Middle-aged, middle-class people, with a predilection for mediaeval art, still believe that subject is an important factor in a picture or drawing. I am one of the number. The subject need not be literary or historical. After you have discussed in the latest studio jargon its carpentry, valued the tones and toned the values, motive or theme must affect your appreciation of a picture, your desire, or the contrary, to possess it. That the artist is able to endow the unattractive, and woo you to surrender, I admit. Unless, however, you are a pro-Boer in art matters, and hold that Rembrandt and the Boer school (the greatest technicians who ever lived) are finer artists than Titian, you will find yourself preferring Gainsborough to Degas, and the unskilful Whistler to the more accomplished Edouard Manet. Long ago French critics invented an aesthetic formula to conceal that poverty of imagination which sometimes stares from their perfectly executed pictures, and this was eagerly accepted by certain Englishmen, both painters and writers. Yet, when an artist frankly deals with forbidden subjects, the canons regular of English art begin to thunder; the critics forget their French accent; the old Robert Adam, which is in all of us, asserts himself; we fly for the fig-leaves.
I am led to these reflections by the memory of Aubrey Beardsley, and the reception which his work received, not from the British public, but from the inner circle of advanced intellectuals. Too much occupied with the obstetrics of art, his superfluity of naughtiness has tarnished his niche in the temple of fame. ‘A wish to epater le bourgeois,’ says Mr. Arthur Symons, ‘is a natural one.’ I do not think so; at least, in an artist. Now much of Beardsley’s work shows the eblouissement of the burgess on arriving at Montmartre for the first time—a weakness he shared with some of his contemporaries. This must be conceded in praising a great artist for a line which he never drew, after you have taken the immortal Zero’s advice and divested yourself of the scruples.