The Enjoyment of Art Part 2
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It may be that some reader of the foregoing pages will attempt to apply the principles therein set forth to the pictures shown in the next exhibition he happens to attend. It is more than probable that in his first efforts he will be disappointed. For the principles discussed have dealt with art in its authentic manifestations; and not every painter is an artist, not every picture is a work of art.
At the very outset it should be said that an exhibition of paintings as ordinarily made up is confusing and wholly illogical. We may suppose that a volume to be read through in one sitting of two hours is placed in the hands of an intelligent reader. The book consists of essays, poems, short stories, and dramatic dialogue, each within the compa.s.s of a few pages, each contributed by a different writer as an example of his work for the year. We may suppose now that the reader is asked to gather from this volume, read hastily and either superficially or in random bits, some idea of the significance of each author and of the import and scope of contemporary American literature. Is it a fair test? This volume, we may further suppose, is practically the only means by which the writer can get his work before the public. A public means a purchaser, and of course the writer must live. Is it reasonable to think that every number contributed to such a volume will be a work of art, wrought with singleness of heart and in loving devotion to an ideal? There are still with us those who "work for money" and those who "work for fame." There are those who believe in "giving the public what it wants," and the numbers they contribute to the yearly volumes are samples of the sort of thing they do, from which the public may order. In the table of contents stand celebrated names; and to the work of such men, perhaps, will turn the seeker after what he thinks ought to be the best, not realizing that these are the men who have known how to "give the people what they want," that the people do not always want the good and right thing, and that it is somewhat the habit of genius to dispense with contemporary recognition. If there is here or there in the book an essay or a poem the product of thought and effort and offered in all seriousness, how little chance it has of being appreciated, except by a few, even if it is remarked at all in the jumble of miscellaneous contributions.
This hypothetical volume is a fair parallel of an annual exhibition of paintings. In such an exhibition the number of works of art, the true, inevitable expression of a new message, is relatively small. The most celebrated and most popular painters are not necessarily by that fact great artists, or indeed artists at all. Contemporary judgment is notoriously liable to go astray. The G.o.ds of one generation are often the laughing stock of the next; the idols of the fathers are torn down and trampled under foot by the children. Some spirits there have been of liberal promise who have not been able to withstand the demands made upon them by early popular approval. Such is the struggle and soul's tragedy which is studied convincingly in Mr.
Zangwill's novel, "The Master." No a.s.sault on the artist's integrity is so insidious as immediate favor, which in its turn begets the fatal desire to please.
To the "successful" painters, however, are for the most part accorded the places of honor on academy walls. The canvases of these men are seen first by the visitor; but they are not all. There are other pictures which promise neither better nor worse. Here are paintings of merit, good in color and good in drawing, but empty of any meaning. Scattered through the exhibition are the works of a group of able men, imitating themselves, each trying to outdo the others by a display of cleverness in solving some "painter's problem" or by some startling effect of subject or handling. But it is a sad day for any artist when he ceases to find his impulse and inspiration either in his own spirit or in nature, and when he looks to his fellow craftsmen for the motive of his work. Again, there are pictures by men who, equipped with adequate technical skill, have caught the manner of a master, and mistaking the manner for the message it was simply intended to express, they degrade it into a mannerism and turn out a product which people do not distinguish from the authentic utterances of the master. The artist is a seer and prophet, the channel of divine influences: the individual painter, sculptor, writer, is a very human being.
As he looks over these walls, clamorous of the commonplace and the commercial, the seeker after what is good and true in art realizes how very few of these pictures have been rendered in the spirit of love and joy. The painter has one eye on his object and one eye on the public; and too often, as a distinguished actor once said of the stage manager whose vision is divided between art and the box office, the painter is a one-eyed man.
A painter once refused to find anything to interest him, still less to move him, in a silent street with a n.o.ble spire detaching itself vaguely from the luminous blue depths of a midnight sky, because, he said, "People won't buy dark things, so what's the use? You might as well do bright, pretty things that they will buy, and that are just as easy to make." A portrait-painter gives up landscape subjects because, as he does not hesitate to declare, it hurts his business. And the painters themselves are not altogether to blame for this att.i.tude towards their work. The fault lies half with the people who buy pictures, having the money, and who have not a gleam of understanding of the meaning of art. A woman who had ordered her house to be furnished and decorated expensively, remarked to a caller who commented on a water-color hanging in the drawing-room: "Yes, I think it matches the wall-paper very nicely." When such is the purpose of those who paint pictures and such is the understanding of those who buy them, it is not surprising that not every picture is inevitably a work of art.
