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Figurative Language

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



He (the poet) will be impelled to use figures whenever, for any reason, he feels that plain language will not serve his purpose. Two circumstances, inclusive, in a broad way, of many others, will justify him, as we can see, in having this feeling: first, one in which the impression to be conveyed is very great or complex in its nature. Very often, in these circumstances, plain direct representation might not only fail to do justice to the subject, but might positively misrepresent it. Milton wished to convey an impression Goethe once said that his poetry had been a continual confession. Suppose that it had been merely a confession. Would this alone have made him the greatest poet of his time? To become such, did he not need, besides thinking of the significance of that which he was to say, to think also of the form in which he was to say it? And was not the significance one thing, and the form-the versification, or the unity of the plot—another thing? And might he not have paid attention to the one, and not to the other? Most certainly he might. But if he had he would never have ranked where he does—with Dante and Shakespeare. So in painting and sculpture. The figures of Benjamin West and Julius Schnorr are arranged more effectively than many a most spectacularly significant climax in a drama; those of Balthasar Denner and Florent Willems manifest the most scrupulous regard for the requirements of line and color. Yet because exclusive attention to either significance or form led all of them to neglect one of the two, they never can rank with artists of which this was not true—Raphael, Titian, and Rubens. Essentials of Esthetics, V.

Do those who hold that the subject of art can be "any-thing," continue to hold on to their belief in the necessity of a strictly artistic treatment of this?—or do their followers? It may be a new suggestion, but the plain truth is that usually they do not, and this because they cannot. If it be a law, as is maintained in "Art in Theory," that an artist, to be successful in his work, must always keep his thought upon two things,—form in itself, and significance in the form,—then he cannot think of only one of these without doing injury to both. He is like a man in a circus, riding two horses. The moment that he neglects one of them, it shies off from him; and, when he leans to recover his control of this, he finds himself balanced away from the other. Very soon, unless he wish to keep up a jumping exhibition, for which his audience have not paid, he will either ride no horse at all, or only one, and this is as likely as otherwise to be the very one that he at first neglected. So in art: unless a man preserve the equilibrium between the requirements of form and of significance, no one can tell which of the two will finally appeal to him more strongly. Significance of some sort, for instance, to apply this to the case before us, is eternally present in art, no matter what one's theory may be concerning it. For this reason, when men have begun to think that the subject of art may be "anything," so long as the form is artistic, some of them, as just noticed, will soon begin to think that it may be "anything but what it should be." Before long, too, they will come to suppose —just as people come to admire most the disagreeable eccentricities of those whom they accept as leaders—that the art is all the better for having as a subject "anything but what it should be." Does this result appear improbable? Recall the almost universal comment of the art-editors in our country upon the rejection of the nude male figure prepared for the medal of the Columbian exhibition. The comment—probably true enough in itself—was that the authorities at Washington did not "understand" or "appreciate art." But think of any one's imagining that this fact was proved by this particular action?—as if the statues of our statesmen in the old Hall of Representatives in the Capitol could not be specimens of art unless all their pantaloons were chiselled off!—as if appropriateness of subject and of treatment had nothing to do with art in them or in this medal!—as if by reproducing, however successfully, a form representative of Greek life, we could atone, in a distinctively American medal, for misrepresenting American life!—as if, in short, there were not a large number of other considerations far more important as proving the possession of aesthetic appreciation than the acceptance of a subject which, when exhibited in an advertisement, would inevitably be deemed by hundreds of thousands of our countrymen "anything_ but what it should be!" How long would it take a condition of art-appreciation, of which such a criterion were the test, to fill our public parks with imitated Venuses and Apollos, meaningless to our people except as reminders of the reigning beauties of else forgotten "living pictures"? What would be the effect upon our growing youth, were the thoughts excited by such productions to be substituted for the nobler and purer inspiration of works like St. Gaudens' "Farragut," or McMonnies' recently erected "Nathan Hale"?

