Art The Revealer
( Originally Published 1914 )
AFTER what fashion shall I, follower of art in a sense, speak on this debatable subject, here at the inauguration of a great institution of culture and learning, and before you, its earliest and forever most honoured guests, who personally and officially represent Church, State, and School, and here and now pay tribute to that great power whose duty it is to lead onward and forward every child born of man, until, man at last, he is worthy to play his part in the life that opens before him of service and charity and righteousness and worship.
I might speak of art historically, as the perfect flowering of sequent epochs of civilization, as the evanescent record of man's power of great achievement, as a glory of history in Homer and Pheidias, in Virgil and Anthemius of Tralles, in Ambrosian chant and Gregorian plain-song, in the Arthurian legends and the Nibelungenlied, in Adam of St. Victor and Dante, in Cimabue and Giotto and their great successors, in the cathedrals and abbeys of mediævalism, in the sculptures of Pisa and Paris and Amiens, in Catholic ceremonial, in the glass of Chartres, the tapestries of Flanders, the metal-work of Spain, in the drama of Marlowe and Shakespeare, in the music of modern Germany, in the verse of the English Victorians. I might speak of art as an ornament and amenity of life, a splendid vesture covering the nakedness of society. I might speak of it in its economic aspect, or as the handmaid and exponent of religion.
Art is so great a thing, so inalienably a heritage and a natural right of man, it has all these aspects, and more; but for the moment I narrow myself to yet another consideration, — the function of art as an essential element in education.
The adjective may strike you strangely — "an essential element" — not an accessory, an extension; but I use it with intention, though to justify such use I must hasten to disavow any reference to the teaching of art as this now obtains either in art schools or under university faculties of fine arts. It is, I admit, hard to conceive such teaching as being of necessity an integral part of any scheme of general education, — however efficient it may be when viewed in the light of its own self-determined ends, — and I should expect, from no source, endorsement of any argument for the universal necessity of an art education conceived on similar lines; but I plead for a higher, or at least broader, type of such teaching, because I try to place myself amongst those who set a higher estimate on art, conceiving it to be not an applied science or a branch of industrial training, or yet an extreme refinement of culture study, but simply an indispensable means toward the achievement of that which is the end and object of education, namely, the building of character.
There were days, and I think they were very bad old days, when it was held that education should take no cognizance whatever of character, of the making of sane, sound, honourable men and women, but only of mental training and mental discipline. Then it was said with grave assurance that it was not the province of public education to deal with religion, ethics, or morals, except from a strictly historical and conscientiously non-sectarian standpoint, and that the place for the teaching of those things was the HOME — spelled with very large capitals. After a while the compulsion of events forced a readjustment of judgments, and we became conscious of the fact that a combination of influences — amongst them our very schools themselves — had resulted in the production of homes where neither religion nor ethics was taught at all, and where conscious character building was of the most superficial nature, while the concrete results were some-what perilous to society. Struck at last by the fact that our most dangerous criminal classes were made up of those who were thoroughly well educated, we were compelled, as Walt Whitman says, "to reëxamine philosophies and religions," and some of us came to the conclusion that if the schools were to save the day — as they certainly must and certainly could — a new vision was necessary, and that what they were set to do was the bending of all their energies and powers toward character-building, toward the making, not of specialists, but of fine men and women, and good citizens.
Under the old system the significance of art and the part it could play in' education were generally ignored; it was treated either as an "extra," as a special study like Egyptology or Anglo-Saxon, and so regarded as the somewhat effeminate affectation of the dilettante, or as a "vocational course," ranking so with mining engineering, dentistry, and business science. So taught, it was, indeed, no essential element in general education, but if we are right in our new view of the province thereof it may be that our old estimate of art and its function and its significance needs as drastic a revision, and that out of this may come a new method for the teaching of art.
