( Originally Published 1896 )
Artistic taste is not always pure moral taste. Some of the most sweet and beautiful flowers may grow right out of a bed of filth, so there has sometimes been an efflorescence of fine art, as a mere intellectual product, from an abominable substratum of society. Let no one think that mere pictures, music, and any kind or amount of "elevating" things will alone lift a man out of his wretched self into a better life. Mr. Spurgeon tells of being called to visit a house in London where he found on the walls numerous paintings valued each at from $5,000 upwards, but there amidst them lay the rich and cultivated owner struggling with the accursed drink-habit. The miserable man and his elegant wife were induced to sign the pledge, but he again called for liquor the very next day, and died from its effects three days thereafter. The spirit may feel impoverished though surrounded by everything heart could wish and art could furnish. Neither riches nor art enrich the heart. Not even sacred art in itself has any direct influence on the moral conduct. Surely if art had any moral power per se, it would exert that power in restraining the peasants who throng into certain cities of Italy from committing nameless nuisances in the exterior corners and niches of the most magnificent cathedrals in the world, sculptured in white marble and abounding in priceless art treasures, as the match-less Milan cathedral. What the rude peasantry of Italy and of every country need is the preaching of a sound Bible morality. The heart is the seat of moral disease, and until the heart is set right, the moral con-duct will be bad. Men may live quite rudely, without the refinements of art, and yet be innocent, moral, truly religious, happy, and in a measure useful.
Art cannot regenerate and reform the moral nature, but after the right moral state is first reached by the power of God's Holy Spirit and Word, art can exert an exalting, refining influence upon the moral nature and give it a finished expression. As the rain and sunshine and cultivation may help to develop and perfect the growth of the seed, but cannot produce or give life to it, so art may aid and serve to exalt man's moral and religious state, but can never beget in his nature the seed of righteousness.
Art alone is altogether human. It has grace, or rather, gracefulness, but only Divine grace is regenerative. Art has power, but not saving power. It has been truly said that we cannot paint or sing ourselves into being good men. Man may cultivate his animal nature, his intellectual nature and even his ethical nature to the neglect and exclusion of his spiritual nature. The graces of the Spirit are not natural virtues, though often confounded. A person may simply admire the excellences of Christ and his religion without embracing Him and applying his religion to the heart and conduct. Many things are to be admired, God through Christ is to be worshiped. We have no. Savior but Jesus. It was not even the teaching of Jesus that saved men, but Jesus, the Divine Redeemer, the God-man.
Art is one of the handmaidens of religion, and though not at all regenerative, it may help to educate and train Christian character and life. It may serve to direct if not produce holy activity. Art may point the way, may aid the heart to give itself to God. It is no substitute for the only Savior, but may lead a soul to the Savior. More than one soul has been led to Christ by a picture as well as by a prayer or preacher. Art can represent true religion in a multitude of ways and vividly portray its blessed effects on the character. Who can tell how much of the evil effects of vile art has been counteracted by the indirect influence of pure and sacred art! Art can do much, but not all. It is not sufficient for the soul's greatest need. "Heine, the German pagan, staggered into the Louvre to look upon the finished incarnation of pagan art, the Venus of Milo. He threw himself at her feet, wretched in body and in despair of soul, and he implored her, so he tells us, to help him, to save him. But as he lifted his paralyzed eyelids and gazed at her, he saw that her hands were broken off, and' he seemed to hear her marble lips speak, ' See, I cannot help you; I have no arms.' "
We have looked upon the masterpieces of painting and statuary in the famous galleries of the Old World, but we never felt quite satisfied. The fact is that the finest works of human art, the grandest architecture, the sublimest eloquence, the sweetest music, the most exquisite beauty, cannot afford complete satisfaction to the human soul, cannot equal its highest ideal. The soul is never fully contented and satisfied till it beholds the King in his beauty and awakes in His likeness.
What, then, is the true mission of art? All good art is in its essence and office didactic, that is, its chief purpose is teaching or expository. Abuses of art have crept in by forgetting this primary object of art which is to instruct, to illustrate, to aid the understanding and feeling. This age has fallen into the strange error of practicing art for the sake of pleasure only. It has a mission prior to this. The office of art is the creation .of beauty, to educate our perception of beauty, but that is not all. That only is fit to be called fine art which "demands the exercise of the full faculties of heart and intellect." Schiller, the poet, says, "Education in taste and beauty has for its object to train up in the utmost attainable harmony the whole sum of the powers both of sense and spirit." The highest art appeals to the heart rather than to the intellect, or rather, to the heart through the intellect as a means to an end. The true end of art is to awaken noble feeling, profound emotion. It may not only excite the admiration and delight of people, but assist in cultivating the mind and heart and elevating the character. If it has not a man-saving efficacy, it has a man-culturing power. One testifies, Since I have known God in a saving manner, painting, poetry and music have had charms unknown to me before. I have received what I suppose is a taste for them; for religion has refined my mind, and made it susceptible of impressions from the sublime and beautiful."
Art is one of the great educational forces that may serve to develop and delight and enrich the human mind. The artist, whether he be painter, sculptor," poet, musician, or architect, may so conform his creations as to awaken the truly religious emotions as well as to produce the pleasing effect in the sense of beauty.