to him amiss. Let us turn our look from him as quickly as may be!  8
  Are we to make bargains with such a world? No, no! For even the most humiliating terms would leave us sheer outside the pale.  9
  Hope, faith, and courage can we only gain, when we recognize even the modern State Philistine not merely as a conditioning, but likewise as a conditioned, factor of our civilization; when we search for the conditionments of this phenomenon, too, in a conjuncture such as that we have just examined in the case of art. We shall not win hope and nerve until we bend our ear to the heart-beat of history, and catch the sound of that sempiternal vein of living waters, which, however buried under the waste-heap of historic civilization, yet pulses on in all its pristine freshness. Who has not felt the leaden murk that hangs above us in the air, foretelling the near advent of an earth upheaval? And we who hear the trickling of that well-spring, shall we take affright at the earthquake’s sound? Believe me, no! For we know that it will only tear aside the heap of refuse, and prepare for the stream that bed in which we soon shall even see its living waters flow.  10
  Where now the statesman loses hope, the politician sinks his hands, the socialist beplagues his brain with fruitless systems, yea, even the philosopher can only hint, but not foretell,—since all that looms before us can only form a series of un-willful happenings, whose physical show no mortal man may pre-conceive,—there it is the artist whose clear eye can spy out shapes that reveal themselves to a yearning which longs for the only truth, the human being. The artist has the power of seeing beforehand a yet unshapen world, of tasting beforehand the joys of a world as yet unborn, through the stress of his desire for growth. But his joy is in imparting; and if only he turns his back on the senseless herds who browse upon the grassless waste-heap, and clasps the closer to his breast the cherished few who listen with him to the well-spring, so finds he too the hearts—ay, finds the senses—to whom he can impart his message. We are older men and younger: let the elder not think of himself, but love the younger for sake of the bequest he sinks into his heart for new increasing;—the day will come when that heirloom shall be opened for the weal of brother men throughout the world!  11
  We have seen the poet driven onward by his yearning for a perfect emotional expression, and seen him reach the point where he found his verse reflected on the mirror of the sea of harmony, as musical melody: unto this sea was he compelled to thrust; only the mirror of this sea could show him the image of his yearning: and this sea he could not create from his own will; but it was the Other of his being, that wherewith he needs must wed himself, but which he could not prescribe from out himself, nor summon into being. So neither can the artist prescribe from his own will, nor summon into being, that life of the future which once shall redeem him: for it is the Other, the antithesis of himself, for which he yearns, toward which he is thrust; that which, when brought him from an opposite pole, is for the first time present for him, first takes his semblance up into it, and knowably reflects it back. Yet again, this living ocean of the future cannot beget that mirror image by its unaided self: it is a mother element, which can bear alone what it has first received. This fecundating seed, which in it alone can thrive, is brought it by the poet,—i.e., the artist of the present: and this seed is the quintessence of all rarest life-sap which the past has gathered up therein, to bring it to the future as its necessary, its fertilizing germ; for this future is not thinkable, except as stipulated by the past.  12
  Now the melody which appears at last upon the water-mirror of the harmonic ocean of the future, is the clear-seeing eye wherewith this life gazes upwards from the depth of its sea abyss to the radiant light of day. But the verse, whose mere mirror-image it is, is the own-est poem of the artist of the present, begotten by his most peculiar faculty, engendered by the fullness of his yearning. And just as this verse, will the prophetic art work of the yearning artist of the present once wed itself with the ocean of the life of the future. In that life of the future, will this art work be what to-day it yearns for, but cannot actually be as yet; for that life of the future will be entirely what it can be, only through its taking up into its womb this art work.  13
  The begetter of the art work of the future is none other than the artist of the present, who presages that life of the future, and yearns to be contained therein. He who cherishes this longing within the inmost chamber of his powers, he lives already in a better life; but only one can do this thing,—the artist.  14
 
 
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