Art For Art Sake – Part 1

You are perhaps aware of the fact that there is a misunderstanding, it might almost be called a quarrel, existing between the painter and his public. The cause of it is an extremeness of view on the one side, and a misapprehension of purpose on the other side, with not a little intolerance on both sides. It is through such causes that quarrels usually arise.

The difference would seem to be largely about the subjects of pictures and the ideas which should be embodied in them. It appears that the painter wants to paint one thing, and the ” average person,” who may personify the public, wants him to paint another thing. The former, knowing the limits of his art, usually chooses to picture beauties of color, form, tone, atmosphere, light ; the latter, knowing not too much about what painting can or cannot adequately do, desires that he portray the heroic of history as seen in the Gracchi or the Horatii, the romantic of today as it appears in some touching love drama, or perhaps the comic of the hour as exemplified in the funny story. In his desire to possess an epitomized novel in paint, which may save the trouble of reading a three-hundred page book, the ” average person ” fails to appreciate that inherent pictorial beauty which of itself is the primary aim of all painting. The peculiar sensuous charms of color, the novelties of natural beauty, the feeling of the artist as shown in light and form and air are overlooked, and a picture is judged largely by the degree of skill with which it reveals a literary climax.

This popular conception of art degrades it by supposing it a means of illustrating literature ; while the artist’s conception, extreme perhaps because of opposition, oftentimes underestimates the value of ideas by giving undue importance to technical skill. As a natural result of such radical difference of belief there is an antagonism between the differing believers. The public sneers at the painter for his lack of ideas, and the incensed painter, in trying to say that art should exist for its own sake, its own ideas, and be judged by its own standards of criticism, often lays himself open to ridicule by extravagantly saying with a quoted companion in a recent number of the Atlantic Monthly : “An artist has no business to think at all.”

All this reminds us of something we have known before. It is the old spectacle of the controversial tourney – court with Quixotic riders dashing about and trying to spit each other on lances, not because of any deep wrong or grievance on either side, but because of a misunderstanding. Richard of Musgrave stands forth declaring that art should furnish us with literary ideas and stories ; and William of Deloraine, in trying to say that it should not treat of literary matters, asserts that it has nothing to do with ideas of any kind. It must be evident that one of them is in the wrong, and, from past experiences with disputants, it is safe to assume that both of them are so. Perhaps this may be demonstrated by examining the question, “What is meant by an idea in art? ” If terms were defined and positions understood at the start there would be little room for controversy.

