You can have noble art only from noble persons.- Ruskin.
How strange is the argument that licentiousness of thought and feeling can improve art and literature! – Rev. W. L. Watkinson.
All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye.-Pope. Unto the pure, all things are pure.- St. Paul.
Who shall measure the good that may be accomplished by an artist who is impelled by a laudable ambition and aided by nature and heaven? Aided by heaven, we say, for we believe that many an artist has been an instrument chosen of heaven to elevate the nature of man by the lofty productions of his genius. We feel assured that God moves men not only to exalted utterances with the tongue, but also with pen and brush and chisel.
Why may not one man be sacredly dedicated to pure art just as another is divinely called to the Gospel ministry? The purest religious feeling may animate the artist as well as the preacher, the writer, or Bible commentator. We believe that God has not only inspired holy men to write and speak and sing for Him, but also to paint, and engrave, and chisel the beautiful marble, and plan and build the grand cathedral. We could have no other impression as with raptured emotion we viewed the original of Angelo’s Moses and David and The Last Judgment, and Raphael’s Transfiguration, and Correggio’s Holy Night, and Leonardo Di Vinci’s Last Supper, and the Laocoon, and the heavenly beauty of the cathedrals at Milan and Cologne. Surely none but the Divine Being could inspire such thoughts and conceptions in the brain and heart of man.
As we gazed upon these and other masterpieces of art, we could but think that a Divine hand had guided the brain and chisel and brush. The impression made upon one, as he looks upon these sublime works of genius, is that these great artists wrought out upon the canvas or stone what God worked in them. The out speaking man is employed by the inspeaking Spirit.
So we believe that melody from heaven was sent into the heart of such grand original composers as Mozart and Beethoven. How could these men have brought into existence such exalted productions unless influenced by the divine Spirit!
Gounod, who was himself the distinguished head of the French lyric school, has said of divine Mozart: ” Who, like Mozart, has traversed the immense scale of human passions? Who has touched their far distant limits with such unswerving accuracy, equally proof against the ineptitudes of false grace and the brutalities of lying violence? Who else could thrill with anguish and horror the purest and most eternal forms? * * * Oh, divine Mozart, didst thou lie indeed on the bosom of infinite beauty, even as once the beloved disciple lay on the Saviour’s breast, and didst thou draw up thence the incomparable grace which denotes the true elect? Bounteous nature had given thee every gift – grace and strength, fullness and sobriety, bright spontaneity and burning tenderness, all in that perfect balance which makes up the irresistible powers of thy charm, and which makes of thee the musician of musicians, greater than the greatest, the only one of all – Mozart.”
One says of the eminent artist and architect, Brunelleschi, ” We may truly declare him to have been given to us by heaven, for the purpose of imparting a new spirit to architecture. He was, moreover, adorned by the most excellent qualities, among which was that of kindliness, insomuch that there never was a man of more benign and amicable disposition. He declared himself the confirmed enemy of all vice, and the friend of those who labored in the cause of virtue.’ When planning the matchless dome of the cathedral in Florence, from which Angelo modeled that of St. Peter’s at Rome, he said, ” Remembering that this is a temple consecrated to God, I confidently trust that for a work executed to his honor, he will not fail to infuse knowledge where it is now wanting, and will bestow strength, wisdom, and genius on him who shall be the author of such a project.”
Everything which men rightly accomplish is done by Divine help, by the aid of a measure of the Holy Spirit’s influence. Every soul has its inspiration at times. Who has not felt it – even a direct touch of the Infinite on the soul! It is God that inspired those joys and perhaps sorrows of thine. It is God that inspired that noble desire and ambition of thy soul, an ambition and longing to be like the good and great. Have you received the attention and good deeds of friends? It is God that turned their kindness towards you and planted those affections in their hearts. It is God that inspired that beautiful conception which took the outward form of noble speech, or labor, or poem, or book, or painting, or marble or bronze statue. It is God who inspired that splendid impulse which evolved that noble deed of service or charity. We believe that Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an inspired book, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which broke the back of American slavery, and others we could name, though not inspired perhaps in the same specific sense as the Bible.
