Foundation Of A Tribunal Of True Taste

One institution of a peculiar nature appears to be more or less essential in every country where the arts not only attain a high degree of perfection, but, what is equally important, maintain themselves at that point. I allude to the establishment of a national tribunal of true taste, to which all matters affecting taste and criticism in art of each kind may be referred, and whose influence may correct and regulate the taste of the nation.

Such a tribunal should be of a threefold nature. It must be composed, in the first place, of men of the purest taste, and of the highest skill and knowledge in the particular art in question, who are capable of directing and correcting the general taste of the public. The determinations of these persons should, however, be revised by the criticism of those of superior general acquirements and taste, to whom an appeal may lie against the decision of those in the same department with the producer of the particular work of art.

The third constituent of this tribunal will be formed by the public at large, who, as I have already stated, will generally both confirm what is right in the two former, and be equally valuable in correcting what is erroneous.

Probably, indeed, the most perfect tribunal that could be formed as regards works of art, would be one constituted of a mixed body of artists and of men of high intellectual cultivation, including orators and historians as well as poets, and the decision of which should be open for confirmation or reversal by the general voice of the public at large, whose opinion is more serviceable to follow and to uphold the judgment of the other, than to originate one of its own.

It might fairly be urged that the Royal Academy is the fittest body, and, indeed, eminently qualified to constitute the tribunal in question. But it appears in many respects desirable that others besides artists, such as poets critics scholars and men of letters, should be combined in this jurisdiction; in addition to which, it may be observed that the performances of artists, of members of the Royal Academy, frequently require the free and independent criticism and correction of such a tribunal. Even if poets and historians were elected into the Academy, it would hardly of itself be adequate to discharge the important functions required of this body, which should, from time to time, be selected by the responsible government of the country, out of such distinguished persons of -different pursuits, and tastes as appear peculiarly adapted for this purpose.

One great object of every educational institution for the cultivation of each branch of learning should be,—in addition to its primary end, in the most perfect teaching of that particular acquirement,—instruction along with it, and affording some guarantee that they should not be neglected, in those other collateral pursuits which are essential to the mental training of the individuals who are to follow the avocation in question, such as poetry, history, and the general elements of knowledge. To none more than artists is this collateral teaching essential, alike on account of the absorbing nature of art as a pursuit, and also because many artists of great natural powers, such as Turner,. have suffered much from the want of such cultivation. And I cannot help repeating the opinion already expressed, that the contemporaneous study and contemplation of all the arts together, viewing at once the different aims and capabilities and ob- > jects of each, will do much to correct that exclusive, or at any rate undue attention to mechanical effect to which I have alluded; and will accomplish more than anything else, in the full development of the real end and noble object and capability of art in general.

Professorships in each of our principal Universities, with stipends suitable. to and corresponding with the importance of their duties, and adequate to ensure the acceptance of the office by really efficient men, should also be established ; not, indeed, merely to teach the elements of painting and sculpture, but art generally; to demonstrate its importance both nationally and individually, and practically as well as theoretically; and especially, to point out the connection between painting, poetry, sculpture, architecture, eloquence, music, acting, costume and gardening; to show the intimacy of their relationship, and above all the desirableness, nay necessity, of cultivating them all in common. By this means, not only would an efficient national tribunal of true taste be established, but that tribunal would ultimately be superseded by the general taste of the nation.

In addition to these tribunals, and as necessary appendages to them, there should be examples of perfection in each art as authorities to which to appeal. As taste is regulated by definite and fixed principles, so is it of itself a matter of certain application. Models of admitted excellence, as standards which may on all occasions be confidently referred to, should of course be obtained. A perfect model of true taste must be derived from nature, but should be corrected and rendered complete by the application of art. Many men of great genius, as we see by their efforts in the earlier days of art, have been lost to the world from the want of proper models to direct their studies aright. The real use of a model is not, however, so much to serve for a copy as for a guide ; like a beacon, we are not to steer always towards it, but occasionally to be warned by it. By having works of excellence ever before our eyes, we are not only encouraged to vie with them, but inferior performances become distasteful. By this means too, error would be exposed, and wrong principles and false taste guarded against. Some standard of attainable excellence, if not of absolute perfection in each art, must of course be established, and ever kept in view. The illegitimate sway- of fashion would be by this means eternally vanquished, and fashion itself would be rendered an obedient subject to the lawful rule of taste.

As regards painting, sculpture, and architecture, the professors of those arts most fitly constitute the first portion of this tribunal; the writers and critics upon them the second part ; and the public, who patronize, or are supposed to patronize them, the remaining portion.

The popularity or established reputation acquired by intellectual efforts, whether works of learning or of art, is in a great measure analogous to that which is obtained by individuals, and is principally of two kinds :-1. That fleeting and general popularity which originates in qualities of an attractive and showy description which all can appreciate. 2. That limited popularity which, when once established, is sure and permanent, resulting from the possession of solid qualities of a nature which few only can appreciate, but which secure the approbation of those of influence, whose dictum commands the admiration of the world. Of the former kind is the popularity gained by works of fiction of an exciting tendency, although of but very ordinary merit, and by showy and attractive works of art. Of the latter kind is the popularity which some of our greatest poets and authors and painters have acquired by slow degrees, and only after a severe test of their excellence, through the verdict of those leading minds whose decision ultimately influences, and, indeed, determines the national taste. Of the former kind are the trivial romances and tawdry pictures which half a century ago drew crowds of readers and admirers, but which have been nearly half a century ago forgotten. Of the latter kind, are the works of Milton and Shakespeare, and Raphael and Michael Angelo, which, however, neglected by the multitude on their first appearance, will endure in reputation to the very end of time.

