The Unity Of The Arts
( Originally Published 1913 )
IN striving to see clearly the specific function of each of the arts, we must beware of forgetting that the human spirit is, after all, a unity, and therefore every expression of it is a unity. Thus whatever element may be dominant in a work of art, the appeal is to the whole human spirit, so that what is explicit and definite in one type of art will be found to be implicit and subordinate in the contrasting type. In sculpture and painting we have found the conceptions given, the emotions associated by the observer; in music, the direct appeal is to the emotions, while the intellectual reflections are associated by the hearer; in poetry, both conceptions and emotions are ex-pressed in harmony. In the spatial arts, form is statical and relatively permanent; in music, the sound forms are given in a dynamic and evanescent series; in poetry, the forms occur in a dynamic but permanent series. All the arts give sensuous pleasure: in sculpture and painting this is through the physical vision ; in music, by the sense of hearing; poetry appeals to both sight and hearing, but less immediately, and, with vision at least, only through the imagination. All the arts give aesthetic satisfaction and from the same cause—the adequate and harmonious expression, in different ways, of the spiritual content in appropriate form.
Thus the same elements are present in some measure in all the arts. Form in sculpture and painting is represented in music by rhythm and harmony, in poetry, by the meter, the stanza-form and the organization of thought. Color in the spatial arts may be compared to melody and timbre in music, to modulations of the voice, accent, rhyme and the melody of words in poetry. Such comparisons are seductive and may easily be carried too far—to the point of obscuring the unique function of each art. They help us to see, however, that while each art fulfills its own function, unequaled by any other, there is great unity among the arts, and all alike appeal to the whole spirit of man.
There is deep significance in the fact that all the arts are alike expressions of the human spirit. Plato, toward the close of the Republic, in one of those errors, as illuminating as his insights, argues that art is but "an imitation of an imitation." The abstract idea, he holds, is the reality. The form in nature is but an imperfect copy of this; while the artist's imitation of nature is doubly removed from reality. So Homer and similar artists, Plato holds, apparently with some reluctance, must be excluded from the ideal state. Sound enough the view is if art be merely imitation; but how if we recognize it to be creative expression through which alone the idea can be realized? The intellect must strive for abstract conceptions, in the effort to discover the unifying type behind the individuals given in nature; but the abstract concept is barren until it is given creative expression in some concrete form. We strive to go beyond men and arrive at the abstract conception, man; but this idea is vitally realized only when it is incarnated in a Faust, a Hamlet or an Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Plato's own artistic portrayal of the one good man, Socrates, in the Apology, Crito and Phaedo, is vastly more effective than his relatively barren "pure idea of the Good." So Goethe's Helena means far more than any abstract conception of beauty; Browning's Caponsacchi, than any idea of manhood; the women of Shakespeare, than any theoretic ideal of womanhood. There is a fundamental quarrel here between the metaphysicians and the artists : the one seeking truth in intellectual abstractions from life, the other striving to attain it in creative expression in living form. I am with the artists in this conflict. The only road to the infinite is the finite; the ideal is real only when the effort is made to express it in some concrete action. Thus the glory of art is that it is not imitation, but creative expression in concrete form, through which alone great ideals and conceptions can be achieved for the mind and spirit of man. The paradox is that Plato—the poet among philosophers—fulfills in the Dialogues the very function of the art he discredits and fails to understand, in that he presents truth in the form and color of life, from the view-points of the minds beholding it.
The unity of the arts is evident, not only in the elements common to them all, but in the way they can be combined into composite arts, more complex in appeal. Let it be noted that, wherever such combination occurs, each art must concede something, now one sacrificing more, now another. Song is an excellent ex-ample of composite art, where music and poetry are united in a new appeal. Usually poetry makes the sacrifice in current singing, for the words are so mumbled that they might as well be given in a foreign language—as is frequently done. In certain forms of church music, on the other hand, the words are chanted with reasonable clearness, while the music is subordinated.
Where song is at its best, both poetry and music are given so that the ideas of the poem are definitely associated with the series of emotional states aroused by the music. One of the most perfect examples of this composite art is Schulman's wonderful song-cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben, written to the poem of Chamisso. Here the critical moments of the woman's life—the courtship, betrothal, wedding, the child's coming, the separation through death—are taken, beautifully rendered in the poetry, while the interpretation by the music is in simply perfect harmony. Such a composite art goes beyond either of its components in appeal, yet the attention is divided, so that even here each art must sacrifice something of its independent effect. Song, let it be noted, is peculiarly adapted to the purposes of religion, since the emotional appeal of music may put the hearer into an earnestly receptive mood, while the poem or words sung may, at the same time, give definite ethical and religious conceptions.
The acted drama is a still more composite art. Poetry is present in the lines spoken, painting in the scenic background, while sculpture is carried into living action in the poses and movements of the actors. The result is a most absorbing complex appeal. The need of the modern spirit has carried us one step further. The most remarkable of all composite arts is the music drama as developed by Wagner. Here are present all the arts combined in the drama, with music in addition, making the most powerful appeal of all. Thus sculpture, painting, poetry, dramatic action, orchestric dancing and music all unite in this complex art in one manifold appeal to the whole spirit of man.
Perhaps the study we have made may help us to solve a long-continued controversy regarding the music drama. Wagner held that in it poetry and dramatic action constituted the center, while music was associated ; most of his enthusiastic disciples have held, and still hold, that music is the center, with the other arts subordinated to it. Now, chronologically, vague states of feeling precede clear intelligence; but, logically, perception or conception always precedes emotion. Dante and Spinoza were right in alike holding this. Definitely to love or hate anything, we must first perceive or conceive it. On the other hand, while the emotional "affect" follows the perception or conception, it is far more deeply moving. Thus while poetry and dramatic action are logically prior in the music drama, and therefore central, as Wagner taught, the musical effect is vastly more powerful. This is so true that when one is intimately familiar with a Wagnerian opera, one often prefers to close one's eyes, and hear the music, undistracted by appeals to the vision.
Just because the emotional appeal is the most moving, music generally loses less than the other arts when in combination with them. Does this not mean that, whatever art is central in the combination, music will be dominant? If so, it is not difficult to see what will be possible in "the music of the future," or rather, the composite art of the future. It is certain that each art must sacrifice some-thing when in combination with others, but when music is constantly present, there must probably be a greater subordination of the other arts to music than Wagner thought necessary.
Let me add that the music drama is an interesting illustration of the law of evolution from a homogeneous basis, through differentiation, to unity on a higher plane. Out of the generic basis in a single act of early Greek worship the fine arts have been severally developed, to be brought again into composite union in the music drama—the art peculiarly expressive of the complex needs of modern civilization. There is ample room for all the arts and for all possible combinations of them, in answering the manifold needs of the human spirit.