The Interpretation Of Human Life In Art

ART is always, as we have seen, an expression of some aspect of life; but this expression is inevitably at the same time interpretation. Art never merely echoes nature ; it gives nature as the artist sees it, thus putting it. through the transmuting spectrum of the artist’s personality. This is true even of semi-mechanical imitation of nature, as in amateur photography. Suppose you wish to take for a friend a photograph of a little wooded glen that seems to you particularly beautiful:

What do you do set up your camera and take the view? Not at all you wait for the hour “when the light is right;” go about from one point of view to another until you find the one that best pleases you; and then take your picture. That is, of the almost innumerable views you might have taken, you choose this one, and in so doing say what this bit of nature means to you. Thus, even when copying with a mechanical instrument, through selecting the particular aspect and point of view, you interpret the phase of the objective world in terms of its relation to your own spirit.

So with the most realistic of novels: the artist must select his material from the bewildering detail of life, and choose his point of view in portraying it, thus interpreting the life he copies. Suppose one were to attempt a realistic narration of one’s own life: of what would one write? Why, everything, of course. Yes, and fill a library with the record of a month. It would be impossible to write out the life of one week, with no selection, recording every incident, every thought, every influence. That is not what is meant, of course, but the recording only of what is important. Ah, but who shall say what is important? Is it not evident that the most realistic narration of a week’s life would bring certain facts strongly into the foreground, since they would seem most essential to the narrator; other facts, appearing to him as less significant, would be subordinated in the background; while a multitude of other facts would be suppressed altogether, since they would seem to have no value, and in many instances might not even be recalled? Yet of the facts so suppressed or forgotten might not one easily be the critical element of the life seen from God’s point of view in the perspective of the whole? Thus the most realistic narrator chooses his point of view, exercises a high degree of selection upon his material, and thus interprets life in terms of his own personality, in copying or recording it. The pity of the worse type of realistic novel is that it selects its material from moral disease instead of health, as if disease were truer than health ! That notion is one of the strange anomalies of our time. Men exclaim: “We will see life;” and then proceed to smear themselves with the slime of its diseases ! The truth is, disease can never be understood aright except from the point of view of the health of which it is the perversion. Still, even in the wrong kind of realism, dedicated to the exploitation of moral disease, art selects and arranges its material, treats it from a specific point of view, and thus interprets in attempting to copy.

Art is thus always, at the same time, real and ideal. It is real, for it must grip reality somewhere to be art; it is ideal, for it never merely copies reality. The great artists have always been aware of this, consciously or instinctively; and it is noteworthy that the controversy concerning realism and idealism in art has been carried on, not chiefly by creative artists, but by critics and theorists on the outside.

Selection of material and point of view is, however, only the initial principle of idealism. In all art is, further, the tendency to lift nature to more adequate expression. Perhaps I can best illustrate this second principle by giving my own experience with Shakespeare. It had long puzzled me that Shakespeare is called the great realist, loyally holding the mirror up to human nature; yet all his characters speak beautiful poetry. Even Caliban upon his island talks of the “quick freshies” and the “bigger light and less” in language exquisitely poetical. For a time it seemed the explanation must be that actual men and women do not express themselves ordinarily in beautiful poetry; art must be beautiful, hence the discrepancy. The explanation did not satisfy, however. Then l began to see that, while all Shakespeare’s characters speak poetry, no two of them speak alike.) Caliban does not speak as Miranda, nor Miranda like Prospero. Hamlet and Horatio are as different in expression as in character. Then I saw that what Shakespeare had done was to lift each character to a plane of adequate expression, causing each to speak not as the person does speak in life, but as, in the given situation actual men and women would speak if they could say just what they meant and say it perfectly.) Take the supreme example : no Roman lion brought to bay, squandering half the world for a great passion, ever used the wealth of overwhelming imagery and vocabulary that comes from the lips of Shakespeare’s Mark Antony; and no sensuous queen of Egypt, daughter of a hundred Ptolemies, fitting lioness mate for this Roman lion, ever spoke with the audacious sweep of language and imagery that comes from Cleopatra in the play; yet Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra speak just what those two characters, in the given circumstances of their lives, would have spoken, could they have said exactly what they felt and said it perfectly.

