High Purpose And Inspiration In Art
( Originally Published 1896 )
Art is the impurer for not being in the service of Christianity.-Ruskin.
" There is a divinity of all art when it is truly fair, or truly serviceable."
Man is not an aesthetic being alone. He has a moral nature. It is well to admire physical beauty, but man's moral sense should not fail to appreciate moral beauty. There is a higher mission for art than for man's material comfort or even keenest mental pleasure. It has, and should always have an ultimate moral, if not religious purpose. One final function of the arts is to touch and elevate the moral emotions, to afford wholesome and permanent delight. We have but little use for mere delightful excitement whose meaning goes for nothing. Purposeless works of art are not wanted. Man has no time or material to waste. Life is short and uncertain. There is no waste in God's economy, and if God has made everything for a moral use, so man's creations of art should have in view an ultimate moral end. True art originates in a moral inspiration.
The morally worthy or truly beautiful is something -above the merely necessary and useful or even pleasing. According to Emerson, " The finest of the fine arts is a beautiful behavior." There is no doubt much bad art that promotes the sensual elements of humanity and -contributes to vicious conduct, but the pleasure be--stowed by a pure art is unmixed with base desire. A picture without moral worth-how much worse than. worthless! A true art aims not to gratify the passions, but to stimulate the actions. It ministers not to the flesh but to the spirit. To sacrifice for the attainment of some nobler end what the body might claim some-times to need, is commendable. To gratify an appetite when it would be an affront to the spirit is a vice. The only office of the flesh is to minister to the spirit, and the great work of the spirit is to keep the body from infringing on the prerogatives of the soul. If a low art has produced the works of the flesh,- uncleanness, idolatry, and such like, a noble art has yielded the fruits of the Spirit,- gentleness, goodness, temperance, and the like.
Nothing can compare with moral nobleness and elevation of character and conduct. Every work of art should have a definite moral purpose. That is not worthy the name of art' which serves neither a noble nor useful purpose, neither to exalt nor support human life. We are not here in this world chiefly to think about and pander to our narrow pleasures and rewards. Every work of art should teach a lesson of life.
The question to be asked in judging of the value of a work of art is, What are its effects-its influence moral, if not religious? and not merely what is its aesthetic power - its artistic merit and revelation of techincal skill ? We want art for truth's sake, for righteousness' sake, for humanity's sake, for God's sake. All art should be enlisted in some righteous cause, should defend the good, rebuke error, and serve to purify humanity. If the spirit of greed and luxury is antagonistic to art, so a pure art is opposed to these evils, and by cultivating a wholesome art, we may aid in fighting vice. We want everywhere the prevalence of such arts as are the result of a wholesome intellectual and moral activity. The Chinese and Japanese have made no progress in art because their artists have been mere colorists for pleasure and fancy alone. When the days of luxury come to a nation, the period of its perfect art has always ceased and degenerated into the pursuit of the arts for pleasure only which means corruption. High art has never been the cause of national decay, but the "loss of moral purpose" has been one cause of the decline of art.
A degraded art produces a detestible pleasure. It requires a sound national as well as individual life to develop a healthy art. Every painting and statue, every poem, song, and book should be thoroughly charged with moral purpose. This implies that the artist or author himself should have such pure motive in his own heart arising from a sound moral character. It is only the infidel or low sensualist who will advocate that heresy of art-criticism, that at least a moral purpose is not necessary to produce all worthy and high art.