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Culture And The Fine Arts

( Originally Published 1920 )


Charles Eliot Norton, late professor of fine arts at Harvard University, literary executor of John Ruskin, and famous as "the most cultivated man in America." A distinguished teacher and leader of the thought of intellectual people.

THE imagination of our time has for the most part taken a different direction from the fine arts in their high sense. It has been dazzled by the magnificent achievements of science, and by the splendid promises of the spirit of this world ; it has been allured from the pursuit of the lofty ideals of the mind by the material charms of the practical ends embodied in wealth and luxury. Especially here in America the success of our experiment has been so unexampled in the mastery of nature, in the rapidity of the physical growth of the nation, and in the diffusion of material comfort, as to engender a spirit of self-satisfaction that deadens the imagination and takes little heed of what may be deficient in our national life of true elegance, dignity, and elevation. Of all civilized nations we are the most deficient in the higher culture of the mind, and not in the culture only but also in the conditions on which this culture mainly depends. We are both ignorant and largely indifferent to our ignorance, There is among us little of the spirit of noble discontent that stimulates to emulation of greatness, quickens generous ambitions, and is the source of steadfast effort to attain to better things. These, doubtless, may seem hard words; and it were indeed to be desired that their truth was as questionable as it is unacceptable. Of course the individual exceptions to such broad statements are so numerous, that, if only these exceptions be regarded, the statements may appear to need modification. But if they be considered with a clear view of the whole field, free from the illusions of national conceit, it must, I fear, be admitted that they rest on a solid basis of fact. Platitudes in regard to the general diffusion of intelligence and morality have no place here. Every-thing that can be justly claimed in regard to the wide diffusion of intelligence in the community, and to the vast mental activity implied by its material progress, may be admitted, without weakening the force of the conclusion that the nobler elements of the life of the imagination do not abound in it.

And so far as this conclusion is correct, it compels us further to admit, however unwillingly, that the conditions are unfavorable for the development of some of the chief of the fine arts.

In one of these arts, and the one of widest diffusion and influence, Iles indeed been the happiness of America during the last generation to find expression of her highest moral ideals. For fifty years her poets in verse have rendered her the best service; and when the achievements of the century come to be recorded and its permanent acquisitions reckoned up, the works of these poets will be found to be among the most important and the most lasting of all. There will be little to show of the works of the other fine arts, for though the product has been abundant, it has lacked vitality.

Wealth, judiciously used, can do much to conceal for a time the want of the products of the imagination. It can employ the ready talent and cunning hands of artificers in works of display and out-ward splendor. Rome, in the time of the Empire, made herself magnificent with the treasures that she stole or purchased from Greece, and with the labors of Greek craftsmen who had inherited the methods but not the genius of their ancestors. But the arts never took root and flourished in Rome. The Roman imagination was not creative, and among all the superb monuments of her greatness there is not a single one that appeals to the deepest poetic sympathies, or that belongs to the highest order of the creations of the imagination. It is very striking that Virgil, the poet who most truly represents the Roman genius in all its greatness and with all its limitations, even thinks to exalt the Roman fame by depreciating the very arts by which the living image of Rome might be perpetuated when she herself was in the dust.

Vulgarity, exhibited in the reference of what is showy, sentimental, sensational, and fantastic, to what is simple, refined, and unpretending, is the stamp of much of the popular art everywhere today. "Beauty is now a scandal," said a well-informed German, speaking of the taste of his compatriots. The harsh saying would hardly be true in America, for as yet as a people we have cared too little for beauty in our work and lives either to prize it or definitely to scorn it. We still for the most part regard the fine arts as pleasant and becoming appendages and adornments of life, not understanding that they are the only real test of the spiritual qualities of a race, and the standard by which ultimately its share in the progress of humanity must be measured. For they are the permanent expression of its soul; of the desires and aspirations by which it has been inspired. 1f its desires reach no further than the satisfactions which wealth can afford, the fine arts will reveal the fact. They are unconscious, uncorruptible witnesses. Their testimony admits of no contradiction. The best that a people has to express will be expressed in its fine arts, and there is no other source of noble works of the fine arts than noble character. Today in America we have much of such art as wealth can buy; we have called it "decorative art" and "household art" in abundance. They exhibit a vague and generally ineffectual striving after what may rather be called prettiness than beauty; they are not original, not imaginative, not creative arts. But they are worthy of respect, provided they do not stimulate the better thing and pretend to be other than they are. The highest manifestation of this sort of art is that afforded by the school of American engravers on wood, who have carried their special craft to a degree of perfection in handiwork and skill in reproduction which exhibits an exquisiteness of imitation and a fineness of touch that can hardly be surpassed, or, within their limits, overpraised. But great as the excellence of their work is, it is only in a secondary and inferior sense poetic. For creative originality and lasting charm one rude vignette of Bewick, one block of Holbein, is worth all that our marvellously skilled craftsmen have engraved.

We are not likely to have anything much better in any of the fine arts of design than this work, so long as the present conditions of our national life continue; except as from time to time some genius may rise with power to control unfavoring circumstance, with imaginative vision to see the ideal that lies latent in our common lives, and with passion to embody it in works that shall lift us above our common selves. But until such genius come to justify our better hopes, let us not think too highly of the decorative, household, profitable, professional art in which the national disposition finds expression; let us not mistake pseudo-Blakes for poets, or ambitious builders from Brunelleschis or Palladios. Let us remember what the fine arts have been at their best when they have justified the definition of them as the arts of expression so transfused by the imagination that their works are creations of immortal beauty.

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