Defining Forces Behind Art : The Race

THE spirit of the age is contained, after all, in something larger than itself, Epochs are but moments in the life of the race. There is a deep, organic basis in the life of a people which, once established, shows in its every expression. We have seen how a racial character is gradually developed under the joint influence of environment and the actions of men. The type, once evolved, is perpetuated by both direct and social heredity, with progressive modifications as time goes on. Thus, as the epoch is behind the individual artist, so the race is beneath the epoch as the deeper and more abiding cause, molding every phase of the art produced.

Compare again the two lyrics studied from Tennyson and Browning in Chapter IV.

We saw how strikingly the two poems contrasted in both thought and art, thus revealing impressively the differences in character and experience between the two men. Both poems are, however, introspective personal confessions, alike showing the modern interest in the spiritual life; while, further, both contain the deep English seriousness in facing the problems of life and death, the Anglo-Saxon gravity in the presence of the moral mysteries of life. Thus in both, in spite of the wide contrast between them, is the expression of the common characteristics of the age and the race to which the two artists alike belonged.

Every expression in art is thus in some measure revelatory of the race and to be explained in part by the race. Compare, for example, the Dutch and Italian schools of painting. There was some cross influence between them, particularly of the Italian upon the Dutch ; yet who could ever mistake a work of the northern school for one of the south? The Dutch character is as clearly expressed in the soft and somber brown tones of their paintings as in the prosaic treatment of religious subjects or the whimsical studies of common life; while the sensuous wealth of flaming color in Italian art is as characteristic as the reach of religious mysticism.

How impressively the religious conviction of the Mohammedans finds expression in the absence of sculpture and figure painting, and in the invention and complication of arabesque adornment in their vast mosques. Compare such Semitic art with the living sculpture of the Nature-worshiping Greeks, and the fundamental opposition of the two great races is evident.

Greek words are usually musical, Anglo-Saxon harsh, and the different genius of the two peoples is expressed even in the bony structure of the language.

The best we can do is “along the shore of the many-sounding sea”; and then we depend for the most musical word upon our Latin inheritance. Lowell indicated this contrast in discussing the Latin and Anglo-Saxon elements of our English, with reference especially to Wordsworth’s theory and practice. He says “Should we translate the title of Wordsworth’s famous Ode, ‘Intimations of Immortality,’ ‘Hints on Deathlessness’ it would have hissed like an angry gander,” -as indeed it would. In other words, the musical quality in English comes largely through the Norman French, from our classical inheritance.

Thus in Homer are the long, carefully worked out similes and the roll of sounding hexameters, while Beowulf pours out its wild wealth of metaphor with irregular rhythm and harsh alliteration. Greek poetry, as we have seen, is time-measured almost as accurately as music, while English poetry depends more upon the melodic principle of accent. The result is we can scarcely read Greek poetry aright, try as we may; yet even in our reading, what liquid music there is in such stanzas as those of Sappho’s Ode to Aphrodite.

The limpid harmony of such a stanza is no more a tribute to the Lesbian poetess than to the Hellenic race from which she sprang.

Even the record of a nation’s crisis may thus be recorded in the fabric of the language. For example, Dean Trench,* quoting the jester in Ivanhoe, pointed out, early in the development of modern philology, that in English the names of the domestic animals —cow, steer, calf, ox, pig, swine, sheep—are all Anglo-Saxon in origin; while the names of the prepared meats—beef, pork, mutton, veal—are Norman French. Why? The answer is significant : when the language was in its formative period the Anglo-Saxon mass of conquered population took care of the domestic animals, as cowherds, swineherds, shepherds; while the Norman French conquerors ate the prepared meats. Thus even the very stuff the art of literature uses incarnates in itself the life of the race. How much more, then, must art express the fundamental and constant aspects of the race. As with the epoch, the artist may be quite unconscious that he is embodying them; but they are there, nevertheless, as the basis of his own character and thought, from which he cannot escape.

