Early in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the suavely poisonous Anthony Blanche delivers the following pronouncement to Charles Ryder:
“I have told Cocteau about you. He is all agog. You see, my dear Charles, you are that very rare thing, An Artist. O yes, you must not look bashful. Behind that cold, English, phlegmatic exterior you are An Artist. I have seen those little drawings you keep hidden away in your room. They are exquisite. And you, dear Charles, if you will understand me, are not exquisite; but not at all. Artists are not exquisite. I am; Sebastian, in a kind of way, is exquisite; but the Artist is an eternal type, solid, purposeful, observant—and, beneath it all, p-p-passionate, eh, Charles?”
Although Anthony Blanche is not the most reliable raconteur—it is later revealed, for example, that what he claims was a “grand passion” with the Duchess de Vincennes was, in truth, only the adventure of being stuck in a lift—there is an interesting core of intermittent and flickering truth to his observation on Art and Artists. The first problem with Blanche’s Law, however, is that sometimes Artists are, indeed, exquisite; how often, though, does the Exquisite Artist produce art that is not, in and of itself, really that exquisite? I find this short passage a convenient launching place for the consideration of just how varied the landscape of “exquisiteness” really is.
First, a definition. Two of the seven definitions in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary might pertain to Anthony Blanche’s usage: the first is, “Elaborately devised or carried out, highly finished, carried to a high degree of perfection of completeness.” This, naturally, merges with the second, “Of such consummate excellence, beauty, or perfection as to excite intense delight or admiration; of great delicacy or beauty.” There are, possibly, other nuances that are hidden in Blanche’s character itself, concealed like the malicious stiletto that seems to lie in wait in many of his utterances, but these two blank-faced definitions will do for the moment. At the point in the novel where this rather one-sided conversation takes place, the reader does not really know what sort of artist Charles Ryder will turn out to be, but there is no reason to doubt the idea of his person so far as being “solid, purposeful, [and] observant…”—certainly observant. The attribution of passion has not quite played itself out just yet, but it is early days.
There are, of course, many examples of artists—“solid, purposeful, observant”— who have produced works that might be termed “exquisite.” One thinks, perhaps, of many members of the Dutch school who, though working in a thoroughly middle class and solidly mercenary environment, sometimes produced works of transcendent “exquisiteness”—Vermeer comes to mind. Among composers, there are some examples of peacock eggs being produced by house wrens, as it were—Vaughan Williams, Copland, J.S. Bach, Fauré, Mahler, Massenet, etc.—artists whose art shines more brilliantly than the artist himself. Perhaps this is what Anthony Blanche is implying—that this is as it should be.
There is more to his statement, however, for in emphasizing Charles’ art (and subtly insulting his person at the same time) he typically does not fail to elevate himself to the ranks of the Exquisite, and this cleverly forces us to consider the image reversed. If, as I implied above, there are truly “Exquisite Artists,” does it necessarily follow that they automatically produce Exquisite Art? I would say no. In fact, there have been many cases of the Artist being more the object of “intense delight or admiration” than any work he or she may produce. For instance, I find the idea of Andy Warhol of much more interest than his work. His life, his style, his image and the legacy of all three seem to stick in the memory more than the rather forgettable work itself. Oscar Wilde, too, is another artist who, I find, overshadows his work by his own undeniable “exquisiteness.” (This will probably not be a popular statement, but I am not certain that Wilde himself would disagree, if indeed the statement, “I have nothing to declare but my genius” is safely attributable to him.)
This is not meant to be an exhaustive catalog, but I am left with the idea that we appear to have a choice between Unexquisite Artists producing Exquisite Art, or Exquisite Artists producing Unexquisite Art. The second choice seems to be common in contemporary culture, where the Artist’s concept and personal image is all, and the Art is ephemeral and inconsequential. However, patient searching reveals, now and then, the Exquisite creating the Exquisite (Van Gogh comes to mind). Unfortunately, I have a feeling it simply does not happen all that often.
Is Anthony Blanche correct, then? I suspect not, at least about the larger concept, but then one needs to read the rest of Brideshead Revisited to see just how much he gets right, and how much wrong. I do believe, however, that if we choose to interpret Charles Ryder as Evelyn Waugh, the smaller concept was spot on.