What is it, then, this strange thing that has accompanied man's development through all history, always by his side, as faithful a servant and companion as the horse or the dog, as in-separable from him as religion itself? this baffling potentiality that has left us authentic historical records where written history is silent, and where tradition darkens its guiding light ? Is it simply a collection of crafts like hunting and husbandry, building and war? Is it a pas-time, the industry of the idle, the amusement of the rich? None of these, I venture to assert, but rather the visible record of all that is noblest in man, the enduring proof of the divine nature that is the breath of his nostrils.
Henri Bergson says in speaking of what he calls — inadequately, I think — intuition : "It glimmers wherever a vital instinct is at stake, On our personality, on our liberty, on the place we occupy in the whole of nature, on our origin, and perhaps also on our destiny it throws a light, feeble and vacillating, but which nevertheless pierces the darkness of the night in which the intellect leaves us." Here lies the province of art, where it has ever lain ; for in all its manifestations, whether as architecture, painting, sculpture, drama, poetry, or ritual, it is the only visible and concrete expression of this mystical power in man which is greater than physical force, greater than physical mind, whether with M. Bergson we call it intuition or with Christian philosophers we call it the immortal soul.
And as the greatest of modem philosophers has curbed the intellectualism of the nineteenth century, setting metes and bounds to the province of the mind, so he indicates again the great spiritual domain into which man penetrates by his divine nature, that domain revealed to Plato and Plotinus, to Hugh of St. Victor and St. Bernard and Sr. Thomas Aquinas. As Browning wrote, "A man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what is a heaven for," and so, as man himself, transcending the limitations of his intellect, reaches out from the world of phenomena to that of the noumenon, as he forsakes the accidents to lay hold on the substance, he finds to his wonder and amazement the possibility of achievement, or at least of approximation, and simultaneously the overwhelming necessity for self-expression. He has entered into a consciousness that is above consciousness; words and mental concepts fail, fall short, misrepresent, for again, as M. Bergson says, "The intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life," and it is life itself he now sees face to face, not the inertia of material things, and it is here that art in all its varied forms enters in as a more mobile and adequate form of self-expression, since it is, in its highest estate, the symbolic expression of otherwise inexpressible ideas.
Through art, then, we come to the revelation of the highest that man has achieved ; not in conduct, not in mentality, not in his contest with the forces of nature, but in the things that rank even higher than these — in spiritual emancipation and an apprehension of the absolute, the unconditioned. The most perfect plexus of perfected arts the world has ever known was such a cathedral as Chartres, before its choir was defiled by the noxious horrors of the eighteenth century; when its gray walls were hung with storied tapestries, its dim vaults echoed to solemn Gregorians instead of operatic futilities, and the splendid and dramatic ceremonial of medieval Catholicism made visible the poignant religion of a Christian people. And in this amazing revelation of consummate art, music was more than "a concord of sweet sounds," painting and sculpture more than the counterfeit presentment of defective nature, architecture more than ingenious masonry. Through these, and all the other assembled arts, radiated, like the coloured fires through the jewelled windows, awe, wonder, and worship, of men who had seen some faint adumbration of the Beatific Vision, and who "called aloud to their fellows, in the universal language of art, the glad tidings of great joy that, by art, man might achieve, and through art he might reveal.
Now if art is, indeed, all this, — and the proof lies clear in itself,— then its place in liberal education becomes manifest and its claims incontestable. If education is the eduction of all that is best in man, the making possible the realization of all his potentialities, the building-up of personality through the dynamic force of the assembled achievements of the human race throughout history, and all toward the end of perfecting sane and righteous and honourable character, then must you make art, so under-stood and so taught, as integral a part of your curriculum as natural science, or mathematics, or biology. Not in dynastic mutations, not in the red records of war, not in economic vacillations, or in mechanical achievements, lies the revelation of man in his highest and noblest estate, but in those spiritual adventures, those strivings after the unattainable, those emancipations of the human soul from the hindrance of the material form, which mark the highest points of his rise, presage his final victory, and are recorded and revealed in the art which is their voicing.