The influence upon sculpture of this supposition that a subject of art may be "anything," has not yet, fortunately, in our country, been fully revealed. But the same can-not be said with reference to poetry. There are plenty of people among us, neither vicious nor morbid in their tastes, who, nevertheless, are inclined to fancy that, considered aesthetically, a shady theme is not only excusable but desirable, when furnishing a background from which to project into relief a brilliancy of treatment. Therefore, for his brilliancy, they accepted Swinburne when he first appeared; and to-day, though far less brilliant, they have taken up with Ibsen. How would it be, accustomed as they are now to these morbid themes, were another Ibsen to appear, an Ibsen so far as concerned his subjects, but without the present Ibsen's dramatizing skill? Would he, too, though destitute of the elements of form which once their school considered the essential test of art,—would he, too, be accepted as a foremost poet or dramatist? Strange as it may seem, he certainly would. Most of the service of praise to Whitman in the Madison Square Theatre in New York, some ten years ago, was piped by our little metropolitan singers, whose highest ideal of a poet had been Swinburne, and whose most vehement artistic energy had hitherto expended itself almost entirely upon dainty turns of melody in rondeaus and villanelles. The result merely verified an old well-known principle. Extremes meet. The apotheosis of form, when the smoke of the incense clears away, reveals, enthroned on high, a Whitman; and not in any of Whit-man's works is there even a suggestion of that kind of excellence in form, which once his worshippers supposed to furnish the only standard of poetic merit.

Precisely the same principle is exemplified in painting, too. When an artist starts out with an idea that the subject of art may be " anything, " of course he begins to develop the form for its own sake. He has nothing else to do. But form may mean many different things. With some, it means the imitation of natural outlines or colors. With some, it hardly means imitation at all. It means the development of color according to the laws of harmony. Even where the subject of art is a person, even in portraiture, there are critics who tell us that the result should not be judged by its likeness to the person depicted. It is not a photograph, forsooth. It is a painting, to be judged by the paint, they say, and mean, apparently, by the color, irrespective of its appearance in the face portrayed. Of course, this supposition will be deemed by some unwarranted. Few would second it, made thus baldly. But we must judge of beliefs by practices; and scarcely an art-exhibition in New York fails to show some portraits on the walls—nor the ones least praised—in which those slight variations of hue which every careful observer recognizes to be essential to the effects of life in the human countenance, are so exaggerated for the sake of mere effects of color that faces in robust health are made to look exactly as if breaking out with the measles; or, not infrequently, as if the victim had had the disease, and died of it. Thus in painting as in poetry, and the same fact might be exemplified in all the arts, exclusive attention to form,—the conception that art is the application of its laws to " anything "—may lead in the end, and very swiftly too, to the destruction not only of all in art that is inspiring to the soul, but even of that which is pleasing to the senses. A law of art-form is worth nothing except as it is applied to forms that have worth; and that which gives them worth is not by any means synonymous with that which makes them "anything. "—Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music, Preface.

This fact, that certain characteristics of art are wellnigh entirely dependent upon form considered as significant, while certain others are equally dependent on form considered merely in itself, makes the tasks both of the art producer and of the art-critic peculiarly difficult. To neglect the requirements of significance is to disregard the soul of art, that which is the very substance of its life; and to neglect the requirements of form is to disregard its body, that which is essential to its artistic effectiveness.—Idem: Introduction to Music as a Representative Art.

Do I mean to say, therefore, that every artist, when composing, must consciously think of significance and also of form? Not necessarily. Many a child unconsciously gestures in a form exactly indicative of his meaning. But often, owing to acquired inflexibility or unnaturalness, the same person, when grown, unconsciously gestures in a form not indicative of his meaning. What then? If he wish to be an actor, he must study the art of gesture, and for a time, at least, must produce the right gestures consciously. And besides this, whether he produce them consciously or unconsciously, in the degree in which he is an artist in the best sense, he will know what form he is using, and why he is using it. The fact is that the human mind is incapable of taking in any form without being informed of something by it; and it is the business of intelligent, not to say honest, art to see to it that the information conveyed is not false, that the thing made corresponds to the thing meant. —Essay on Art and Education.

It might be inferred from what has been said that the requirements of form and of significance are essentially different. Indeed, many artists and critics, apparently, imagine that, in order to do justice to one of the two, they must subordinate the other or neglect it altogether. This supposition has led to two schools of art, the one grounding it, primarily, upon imitation, the other upon the communication of thought and emotion. But why should there be these two schools? A man usually imitates a form because he has had some thought or feeling in connection with its appearance,—in other words, be-cause it has suggested something to him, because it has had for him some significance. The very existence of art-form, therefore, involves the existence of significance. Again, a man communicates thought and emotion through a form because these, in the condition in which they exist in the mind, cannot be heard or seen by others. They must be expressed audibly or visibly; that is to say, in a form. The existence of significance, therefore, if one would make it known, involves the use of a form. Essentials of Aesthetics, V.

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