Popular Science and Art

by Camille Saint-Saens

Louis PasteurRene Bazin has sketched cleverly Pasteur’s brilliant career. France has no clearer claim to glory than in Pasteur, for he is one of the men, who, in spite of everything, keeps her in the first rank of nations.

A rare good fortune attended him. While many scholars who seek the truth without concerning themselves with the practical results have to wait many long years before their discoveries can be used, Pasteur’s discoveries were useful at once. So the mob, which cannot understand science studied for its own sake, appreciated Pasteur’s works. He saved millions to the public treasury, and tens of thousands of human lives.

He had already secured a notable place in science when the public learned his name through the memorable contest between him and Pouchet over “spontaneous generation.” The probabilities of the case were on Pouchet’s side. People refused to believe that these organisms which developed in great numbers in an enclosed jar or that the molds which developed under certain conditions were not produced spontaneously. The youth of the time went wild over the question.

I was constantly being asked, “Are you for Pouchet or Pasteur?” and my invariable response was, “I shall be for the one who proves he is right.” I was unwilling to admit that any such question could be solved a priori in accordance with preconceived ideas, although I must confess that among my friends I found no one of the same opinion.

We know how Pasteur won a striking victory through his patience and his genius. He demonstrated that millions and millions of germs are present in the air about us and that when one of them finds favorable conditions, a living being appears which engenders others. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” This law may seem unjust, but it is one of the great laws of Nature.

Pasteur, the great benefactor, whose discoveries did so much for all classes of society, should have been popular, but he was, on the contrary, extremely unpopular. The leading publicists of the day were influenced by some inexplicable sentiment and they made constant war on him. When, after several years of prodigious labor, Pasteur ventured to assert himself, they took advantage of his following the dictates of humanity in accepting all sorts of cases, curable or not, to spread a report that his treatment did not cure, but instead gave the disease which it was supposed to cure. Popular fury was aroused to such a height, that a mass meeting was held against Pasteur. Louise Michel addressed this meeting with her customary vigor of speech and amidst frantic applause shouted this unqualified remark, “Scientific questions should be settled by the people.”

By this time everybody was talking about microbes, and a shop on the boulevards announced an exhibition of them. They used what is known as a solar microscope and threw on a screen, suitably enlarged, the animalculae which grow in impure water, the larvae of mosquitoes, and other insects, which bear about the same relation to microbes that an elephant does to a flea. I went into this establishment, and saw the plain people with their wives looking at the exhibition very seriously and really believing that they saw the famous microbes. One of them near me said, with a knowing air, “What won’t science do next?”

I was indignant, and I had all I could do to keep from saying: “They are fooling you. What they are showing you is not Science, at the most only its antechamber. As for you who are deceiving these naive good people, you are only impostors.”

But I kept still; I would only have succeeded in getting thrown out. But I said to myself—and I still say—“Why not enlighten these people, who obviously want light?” It is impossible to teach them science, but it should be possible to make them at least comprehend what science is, for they have no idea of it now. They do not know—in this era when they are constantly talking about their rights and urged to demand more wages and less work—that there are young people who are spending their best years and leading a precarious existence, working day and night, without hope of personal profit, with no other end in view besides the hope of discovering new facts from which humanity may benefit at some time in the future. They do not know that all the benefits of civilization which they carelessly enjoy are the result of the long, painful and enormous work of the thinkers whom they regard as idlers and visionaries who grow rich from the sweat of the toilers. In a word, they should be taught to give respect to what is worthy of it.

It is true that there are scientific congresses, but these are serious gatherings which attract only the select few. It should be possible to interest everybody, and in order to make scientific meetings interesting we should use motion pictures and concerts.

But here we trench on art. We ought to teach the people not only science but art as well, but the latter is the more difficult.


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Modern peoples are not artistic. The Greeks were, and the Japanese were, before the European invasion. An artistic people is recognized by their ignorance of “objects of art,” for in such an environment art is everywhere. An artistic people no more dreams of creating art than a great nobleman of consciously exhibiting a distinguished manner.  Distinction lies in his slightest mannerism without his being conscious of the fact. So, among artistic peoples, the most ordinary and humble objects have style. And this style, furthermore, is in perfect harmony with the purpose of the object. It is absolutely appropriate for that purpose in its proportions, in the purity of its lines, the elegance of its form, its perfection of execution, and, above all, in its meaning.  When an outcry is raised against the ugliness and tawdriness of certain objects in this country, the answer is, “But see how cheap they are!” But style and conscience in work cost nothing. Feeling for art is, however, inherent in human nature. The weapons of primitive peoples are beautiful. The prehistoric hatchets of the Stone Age are perfect in their contours. There is, therefore, no question of creating a feeling for art in the people, but of awakening it.

Music holds so important a place in the modern world, that we ought to begin with that. There is plenty of gay music, easy to understand, which is in harmony with the laws of art, and the people ought to hear it instead of the horrors which they cram into our ears under the pretence of satisfying our tastes. What pleases people most is sentimental music, but it need not be a silly sentimentality. Instead, they ought to give the people the charming airs which grow, as naturally as daisies on a lawn, in the vast field of opera-comique. That is not high art, it is true, but it is pretty music and it is high art compared with what is heard too often in the cafes. I am not ignorant of the fact that such establishments employ talented people. But along with the good, what frightful things one hears! And no one would listen to their instrumental repertoire anywhere else!

Every time anyone has tried to raise the standards and employ real singers and real virtuosi, the attendance has increased. But, very often, even at the theatres, the managers satisfy their own tastes under the pretence of satisfying that of the public. That is, of course, intensely human. We judge others by ourselves.

A famous manager once said to me, as he pointed to an empty house, “The public is amazing. Give them what they like, and they don’t come!”

One day I was walking in a garden. There was a bandstand and musicians were playing some sort of music. The crowd was indifferent and passed by talking without paying the slightest attention. Suddenly there sounded the first notes of the delightful andante of Beethoven’s Symphony in D--a flower of spring with a delicate perfume. At the first notes all walking and talking stopped. And the crowd stood motionless and in an almost religious silence as it listened to the marvel. When the piece was over, I went out of the garden, and near the entrance I heard one of the managers say, “There, you see they don’t like that kind of music."

And that kind of music was never played there again.




Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich [1919], edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


Daniel McAdam Guide to Classical Music