Inspired books may be made with the brush and chisel as well as with the pen and paper. There are not only sermons in stones, but songs in stones, and angels and angelic deeds on canvas.
Our own conduct lessens or increases the strength of the Spirit’s voice within us. Our baseness will grieve it, quench it, and drive it away from us. Our nobleness will woo it, summon it, but one has well said that it is never given to us in any degree which can make us more than men. The best artists may be wholly unconscious of any supernatural inspiration. If some artists are not inspired in the Scripture sense, they seem endowed with something amounting to inspiration. If they are not inspired, their glorious achievements stamp them as almost divine. Art is inspired in so far as it is literally directed by spiritual powers. It is certainly exalted if not inspired by spiritual agency. We may say, as one observes, that there is a divinity of all art when it is truly fair, or truly serviceable. We believe in no special divine inspiration in the arts, other than that they are equally human and equally divine.
Art is inspired only in the sense that the intense thought and labor are inspired, which are necessary to produce it. God helps only those artists who help themselves. No artist ever produced anything great and admirable without the most patient and indefatigable labor from which most men would shrink and tire before its accomplishment. The achievements of art which have usually been regarded as the results of peculiar inspiration or a directly granted gift from heaven will be found to have been arrived at only through “long courses of wisely directed labor, and under the influence of feelings which are common to all humanity.” One of the greatest artists held that all things are possible to well-directed labor.
Shall we question God’s wisdom which has clearly bestowed on some men’ a genius for art? Did God give the artist his creative skill for no purpose? Who has not seen works of art that were thoroughly charged with the high moral purpose of the author, and whose features bore their own heavenly credentials!
We believe that God hath joined together religion said pure art. As some works of art may be inspired by the love of country, or by the love of a person, or by the love of beauty, so we believe art may be inspired by the love of God in the heart of an artist. Many of the Christian artists have “surpassed the priests of their time in their humility, and purity of life. Indeed, not a few of the artists were in holy orders themselves. The productions of many of the great masters in art show them to have been men of great learning and wide grasp of thought, as well as of deep piety,” and such were Angelo and Raphael.
All things righteous and lovely are possible to those who believe in and work for their possibility. We believe that the same divine Spirit that teaches the ant to follow its path, the bee to build its cell, and the bird its nest, also teaches men whatever lovely arts and good deeds are possible to them. And it is the contrary spirit of Evil that prompts men to produce vile things.
It is not the principle of art, but its misemployment that we are to exclude. Said a prominent member of the sect of Quakers, who have not had a very friendly eye to the decorations of art, ” In wise and prudent hands, it rises in the scale of moral excellence and displays a loftiness of sentiment, and a devout dignity, worthy of the contemplation of Christians. I think genius is-given by God for some high purpose.
We admit that art has produced many illegitimate children that have been anything but the offspring of a pure moral and religious inspiration. If God inspires-some artists, the devil instigates others. Every good gift in this world has been turned into excess and evil.
There is a college degree that makes the student who earns it “Master of Arts;” but the greatest master of arts yet to be heard of is Satan. If we have seen much of heaven in some pictures, we have seen much of hell in others, especially on the bill-boards of the town. “Art has power, but sin has more power, sin masters art, and makes it serve to decorate the place where it revels.”
No one can excel the rum devil at nose-painting as a fine art, and he knows how to do the final bleaching with sulphur. Multitudes are drawn to the theatres-by the scenery of the stage and the employment of art, in the service of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Will any one deny that theatrical performances and nude art have not demoralized the public sense, that, pictures of women upon cigar boxes and hung up in saloons and harrooms have not, in the minds of many, degraded the sex and polluted the imagination? Why do not the women cry out louder against the abomination?
” French art and the theatres are doing all they can to promote loose notions of the relations between the, sexes, and to steep society in immorality. Easy-going Christians are being caught in this snare. It is fashionable to admire indecencies, and Christians (?) wish to be fashionable. It is now hard to convict our low, obscene theatres before the courts, because the plea is that all the respectable theatres have the same obscenities, and Christian mothers take their daughters. to see them.”
Too often works of art have been stained or enfeebled by evil passion, and destitute of the “strength and chastity of noble human love.” It cannot be denied that many artists have committed errors through wickedness or ignorance. Many a gifted artist has been but a fantastic and sensuous dreamer with his brush as many a poet has been with his pen.