This molding of art by the characteristics of the race is so true that one fine art often comes to represent, beyond all others, a particular people. Thus with the Greeks, sculpture was the characteristic fine art, lending its laws to all other expressions of the race. The most limited of the fine arts, but most adequate within its limits, sculpture exactly answered the Greek individualizing and form-loving spirit, and thus came to regulate the other arts. Painting dealt chiefly with human figures with little background. Architecture was statuesque in simplicity, restraint and harmony. Greek tragedy dealt with ethical types, rather than individuals; while even philosophy obeyed the laws of sculpture in the balanced harmony of the Platonic dialogue and Aristotelian analysis.

Italy, on the other hand, with a warmer sensuousness and love of color, and a wealth of fancy transfiguring the prosaic detail of life with imaginative illusions, found her representative expression in painting. The deep, vague dreams and emotions of more somberly imaginative Germany found a natural voice in music; while Anglo-Saxon England, practical and utilitarian, strong in moral interest and responding to every type of character and action, reached her highest expression in art in the drama of the Elizabethan age, exhibiting man in action and relation on the stage of time.

Obviously these racial tendencies overlap, while every race needs many expressions. Italy produced great sculpture and poetry, Greece a marvelous drama, Germany has her schools of painting. Now one, now another art may voice the same people; yet the differences of race are sufficiently strong frequently to make one art definitive of a nation’s life.

As with the epoch and artist, so with the race, it is possible to trace the unfolding development through the succession of works of art. The life of a race is like an on-flowing stream, with rise and fall, becoming deeper and more complex as it flows on. Epochs are made naturally by the rise and fall of its tide, with the influx of foreign waters. Let it be emphasized, however, that it is one stream that flows on, rising to expression through artists and epochs. Thus that which is basal in the race is present from the beginning to the end.

In all English literature, for example, as in all other expressions of English genius, is a common spirit, difficult to define because generic, but everywhere vaguely or clearly present. Perhaps its most characteristic feature is that grave Anglo-Saxon moral earnestness in the presence of the mystery of life, of which I have already spoken. Taine quotes one of its earliest recorded expressions in the speech of one of the Anglo-Saxon chieftains gathered to listen to the first Christian missionaries to the island. After these had spoken, the chieftain rose and said:

“You remember, it may be, O king, that which sometimes happens in winter when you are seated at table with your earls and thanes. Your fire is lighted, and your hall warmed, and without is rain and snow and storm. Then comes a swallow flying across the hall; he enters by one door, and leaves by another. The brief moment while he is within is pleasant to him; he feels not rain nor cheerless winter weather; but the moment is brief—the bird flies away in the twinkling of an eye, and he passes from winter to winter. Such, methinks, is the life of man on earth, compared with the uncertain time beyond. It appears for a while; but what is the time which comes after—the time which was before? We know not. If, then, this new doctrine may teach us some-what of greater certainty, it were well that we should regard it.”

That is the English view of life. It is in the dying words of Beowulf, the poem of Langland, the sonnets of Sidney and Spenser, the soliloquies of Hamlet, the essays of Bacon, as it is in Tennyson’s Passing of Arthur and Browning’s Epilogue to Asolando. It is in all these, and how many other expressions of the race, because it is the fundamental spirit of the race throughout its development.

Thus there are three great definitive causes behind art-the race, the epoch and the artist—all three finding expression in every masterpiece and uniting to mold its characteristics in content and form. Of these the most fundamental and generic is the race; more definite and specific, but still molding broad aspects of art is the epoch; while most definite and clear in influencing every detail of a masterpiece is the personality and experience of the artist. The more generic and fundamental causes act behind and through the more specific. Their relation may be represented as follows:

Thus a work of art is like a wondrous shell thrown up on the shore of Time by the ocean of Humanity. We hold it to our ear and hear, clear and strong, the music of the artist’s life and character ; deeper and fainter, but still definite in melody, is the sound of the epoch’s spirit; while graver and sonorous, but still more vague and dim, is the deep undertone of the race.