A Book of Words II

“The Claims of Art”

by Rudyard Kipling

SOME few years ago—in fact, before the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution was founded—King Solomon, speaking of things in general, said that the race was not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Speaking of Art in particular, he said: “Nor yet favour to men of skill; but Time and Chance happeneth to them all”. Solomon was a generous patron of the arts, and an original man of letters. Nobody has improved on his remark; and you may have noticed that nobody has improved the state of affairs that gave rise to it. There must be as many men nowadays as there were in Solomon’s time whose skill has not found favour, and I should like to try and interest you in the fate of a few of them.In an enlightened and democratic age like ours, it is possible to say that, if a man’s skill has not found favour with the public, the blame must lie with the man, or with the skill. This is a pretty doctrine. I wish I could subscribe to it myself. There are, however, men who devote their skill to producing things and expressing ideas for which the public has no present need. Being artists, these men must needs do the work that is laid upon them to do, and while they are doing it they are apt to overlook a number of important worldly considerations. It is reprehensible, of course—and, worse than reprehensible, it is unbusinesslike—but it happens; and it happens more frequently than people would imagine. The Callings are unlike the Professions. No one embraces the career of Art, any more than one enters Science or the Services, with the direct idea of making money. The material rewards of Art are oftenest so small that men may be forgiven if they sacrifice themselves and their belongings to make an appeal to the next generation, while they neglect their own. These, then, are the men who do not very greatly care whether their skill finds immediate favour or not. They have elected to take their chance with time to come; but the records of the Institution and the Orphan Fund will tell you that their descendants have to take certain or uncertain chances now.

Besides these, there are the others whose skill, however much they may desire it, has not found favour. Time has not given them their chance; their skill has not found favour; and by the world’s verdict they have not achieved success.

The world’s verdict is, of course, of great financial value. The verdict of our fellow-craftsmen is a little nearer the facts of the case. Thank goodness, we all count among our friends delightful men and women whose skill has not found favour, but to whose skill, sympathy, humour, and, above all, knowledge, we owe more than we realise. It may be that the very generosity of soul which impelled them to lavish themselves so unstintingly upon their associates has stood in the way of their more evident advancement, and that some of these good spirits are now facing—I won’t say defeat: there is no abiding defeat in Art—but the outer appearance of defeat. If this be so, it is a comfortable thought that an organisation exists which, by our good will, can help them as quietly and as unostentatiously as they helped us. For their lot is hard!

It is much pleasanter to contemplate the man whose skill has found favour and keeps it. One is almost hypnotised into the belief that here, at least, Time and Chance have been eliminated by the progress of modern civilisation. Unluckily, last year’s report of the Institution shows that time and chance are as uncontrolled a brace of impressionists as ever they were—rather brutal in their methods, but deadly sure of their effects. The report for last year is, quite rightly, a discreetly veiled document. It is a twelvemonth’s casualty-list among a very small proportion of those who set out to make life beautiful, and found it very bitter. You can see that it covers several of the calamities that can overtake a working man—want, disease, break-down, madness, and death. Your imagination can fill in the background.

And, talking of imagination, do you know the Black Thought, Gentlemen? I am loth to remind you of it in this fenced and pleasant place, but it is the one emotion that all men of imagination have in common. It is a horror of great darkness that drops upon a man unbidden, and drives him to think lucidly, connectedly, with Cruikshank detail, of all the accidents whereby, through no fault of his own, he may be cut off from his work, and forced to leave those he loves defenceless to the world. You know the Black Thought, Gentlemen? It possesses some men in the dead of night; some in the sunshine; some when they are setting their palettes; some when they are stropping their razors; but only the very young, the very sound, and the very single, are exempt.

If we look at this report again, we shall see that our blackest forebodings about our eyes, and our brain, and our hand, and our body, and our soul by which we live and work, have been realised last year in the case of these two hundred and two fellow-workers. We only heard the bullets of Time and Chance; these others have had to stop them with their bodies.

Gentlemen, I have to propose Prosperity to the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution. Will you please respond to it?