There are artists famous and infamous, and hence, a noble and ignoble art. What we need is to carefully mark here as everywhere the eternal difference between good and evil. True art is measured by its influence for good, bad art by its influence for evil. Art itself is pure enough, but it is possible to devote it to impure ends, to the creation of immoral characters. Fine art wants much refining in many quarters. Much passes for fine art that is not very fine or refined.
If art has sometimes done evil instead of good and proved the destruction of morality, the fault is not always with the work of art, but may be with the beholder. Let us be sure that we do not abuse or main a wrong use of art. A work of high pure art may degrade or exalt a person, according to the relation in which he places himself to it. “Unto the pure, all things are pure,” says St. Paul. Art is fine only to him who perceives fineness in it. Purity itself is a temptation to a mind and conscience already defiled. A buzzard and a dove may fly over the same region, and the filthy buzzard will see only the carcasses, while the dove sees only the clean corn. So in moral conditions, men notice that which is after their own mind. Good sees good, and foul sees foul. If a man has in his own heart principles and experiences of a Christian, he will enjoy and profit by noble fine art. If he has the unregenerate nature – the lust of the sensualist, the libertine’s passions, it will be like castiug pearls before swine.
Some prudish people blame art for what is wrong in themselves. Their modesty is terribly shocked at seeing some of the finest masterpieces of art wrought out by an artist of pure and high purpose. Now, the evil is in the wicked imagination of the beholder. In looking upon- the great productions of Greek statuary, as the Laocoon, Apollo, Hercules, Dying Gladiator, and Venus de Medicis, though they are entirely without dress or drapery, a pure-minded -person does not feel that any settled rules of propriety have been violated. There is “nothing in them offensive to modesty, nothing immoral; on the contrary, looking on these figures, the mind of the spectator is taken up with the surprising beauty or sublimity of the personage, his. great strength, vigorous and manly character, or those pains and agonies that so feelingly discover themselves throughout the whole work.”
The youth in Ancient Greece, in their national games and gymnastic exercises contended for the prize naked, and these well developed forms afforded to the Greek artists the best models.
A picture as well as. a statue may be instinct with modesty and innocence. Surely none but a prude would criticize a representative of the undraped form where historical accuracy required it, as in pictures of our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Modesty in -our thoughts is most important.
The artists of the heathen religions, as of Greece and Rome, represented the symmetry and exquisite harmony of the human body “in such elegance, such true simplicity and sweetness, as to render their nude figures the rivals in modesty and innocence of the most care-fully dressed.” Barry observes: The Greeks and other great designers came into this practice of representing the figure undraped in order to show in its full extent the idea of character they meant to establish. If it was beauty, they show it to you in all the limbs; if strength, the same; and the agonies of the Laocoon are as discernible in his foot as in his face. This pure and naked nature speaks a universal language, which is understood and valued in all times and countries where the Grecian dress, language, and manners are neither-regarded or known.”
Who can deny that there are white marble forms in the nude that are pure and ennobling to every pure mind? The higher arts of design are all essentially chaste, tending to purify the thoughts, and the adoration of true beauty is a powerful antidote to low sensualism. Over-delicacy or prudishness shows a want of true delicacy. Just at this point the immodest and the impure often hetray themselves. There are souls to-whom an undraped angel or vestal is not holy.
This whole question is a delicate and difficult one, especially when we consider its relation to the youth. We would not put temptation to immorality before the-pure. Refinement cannot afford to go one step on the road to licentiousness. We want no art galleries with, nude living men or women posing as models for art-students. God has clearly taught us that the human, body-the “biped without feathers,” is to be covered. We have no disposition to substitute in this age of the-world even Greek ideas of “culture” for Christian ethics. We want no attitude of wantonness in the name of art. We want none of that kind of ” high. art” that is simply libidinous and calculated to excite the lowest passions. We want no illustrated indecency in our parlors, nor a French Louvre in America for our youth to roam through promiscuously. We charge the modern French school of art with the gross offence of putting vice forward in voluptuous and enticing forms that can produce only evil. Many works of French art are the vilest seductive obscenities on public exhibition.
