Art Not Regenerative - But Instructive And Refining
( Originally Published 1896 )
Art's mission is to " awaken and create ideas."
Michael Angelo had taught F. Millet that art could cause intensity of feeling.-Archdeacon Farrar.
"Art will cultivate the voice, but not the heart. Art will improve the singer, but not the man."
We can worship without architecture, but we cannot remember without her.-Ruskin.
We must not mistake the influence of taste and sensibility in religion for religion itself. A man may gratify his taste for the grand and majestic in nature or for the beauties and glories of the fine arts, and yet never " taste and see that the Lord is good." He may be so fascinated with the mere aesthetic and with forms and ceremonies in religion as to forget all about the most important part - the necessity of regeneration and a change of heart. There may be art-service without heart-service, but the former alone is not acceptable and pleasing to God. It is possible for a man to have a fine sense of moral beauty and a capacity to draw the picture of it with fine artistic skill, yet that does not give him a morally beautiful character, does not make him holier in life. Indeed, some of the most renowned artists furnish us in their own lives some of the darkest pictures of moral deformity. Among the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians, all sunken in heathen depravity, there existed a richly elaborated art with a sumptuous wealth of decoration.
It will not do to imagine that civilization implies sanctification. "The descendants of Cain originated the arts, sciences and amenities of life, but they were also polygamists and egoists of a boastful and murderous kind." In Athens, where Iearning and art most flourished, idolatry most abounded. The best of the Athenians were polite and refined idolaters, and guilty of the grossest, immoralities. The Greeks in their palmiest days of intellectual and art excellence,' imagined that the relish for external beauty inspires the relish for moral beauty. They were mistaken, for Athens, the "proud schoolmistress of mankind,' the center of intellectual and aesthetic culture, when the marble fairly breathed under the chisel of Phidias and the birds picked at the grapes on the canvas of Appeles, was at the same time giving to the world exhibitions of moral putrefaction, shocking to all decency, and abominable as could be found in the most unpretentious nation. No one has attempted to deny that the ancient Greeks and Romans were intelligent, that their artists, writers, poets, were cultured, but who has ever dared to eulogize the morals ' of these highly "educated" heathen? It has been the privilege of this writer to walk among the ruins of these departed nations and to visit the museums stored with their relics of art that have been excavated. All sense of propriety would be violated were we to spread on this page either with pen or picture a portrayal of the abominations that have come down to us. In the silent but significant city of Pompeii, risen from its burial of nearly two thousand years, we found certain houses kept under lock and key, and the guide would say, Only the gentlemen will pass in here.
Art has no power in itself to change man's heart or regenerate his soul - so far from it, that, as one observes, " the attaining of perfection in art power has been hitherto, in every nation, the accurate signal of the beginning of its ruin. The worst foulness and .cruelty of savage tribes have been frequently associated with fine ingenuities of decorative design. No people has ever attained the higher stages of art skill, except at a period of its civilization which was sullied by frequent, violent, and even monstrous crime." All this only serves to prove that no form of mere intellectual development, no culture or refinement of science or art can renovate man's moral nature or save his soul. Only the grace of God through Jesus Christ can reach man's case, and make him morally better, holier in life. He who would diagnose man's inbred disease of sin on any other basis or prescribe any other remedy, will fail utterly. In every age and land men have tried various means and theories to reform and save themselves - they have tried aesthetics, metaphysics, ethics, moral suasion, legal suasion, humanitarian efforts, and human culture, but all, all in vain.
May we not judge of a nation's morals and character somewhat by the character of the arts it cultivates and tolerates? Is Mr. Ruskin correct in his assertion that "the art of a nation is the exponent of its ethical state?" We believe that the statement will not hold true in every historical instance. It is not always safe to assume that the art of a people is a correct index or interpreter of their civilization, morals and religion. Art can be made to lie, exaggerate, or play the hypocrite. Prof. Colvin remarks that " the student who should try to rcason back from the holy and beautiful character which prevails in much of the devotional painting of the Italian schools down to the Renaissance would make a great mistake if he were to conclude, `like art, like life, thoughts, and manners.' He would not understand the relation of the art to the general civilization of those days, unless he were to remember that one of the chief functions of the imagination is to make up for the shortcomings of reality and to supply to contemplation images of that which is most lacking in actual life; so that the visions at once peaceful and ardent of the religious schools of the Italian cities are to be explained not by the peace, but rather in great part by the dispeace, of contemporary existence."