So it is with the artistic expression of deep meditation. Let one walk in the countryside some quiet autumn afternoon, when the winds are still and the leaves quietly falling, red and brown, from the boughs of the trees, the sky gray and still above; let one be alone or with one friend who understands and knows when not to speak; the breath comes slowly and regularly, and so does the heart beat. One moves with slow and measured step. In such a mood one does not usually speak in poetry; but if it were possible to express perfectly what one thinks and feels in such a mood, one would speak in just such measured, slow-moving, musical lines as those in the greatest of Wordsworth’s sonnets :

“The world is too much with us ; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers : Little we see in Nature that is ours ; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon ! The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers ; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not.—Great God ! I’d rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”

This element of idealism is present in all the arts. Where in the French nature world can you find Corot’s landscapes? Well, every-where, and here, too, after you have seen and loved them in Corot’s paintings ; but nowhere before. It is almost as if that French nature world had been brooding for untold centuries, waiting to voice the meaning of its beauty; but only when Corot came and grasped its secret could it rise to full and free expression. So the dumb, half-wakened hunger of the French peasant, on the background of majestic nature, waited for the genius of Millet to understand it and express it in art. Thus the Venus de Milo bodies forth, not what any Greek woman was, but what all Greek women wanted to be, womanhood achieving its highest expression, not in nature, but in the interpretation of art.

Even more fully is this element of idealism present in music, the art capable of voicing emotions that lie far too deep for words ever to express them. As we shall see in our study of music, its peculiar method and function bring this phase of idealism to its highest form.

This element in all the arts is balanced by a third principle of idealism—the law of restraint. This demands that the artist shall not express all he feels : he must express a part and suggest the rest, stimulating the imagination to go on beyond the limits of what is given. If an actor, for example, were to express all the passion of Lear or Othello, you would say he ranted, and the verdict would be just. Were music to embody all the composer feels, it would fail to move deeply. If a speaker expresses all he has to give, the effect is cheap. Behind what is given, must be a great reserve power unexpressed.

Thus when art attempts to do everything for its audience the effect is tawdry. That is one trouble with the theater today. The effort by skilful scene painting and other sensational effects to accomplish everything for the jaded senses and sluggish imagination of the spectator, tends to make him sit back in a semi-somnolent fashion merely to be played upon from without; while the challenge to the actor is almost equally wanting. The result is that, with no active cooperation between artist and audience, the characters fail to impress them-selves. Better the bare, unadorned stage of Shakespeare’s time, with a sign-board to indicate Rome or London, where the situation challenged the actor to the vigorous effort to interpret life, than, in the attempt to accomplish everything for the senses and imagination, to fail wholly of the vital portrayal of character.

The principle is thus universal. The landscape artist dare not paint all he sees, but must creatively interpret his vision instead of imitating nature. In music it is the deep wealth of emotion unexpressed that gives to the melody its power to sweep one on to the bosom of the sea of feeling.

With all art that portrays life in relation to law there is a further element of idealism in carrying the laws to greater fulfillment than appears normally in life. Literature especially does this. In our life tendencies are evident, but incomplete. The threads are spun a little way and then pitiless Atropos cuts them off, and how those tangled threads may be woven into the complete garment of life behind the veil, we cannot see; but the true artist sees. In-deed, he is artist partly because he is prophet, with a vision of life brought full circle. In life, the curtain may fall on any one of the scenes of the never-finished drama; in the play, it may not fall until the five full acts are complete. In life, any one who is growing dies too soon : there are always incomplete tendencies, potentialities broken off; but in art, the ethical motive, laid down in the beginning, must be completed in the end. In our world, not all mad ambition brings the tragedy of Macbeth, not all unfounded jealousy the pitiful eclipse at the end of Othello, not all introspective absorption, with the will balanced between opposing motives, the black disaster of Hamlet; but in Shakespeare these conclusions inexorably follow. Thus art interprets life by bringing its actual tendencies of good and evil to that more complete fulfillment toward which religion and philosophy have always groped.

