Gerald Stanley Lee? F. W. Macdonald? Thomas Vezey Strong? Heywood Broun? Eugene O’Neill? Vincent Starrett? Florentine doorkeeper? Parisian Curator?
Dear Quote Investigator: Critics and tastemakers have proclaimed that some paintings, books, and plays are masterpieces. Yet, the general populace is not always able to perceive the quality of these works. An anecdote set in a museum highlights this divergence:
A visitor to the Louvre in Paris viewed the renowned Mona Lisa and stated loudly, “That painting is nothing special. I am unimpressed.” A curator who was standing nearby said, “That painting is not on trial; you are on trial.”
A similar tale has been told about a teacher with skeptical pupils who were assigned the task of reading the classic novel “Moby Dick”.
“This novel is boring; it contains too many details about whale hunting,” insisted a student. The teacher replied, “Hermann Melville and his tour de force are not on trial. You students are on trial.”
Would you please explore the history of this family of anecdotes?
Quote Investigator: A precursor in the religious domain appeared within an article by clergyman Gerald Stanley Lee in the New York periodical “The Christian Union” in 1890. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
The Bible is not on trial before the young men of this century. It is we who are on trial. Any man who stands off and tries to measure the Bible with the petty yard-stick of his criticisms is unconsciously measuring himself, and the more he tries the smaller his measure is. It is not the Bible that needs young men, but young men that need the Bible.
An instance of the secular anecdote appeared in 1904 in the Boston, Massachusetts periodical “Congregationalist and Christian World”. The tale was attributed to preacher F. W. Macdonald. The punchline was delivered by an anonymous Florentine doorkeeper: 2
F. W. Macdonald, Kipling’s Wesleyan preacher uncle, tells an apt story having analogical and homiletical aptness for those talking of the Bible’s permanent worth to men. “Are these masterpieces?” said a tourist in a Florentine gallery. “I must admit that I don’t see much in them myself.” Said the reserved doorkeeper, “These pictures are not on trial. It is the visitors who are on trial.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1890 May 1, The Christian Union, Volume 41, Issue 18, For the “Live Young Man” by Gerald Stanley Lee, Quote Page 647, Column 1, New York, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1904 February 13, Congregationalist and Christian World, Volume 89, Issue 7, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 232, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