Defining Forces Behind Art: The Epoch

WE have seen how art and the personality of the artist explain each other in the changing aspects of a man’s development. That personality, however, which is always a molding force behind art, is itself in part the expression of still deeper causes. Every artist is in some measure always the embodiment of an epoch, of that Zeitgeist or time spirit that tends to express itself in every aspect of his character and attitude.

The spirit of the epoch is, it is true, a complex of many forces. Nature and life know nothing of our dates and periods. History is a ceaselessly onflowing stream, with ebb and flow in its tides, but with nothing of that sharp demarcation of period from period that we have made. We put signposts into the long road of the past, saying, for example, “Go to, let us regard the crowning epoch of the renaissance as dating from 1450 to 1525.” As a matter of fact the forces molding it began under the surface afar back in the middle ages, and are still active to-day. Such divisions are always to some extent arbitrary; yet it is wise to make them, since they help us to understand the past and the great movements which are undoubtedly present in it.

That we may legitimately mark off epochs is due first of all to that law of rhythm, which Spencer holds as applying not only to all life, but to the inorganic world—to the formation of a crystal and the development of a solar system; and which certainly is evident in all the growth of man whether as individual or race. Movements of action and reaction, of growth and incubation, everywhere succeed each other. Every force, moreover, has a life-history, not unlike that of a man. It is born, it grows through youth to maturity, it declines, and may utterly die out. Thus the life-history of the dominant forces determines the rise and decline of the epoch which they characterize.

These primal causes are further complicated by the changes occurring within the life of a people and the streams of foreign influence entering it from without. Consider how the Wars of the Roses in England, or the religious wars in Germany, following the reformation, affected the lives of those peoples and deter-mined the characteristics of certain epochs. Note, further, how the period at the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century in France was determined by the terrible explosion of pent-up forces in the revolution. As examples of foreign influence in molding a period, consider the effect of Greece upon Italy in the renaissance, of Italy upon England in the Elizabethan age, and of French political idealism and German literature and philosophy upon the nineteenth century in England and America.

From the combination of these varied forces results the time-spirit. With reference to art there are two main types of epoch that should be recognized. There are periods when the energies of life are creative and productive, and periods when they are quiescent. Thus the contrasting types are : epochs of preparation and of production, of doubt and faith, of criticism and creation. As it is much easier to believe during an epoch of faith than in one of doubt, so it is easier to produce in a time of creation than in one of criticism. No artist ever escapes the influence of the time-spirit. Even when he reacts against it, he shows that it is there, and proves its influence by his protest.

Thus an artist may sustain either of two contrasting relations to his age. He may ex-press it positively or negatively, by embodying the dominant forces of the time or strongly reacting against them. Thus the spirituality of Emerson’s philosophy is accentuated by his reaction upon the dominant materialism of American life. So the very sensuousness of the Italy of Fra Angelico shows by opposition in the exalted spiritual quality of his paintings. On the other hand, Leonardo da Vinci em-bodies affirmatively all that was most significant in the renaissance ; he is strong where it was strong, limited just where its strength ceases. So Dante represents the middle age, or Goethe, the spirit of modern culture. Michael Angelo, like Leonardo, embodies many of the dominant characteristics of the renaissance; but, in contrast to Leonardo, he is in profound réaction against other tendencies, towering above his epoch, reaching back into the middle age and protesting with Dantesque earnestness against certain tendencies of the world about him.

Thus there may be any combination of positive and negative elements in the relation of artist to epoch; but always the influence of the age is present. Other things being equal, the artist naturally can rise to a greater achievement when he is in positive harmony with the great forces of his age, especially if it is a broadly creative time; but, by expression or protest, the influence of the epoch is always evident in his work. As Emerson suggests, it is as if the hand of the artist were clutched by a gigantic hand which drives the pen across the page, the brush over the canvas or the chisel into the marble.

Even when the artist is quite unconscious of revealing the epoch he does so none the less. The sculptors of the gigantic, earth-bound statues of Egypt, with the conventional features and unseparated limbs, did not know that they were expressing the millenniums of Egyptian tyranny; but they were. The Greek artists who carved those calm human gods, with living forms and features, vast size replaced by the greater impressiveness of truth to nature and to the ideal, were unaware that their works revealed the intense individualism and fine humanity of the Greek spirit ; but we read the revelation. The Elizabethan dramatists did not think of their plays as expressing the new, fresh interest in human life, the adventurous spirit, the enthusiastic response to every phase of manhood and womanhood; but we find these characteristics of the age in all their productions.

