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The Literary And Art

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


Suppose that, for the reason which Lessing gave when he said that it should present only that which could be perceived at one time, or for any other reason, the picture is not able to interpret itself. Then it needs an explanation. Such an explanation is necessarily made in words, and, often, in printed words. Words, whether printed or not, are the substance of literature. A painting which cannot be of interest until one is made acquainted with the literature of the subject, until one has read or heard the words of a story which it is supposed to illustrate—what is this?—What, but a painting which may be said to owe its interest to literature; and in this sense a painting that is "literary.". . . The term "literary," as one of disparagement, is rightly applied to pictures that need to be interpreted by a verbal story; in other words to pictures that do not represent their own story. But is this what is meant by those who, in our own time, most use the term? No; but often the opposite. The term is applied to pictures that do represent their own story; and because they do this. Thus a deduction from Lessing's principle is made in order to disparage the very kind of pictures that he would have commended. Nor is it the first time that inability to interpret the spirit of a law beneath the letter of it has caused the disciples of a master to suppose themselves to be following his lead, when they are going in diametrically the opposite direction.—Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture as Representative Arts, XIII.

Human minds, as a rule, have so narrow an outlook that they can be depended upon to snatch a half-truth, if possible, and use it as a weapon against the whole truth. Whatever may have been the case in the past, an artist at the present time cannot compose upon the theory that significance is essential to the highest excellence in art without being stigmatized by certain critics as "literary"; nor can he compose upon the theory that imitative skill is essential to the highest excellence without being stigmatized by certain other critics as being "a mere technicist."

Of course, in some cases the use of these designations is appropriate; and, in all cases, it is easy to trace their genesis, and find some justification for them. To inveigh against the literary tendency in this art is a perfectly natural reaction against an attempt on the part of certain English and German artists of the early part of the last century, like West and Overbeck, not only to revive religious symbolic and allegoric painting, but to do this, apparently, upon the supposition that a subject capable of being made impressive by an elaborate explanation, or story indicating its intention, can compensate for an indifferent style, an idea subsequently developed by the English Pre-Raphaelites and in the genre pictures of the followers of Von Schadow at Dusseldorf. On the other hand, to inveigh against exclusive attention to technique is an equally natural reaction against the exceedingly tame and unimaginative effects produced by mere imitation, such as we find in many of the French pictures. No amount of care expended upon the portrayal of tint or texture in foliage, clothing, or flesh can satisfy the artistic ideals of certain minds. They refuse to admit that great art can ever result from any possible elaboration of small subjects.—Idem, XII.


That which was undertaken in these volumes did not seem to permit of a method that might have proved far more pleasurable both for author and for reader. How can one get down to the roots of anything, so long as he persists in making his chief aim the enjoyment of its flowers? Our libraries are full of treatises upon art appealing to the imagination. The series of volumes which this concludes has been intended to appeal to the understanding. We may exercise imagination and go astray, in case we fail to exercise the understanding also. But so long as we are really using the latter, whether as artists or critics, we are much less likely to go astray, however imaginative. To understand a subject completely, one must be led to analyze it, and to perceive its minutest details. Details that are minute require minuteness in presentation. Your small matter may be as effectually lost in generalities of style as a needle in a dust-heap. Or, as applied to considerations of a broader character, one cannot manifest the coolness needed in a philosophic presentation, through a manner aglow with the heat of fancy; nor accurately balance principles in the scale of argument, when allowing either side of it to be borne up or down by a bias of sentiment.—Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, XXVI.


"From time to time," says Oscar Wilde, "the world cries out against some charming, artistic poet, because, to use its hackneyed and silly phrase, he has 'nothing to say.' It is just because he has no new message that he can do beautiful work." Think of the literary prospects of a country or of the world; of the possibility of its receiving any inspiring impulses from its poets at a period when new authors, writing with the acknowledged motives of Dante, Milton, or Wordsworth, would, for this and for no other reason, fail to commend themselves to the leaders of literary opinion !—Essentials of 'Esthetics, V.


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