But what is the poor seeker after art to do? The case is by no means hopeless. In current exhibitions a few canvases strike a new note; and by senses delicately attuned this note can be distinguished within the jangle of far louder and popular tunes ground out, as it were, by the street-piano. Seriously to study contemporary painting, however, the logical opportunity is furnished by the exhibitions of the works of single men or of small groups. As the reader who wishes to understand an author or perhaps a school does not content himself with random extracts, but instead isolates the man for the moment and reads his work consecutively and one book in its relation to his others; so the student of pictures can appreciate the work and understand the significance of a given painter only as he sees a number of his canvases together and in relation. So, he is able to gather something of the man's total meaning.
Widely different from annual exhibitions, too, are galleries and museums; for here the proportion of really good things is immeasurably larger. In the study of masterpieces, it need hardly be said, the amateur may exercise judgment and moderation. He should not try to do too much at one time, for he can truly appreciate only as he enters fully into the spirit of the work and allows it to possess him. To achieve this sympathy and understanding within the same hour for more than a very few great works is manifestly impossible.
Such appreciation involves fundamentally a quick sensitiveness to the appeal and the variously expressive power of color and line and form. To win from the picture its fullest meaning, the observer may bring to bear some knowledge of the artist who produced it and of the age and conditions in which he lived. But in the end he must surrender himself to the work of art, bringing to it his intellectual equipment, his store of sensuous and emotional experience, his entire power of being moved.
For when all is said, there is no single invariable standard by which to try a work of art: its significance to the appreciator rests upon his capacity at the moment to receive it. "A jest's prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it." The appreciator need simply ask himself, "What has this work to reveal to me of beauty that I have not perceived for myself? I shall not look for the pretty and the agreeable. But what of new significance, energy, life, has this work to express to me? I will accept no man entirely and unquestioningly, I will condemn no one unheard. No man has the whole truth; every man has some measure of the truth, however small. Let it be my task to find it and to separate it from what is unessential and false. In my search for what is true, I will conserve my integrity and maintain my independence. And I shall recognize my own wherever I may find it."
"Man is the measure of all things," declared an ancient philosopher.
And his teaching has not been superseded to-day. The individual is the creator of his own universe; he is the focus of the currents and forces of his world. The meaning of all things is subjective. So the measure of beauty in life for a man is determined by his capacity to receive and understand. Thus it is that a man's joy in experience and his appreciation of art in any of its manifestations are conditioned by the opportunity that nature or art furnishes for his spirit to exercise itself. In the reading of poetry, for example, we seek the expression of ourselves. Our first emotion is, perhaps, a simple, unreflecting delight, the delight which a b.u.t.terfly must feel among the flowers or that of a child playing in the fields under the warm sun; it is a delight wholly physical,--pure sensation. A quick taking of the breath, the escape of a sigh, inarticulate and uncritical, are the only expression we can find at that instant for what we feel: as when an abrupt turn of the road spreads out before us a landscape of which we had not dreamed, or we enter for the first time the presence of the Apollo Belvedere. We know simply that we are pleased. But after nerves have ceased to tingle so acutely, we begin to think; and we seek to give account to ourselves of the beauty which for the moment we could but feel. Once arrived at the att.i.tude of reflection, we find that the poetry which affects us most and to which we oftenest return is the poetry that contains the record of our own experience, but heightened, the poetry which expresses our desires and aspirations, that in which we recognize ourselves elevated and idealized. In so far as we see in it the enn.o.bled image of our own nature, so far it has power to hold us and to stir us.
An elementary manifestation of the tendency to seek in art the record of our own experience is seen in the popularity of those pictures whose subjects are familiar and can be immediately recognized. On a studio wall was once hanging a "Study of Brush,"
showing the play of sunlight through quivering leaves. A visitor asked the painter why he did not put some chickens in the foreground. To her the canvas was meaningless, for she had never seen, had never really seen, the sunlight dancing on burnished leaves.
The chickens, which she had seen and could recognize, were the element of the familiar she required in order to find any significance in the picture.
