Nature And Purpose
( Originally Published 1896 )
Everything in nature around us has its place and purpose, and there can be no true art without simplicity, sincerity, and fidelity to nature, as its first requisites. A work of art is a production of virtue, power, skill, excellence. The qualities that constitute fine art are truth, beauty, purity, and perfect execution. But purity of purpose is not always found with fineness of execution, and, on the other hand, very rude execution is often found connected with the purest purpose. There may be temporary and exceptional flashes of genius and dexterity with the brush or chisel, pen or tongue, in bad men. A man may have an eye to color and form without an eye to virtue and honesty. Being a saint even does not make a man a sculptor or genius. We speak on general principles, for the "art-gift itself is only the result of the moral character of generations." This art-gift will deteriorate into a despicable weakness both in individuals and nations by long-continued vicious courses. A degraded character will degrade every physical and mental faculty, affecting the nerves, the brain, the hands. Sin will cloud the understanding, take the edge off the intellect, cause the right hand to forget its cunning, and befoul all the sources of mental and moral life. Vice is blighting and paralyzing.
A distorted moral nature will produce a monstrosity in art. "An evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil." A corrupt man will leave the stain of his foul touch on everything about him. "All lovely art is rooted in virtue." Virtue of character is essential to right work. The greatest of art critics says that " the faults of a work of art are the faults of its workman, and its virtues his virtues." The personal character of the artist seems to be the only "ultimate determinant" in art.
The artist, therefore, must be judged by the purity of his purpose and the art by its subject matter. Men show their greatness in their choice of things, after a -careful analysis. No great mind is inattentive to de-tails and careless of observation, discrimination, and choice of the best. The best artist is he who translates into form not only his own best thoughts, but also the best ideas of the age in which he lives. He has refinement of thought, nobility of purpose, grandeur of concepetion, a pure inspiration. He avoids offenses to good taste, and all pretentious, affected, and extravagant poses. The true artist shuns everything vain, sensual, spurious, or merely imitative.
All that is worthy the name of art is pure and above suspicion. Tavern debauchery, to which so many of the Dutch artists descended, is no proper subject of art. This age seems to be developing a theatrical art, exaggerated, showy, tragic, exciting, sentimental, corrupting in the extreme. Not art even for art's sake, but vanity and the love of money seem to be the ruling passion of many souls. Many an artist has been bribed to betray his art and has wrought nameless abominations kept only under lock and key. Art and every good thing has a door open toward excess and abuse. Man has perverted to evil purposes almost every good thing that God has made. If fair pictures have been abused, how much more have fair realities! The fairest work of art ever produced may be subjected to the-grossest abuses. Music measured and worded is perhaps the most effective of all instruments of moral instruction, and alas! of moral degradation, when its holy mission is prostituted to depraved passion.
Everything vulgar and tawdry in art should be avoided. The statuesque must not degenerate into the grotesque, fanciful, or merely sentimental. Works of art should be such as affect our interests, stimulate our convictions, touch our sympathies, and exalt our ideas. Let every private and national art gallery be cleansed of everything equivocal, or of questionable propriety, or suggestive of the immoral. Let us have an art that yields a greatness of character, a true gladness of heart, that cries away with all low jesting and vulgar sensation and shuns the very appearance of evil. Let our homes be refined and adorned with such an art as, embodies in forms of beauty the inspired ideals enumerated by the Apostle: " Whatsoever things are true,. whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are-lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."