The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary

The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary

Art is both foreground and background to all social change, the fulcrum by which we raise our personal and political standards, the wheel that propels every revolution — in thought, in feeling, in the constellation of customs, beliefs, principles, power structures, and sensibilities we call culture. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art,” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted in her superb National Book Award acceptance speech. It is hardly surprising, then, that at times of particular cultural tumult and social upheaval, the most visionary artists — the seers who imagine and insist upon alternative ways of viewing and navigating the cultural landscape — are met with tremendous tides of criticism and condemnation from the status quo. Albert Camus knew this when he observed in the thick of the Cold War that “to create today is to create dangerously.” And yet, again and again, artists embrace the danger and go on making art — this is the way the world changes, perhaps the only way it does.

The centrality of art in culture and the unstoppable momentum of true creative visionaries are what the great naturalist and nature writer John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) — Walt Whitman’s foremost biographer and spirited champion — explores in one of the myriad lyrical, sublimely insightful passages from his 1896 more-than-biography, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook).

John Burroughs

Art, Burroughs argues, is not an isolated region of culture but is culture; not an island, but the water that washes all shores. (Half a century later, the visionary marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in nature writing, would assert the same of science — “The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience.” Soon, her lyrical science writing would catalyze the environmental movement.)

Burroughs writes:

I shall deny at the outset that there are any bounds of art, or that art is in any sense an “enclosure,” — a province fenced off and set apart from the rest, — any more than religion is an enclosure, though so many people would like to make it so. Art is commensurate with the human spirit. I should even deny that there are any principles of art in the sense that there are principles of mechanics or of mathematics. Art has but one principle, one aim, — to produce an impression, a powerful impression, no matter by what means, or if it be by reversing all the canons of taste and criticism.

“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman would assert in the following century. As in science, so in art — Burroughs argues that any celebrated aesthetic or creative convention is bound to be challenged, and it is in its sublimation and transcendence that the next true art is to be found. A great artist does not cater to taste but creates taste, and must therefore be endowed with what Goethe called “the courage to despair,” for this act of creation is invariably met with violent opposition. Wordsworth knew this when he asserted that “to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.”

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

In an era long before every woman ceased to be a “man,” Burroughs writes of the truly visionary “man”:

Name any principle, so called, and some day a genius shall be born who will produce his effects in defiance of it, or by appearing to reverse it. Such a man as [William] Turner seemed, at first sight, to set at defiance all correct notions of art. The same with Wagner in music, the same with Whitman in poetry. The new man is impossible till he appears, and, when he appears, in proportion to his originality and power does it take the world a longer or shorter time to adjust its critical standards to him. But it is sure to do so at last. There is nothing final in art: its principles follow and do not lead the creator; they are deductions from his work, not its inspiration. We demand of the new man, of the overthrower of our idols, but one thing, — has he authentic inspiration and power? If he has not, his pretensions are soon exploded. If he has, we cannot put him down, any more than we can put down a law of nature, and we very soon find some principle of art that fits his case. Is there no room for the new man? But the new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.

Whitman: A Study is a splendid read in its entirety. Complement it with Iris Murdoch on why revolutionary art is essential for democracy, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s fantastic forgotten conversation about beauty, morality, and the political power of art, and Egon Schiele on why visionaries tend to come from the minority, then revisit Whitman — whose art was at first decried and derided by his contemporaries, before rendering him America’s greatest poet — on confidence through criticism and the “meaning” of art.

Published February 4, 2019




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