In the order of inquiry it would be well to consider, first, the artist’s mental equipment. For we wish to find out what knowledge is of the most value to him, and hence, the kind of ideas with which he is most familiar. Generally speaking his education has not made him a statistician of phenomena and actualities or he would be a scientist; his reasoning powers have not been especially developed or he would be a philosopher ; he is not deeply versed in the moral or spiritual affairs of the world or he might be a teacher or a preacher ; he has no great fancy for telling stories or writing love episodes or he might be a novelist or a maker of ballads. As a painter he has one sense and one faculty, both of which, by the necessities of his calling, are perhaps abnormally developed. The sense is that of sight, and the training of it has enabled him to see more beauties and deeper meanings in nature than the great majority of mankind. The faculty lies in his ability to make known, to reveal to mankind, these discovered beauties and imports of nature by the means of form, color, and their modifications. The American Indian may have as nebulous ideas of Dumas’s plots and counterplots as of Edwards’ Freedom of the Will, or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, because these enter not into the needs of his life; but he has the keenest of eyes for the sheen on a deer’s coat, the flutter of a leaf, the bend of the grass, the overcast gray of the sky, because these do enter into the needs of his life. So the artist, though he may not fancy the comparison, is no great thinker on abstract themes of human destiny, nor exponent of saving truths of life, except incidentally, for as an artist he has little use for such speculations. But he has a sense for beauty in form and color, and a mind susceptible of receiving and revealing the most delicate and poetic impressions of that beauty. Ile is not a reasoner, but an observer ; not a narrator of what he abstractly thinks, but a presenter of what he concretely sees. His is an eye that notes a peculiar beauty in the gray mist of some lowland meadow, in the deep wine-red of oak leaves in November, in the white hot sunlight beating into an oriental court, in the light and shade on a nude shoulder or a gossamer silk, in the muscular strength of a torso, or in the manly dignity of a human face. ” Thou will delight in drawing the vertebrae for they are magnificent,” says Cellini, and his fellow-artists heartily agree with him. The whole world is but a unity of magnificent vertebrae, modelled with exquisite skill, garmented in a robe of many colors, of which the amethyst of the hills, the emerald of the forests, the sapphire of the oceans are but the leading hues, and canopied with a firmament of azure embroidered with the myriad broken splendors of the sun itself. Beauty is about us on all sides ; not more in nature’s mantle of joyous color than in her gray garment of sorrow, not more in sunlight than in shadow, not more in the majestic harmony of sea or mountain than in the warm monotone of low-lying sand-dunes, or the sad humility of outstretched marshes. But alas ! for our untrained eyes and minds we do not perceive this beauty, we do not feel it, we do not know it. And the very fact that we are incapable of seeing it gives one very good reason for the artist’s existence. He is the man whose education and natural bent of mind have made him a seer, and, if he have any part to play in the human comedy, it is primarily that of a discoverer and revealer of these hidden beauties of nature and life. Therein lies his peculiar mental equipment, and, because he is best qualified to reveal such beauties as these, is good argument why his art should be largely confined to ideas concerning them. Why the artist is so limited, why he is little more than an observer, or at the best a thinker about what he sees, may be further discovered if we examine his material equipment, or the means wherewith he may make manifest his impressions or thoughts about nature. And this brings us to the consideration of the limits of painting.

You know that all ideas of whatever nature are brought to us through the means of the five senses. Three of these senses—those of smell, taste, and touch—it will be readily comprehended have nothing whatever to do with our appreciation of painting, and may therefore be put aside at once. The senses of hearing and of sight remain. That portion of the public which calls for literary ideas in art somehow imagines it can hear a picture—or at the least hear what some of the characters in it are saying—and it is through this very confusion of what should be told to the ear and what should be told to the eye that the misunderstanding between the artist and his public has arisen.

There is but one sense to which a painting may appeal, namely, the sense of sight. The broad division of the arts made by Lessing in his Laocoon is quite correct. Those ideas which primarily need form and color to describe them should be shown in architecture, sculpture, or painting ; and those which need sound or time-movement should be shown in poetry, oratory, or music. It may be well to emphasize the statement that sculpture and painting not only depend upon form or color, but that, inferentially, they can give no idea of time. By this is meant that these arts must seize upon the present moment and cannot adequately show anything that has to do with succession of events or duration. The past and the future are as blank to them as the unknown or the unseen. This may be practically illustrated from a picture by Cabanel in the Luxembourg called “Tamar.” It represents a beautiful girl lying in a faint across the lap of an indignant-looking, dark-skinned chief, who is shaking a clenched hand at an imaginary person outside of the picture-frame. From the canvas alone one could make nothing of the story which the painter thought to tell, for the reason that the story requires duration and changes of scene which the picture is unable to make. Told in literature it seems that this girl, Tamar, has been badly treated by Amnon, that she goes to her brother Absalom for redress, and that he swears vengeance. Here are three distinct scenes or acts. The poem or the novel can tell them all, one after another, but the painting can portray only one of them, leaving the other two to be supplied by the spectator’s imagination—a quite impossible performance. Words may move in time and produce successive pictures to the mind until the whole tale is brought home to us ; but a form drawn with the pencil cannot shift, a color put on with the brush cannot change. The picture presents us with only one idea. We know the girl is in anguish of mind from her position and pallor, we know the chief is angry from his scowling front and flashing eye ; but who they are, and what the cause of these attitudes and gestures, we are at loss to conjecture. Left entirely to our imagination we might think it was an Othello and Desdemona, an Antony and Cleopatra, or almost any other pair of ill-fated lovers.