With our own epoch it is more difficult to see the expressions of the time-spirit, because we are within it ; yet here, too, certain big tendencies can be perceived. For instance, in all our painting are two predominant motives. The major one is humanity. We have discovered the dignity and romance of corn-mon life, and we share increasingly in the social idealism that is the hope of our age. Thus the dominant motive in our sculpture and painting is the portrayal of common life. Two worn peasants shivering together in the cold; the sailor on the sinking boat; the humble father in shirt-sleeves at the breakfast-table, looking pensively across at the vacant chair, while his children eat merrily about him, unconscious of their loss and his grief ; the mother, fallen asleep at the task of peeling potatoes, her baby looking wonderingly up into the death-still face; the shepherd in tattered cloak and wooden shoes, the look of dumb hunger in his face, returning at evening with his flock, with the wide expanse of the desolate moorland stretching away : these are the subjects of the statues and paintings that fill the modern galleries; before which people stand and to which they return, unconsciously responding to the perhaps unconscious expression of the modern spirit.

On the other hand, the minor motive in our painting is the representation of Nature in landscape work. From the rush and intense action of our lives we turn to the peace and beauty of Nature and find relief on her breast; and landscape painting springs into being in answer to this need of our age.

As the art is molded and explained by the epoch, so the epoch in turn is interpreted by the art. Thus it is possible, as with the individual, to trace the life-history of the age through the art embodying its different phases. Since every productive epoch tends to pass through the life-history of a person, its progress may be represented by some modification of a half-circle. The rise may be rapid and the decline slow and long continued, or the rise may be slow and irregular and the drop sudden; but some modification of a half-circle will chart every period of art in the history of the world.

The interesting point is that the men on the rising slope are nearer to the vital inspirations of the age, their art is significant in content, they have much to say, but are as yet imperfectly masters of the vehicle of expression. The men on the declining slope, on the contrary, are further and further from the great forces of the epoch, they have less and less to say, but show increasing mastery of form in refinement and beauty, until the end comes in over-refinement and academic formalism, with significance gone. Thus the first half of a creative epoch is characteristically “romantic,” with a less restrained outpouring of emotion and imagination ; the second half is dominantly “classical,” with in-creasing obedience to the established rules and conventions of expression. Normally, just at the top can there be the perfect balance between content and form, significance and beauty; and there are found the great masters, the Shakespeares and Leonardos in all epochs of art.

For example, in the early Elizabethan age we have the vigorous outpouring of thought and emotion with imperfect dramatic form, the unrestrained horrors of the tragedies of blood and the extravagances of Euphuism, rising to the splendid power of Marlowe with his “mighty line.” On the declining slope we find the feminine delicacy of Beaumont and Fletcher, the academic formalism of the late masters, passing over into the vacuous amenities of the singers at the court of Charles I, who wrote charming lyrics in praise of their mistress’s eyebrow or the mole on the back of her neck—past masters in the art of saying nothing exquisitely. Just at the top is Shakespeare, his working life centering almost exactly at the middle of the half-circle that charts the age. He was born just right, so that his genius could reach full expression as the supreme incarnation of the age. Do not misunderstand me: a great man will be great in any age; but if Shakespeare had been born twenty-five years earlier or later, his work would have been widely different, and our conception of Elizabethan literature would not be what it is to-day.

A similar life-history is evident in Italian painting of the great days. Beginning with the deeply sincere but quaintly faulty work of those painters of the dawn, Cimabue, Giotto and their fellows, rising through the work of painters of deep inspiration and significant content, but still imperfect expression, such as Fra Angelico, Fra Lippo Lippi and Botticelli, the climax comes in the balanced masterpieces of the great triumvirate, Raphael, Leonardo and Michael Angelo. Thence we descend, through the fault-less figures of slight meaning from the goldsmith-sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini, and the flaming colors, with little significance, of Guido Reni, to the sweet nothings of Carlo Dolci and the academic trivialities that followed.

When a great man is born in an unfortunate epoch, his work will show the hampering influences, but true genius will make possible high achievement nevertheless. Mil-ton, for example, while not reaching the absolute height of Shakespeare, rises far higher above his less creative age than does Shakespeare above his Elizabethan contemporaries. So Michael Angelo, maturing in the supreme period of Italian art, but outliving two generations of artists and working far on into the period of decline, by sheer force of character and genius, continued, in the face of lack of adequate appreciation and support, to pro-duce masterpieces to the end. Thus varied may be the relations of artists to the epochs in which they live and work; but always in some form the influence of the age is stamped on the artists’ work, and always the art in some measure reveals the spirit of the age.