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New York as An Art-Patron by J. J.

1878

That cities, like individuals, have idiosyncrasies that may be defined and estimated, and that may be depended upon to lead to the adoption of a certain line of action by the community in view of a certain set of circumstances, is a fact which is continually receiving fresh illustrations. The attitude of New York toward Mr. Theodore Thomas is a case in point. There is among the works of the Scottish poet Alexander Wilson, better known as the "American Ornithologist," a ballad entitled "Watty and Meg; or, The Wife Reformed." Its moral is for all to read. Watty's measure of domestic felicity was but scant, and when the burden laid upon him became greater than he could bear he determined to leave the cause of his misery:

Owre the seas I march this morning,
Listed, tested, sworn an' a',
Forced by your confounded girning.
Farewell, Meg! for I'm awa'.

In view of losing her husband and victim, Meg repented and swore to mend her ways, conceding even Watty's stipulation to keep the family purse:

Lastly, I'm to keep the siller:
This upon your saul you swear.

Mr. Thomas gave New York no such opportunity, and she is now lamenting him as Tom Hood's "female Ranter" mourns "The Lost Heir," "for he's my darlin' of darlin's." She wonders why he did not continue

Sitting as good as gold in the gutter, a-playing at making dirt-pies:
I wonder he left the court, where he was better off than all the other young boys,
With two bricks, an old shoe, nine oyster-shells and a dead kitten by way of toys.

And, in truth, Mr. Thomas got little more from the city he has for twenty-five years clung to and taught. If he came back, is it not likely he might meet with the Lost Heir's reception? In the Scotch ballad also we are left in uncertainty as to the genuineness of Meg's tears and promised reform; and in any case no one can blame Mr. Thomas for announcing his intention only after it was beyond alteration.

It is not that New York cares for the money which would have kept him. When did it refuse money when its sympathies were aroused? Look at its magnificent charities, its help to Chicago, to famine-stricken China, and the thousands that were daily poured into the hands of the sufferers from yellow fever in the South. Religion is supported with the same munificent liberality. But when literature, music or art are to be sustained, the community becomes either flighty or apathetic. The best of New York's monuments are the gifts either of societies formed upon the basis of a common sentiment with which society at large has no active sympathy, or of men of other nationalities. It has been broadly hinted that New York would never have acquired the Cesnola collection of Cypriote pottery, gems and statuary had it not found a competitor in England. The luxury of beating the Britishers was too tempting to be declined, and led to a result which might not have been reached had the question been nothing more than one of art and art-education. Competition supplied the stimulus which should have been furnished by a sense of the desirability of securing a collection so rich and in every way, historically and artistically, so valuable. The New York public, again, was never really interested in the Castellani collection. It grudged the additional entrance-fee of twenty-five cents levied by the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum. No leader arose to open its eyes to the true value of a complete collection of majolica and mediæval jewelry. The only known authority upon the subject of ceramics proved to be a blind leader of the blind, and the only result of Mr. Clarence Cook's interference was to leave the aforesaid gentleman in the melancholy plight of a plucked crow. The collection was reshipped to Europe while the feathers were still flying, and the public felt itself to be a gainer to the extent of witnessing a piece of good sport. No sense of loss spoiled its enjoyment of the fun.

When, some months ago, it was announced that a college of music was to be founded, New York scarcely paused to examine the plans of the proposed building. The scheme fell prone to the ground upon the day of its birth. The few who were in earnest communicated none of their fire to the community at large. Society looked upon Mr. Thomas in a precisely similar manner. It complacently regarded him as the greatest conductor of the age, and its complacency was fed by its having an imaginary proprietary interest in him. But while the few who really understood him and the themes he handled bowed to him as their Apollo, the many had no real homage to pay either of heart or head. He educated the people, and the people believed in him and in the dictum of judges more competent than they. But he was always above them, the men of influence and wealth who in all such matters represent and are society. He led them to lofty heights, but no sooner had they reached one than he was seen flying to another loftier still and still more perilous. He worked, moreover, as only a genius and an enthusiast could work. He began by winning his auditors. He went down to their level, humored them, pleased them, and then filled their ears with music that was ravishing even when only partially intelligible. Insensibly they grew to like it, and although defections were large and many refused to rise above the "popular" standard, there is no doubt that he succeeded in elevating the taste of the general public. Year by year he was bringing his audiences nearer to himself, and year by year he was winning new converts from the love of the meretricious and flashy to that of the noble and pure.

He alone derived no benefit from his labors. He had no adequate support, no relief from the most sordid and worrying cares of life. He found himself almost forced into competition that was degrading. Had he entered into it he would have thrown down with his own hand the structure he had spent his life in rearing. He was alternately warmed by the admiration and love of a few and chilled by general apathy, and has chosen wisely in going where he will at least be lifted above the necessity of struggling for subsistence. New York has lost him, but had it known that Cincinnati was trying to coax him away it would have let him go never.

It is singular that the matter of making New York attractive to the lovers of art and music is never looked at by its wealthy citizens from the commercial point of view. Art and music exert influences that can be computed upon strict business principles, and the policy of neglecting them is extremely short-sighted. Every addition to the attractions of a city, and especially of a city essentially commercial, is an addition to its prosperity. The prestige that would have accrued to New York, and the wealth that would certainly have been attracted to it, had it adopted Cincinnati's course of action, would unquestionably have far more than compensated for the outlay attending the endowment of a college of music and the engagement of Theodore Thomas. With this assumption the idiosyncrasy of New York may be viewed in full. Like the prudent merchant of moderate attainments and medium culture, it is not far-seeing when a question arises not strictly in its line of business. Sympathetic, outwardly decorous, keenly sensitive, full of pity for the suffering, New York enters the field of art in a purely mercantile spirit. It has no love, but only that peculiar kind of affection that is the outgrowth of triumph over a rival. An individual parallel might be found in the case of the old gentleman who haunted the auction-rooms and filled his house with loads of vases, bronzes and the like. "It's not the things I care for," he said, "but there isn't a millionaire in the city I haven't outbid in getting them together."

J.J.