Gustav Holst said, “‘Aristocracy in art’—art is not for all but only for the chosen few—but the only way to find those few is to bring art to everyone—then the artists have a sort of masonic signal by which they recognise each other in the crowd.”
Sounds to me like the composer of The Planets and John Milton would’ve gotten along just fine. Recall that Milton believed Paradise Lost would be read by a “fit audience, though few.”
Are Holst and Milton recognizing here that art is truly enjoyed or understood only by a few, even if the total audience (now numbering in the millions for both men) is much larger? If so, is their belief anywhere close to the truth?
I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do know that Milton, for his part, was not altogether resigned to a small audience. He was determined to “leave something so written to after-times as they should not willingly let it die.” It may be amazing to contemplate, but of all the thousands of critical estimates of Paradise Lost written over the last 340 years or so, this one remark of Milton’s seems to me to be the fairest, pithiest, most accurate statement ever made about the poem.
What I would like to believe, and what I take away from the remarks of both men is that, as writers–as artists–we’d better content ourselves with a small audience for our work, because that’s all the audience we’re likely to get. Few of us can be J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown, or the man whom the renowned literary critic Peter Griffin called “the greatest writer of the last thousand years, Stephen King,” but the size of our audience bears little relation to the value of our work. Most of us want to be read by thousands or even millions, but the real challenge is to write as well as we can about the things that we believe actually matter, and trust that the audience will find us again and again.