The Venus of Melos, "Antigone," Aya Sophia, Gregorian music, Latin hymnology, the "Divina Commedia," Giotto's Arena Chapel, Chartres, Westminster Abbey, "Hamlet," Goethe's "Faust," "Parsifal," "Abt Vogler" — all great art, and as great art beyond price; but greater, more significant by far as living indications of what man may be when he plays his full part in God's cosmogony.
Where is art taught in this sense and to this end? I confess I do not know. Indeed, I find in many places laboratories of art industry where, after one fashion or another, ambitious youth — and not always well advised — is shown how to spread paint on canvas; how to pat mud into some quaint resemblance to human and zoological forms; how to produce the voice in singing; how to manipulate the fingers in uneven contest with ingenious musical instruments ; how to assemble lines and 'washes on Whatman paper so that an alien mason may translate them, with as little violence as possible, into terms of brick and stone — or plaster and papier mâché. And I find names, dates, sequences of artists taught from textbooks, and sources and influences taught from fertile imaginations, together with erudite schemes and plots of authorship and attribution; but where shall we find the philosophy, the rationale of art, inculcated as an elemental portion of the history of man and of his civilization ?
Categories, always categories ; and we con-fuse them to our own undoing. There have been historians who have compiled histories with no knowledge of art and with scant reference to its existence; there have been artists who have taught art with no knowledge of history and with some degree of contempt for its pretensions ; yet the two are one, and neither — from an educational standpoint - is intelligible without the other. It is through Homer and Æschylus that we understand Hellas; through Aya Sophia that we understand Byzantium; through Gothic art that we know .mediævalism; through St. Peter's and Guido Reni that the goal of the Renaissance is revealed to us. And so, on the other hand, what, for example, is the art of the Middle Ages if we know nothing of the burgeoning life that burst into this splendid flowering? What are the cathedral builders to us, and the myriad artists allied with them, when severed from monasticism, the Catholic revival, the crusades, feudalism, the guilds and communes, the sacramental philosophy of Hugh of St. Victor, and the scholastic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas ? We build our little categorical box-stalls and herd history in one, art in another, religion in a third, philosophy in a fourth, and so on, until we have built a labyrinth of little cells, hermetically sealed and securely insulated, and then we wonder that our own civilization is of the same sort, and that over us hangs the threat of an ultimate bursting forth of imprisoned and antagonistic forces, with chaos and anarchy as the predicted end.
Again we approach one of those great moments of readjustment when much that has been perishes, and much that was not, comes into being. For five centuries the tendencies set in motion by the Renaissance have had full sway, and as the great epoch of mediævalism ended at last in a decadence that was inevitable, so is it with our era, called of Enlightenment, the essence of which was analysis as the essence of that was synthesis. As mediævalism was centripetal, so is modernism centrifugal, and disintegration follows on, faster and ever faster. Even now, however, the falling wave meets in its plunge and foam the rising wave that bears on its smooth and potent surge the promise and potency of a new epoch, nobler than the last, and again synthetic, creative, centripetal.
No longer is it possible for us to sever being into its component parts and look for life in each moiety; for us, and for our successors, the building-up of a new synthesis, the new vision of life as a whole, where no more are we interested in isolating religion, politics, education, industry, art, like so many curious fever germs, but where once more we realize that the potency of each lies, not in its own distinctive characteristics, but in the interplay of all.
And with this vision we return to the consciousness that all great art is a light to lighten the darkness of mere activity, that at the same time it achieves and reveals. So, as art shows forth man's transfiguration, does it also serve as a gloss on his' actions, revealing that which was hid, illuminating that which was obscure
So estimated and so inculcated, art becomes, not an accessory, but an essential, and as such it must be made an integral portion of every scheme of higher education. A college can well do without a school of architecture, or music, or painting, or drama, and the world will perhaps be none the poorer; but it cannot do without the best of every art in its material form, and in the cultural influences it brings to bear upon those committed to its charge, nor can it play its full part in their training and the development of their character unless out of the history of art it builds a philosophy of art that is not for the embellishment of the specialist but for all.
"Man is the measure of all things," said Protagoras, and with equal truth we can say : Art is the measure of man.