The question to be settled is whether we shall yield to that rigid asceticism of a severe morality -” a morality which makes indecency depend on the simple fact of exposure, not on the feeling in which the work is conceived?” Shall we denouncc all fine art because, as the Quakers have charged, much of it is pernicious in preserving voluptuous images, and adding to the sensual gratifications of man? “It is not in showing or concealing the form that modesty or the want of it depends; that rises entirely from the choice and intentions of the artist himself.”
Let us cry out against the abuses, not the legitimate uses of art. We would not apologize in the least for the corruptions of art, but it is well to observe that the best qualities of the imagination in art have too often been obscured or misdirected by ill conditions of society. Certain pictures on the walls of Pompeian houses reveal a moral state of society that is appalling. And later, how could the art of painting or sculpture escape unsullied by the universal depravity and abominable pollution of heathenism that prevailed at Rome about the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Christianity existed hardly more than in theory.
Many an artist has perverted his genius, as did Sir Joshua Reynolds, at one time England’s leading painter, whose apartments were filled with people of rank mainly who longed to have their precious persons preserved in paint to posterity by a master hand. ” The desire to perpetuate the form of self-complacency crowded the sitting-room of Reynolds with women who wished to be transmitted as angels, and with men who wished to appear as heroes and philosophers.” Their vain wishes, under his magic brush, were sure to be gratified, for it is observed that Reynolds touched no subject without adorning it.
Many of the paintings by the old masters, though they show genius and the charms of color, yet they are illustrations of adulation and flattery and man worship. If an artist wanted to gain some favor from the king, he had but to paint his picture in some way calculated to gain his approval or tickle his fancy or gratify his whim. Some of the old masters in their groveling adulation, glorified their prince in a picture that alone saved said ignoble prince from a merited oblivion. Even Raphael once prostituted his noble talents and “pictured such infernal villains as Catherine and Marie de Medici seated in heaven and conversing familiarly with the Virgin Mary and the angels.”
Art skill is under moral laws. Art, like real life, has its mighty temptations. It is with art as with all good – it is only developed to its highest by contention with evil. It is the absence of temptation that keeps the inhabitants of country districts so artless, innocent, and happy.
In this Christian age, we may look for the decadence of that perverted art whose master-pieces are addressed to the baser passions of men. Ruskin says, ” The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues. The art or general productive and formative energy, of any country, is an exact exponent of its ethical life. You can have noble art only from noble persons.”
People must be good before they can be true masters of the art of singing, or painting, or sculpture, or even architecture. Ruskin further says, “You must be good men before you can either paint or sing, and then the color and sound will complete in you all that is best. In proportion to the rightness of the cause, and the purity of the emotion, is the possibility of the fine art. A maiden may sing of her lost love, but a miser cannot sing of his lost money.” Dr. J. G. Holland declares that character must stand behind and back up everything the sermon, the poem, the picture, the play. None of them is worth a straw without it.
An artist’s character should be considered in studying his work just as a Gospel preacher’s character has much to do in giving force and efficacy to his sermons. In Paris they ask, What are the merits of a picture?-without any regard to the artist’s motive or character. In America we ask, What is the reputation of the artist? Character is the secret of all true success. Before we can hope to equal the old masters in art, we must equal them in sacred knowledge and character. It is not given to bad men to conceive or imitate the high art of pure and conscientious men.
There are inconsistencies of art, and they come from inconsistencies of character. If there is sterling value and merit – in a work of art, it shows that there was sterling worth and merit in the soul that produced it. Noble things have a-noble origin. You many depend upon the axiom that all good has its origin in good, never in evil. Grapes do not come of thorns, nor figs of thistles. Can a clean thing come out of an unclean? What moral corruption must exist in the minds and hearts of many of the modern novelists, poets, and painters, that prompts them to emit so much detailed foulness.
You can judge of a man’s heart by the kind of pictures he paints, just as by what another buys and hangs on his wall you may discover his moral taste. It has been well said that no noble or right style of writing was ever yet founded but out of a sincere heart, and it makes no difference morally whether it be with the pen, chisel, or brush. “A good man, out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good, and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil.” Byron’s mostly vicious and corrupting works and E. A. Poe’s pretty but worthless poems, whose authors had no character will never rank with the immortal. productions of Bryant, Whittier, Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell.