This tendency, of which the demand for chickens is a rudimentary manifestation, is the basis of all appreciation. The artist's revelation of the import of life we can receive and understand only as we have felt a little of that import for ourselves. Color is meaningless to a blind man, music does not exist for the deaf. To him who has never opened his eyes to behold the beauty of field and hill and trees and sky, to him whose spirit has not dimly apprehended something of that eternal significance of which these things are the material visible bodying forth, to such a the work of the master is only so much paint and canvas. The task of the appreciator, then, is to develop his capacity to receive and enjoy.
That capacity is to be trained by the exercise of itself. Each new harmony which he is enabled to perceive intensifies his power to feel and widens the range of his vision. The more beauty he apprehends in the world, so much the more of universal forces he brings into unity with his own personality. By this extension of his spirit he reaches out and becomes merged in the all-embracing life.
If the conception be true that a supreme unity, linking all seemingly chaotic details, ultimately brings them into order, and that this unity, which is spiritual, penetrates every atom of matter, fusing everything and making all things one; then the appreciator will realize that the significance of art is for the spirit The beauty which the artist reveals is but the harmony which underlies the universal order; and he in his turn must apprehend that beauty spiritually.
From this truth it follows that the condition of aesthetic enjoyment, or in other words the appreciation of beauty, is detachment of spirit and remoteness from practical consequences. The cla.s.sic ill.u.s.tration of the truth is the saying of Lucretius, that it is sublime to stand on the sh.o.r.e and behold a s.h.i.+pwreck. It is sublime only as one's personal interests and feelings are not engaged. It would not be sublime if it were possible for the spectator to aid in averting the catastrophe; it would not be sublime if one's friends were aboard the s.h.i.+p. One is able to appreciate beauty only as one is able to detach one's self from what is immediate and practical, and by virtue of this detachment, to apprehend the spiritual significance. The sublimity of the s.h.i.+pwreck lies in what it expresses of the impersonal might of elemental forces and man's impotence in the struggle against nature.
That sublimity, which is one manifestation of beauty, is of the spirit, and by the spirit it must be apprehended.
To ill.u.s.trate this truth by a few homely examples. A farmer looking out on his fields of tossing wheat, drenched in golden sunlight, exclaims, "Look, isn't that beautiful!" What he really means is: "See there the promise of a rich harvest, and it is mine." If the fields belonged to his neighbor, his feelings towards them would be quite different. No, their _beauty_ is to be seen and felt only by him whose mind is free of thoughts of personal enrichment and who thus can perceive the harmony with life of golden suns.h.i.+ne and nature's abundant gifts. The farmer could not see beyond the material and its value to him as material. But beauty lies deeper than that, for it is the expression of spiritual relations.
Two men are riding together in a railway carriage. As the train draws into a city, they pa.s.s a little group of tumble-down houses, brown and gray, a heap of corners thrown together. One man thinks: "What dreary lives these people must lead who dwell there." The other, with no such stirring of the sympathy, sees a wonderful "scheme" in grays and browns, or an expressive composition or ordering of line. Neither could think the thoughts of the other at the same time with his own. One feels a practical and physical reaction, and he cannot therefore at that moment penetrate to the meaning of these things for the spirit; and that meaning is the harmony which they express.
From the tangle of daily living with its conflict of interests and its burden of practical needs, the appreciator turns to art with its power to chasten and to tranquillize. In art, he finds the revelation in fuller measure of a beauty which he has felt but vaguely. He realizes that underlying the external chaos of immediate practical experience rests a supreme and satisfying order. Of that order he can here and now perceive but little, hemmed in as he is by the material world, whose meaning he discerns as through a gla.s.s, darkly. Yet he keeps resolutely on his way, secure in his kins.h.i.+p with the eternal spirit, and rewarded by momentary glimpses of the "broken arcs" which he knows will in the end take their appointed places in the "perfect round."
Out of chaos, order. Man's life on the earth is finite and fragmentary, but it is the constant effort of his spirit to bring the scattering details of momentary experience into an enduring harmony with his personality and with that supreme unity of which he is a part.
The man who out of the complex disarray of his little world effects a new harmony is an artist. He who fas.h.i.+oned the first cup, shaping it according to his ideal,--for no prototype existed,--and in response to his needs; he who, taking this elementary form, wrought upon it with his fingers and embellished it according to his ideal and in response to his need of expressing himself; he, again, who out of the same need for expression adds to the cup anything new: each of these workmen is an artist. The reproduction of already existing forms, with no modification by the individual workman, is not art.
