Inspiration In Art

The transcendentalists of New England who, fifty years ago, were exercising the most pronounced of any effect upon the art and literature of our country were constantly con-founding artistic inspiration with religious inspiration. The tendency of this mistake was not only to minimize in religion the importance of the spiritual, because this was conceived to be the same in kind as the distinctively human in art ; but to minimize in art also the importance of the material,—i. e., of the material product as given form through skill in technique, because the whole desired effect was conceived to be attained, as in religion, by merely giving adequate and accurate expression to the results of inspiration. Emerson himself, not only in his practice but in his theory, almost always goes astray when he approaches this subject of art-form. On the other hand, the followers of the French, who, during the last twenty-five years, have occupied in our country the position formerly occupied by the transcendentalists, are constantly confounding artistic observation with scientific observation; and the tendency of their influence is not only to minimize in science the importance of imaginative hypothesis as a pre-requisite for the discovery of great underlying principles, because they conceive that science has the same interest in the mere appearances of nature that art has; but to minimize in art also the importance of imaginative construction embodying the great truths of analogy; because they suppose the end to be attained in art, as in science, by an accurate study of the facts of nature as they are, poems or paintings being ranked according to the literal fidelity with which they recall or imitate the details of that which has been observed.—The Representative Significance of Form, Preface.


Just here, in fact, we come upon a philosophic, if not scientific, warrant for that common opinion, so often held without reasoning and expressed without discrimination, that the products of art are to be ascribed to what is termed inspiration. When we have traced them to this overflow at the very springs of mental vitality, no one who thinks can fail to feel that, if human life anywhere can come into contact with the divine life, it must be here. There are reservoirs behind the springs of the mountain-streams. Are there none behind those of thought? And if there be, what are they? The answer to this question must depend, of course, upon the general character of one’s theologic or philosophic conceptions. He may attribute that which he calls inspiration directly and immediately to the divine source of life. Or, recognizing the erroneous nature of the forms in which truth, even when most unmistakably inspired, is often presented, he may suppose that there are gradations of intelligences beyond one’s ken through which, even before undergoing subjection to human limitations, the brightness of the divine light, in order to become attempered to the requirements of earthly conditions, loses not only its brilliancy but with this much of its defining power. Or he may suppose that the soul itself comes into the world stored with forces directly created for it, or else indirectly acquired in a previous existence of which not only every otherwise unaccountable intuition but every impulse is a consequence,—a previous existence, which, if not human and personal, may, at least, have existed as a psychic force developing in the lower orders of life according to the laws of psychic evolution through successive physical forms, themselves developing according to the laws of physical evolution. Or, finally, he may suppose that this reservoir is in a man’s own subconscious nature; and this, again, he may suppose to be either psychical or physical. With those whose tendencies are toward idealism, he may deem the reservoir to be the receptacle of experiences in his present state of existence, stored in the inner mind with all their attendant associations and suggestions, and, in accordance with some law, surging upward in order to control thought and expression whenever, as in dreams or reveries, or abnormal states of trance or excitation, or merely of poetic enthusiasm, the conscious will, for any reason, is subordinated to the impulse coming from within. Or, with those whose tendencies are more materialistic, he may consider this subconscious nature to be the accumulated result merely of that which, through physical sensation, has come to be stored up in the nerve-cells and, in circumstances similar to those just mentioned, aroused to conscious vitality as a consequence either of intense external stimulation, or of unusual activity in the nervous centres. Whether a man incline to the acceptance of one of these theories, or of a combination of them; however he may account for what lies in the realm of mystery beyond the art-impulse, it is evident that the theory just presented of it can accord with every possible view. That, back of all conscious intelligence, there is an unconscious intelligence of some kind, in which the powers of memory and of deduction are well-nigh, if not absolutely, perfect, the phenomena of accident, disease, and hypnotism seem to have established beyond all question. How, otherwise, could men with memories naturally weak recall, as at times they do, in abnormal conditions, whole conversations in a foreign tongue with not one word of which they are consciously acquainted? Or how could those of the very slightest powers of imagination or of logic, argue for hours, when in such states, with superlative brilliancy and conclusiveness? Whatever be the final explanation of these facts, in themselves—as will be brought out clearly in the volume of this series treating of the nature of the thought that can be represented in art—they cannot now be doubted. Behind conscious mental life, sources exist of intellectual energy. They find expression in many ways—in the words and deeds of ordinary people, as well as in the extraordinary moods and methods of prophets and reformers. But there is only one department of activity which humanity appears to have developed for the special purpose of giving expression—if we may so say, of consciously giving material embodiment —to that which has its source in these subconscious regions of the mind; and this department of activity is art. Art in Theory, vii.


In every age, of course, men of genius are prompted instinctively, entirely aside from any knowledge that they may have of aesthetic laws, to recognize and embody aesthetic effects. But where are such men who fail to find themselves surrounded by the products of their inferiors? and who is able wholly to resist the influence of these? If it be true that art, like religion, is fountained in inspiration, it is true also that different sources of this differ in quality; and that the stream which flows from the high region of the masters has a purity not characterizing that which rises in the low plane of their imitators.—The Genesis of Art-Form, Preface.


When Mozart was three years old, he was giving concerts attended by the first musicians. When he was eight, he had composed a symphony containing parts for a complete orchestra. We ascribe such precocious results to genius. But suppose that . after practising (like Beethoven) five or six hours a day for ten or fifteen years, he had produced the same, or approximately the same, quality of music. In this case, we should have said that his genius had been rendered able to express itself as a result of his having acquired skill. . . . We should recognize, too, that he never could have become able to do this, unless that which he had studied and practised had, after a time, passed from a region—so to speak—in which it needed to be consciously overlooked, to a region where it could be overlooked unconsciously. No man ever acquired the skill of an artist until he could—automatically, as it were—read printed notes, finger them, and harmonize them, while reserving all his conscious energies for the expression of the general thought and emotion.

“Dictates to me slumbering or inspires Easy my unpremeditated verse.”

As intimated here, this state in which thoughts and emotions, i. e., mental forms, pass from the inner mind into external material forms, through methods, of the details of which, at the time of its action, the mind is unconscious, is the result of what we sometimes term inspiration. But notice, too, that it is often, even in cases of the most indisputable genius, a result, in part at least, of acquired skill. There-fore, the inspirational and the artistic are frequently exactly the same in effect.—Essay on the Literary Artist and Elocution.