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Character - Classic Vs. Romantic

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Centuries ago, people who spoke one of the two languages, Greek or Latin, the degrees of proficiency in which even in our own colleges indicate the class to which a student belongs, and which everywhere since the revival of learning have been termed, because the literature composed in them is supposed to belong to the highest class, the classic languages, —these people produced certain works of art, noticeably in poetry, sculpture, and architecture, that are still considered to equal, if not to excel, anything produced in modern times. For almost a thousand years, during the Middle Ages, this art was scarcely known, little appreciated, and seldom imitated. In the meantime, however, an artistic development manifested itself among the different Romanesque or Romantic nations, as they are termed, i. e., nations both Latin and Gothic, formed from the fragments of the former Roman Empire. In architecture this development culminated in the style termed Gothic. In sculpture, years before the revival of learning, it produced statues and busts like those in Wells and Lincoln cathedrals, which in form are wellnigh perfect. In music and poetry it brought forth the songs of the troubadours and the minnesingers, and also the early rhyming chronicles and ballads. It gave rise, too, to the "mystery plays" and the "moralities," and was the mainspring of the English drama.

About the fifteenth century, however, owing partly to the wars in the Orient and the attendant renewal of commercial intercourse with the East, partly to the fall of Constantinople and the consequent dispersion of Greek scholars through Europe, and partly to that general revival of interest in intellectual pursuits that soon afterward led to the Reformation, the older classic languages and art began to attract attention. The matured results, as they were, of a matured civilization, they could not but have a moulding influence upon the theory and practice of Western art with which they were now brought into contact.

Whatever increases intelligence tends to increase intellectual power, and the influence of schoolmen learned in the classics was at first only beneficial. Nearly all modern literature in every country of Europe dates from the Renaissance. Painting and sculpture attained, at that time, an almost unprecedented degree of excellence; and the style of building originated by Brunelleschi, Bramante, and Alberti in Italy was based upon principles that still underlie the most successful street architecture for large cities, and which, artistically developed, might have led then, and might still lead, to results equalling anything termed Grecian or Gothic.

But increased intelligence tends to increase not only intellectual activity but also pedantry. The artistic expression of pedantry is imitation. As soon as that which was classic became fashionable, artists began to forget to embody their thoughts and feelings in what they produced. They paid attention to forms alone; even then to forms as they could be found, not in nature, but in celebrated works of art. With these for their models, and being artisans rather than artists, they attained the highest object of their ambition in the degree in which they attained success in copying. Their copying, moreover, necessarily extended, after a little, beyond the forms to the ideas expressed in them. The subjects of art came to be not modern nor even Christian, but ancient and mythologic. For these reasons, the production of something that imitates a previously existing form or subject is now one of the recognized meanings of the term classic. When the word was used first, Greece and Rome supplied the only classic products. Now any works of any nation are so called as soon as they have become admired sufficiently to be used as models... .

The classic tendency being that which inclines the artist to imitate forms and subjects of the past, the romantic has come to mean just the opposite,—namely, that which allows the form to be determined solely by the exigencies of expression and the expression solely by the exigencies of the period. In fact, it is hardly right to say that this latter tendency has come to mean this,—it has always meant this. The mediaeval pictures were poorly drawn. Their forms, as forms, were exceedingly defective. Yet they were fully successful in expressing exactly the religious ideas of the time. Similar conditions underlay also, as first developed, mediaeval music, poetry, and sculpture.

This being so, it is evident that romanticism, if manifested to the total exclusion of classicism, cannot lead to the best results. The same fact is still more evident when we consider that the forms and themes of all art of the highest character, whenever and wherever it appears, are developed upon lines of previously developed excellence; and that to model after others, even in a slight degree, is to manifest something of the classic tendency. Art in Theory, III.