So, for example, only that painter is an artist who adds to his representation of the visible world some new attribute or quality born of his own spirit Primitive artisan, craftsman, painter, each creates in that he reveals and makes actual some part, which before was but potential, of the all-embracing life.
As the artist, then, wins new reaches of experience and brings them into unity, he reveals new beauty, new to men yet world-old. For the harmony which he effects is new only in the sense that it was not before perceived. As, in the physical universe, not an atom of matter through the ages is created or destroyed, so the supreme spiritual life is constant in its sum and complete. Of this life individuals partake in varying measure; their growth is determined by how much of it they make their own. The growth of the soul in this sense is not different from man's experience of the physical world. The child is born: he grows up into his family; the circle widens to include neighbors and the community; the circle widens again as the boy goes away to school and then to college. With ever-widening sweep the outermost bound recedes, though still embracing him, as he reaches out to Europe and at length compa.s.ses the earth, conquering experience and bringing its treasures into tribute to his own spirit.
The things were there; but for the boy each was in turn created as he made it his own. So the artist, revealing new aspects of the supreme unity, creates in the sense that he makes possible for his fellows a fuller taking-up of this life into themselves.
It may be said that he is the greatest artist who has felt the most of harmony in life,--the greatest artist but potentially. The beauty he has perceived must in accordance with our human needs find expression concretely, because it is only as he manifests himself in forms which we can understand that we are able to recognize him.
Though a mute, inglorious Milton were Milton still, yet our human limitations demand his utterance that we may know him. So the artist accomplishes his mission when he communicates himself. The human spirit is able to bring the supreme life into unity with itself according to the measure of its own growth made possible through expression.
The supreme life, of which every created thing partakes,--the stone, the flower, the animal, and man,--is beauty, because it is the supreme harmony wherein everything has its place in relation to every other thing. This central unity has its existence in expression.
The round earth, broken off from the stellar system and whirling along its little orbit through s.p.a.ce, is yet ever in communication with the great system; the tree, with its roots in the earth, puts forth branches, the branches expand into twigs, the twigs burst into leaves whose veins reach out into the air; out of the twigs spring buds swelling into blossoms, the blossoms ripen into fruit, the fruit drops seed into the earth which gave it and springs up into new trees. The tree by its growth, which is the putting forth of itself or expression, develops needs, these needs are satisfied, and the satisfying of the needs is the condition of its continued expansion.
Man, too, has his existence in expression. By growth through expression, which is the creation of a new need, he is enabled to take up more into himself; he brings more into the unity of his personality, and thus he expands into the universal harmony.
The unity which underlies the cosmos--to define once more the conception which is the basis of the preceding chapters--is of the spirit. The material world which we see and touch is but the symbol and bodying forth of spiritual relations. The tranquillizing, satisfying power of art is due to the revelation which art accomplishes of a spiritual harmony which transcends the seeming chaos of instant experience. So it comes about that harmony, or beauty, which is of the spirit, is apprehended by the spirit. That faculty in the artist by which he is able to perceive beauty is called _temperament._ By temperament is to be understood the receptive faculty, the power to feel, the capacity for sensations, emotions, and "such intellectual apprehensions as, in strength and directness and their immediately realized values at the bar of an actual experience, are most like sensations." The function of temperament is to receive and to transmit, to interpret, to create in the sense that it reveals. In the result it is felt to be present only as the medium through which the forces behind it come to expression.
Art, the human spirit, temperament,--these terms are general and abstract. Now the abstract to be realized must be made concrete. Just as art, in order to be manifest, must be embodied in the particular work, as the statue, the picture, the building, the drama, the symphony, so the human spirit becomes operative in the person of the individual, and temperament may be best studied in the character of the individual artist.