Further, in all the arts is an element of idealism which may be called atmosphere. It is this that unifies a masterpiece and gives the key to the spirit of the whole. Nowhere is there a better illustration than in the paintings of Titian. What is it that makes his pictures so wonderful an interpretation of Venice? Not the nude figures, the bit of mountain, the sea or the radiant sky; but the luxuriant wealth of warm golden light poured over the whole, transfiguring the landscape, lifting the nude bodies away from all possible association with illness or death, giving unity and interpreting the whole.

So the subtle “light that never was on sea or land” is more than anything else the key to Corot’s impression. In the Inferno of Dante there is one dominant atmosphere, made of darkness deepened into darkness, set off by vermilion flame; in the Purgatorio another, made up of all the beauty of the natural world; in the Paradiso a third, with light multiplied into light, till the radiant shining is all but unendurable. Similarly there is one unifying and interpretative atmosphere in a fugue of Bach’s, a nocturne of Chopin’s, or in the third movement of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.

Besides these five elements of idealism in art, there is a final principle, in that art, to be sound, must present the phase of life it portrays in true relation to the whole. This applies particularly to the portrayal of evil. This is dangerous in its effect only when evil is pictured out of relation to the whole of life, as for instance, in the worse sort of the so-called French novel (which is not produced, by the way, exclusively in France) where a moral evil is dressed in such beautiful garments that it is mistaken for the good, and so be-comes seductively misleading. The great masters never make this mistake : in their portrayal evil is as repulsive in form as it is offensive in meaning. No daughter was ever led to un-filial conduct by the example of Goneril and Regan in King Lear; no one was ever tempted to a career of deception by the example of Iago. We despise these characters, and they in no way seduce us to imitation of their behavior.

Thus Dante uses coarse epithets and imagery increasingly painful to the senses, to clothe the darker sins as he descends the pit of hell. That the principle is not confined to moral evil, however, is evident in the work of such painters as Millet and Bastien-Lepage, the wonder of whose portrayal of peasant life is that the phase studied is given in such sound relation to the whole of life as to interpret its very soul.

Let me give an illustration of this principle in the field of the novel. Some years ago Upton Sinclair studied the notorious packing-house district of Chicago and portrayed its horrors in the novel, The Jungle, widely read here and abroad, which helped vitally to the reform of the evil conditions it exploited. Now I have no doubt that every incident given in the novel could be paralleled in the packing-house district of Chicago, and that the mass of these facts had come under the direct observation of the author; yet I have no hesitation in saying that the story as a whole is untrue to the life it presents. What the author did, after exhaustive investigation of the horrors of that district of Chicago, was to gather them all together and heap them upon the head of one devoted woman and family. The result was a more or less effective reform document, but a novel with a loss of sound perspective, thus artistically, and hence ethically, untrue to the life it portrayed. The same criticism may be passed upon a more recent social document, exploiting the evils of the “white slave traffic” Kauffman’s House of Bondage.

It is on the basis of this principle, little as it is understood, that the work of Ibsen, Maeterlinck, Shaw, Wilde and Sudermann must ultimately be judged, as also the didactic dramas, such as The Passing of the Third Floor Back, The Servant in the House, Everywoman, The Terrible Meek, which have enjoyed such vogue recently. Much second-rate work, that is widely popular for the moment, is weeded out and forgotten after a little time, just because the artist lacked the greatness to see the part in true perspective and sound relation to the whole, and so be-came the partisan rather than the true creator.

Let us sum up our work to this point, formulating the answer to our first question: Art is then the adequate and harmonious expression and interpretation, through the medium of personality and in definitely limited form, of some phase of man’s life or relation to nature in true relation to the whole. This statement is not intended as a definition in the ordinary sense, but as a thesis, gathering together all the elements studied as forming art. Simplifying the statement, retaining the most definitive elements: Art is the adequate and harmonious expression and interpretation of some phase of man’s life in true relation to the whole.