A True Artist
( Originally Published 1896 )
A true artist cares little to glorify himself if he can benefit the beholder of his work. But in order to glorify themselves many skillful artists have chosen subjects neither exalted nor exalting and wholly unworthy of their genius. There should be motive in art, and only a pure and noble one.
"It may be affirmed by those who hold that art is of more consequence than motive in pictures, that reputations have been made enduring by painting the lowest. kind of subject - as, for instance, Moreland, who painted pigs; but our affection for that animal does not incline us to hang its portraits in our parlors. When a celebrated artist paints a skinned calf hanging in a slaughter-house so literally that a nauseating effect is almost produced, we praise the skill, but turn away from the subject and find no profit in dwelling upon it.. The graceful and lovable should preponderate, for it is on such we prefer to dwell. It may be answered there is something worthy of our contemplation aside from beauty. There is grandeur, sublimity, space, etc. These, however, may as well be expressed in lines of grace and forms of beauty. It is not necessary to introduce decay, ugliness, wreck, or anything loathsome. A carcass should be buried. We do indeed dwell in bodies subject to disease, but may as well have our surroundings healthful. Clothes are a badge of sin, shame,. and shackles, but as we must wear them, we may as well have the chains graceful. The morbid pseudo-artist delights in horrors, but, except. as a lesson, is but exhibiting a horrid example for us to shun. The Laocoon is a writhing group, but relieved by perfection of sculptured forms; and perhaps the motive of the work was to. illustrate resistance to poverty or trial."
What is the cause of the modern feebleness and decadence in art? Is it not the fact that art has been divorced from the highest, intellectual, moral, and religious activity of the age, and that there has been a substitution of vulgar license and personal caprice in the choice of subjects?
In the great art-epochs of the past, the artist did not seek to exalt and serve himself, but his aim was to serve his age and benefit the people. His productions were more the property of the nation than his own. They were placed in public places where all could see them free of charge. He chose worthy and great subjects, great historical events, distinguished persons, the most heroic men and loveliest women, and sacred representations of the gods and goddesses. In all cases, the subject was "simple, familiar, noble, traditional and beautiful." But now-a-days, too many artists, as a writer in the Nineteenth Century says, think they must invent something absolutely new, if possible queer, accidental, personal, comic, namby-pampy, or bizarre, and too often enigmatical, eccentric, mean, whimsical, or disgusting.
In the salon of Paris, " with the audacity, license, versatility, and power it collects, are seen examples of the best and worst types of modern aim in art. Humanity, pathos, imagination, tenderness, bestiality, lust, ferocity, impudence, and tomfoolery jostle each other in the fierce struggle to attract the notice of the public. All is wild democratic license. Filth, disease, death, carnage, torture, prurient prying into things which decency and self-respect keep covered, the secrets of the dissecting-room, of the consulting-room, of the studio, of the dressing-room, of the slums and the sewers, form the inspiration of pictures, equally with devotion, poetry, sympathy, and dignity. The cold, hard, dry, photographic presentment of a vulgar mad-man committing a brutal murder is as foul a subject as ever painter imagined. To expose on a life-size canvas to the public gaze Zolaism in its crudest shape is an offense against civilization which every decent man and woman ought to treat as an unpardonable outrage."
The great aim of art should be instruction and substantial improvement, as well as pleasure, Ruskin observes: "It must be the part of the judicious critic carefully to distinguish what is language and what is thought, and to rank and praise pictures chiefly for the latter, considering the former as a totally inferior excellence, and one which can not be compared with nor weighed against thought in any way nor in any degree whatsoever."
Art is not the end, but a means to the end. Its vocation is to elevate by the treatment of noble themes, to convey moral and even religious lessons. At least it should endeavor to gratify man's aesthetic nature by its numberless varieties of innocent pleasure. The eloquent tongue and graphic pen do not hold a monopoly of power over man's mind and heart. Painting, too, and sculpture speak a language capable of expressing every human emotion. Thought and feeling and heart may be expressed not only in the noblest form of speech and written words, but also in art with the chisel and brush. Painted pictures may speak as loud as word pictures. Zinzendorf is said to have attributed much of his religious fervor to the casual sight of a picture of the crucifixion, with the inscription: "All this for thee; how much for Me?"
A picture in which truth and simplicity are never lost sight of, and that is a chaste and faithful representation of some worthy object or conception, is a treasure, and many such there are.
The elegant creations of art may not only illustrate the high principles of true religion, but also the grand traits of moral character and heroism. A piece of statuary, or painting, or mosaic, representing some sacred historical incident may have a powerful and wholesome effect on the beholder.