As temperament is the receptive faculty, the artist's att.i.tude toward life is what Wordsworth called "wise pa.s.siveness,"--Wordsworth, the poet of "impa.s.sioned contemplation." Keats, too,--and among the poets, whose vision of beauty was more beautiful, whose grasp on the truth more true?--characterizes himself as "addicted to pa.s.siveness." It is of temperament that Keats is writing when he says in a letter: "That quality which goes to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously, is _Negative Capability_ ." In another letter he writes:--
"It has been an old comparison for our urging on--the Beehive; however, it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the Bee--for it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving--no, the receiver and the giver are equal in their benefits. The flower, I doubt not, receives a fair guerdon from the Bee--its leaves blush deeper in the next spring--and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted? Now it is more n.o.ble to sit like Jove than to fly like Mercury--let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey, bee-like buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be aimed at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be pa.s.sive and receptive--budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every n.o.ble insect that favours us with a visit--sap will be given us for meat and dew for drink. . . .
"O fret not after knowledge--I have none, And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge--I have none, And yet the Evening listens. He who saddens At thought of idleness cannot be idle, And he's awake who thinks himself asleep."
Still again he says: "The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself. That which is creative must create itself."
A nature so const.i.tuted, a nature receptive and pa.s.sive, is necessarily withdrawn from practical affairs. To revert to Keats as an example, for Keats is so wholly the artist, it is his remoteness from the daily life about him that makes him the man of no one country or time. His poetry has a kind of universality, but universality within a definite sphere, and that sphere is the world of things lovely and fair. In a playful mood Keats writes to his sister: "Give me Books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors, played by somebody I do not know . . . and I can pa.s.s a summer very quietly without caring much about Fat Louis, fat Regent or the Duke of Wellington." These are trivial words; but they serve to define in some measure the artistic temperament.
For this characteristic remoteness from affairs the artist is sometimes reproached by those who pin their faith to material things. Such are not aware that for the artist the only reality is the life of the spirit.
The artist, as Carlyle says of the Man of Letters, "lives in the inward sphere of things, in the True, Divine and Eternal, which exists always, unseen to most, under the Temporary, Trivial: his being is in that." Temperament const.i.tutes the whole moral nature of the artist.
"With a great poet," says Keats, "the sense of beauty overcomes every consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration." It is the standard which measures the worth of any act. It is conscience, too; for the functions performed by conscience in the normal moral life of the man of action are fulfilled by the artist's devotion to his ideal; his service to his art is his sole and sufficient obligation.
And where the man of action looks to find his rewards in the approval of his fellow men, the artist cares to please himself. The very act of expressing is itself the joy and the reward. To this truth Keats again stands as witness: "I feel a.s.sured," he says, "I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the beautiful, even if my night's labours should be burnt every Morning and no eye ever s.h.i.+ne upon them." And still again: "I value more the privilege of seeing great things in loneliness than the fame of a prophet." Not that the artist does not crave appreciation. His message fails of completeness if there is no ear to hear it, if it does not meet a sympathy which understands. But the true artist removes all shadow of petty vanity and becomes, in Whitman's phrase, "the free channel of himself." He is but the medium through whom the spirit of beauty reveals itself; in thankfulness and praise he but receives and transmits. That it is given him to see beauty and to interpret it is enough.
It is by virtue of his power to feel that the artist is able to apprehend beauty; his temperament is ever responsive to new harmonies. By force of his imagination, which is one function of his temperament, he sends his spirit into other lives, absorbs their experience and makes it his own, and ultimately identifies himself with world forces and becomes creator. In a lyric pa.s.sage in a letter Keats exclaims:--
"The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness. . . . I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand worlds. No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a King's body-guard--then 'Tragedy with sceptered pall comes sweeping by.' According to my state of mind I am with Achilles shouting in the Trenches, or with Theocritus in the Vales of Sicily. Or I throw my whole being into Troilus, and repeating those lines, 'I wander like a lost soul upon the Stygian Banks staying for waftage,' I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone."
This power to penetrate and to identify was exercised with peculiar directness and plenitude by Walt Whitman, prophet of the omnipotence of man. To find the burden of his message formulated in the single phrase one may turn to his Poems quite at random.
"My spirit has pa.s.s'd in compa.s.sion and determination around the whole earth."
"I inhale great draughts of s.p.a.ce,-- The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
All seems beautiful to me."
Of the artist may be affirmed what Whitman affirms of the Answerer:--
"Every existence has its idiom, every thing has an idiom and tongue, He resolves all tongues into his own and bestows it upon men, and any man translates, and any man translates himself also, One part does not counteract another part, he is the joiner, he sees how they join."
The Enjoyment of Art Part 2
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