The Seven Lively Arts

‘The Custodians of the Keystone’ by Ralph Barton, frontispiece illustration to Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts

In a recent post on the cinema novel, I mentioned Gilbert Seldes’ advocacy of this hybrid cultural form, and said that a follow-up post was needed, because his book The Seven Lively Arts was available online. Indeed it is, and here is the promised post.

Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970) was an American cultural critic, one the pioneering champions of the popular arts in the age of mass media. His made his name, and established his life-long theme, with his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. The seven are the movies, musical comedy, vaudeville, radio, comic strips, popular music and dance. Seldes championed what was excellent in what was popular. As his biographer Michael Kammen puts it:

Seldes … is conspicuous among his contemporaries because of his abiding commitment to the democratization of culture … Seldes genuinely believed that the taste level of ordinary Americans was not inevtably contemptible, and that, in any case, taste levels could be elevated.

Several decades’ worth of cultural criticism since the 1920s have rather dulled the revolutionary nature of Seldes’ stance. Elitism has become an ugly word; there is no high art or low art; and we seek to understand the components of a culture and how artefacts embody these rather than to say that one work of ‘art’ is better than another. Seldes didn’t think like a present-day cultural critic, but he did work to overturn preconceptions about supposedly low cultural forms. Of these the form that interested him the most, and to which he devoted most attention in his book, was film.

The opening chapter, ‘The Keystone the Builders Rejected’, sets out his agenda:

For fifteen years there has existed in the United States, and in the United States alone, a form of entertainment which, seemingly without sources in the past, restored to us a kind of laughter almost unheard in modern times. It came into being by accident – it had no pretensions to art. For ten years or more it added an element of cheerful madness to the lives of millions and was despised and rejected by people of culture and intelligence. Suddenly – suddenly as it appeared to them – a great genius arose and the people of culture conceded that in his case, but in his case alone, art existed in slap-stick comedy; they did not remove their non expedit from the form itself.

The great genius is of course Chaplin, but while some critics acknowledged that genius (particularly after The Kid, about which he is ambiguous), Seldes argues for the importance of not separating the man from the form in which his greatness was made manifest. The art was not in the man was in slapstick itself. For Seldes, ‘everything in slap-stick is cinematographic’: the slapstick comedy of Mack Sennett and Keystone was pure cinema because it was achieving results which could be acomplished by no other medium, and which were perfectly suited to that medium,; whereas D.W. Griffith, despite all the ways in which he advanced the art of the motion picture, still had half a mind in another medium (the stage, or the novel).

Seldes goes on the champion the slapstick form, taking pot-shots at his fellow critics for dismissing it without reasons. He writes illuminatingly about Ben Turpin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and lesser lights such as Chester Conklin. He cherishes slapstick for its absence of pretension and consequently its lack of vulgarity:

I consider vulgar the thing which offends against the canons of taste accepted by honest people, not by imitative people, not by snobs. It is equally bad taste, presumably, to throw custard pies and to commit adultery; but it is not bad taste to speak of these things. What is intolerable only is the pretense, and it was against pretentiousness that the slap-stick comedy had its hardest fight. It showed a man sitting down on a lighted gas stove, and it did not hesitate to disclose the underwear charred at the buttocks which were the logical consequence of the action.

There is a touch of paradox for paradox’s sake, but it is an engrossing set of arguments for all that. Every line makes you think again about what you have seen. Seldes goes on to tackle different aspects of his seven lively arts, with an entertaining variety of approaches to the different chapters. A chapter on D.W. Griffith is in the form of a duologue outside an Ancient Greek theatre. There is a mocking open letter to movie magnates (‘I am trying to trace for you the development of the serious moving picture as a bogus art, and I can’t do better than assure you that it was best before it was an “art” at all’). His chapter on Chaplin reveals a deep appreciation of the ebbs and flows of his work which reads like a critic commenting on a display of paintings in gallery. He is alert to the aesthetic experience of Chaplin’s overall output: ‘The flow of his line always corresponds to the character and tempo; there is a definite relation between the melody and the orchestration he gives it’. As noted, he also champions the cinema novel (it is almost the only section of the book not devoted to American culture), because it shows literary people thinking cinematically rather than people of the cinema losing faith in the essential value of their medium and weakly copying literature or the theatre. Other chapters cover jazz, comic strips, Al Jolson and Fanny Brice, Krazy Kat, clowns, Pablo Picasso and more.

The Seven Lively Arts is available in online as one of the hypertext series from American Studies at the University of Virginia. The online version incudes all appendices and illustrations. The digitisation isn’t perfect, with some slips in the OCR (there are problems with split words, accents and some punctuation). In places words are missing. But it is helpfully divided up into chapters and shows page breaks and page numbers. Into the Bioscope Library it goes.