Suppose, again, a painter should choose to paint the scene from Robert Elsmere where Robert announces to his wife his determination to abandon his parish living, to give up his church. He might portray Catherine with a blanched face, and Robert with an agonized brow, but he could not tell us the preceding months of struggle and anguish which would be necessary to explain the scene. Time again is an element here, and successive changes—movement — are required. The one scene alone without a title would represent Caudle and his wife during a curtain lecture quite as truly as Elsmere and his wife suddenly wrenched apart by a difference in religious belief. It will readily be comprehended, then, that in telling a story the painting is not always a success because it cannot express time. It must picture the present moment, and, moreover, it should picture that which can be understood by the unaided eye.

The sad jumbling of figment and pigment, the telling to the eye with a paint-brush of half a story, and to the ear in the title or catalogue of the other half, is quite unnecessary. There is something radically wrong with those pictures, other than historical works, which require a titular explanation. For if they be pictorial, in the full sense of the word, they will reveal themselves without comment or suggestion. The ” Tapestry Weavers ” of Velasquez, the “Sleeping Venus” of Giorgione, the cavaliers of Terburg, the interiors of Pieter de Hooghe and Jan van der Meer of Delft, what need have they for title or catalogue explanation ? No more than the so-called “Venus of Melos,” which is perhaps not a Venus ; no more than a Watteau fete scene which may tell any story or no story ; no more than Moroni’s “Tailor,” of which history gives us neither explanation nor conjecture. These works explain themselves in line and color ; the eye comprehends their entire meaning by one name as readily as by another. They have nothing to say to our ear, needing neither preface nor apology. This is equally true of Millet’s fine picture of ” The Gleaners “. Some women bending and gathering stray grain-stalks, a sense of motion and life about them, a coloring, a light, and an air suitable to a warm afternoon in the fields, a sentiment suggestive of the elemental, the toiling nature of the peasant life, and that is all. But on the contrary, if we examine another celebrated picture by the same artist, perhaps the best known of all his works, ” The Angelus,” we shall find a literary interest crowded into the canvas to the detriment certainly of pictorial effect. The sound of the bells of the Angelus coming on the evening air from the distant church-spire may be heard in literature, but it cannot be seen in a picture. We must go to the catalogue to find the meaning of those two peasants standing with bowed heads in a potato-field. Suppose “The Angelus” without a title two thousand years hence, with the ringing of church-bells abandoned and forgotten fifteen hundred years before, would people comprehend or appreciate the picture as we now do a Parthenon marble ? I think not ; for it does not wholly rely for interest upon pictorial qualities, but leans very heavily on our exterior knowledge of bell-ringing at sunset in France. The sentiment of the picture , is charming, pathetic, beautiful ; but it should have been written in poetry, not painted on canvas. For the eye sees color, light, air, perspective, and knows a pleasurable sensation in them, but it fails to grasp sound.

The same objection may be made to a picture by Poussin that M. Charles Blanc has spoken of as a masterpiece of sublimity. In the central foreground of a fine classic landscape is a group of sad-faced shepherds moralizing over a square tomb of marble. One of the shepherds kneels and traces with his finger the lettering on the stone : “Et in Arcadia Ego.” If one happens to be a Latin scholar it is not difficult to discover why the shepherds are sad. The voice from the tomb speaks : ” I too lived in Arcadia, I lived and loved and was happy as you are now, but alas ! death came and my dust rests here.” The sentiment is quite fine. So fine that it is to be regretted the pleasure of understanding it is confined to those who know enough Latin to read the inscription. Had the writing been true to history and Arcadia it would have been in Greek instead of in Latin, and then the group of admirers would have been still more limited. It may be well questioned if the sentiment of a painting should hang upon a written inscription and be for classic scholars to the exclusion of others ; and it may be further questioned.