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Nature And Art

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


But again, are the effects that come from nature traceable to the forms in themselves, or to causes behind the forms? Hardly to the forms in themselves, because, practically considered, as has been shown, neither music, poetry, painting, sculpture, nor architecture involves an exact imitation of forms. At best, art merely reproduces, as will be brought out in Chapter XVI., their effects; and again, because, theoretically considered, in reproducing effects, a stream cannot rise higher than its source. How can powerful influences such as, presumably, stir thought or feeling in the presence of beauty, owe their origin to forms that have no force of any kind—at any rate, no mental or spiritual force behind them?—Art in Theory, XV.

The mind itself is a source of thoughts and feelings. These are constantly at work, and the influence of them may often change completely the specific form in which an effect has come from nature. This is a fact, a discussion of which would have greatly enhanced the value of Lessing's celebrated criticism upon the " Laocoön. " What is involved in the fact may be made clear by an illustration. Suppose a man to have listened to the story of a battle. It might be presumed that a representation of what he has heard would also assume the form of a story, and therefore be artistically expressed in a poem. But often the effect of the story upon his imagination, as also of his imagination upon it, is such that what is experienced can be represented truthfully only through a picture. Again, it happens sometimes that the forms through which the effects have been exerted, have lingered so long in his mind, and experienced so many modifications there that, though critical analysis may detect, as in architecture and music, that the effects produced have been suggested by forms in nature, the artist himself is unconscious of what these forms were.—Idem, XVI.


In poems and dramas, the characters represented, although Homeric gods or Miltonic angels, speak and act in ways showing that the artist's ideas concerning them have been modeled upon forms natural to men and women of the earth. Even in music and architecture, the principle holds good, though in a more subtle sense. There would be no melodies if it were not for the natural songs of men and birds or for what are called "the voices of nature"; nor would there be buildings were there not in nature rocks and trees furnishing walls and columns and water-sheds, to say nothing of the innumerable forms suggested by the trunks, branches, leaves, flowers, and other natural figures which architectural details unmistakably imitate. In a word—to repeat what was said before—the effects of art are not what they are because they are unnatural. On the contrary, they all do no more than remake, reproduce, reshape, rearrange, reapply, recombine, represent appearances that nature first supplies.—Art in Theory, I.

The first condition of art is an audible or visible form; and this form is always a reproduction, at least partially, of something perceived in nature, which term is to be understood as including not only non-human but human nature, as manifested in a man's actions and utterances. It follows, therefore, that, in some way, one must always associate with nature whatever thoughts and emotions he puts into artistic form. Otherwise, he could not attribute to nature any possibility of representing these; he could not suppose that, by using natural forms as he does, he could suggest his thoughts and emotions to others. —The Representative Significance of Form, I.

Whenever we term a product of art "natural," and argue that, because it is so, it is artistically effective, we include in the term "natural" a conception both of form and of conditions which precede and determine form. For instance, we all recognize that the events portrayed in a drama or a novel are effective in the degree in which they are natural to the conditions that lead up to them, i. e., to the causes occasioning them.—Idem, XII.


At every stage of intellection, a man is forced to use the forms of the material world in order to represent his mental processes. Otherwise they could not be perceived clearly nor understood intelligently even by himself, and much less by others to whom he wishes to communicate them. Take any one of the more important of the emotions that actuate us and we shall recognize this fact. Take that experience in some of the manifestations of which religious people believe that a man most resembles the Unseen One. Think how love, which is begotten often in a single glance, and is matured in a single thrill, gives vent to its invisible intensity. How infinite in range and in variety are those material forms of earth and air and fire and water which are used by a man as figures through which to represent the emotion within him! What extended though sweet tales, what endless repetitions of comparisons from hills and valleys, streams and oceans, flowers and clouds, are made to revolve about that soul which, through the use of them endeavors to picture in poetry spiritual conditions and relations which would remain unrevealed but for the possibility, of being thus indirectly symbolized! Nor is it man alone who is obliged to use the forms of material nature in order to reveal the workings of his spirit. He himself does this only, as it were, by way of imitation; only because he partakes of the nature and therefore must follow the methods of the Creative Spirit to which all men and all material nature owe their origin. If what has been said be true of the expression of human love, why should not the Great Heart whose calm beating works the pulses of the universe express divine love through similar processes evolving infinitely and eternally into forms not ideal and verbal, but real and tangible —in fact, into forms which we term those of nature?

Do we not all, subtly, at least, believe in the two statements just made? Do we not believe that material nature furnishes the representative implements through which a man creates language, and that it furnishes also the actual implements through which the Creative Spirit produces a language speaking, though in a less articulate and distinct way, to our thoughts and emotions?—Psychology of Inspiration, VI.

This is the question with which, wittingly or unwittingly, poetry and poetic faith always have confronted and always must confront merely natural science and scientific skepticism.—Poetry as a Representative Art, XXVIII.


Forms of natural expression—intonation, speech, drawing, coloring, constructing—just at the point where most satisfactory as means of communicating thought and feeling, lack something that art needs. What is this? It is not difficult to tell. . . . They lack that which can be given, in connection with expression, by the reproduction of the effects of nature. Penmanship and hieroglyphics lack the appearances of nature that are copied in painting and sculpture. Prose lacks the figures of speech and descriptions that in poetry are constantly pointing attention to the same appearances; and, as shown in the last chapter, even the elements subsequently developed into music and architecture lack traces of a very keen observation and extensive use of effects in nature which would not need to be observed or used at all, were the end in view attainable by the mere communication of thought or feeling. Were communication the aim of any art, the elaboration of the forms of nature would cease at the point where it became sufficient for this purpose.—Art in Theory, V.


A philosophical botanist—to say nothing of a poet like Wordsworth—will have scores of thoughts suggested to him by a scene in nature, which would never occur to most of us. Now these scenes in nature,—what are they? They are visible representations of the life and methods at the source of nature. They are illustrations, through the appearances and operations of nature, of what we mean when we speak of divine laws, principles, and truths. I think that everyone admits that one of the chief missions to the world of great poetic and artistic minds, like those of Dante, Angelo, Shakespeare, Raphael, and Goethe, is that they interpret rightly these laws, principles, and truths.—Essay on Teaching in Drawing.


We are constantly hearing it asserted that, if anything portrayed in art be " true to nature, " this fact is a sufficient warrant for its reproduction—in plays or pictures, for instance—and, sometimes, a trustworthy test of its excellence. In connection with this assertion, those who—mainly, as is supposed, for moral reasons—object to some of the practical results of applying the theory involved in it are usually represented to be victims of ignorance or bias which they would not manifest had they been sufficiently cultivated aesthetically. According to the conclusions reached in this volume, nothing could be more at variance with the truth than such assertions and representations. Our whole argument tends to show that the mere fact that effects are "true to nature" by no means justifies their use in art of high quality. They can be used in this so far only as, in the first place, they are in themselves beautiful, and, in the second place, are, aside from themselves, suggestive, or capable of being made suggestive, of the artist's thought and feeling. Ugliness and vileness are never beautiful in themselves, though, at times, some feature manifesting them may enhance, by way of contrast, the beauty of some other feature which they are introduced in order to offset. When they form the sole theme of paintings, statues, novels, or dramas, as, unfortunately, is the case in many products of many men greatly praised in our own time,—their names need not be mentioned, the result is opposed to the first principles of aesthetics still more than of ethics.—The Essentials of "Aesthetics, XVIII.


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