"The Independent" first refers to the "astounding misapprehension" of this view, and then goes on to say,—"We cannot at all admit that . . . `the production of something that imitates a previously existing form or subject is now one of the recognized meanings of the term classic.' Why can he not admit this? Can it be that he is unaware that, at the present day, which is what is meant by the word now, men, when they speak of a modern artist as producing a classic face, or temple, or drama, or allusion in a drama, invariably suggest a likeness in it either to a Greek face, or temple, or drama, or allusion containing Greek mythological references? or else, if not, at least a likeness to some form which, as a form, is sufficiently old to have a recognized character? And does he not know that the reason for this suggestion is that "one of the recognized meanings"—not the only meaning mentioned in "Art in Theory," but one mentioned in its historic connections—" of the term classic is the production of something that imitates a previously existing form or subject"? One would think that everybody ought to know this. "Les classiques," says a French criticism lying before me now, "les classiques c'est-a-dire ceux qui perpétuent une manière. " But this reviewer does not know it. However, he probably fancies himself in good company —for America. An earlier critic in "The Nation," quoting from "Art in Theory" the statement that "the germ of classicism is the conception that art should chiefly emphasize the form," and of romanticism that "the ideas expressed in the form should be chiefly emphasized," had exclaimed: " Sound not sense was certainly never a motto of classical literature." And who had said that it was? Does the carefully worded phrase "chiefly emphasize" mean "exclusively emphasize"? Or does the term "sound" include all that is meant by "form"? When we speak of dramatic "form" do we often even suggest the idea of "sound"? What we mean then is the general method of unfolding the plot as a whole. This attempted refutation reveals, once more, that lack of philosophic discrimination to which reference has been made. But connected with it, there is a still greater lack of historic knowledge. Who has never heard of the famous theatrical contest between the classicists and romanticists in Paris, which once almost made a Bedlam of the whole city, because Victor Hugo, the idol of romanticism, did not model his dramas upon those of his predecessors, which, in turn, were modelled upon those of the Greeks? What was Hugo contending for? For the right to emphasize chiefly the ideas behind the form—to speak out naturally upon a modern subject, with a style to fit it, whether it assumed a conventional form, or one that nobody before had ever attempted. But no, says one of these critics: "Classicism and Romanticism are tempers of mind." "They owe their origin," says the other, "to a difference in mental constitutions. " Of course, there is a truth in this. By nature men are inclined toward the one or the other. But one might say the same of almost any different phases of mental action. He might say it of the tendencies to intemperance or gambling. But would his saying this explain what either of these is? Certainly not; for only when the tendencies come to the surface and reveal themselves in a form of action, do they exist in such a way that they can be differentiated. The same is true of classicism and romanticism. They cannot be differentiated till developed into a form of expression. The questions before us are, what is this form, and what is there in it, as a form, that makes it what it is? To speak of differences in "tempers of mind" or of "mental constitution, " is to mention something influential in causing a difference to be. But it is no more influential than is the spirit of the age, or the conditions of taste, or environment, or education; and it fails to suggest, as even some of these latter do, why it is that, in certain periods, all authors and artists incline to classicism, and in other periods all of them incline to romanticism; while, now and then, the same man seems almost equally inclined to both. Goethe's "Leiden des jungen Werther's," for instance, and his "Goetz von Berlichingen" are specimens of distinctively romantic literature; whereas his "Iphigenie auf Tauris" is, perhaps, the most successful modern example of classic literature. At what period between writing the first two and the latter of these was his "temper of mind," his "mental constitution" changed? Is it not a little more rational to say that what was changed was his artistic method?—possibly, his theory of this?—that in the first two he "chiefly emphasized" the "significance," and in the last, "the form," causing it to be—what he did not take pains to cause the others to be—" something imitating a previously existing" Greek "form" not only, but, in this case, a Greek "subject" also?

On the contrary, says one of these critics, elaborating his theory about "tempers of mind," "classicism is reasonable, logical, and constructive, while romanticism is emotional and sensuous"; and the other echoes his sentiments with something about "the eternal distinction between the intellectual and the emotional." And so one is to believe that the distinguishing feature of classic Greek sculpture—like a"Venus, " a "Faun," or a "Group of the Niobe, "—or of a classic Greek drama, like the "Antigone," is, that it is not sensuous or emotional; and that the distinguishing feature of the plays of Shakespeare or Hugo, or of a Gothic cathedral, is that they are not reasonable or logical or constructive! Of course, there is a cause underlying the distinctions that these critics are trying to make. It is suggested too in "Art in Theory." On page 25, the statement is made that one characteristic of romantic art is that in it the form is "determined solely by the exigencies of expression," and on page 17, at the beginning of the chapter in which this statement occurs, as well as in scores of other places in the book, it is explained that by the term expression is meant a communication of thought and feeling combined. Without any explanation indeed, this meaning would be a necessary inference from the fundamental conception of the book, which is that all art is emotional in its sources, and that art-ideas are the manifestations of emotion in consciousness (Chapters V., XVIII., and XIX.). It follows from all these facts together that emotion—but not without its accompanying thought, which, sometimes, as with Browning, throws the emotion entirely into the shade—has a more unrestricted expression in romantic art than in classic art. In the latter the form is "chiefly emphasized," and therefore there is a more conscious, as well as apparent exercise of rational intelligence engaged in constructing a form for it, and in confining the expression to the limits of this form. But we must not confound the effects of this difference with that which causes them. This is the method of the artist when producing his art-work, a method influenced by the relative attention which he gives, either consciously or unconsciously, to the requirements of significance or of form. It is important to recognize this fact, too, because, otherwise, we should not recognize that he is the master of his methods, and, if he choose, can produce in both styles, though, of course, not with equal pleasure, because he must have his preferences; nor with equal facility, because it is a matter of a lifetime to produce successfully in either. To suppose that his methods master him, is to show a lack of insight, with reference to the practice of art, still greater than that just indicated with reference to the theory of it. Goethe could write "Iphigenie auf Tauris" or the "Leiden des jungen Werther's." So, too, the same painter can "chiefly emphasize" form in his figures by using the distinct "classic" line, as it is termed ; or, if he have been educated in another school, often merely if he choose, he can suggest the form with the vague outlines of the romantic impressionists; and the same architect also can plan a classic Girard college, or a romantic seaside cottage. To imagine otherwise, is to parallel the notion of a schoolboy that the poet tears his hair, rolls his eyes, raves in the lines of a lyric rather than of a drama, and makes a general fool of himself by a complete lack of self-control whenever he is composing at all, simply because he is "born and not made."

That this inference with reference to the error as to artistic methods is justified, is proved by the inability of critics of this class to recognize the necessity of making any distinction whatever between significance in form—not outside of form—and form as developed for its own sake, concerning which the reader may notice what is said in the Introduction to " Music as a Representative Art. "—Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music, Preface.

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