An artist’s faults of character will show themselves in his work. If he is sensual, his lust will betray itself in his paintings or other productions. Artists will unconsciously, perhaps, transfer their inward states of mind and heart to their writings or canvas. Like begets like. The moral temper of a workman will temper his work. Bartol declares that character is the diamond that scratches every other stone. A man with a good heart and character will put his goodness into the house he contracts to build, into the song he sings, into the sermon he preaches, into the picture he paints, into the marble statue he carves, into the book he writes, into the paper he edits, into the family of children he trains, into the farm he works, into the shoe he makes. What a contrast to the wantonness, aud uncleanness of certain others was the purity and womanly virtues of Jenny Lind and Christine Nilsson who glorified their art, and no one who heard these pure artists will ever forget the singer or the song. Emerson tells us that nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive.
Goodness is never satisfied with half-doing, or base. low doing. Thus the manual arts are exponents of the ethical state. When you see a building, whether a cottage or a cathedral, is not that building an exponent -of the mind of the architect or workman? Rev. W. L. Watkinson, of England, recently said: “They tell -us that art is trammeled by moral rules; it wants absolute freedom. Yet Ruskin assures us that none of the great masters had faults of character but those faults told in their work, mysteriously straining and darkening the prismatic splendors of their masterpieces. ‘These antinomian teachers tell us that poetry demands license. Says Mr. Le Gallienne in a volume just published: `Well-ordered feelings, a balanced mind, and regular habits have seldom resulted in poetry, hardly ever in poetry of the highest order.’ They forget men like Dante and Milton, like Tennyson and Browning and Longfellow. How strange is the argument that licentiousness of thought and feeling can improve art .and literature.”
Ruskin says again, ” So far as we can trace the connection of their powers with the moral character of their lives, we shall find that the best art is the work of good, but of not distinctively religious men.” As lightning is apt to strike good conductors, so God generally chooses to inspire with the fires of great genius, good men – men of conseience, integrity, and pure morality. It will be found that the greatest masters of art, whether painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, or oratory, have been good men, and men who have devoted their genius to religious subjects.
This we may affirm, without denying that some of the greatest artists have possessed the greatest faults. There is a nobility of intellect that is distorted and tainted. Weaknesses are found allied to genius. Guido Reno, who was a great painter, was also a desperate gambler; but he tried to reform. Men of genius and high culture need the grace of God and the new birth alike with all others.
The work of a truly great artist is pure in spirit, taste, motive and character. May not a work of art be wrought for a purpose, not merely to give a pleasing picture or stone figure, but to promote a righteous cause? That is a true work of art which by original and carefully executed design is intended to produce a moral result upon the souls of men. In looking upon a work of art, it is casy to tell whether the author had in view a high moral purpose.
No artist should be tolerated who does not employ his powers on subjects pure and holy, any more than a vile and impure writer or teacher. The true and pure artist will diffuse through all his productions his own moral rectitude and purity within. An artist with an amiable and tender soul will naturally seek to express with his brush lovely forms and features with sweet and tender beauty. To satisfy the love of truth and beauty should alone stimulate the artist. The highest aim of art should be to set before us only the true image of the presence of a noble being. An artist can be a benefactor or a scourger of his race. If he does not distort, but delineates truth and fact with the utmost fidelity, he is a benefactor. What we want is to insist that art shall create images of a noble morality or NONE.
In the splendid creations of art, we see the work of the imagination – the highest faculty of the soul. Some minds value so highly what is only of scientific interest that they fail to appreciate the work of the imagination. But the artist’s imagination itself may be polluted, and it often has much influence in perverting the truth. A morbid, misdirected, wayward imagination is a dangerous element in morals and religion. Some artists need to pluck out a few feathers from the wings of their imagination and ” stick them in the tail of their judgment.” A true and valuable work of art, then, must have not only ornament, beauty, and grace, but also vivacity, propriety, probability, and judgment. The true artist is he who has good sense with a cultured understanding, and executes a perfect image of the excellence of his mind and heart.