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Morality And Art

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


The novel, the drama, the painting, the statue,—all re-port, with more or less interpretative additions, that which keen observers have been able to perceive, and to reproduce. The legitimate effect of their work is to enlarge the experience of others who have not had the same opportunity, or the same ability to avail themselves of it, that they them-selves have had. Whoever enlarges another's experience imparts not only information, but, with it, something of that wisdom which expresses itself in intelligent action. Of course much depends, as has already been intimated, upon the artist through whose mediumship the wider experience has been imparted. He is like a showman who may throw upon a screen whatever sort of picture he may select. At the same time, in making his selection, he can scarcely fail to be influenced by another fact. It is this,—that only in the degree in which men conceive that his thought when assuming form in art is in harmony with thought when assuming form in nature, do they conceive him to be influenced by the spirit in nature to such an extent as to term him inspired. Is there any great artist who does not wish to have his work considered to be of this character?

Or, if an artist be not great, does he not try, at least, to imitate those who are so, and prefer to be considered of their class? If both these questions can be answered in the affirmative, then it must be true that, practically, in the majority of cases, the forces that are working in nature, as most of us believe, for the enlightenment and uplifting of man will continue to be influential in directing toward the same ends the developments of art. Essay on Art and Morals.

Nothing influences the general conceptions of a community more than the specific conceptions suggested by what seems true of its art. This cannot manifest disregard of law without cultivating more or less disregard of the same in life, whether individual, social, political, or religious. There is a connection between thinking that anybody, without any guidance of rules, can write a successful poem, or build a successful house, and fancying that a promoter on Wall Street can disregard the financial laws of the street, and not do something toward bringing on a financial panic; or that a lady of the "Four Hundred" can turn her back upon her poor relations, violating thus the laws of both humanity and hospitality, and not do some-thing toward making them turn their backs upon her, even to the extent, possibly, of causing them to enlist for a socialistic revolution; or that a statesman, trusting to his own personal popularity or eloquence, can ignore the laws of diplomacy and the enactments of his predecessors, and not do something to endanger the peace and prosperity of his country; or that a leader in the Church, under the impression that all that religion needs can be developed from his own unaided self-consciousness, can break away from the laws of form or purpose embodying the historic results of the spiritual life of the past, and not do something to develop from himself the very evils that religion and its methods are intended to prevent. Essay on Music as Related to Other Arts.

Art is one thing, and morality is another thing. A statue, a picture, a drama, or a dance, may be immoral in its influence, and yet artistic. But, in this case, it is seldom artistic in every one of its features. If it were, people would not speak of it, as some invariably do, when referring to products of this character, as "lacking in good taste. "—Essay on Art and Morals.


Are there any ethical relations of architecture: and if so, are moral principles exemplified in it? Both questions can be answered in the affirmative. Consider, for instance, the modern skyscraper, the apartment house, hotel, or office building containing twenty or thirty stories. Sociologists point out how objectionable it is morally, as used in residence districts, either for irrepressible children who need more companions out of doors, or for disaffected parents who need fewer of them indoors; and how objectionable physically, as used in business districts, because depriving thousands of sunlight and fresh air, and increasing the nervous strain of life by crowding streets and street-cars, and adding to the labors of business, the greater labor of trying to get in safety, comfort, and health, despite lungs almost suffocated, to and from one's home. But, long before the sociologist had thought of these results, the artist had realized the beauty of a uniform skyline, as in the streets of Paris and the Court of Honor at the Chicago Exposition; and had recognized as well the inexcusable lessening in value, because of depreciation in effectiveness, of every building that another adjoining it is allowed to over-top. So one might go on and give to the principle thus illustrated almost universal applicability. Essay on Art and Morals.


As for the other criterion, namely, that art should point a moral, this is accurate so far as it goes; and yet at, imitative art, must do more than point a moral. Its nature is that of representation, not reasoning; it presents a picture to be perceived, not a problem to be solved; and the representation, the picture, not the reasoning or the solution, is that in it which is of supreme importance.—The Representative Significance of Form, XV.


Very often passages like this merely add to the impressiveness of the picture conjured before the imagination, and are distinctly within the limits of an appeal to sentiment. For this reason, though having much to do both with influencing conduct and imparting information, they are legitimate to art, because subordinated to its aims.

This is a fact important to recognize. Indeed, the failure to recognize it is one of the artistic mistakes of our own age; and is doing more than any other, perhaps, to pre-vent art from attaining the rank due to it, as a great instrumentality for the betterment of humanity. In the criticisms in our papers—often, owing to an affectation of aesthetic knowledge, in our religious papers,—one finds an almost universal tendency to discount, and for this reason solely, poetry, painting, and statuary that give any marked evidence of being the product of an earnest, ethical, or religious nature. One reason—though, of course, not by any means the sole reason—why certain of our greater as well as minor pessimistic poets, whose influence is anything but inspiring, are so lavishly praised, is because they give so few indications of having such a nature; and it is certain that many critics of the drama would think twice before imperiling their reputation by objecting to a really artistically constructed play merely because of its immoral tendency. Yet what can be more thoroughly unphilosophical than to gauge artistic ability and taste by an absence of those traits which, in ordinary life, give a man not only character but common sense?—Idem.


We respect a moral man who is a boor; but when there is enough of aesthetics in him to make him also a gentleman, we admire him, and strive to imitate him. We tolerate earnest reformers who, in rowdy mobs, boisterously insult all who differ from them; but most of us connect ourselves with such leaders only as do their work "decently and in order," in places where they have more or less of refinement in their surroundings. Why cannot this rule be reversed, and art be bettered by its moral quality?—Essay on Art and Morals.

Wherever there is anything human, there, too, exists the possibility of immorality. Art is intensely human. But just as the best type of humanity is distinctly moral, so it is with the best type of art. To this rule, dramatic art furnishes no exception. Nor, for a similar reason, does that of the romance or the novel.—Idem.

Art, as a pleasurable result, may appeal in a pleasurable way to a man's whole nature; and nothing can do this that, in any degree, shocks and repels him because recognizing it to have an impure and harmful influence upon thought, feeling, or conduct.—Idem.


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