In the cartoons and the Elgin Marbles we have standard works of high perfection to which to appeal. To these I should be glad to see added a national gallery of copies and models, such as I have suggested, of all the most eminent productions throughout the world in painting sculpture and architecture, which would form the noblest and most perfect model school that the nation could possess.

In poetry eloquence and music, the professors of our Universities, and the highest geniuses in these arts, might constitute the first part of the tribunal; the critics the second part; and the readers and hearers of them, with the public generally, the third portion; while the classic writings of Greece and Rome, and the divine compositions of the older musicians, must ever form the choicest models to which to refer.

In like manner also with respect to dramatic acting costume and gardening, these arts must be regulated by the most eminent professors of and proficients in them on the one hand, corrected by intelligent refined criticism and by public opinion, on the other. For these, perhaps more than any other arts, nature furnishes the most perfect, and the only correct models, in the display of natural action, the clothing she has herself bestowed on different orders of beings, and the variety of scenery she presents.

When all this is accomplished, then, and then only, will a perfect and efficient tribunal of true taste be established for works in each department of art. In this case an appeal from the decision of either of these authorities will correct the determination of the other ; and considering their different constitution and intellectual bias, it can hardly be expected that if all agree in lauding a particular work, it will be destitute of high merit ; or that if all unite in condemning it, it can possess very high claims to general excellence. The errors of one branch of this tribunal will be the best corrective of those of the other; and by the determination of the whole may the national mind be at length safely and satisfactorily guided and rectified in the due appreciation of works of art of each kind.

The union here advocated of the study of all the arts together, would greatly aid the establishment of a perfect taste in each of them, as not only would each art be understood, but, moreover, each would act as a corrective of the other.

The best, and, indeed, the only effectual protection against the predominance of false taste, and the admiration of glittering tinsel, is the inculcation of sound and correct principles. No one who estimated and admired the cartoons of Raphael, would be in danger of being captivated by certain flimsy modern productions. No one who worshipped Cicero, would be at all likely to be enraptured with the gaudy empty declamation of certain orators of our day; any more than a person who relished the refinements of modern cookery could be expected to fall into the habit of feeding upon carrion.

Of supreme importance, therefore, is it to correct the national taste, by means of which will not only meritorious works meet with public encouragement, but those that are meretricious will be generally discouraged.

Although taste often fluctuates, and what is much admired at one time is comparatively neglected at another, yet its principles are immutable and certain. Particular objects or merits may be in higher estimation at one period than they are at another, and a particular work of art in either department, which was lately much applauded, may have since been eclipsed by a superior performance, or certain productions may be especially suitable to a certain period only; but this does not prove that the fundamental principles of taste, which regulate their decision in each case, are variable or doubtful.

Considerable fluctuations as regards fashion, may, indeed, be allowed in taste, without departing from its principles, especially as regards the proportion of admiration which we be-stow on any particular work at one time, to what we bestow on the same work at another. But this is a question not of actual quality, but only of degree. Fashion should never lead us to approve what is wholly contrary to taste, or to despise that which is in accordance with it. On the other hand, there is no doubt that at particular periods, or among particular people, false or corrupt taste has prevailed. Different opinions may also have been held at different times as to the relative merits of Homer and Virgil; but no difference of opinion at these periods prevailed as to whether they had merits or not. The fluctuations of opinion in matters of taste have, however, done more than anything to create doubts of the genuineness of taste itself. Moreover, men probably vary one from another in matters of taste as much from difference in cultivation, as from difference in intellectual moral or physical constitution.

There is nothing so destructive to the taste of any period or any people, as the thirst for extravagance and gaudy display which will sometimes gain the ascendency, and which by its dazzling and meretricious effect blinds the eyes of its votaries, and prevents them from viewing with pleasure works of real exalted merit.

Ignorance may be dispelled, and error set right; but in this case the very fountains of truth are poisoned. We can only fitly compare this unwholesome longing after extravagance and unnatural stimulants in the national taste, to an habitual craving after intoxicating liquors in the case of an individual, which takes possession of the whole soul, destroys the appetite for all wholesome drink, and eventually and speedily leads to enervation and destruction, each hour the craving for morbid excitement becoming greater, and each gratification of it tending to new excesses. This applies alike to every branch of the arts, and to all of them equally, whether single or combined; and to acting as much as to poetry and painting.

Accordingly, it is this fatal and widely destructive malady which is usually observable in the last age of the existence of any art, and of a nation too, which is the certain forerunner of its final decay, the sure harbinger of its dissolution, that at best but foretells a condition of lengthened collapse, out of which it can only revive after a long and death-like slumber. Nevertheless, in art, as well as in material substances, it may sometimes happen that corruption and decay eventually lead not to dissolution, but to renovation, and to the springing up and development of ideas which are wholly new and original. The perishing of the seed is the cause of the plant vegetating. The decay of Grecian and Roman architecture, led to the revival of the same art in the Gothic garb, which was but a, resuscitation of a dying art, fostered and reared by the genial taste and original genius of those by whom its growth was directed.

So also in nature, it not unfrequently happens that the appeareance in many objects of an extraordinary degree of richness, is the surest forerunner of their decline. Thus, the sere tints of autumn, the golden glories which so enchant the tasteful admirer of landscape scenery, are but the unerring symptoms of decay ; the hoariness of old age, so reverend and majestic in its appearance, serves but to proclaim that the period of dissolution is approaching; and the glorious luminary of the heavens is never so gorgeous or so resplendent as at the hour of its decline.