Dangers Of Art
( Originally Published 1913 )
ART can readily be misused, and there are certain dangers even in great art, in-separable from its very nature and the methods it employs. Throughout our discussion the element of sensuous beauty has been emphasized; it is deeply significant, but as a means rather than an end. The appeal of all art is to the senses, but through the senses to the soul. If then the artist forgets the soul and appeals only to the senses, the danger is that the sensuous may pass over into the sensual, art degenerating into a mere pandering to the caprices of the sense life. Symonds recognized this in a pregnant passage in his discussion of the Italian renaissance :
"On the very threshold of the matter I am bound to affirm my conviction that the spiritual purists of all ages葉he Jews, the iconoclasts of Byzantium, Savonarola, and our Puritan ancestors謡ere justified in their mistrust of plastic art. The spirit of Christianity and the spirit of figurative art are op-posed, not because such art is immoral, but because it cannot free itself from sensuous associations."
The only fault here is in limiting the statement to plastic art, but the danger is clearly evident there. It is possible to make of a painting a mere debauch of color, of a partially draped statue, a wholly sensual appeal. Goethe has given a most illuminating study of the problem in the Witches' Kitchen scene in Faust. The Vision in the Mirror, beheld by Faust, is the representation of what Goethe regards as the most beautiful form in nature 葉he ideal woman body and face. It appears in the Witches' Kitchen because it is the sublimation of that of which the apish mummery of the scene is the degeneration, art appealing only through the medium of the senses to the soul. Faust can see the Vision only as he stands reverently away from the mirror; when he steps forward and attempts to grasp the form, the Vision fades. The same truth is expressed in a frank saying often heard in the Paris studios : "If you want to be an artist, you must hang up your passions with your hat and coat before you enter the studio." That is, if you want to be an artist, you must have such impersonal reverence for beauty for its own sake as to inhibit the desire for egoistic possession. Thus the purity of a statue, or of the figures of a painting, is not a question of drapery, but of the purity of the artist's mind. It is just here that the discussion of the nude in art has gone wrong. A partially draped figure may be far more sensually seductive than one entirely nude, as purveyors of vice well understand. There are two kinds of prudery葉he one of vice, and the other of ignorance; and the latter is only less harmful than the former. It is the prudery of ignorance, rampant in mediocrity, that mutilates the classic statues of a museum, excludes Longfellow's Building of the Ship from the public schools of a great city, closes the doors of the theater to Bernard Shaw's Widowers' Houses, while opening them wide to salacious vaudeville, and sends a "breeches-painter" up to deface the figures in Michael Angelo's Last Judgment. A pure-minded artist cannot make an unchaste statue, a sensually degraded artist cannot carve a pure one.
What is true of the artist is true, only in lesser measure, of the student. His mind must be clean; he, too, must have impersonal reverence for beauty, to respond aright to art, other-wise he may take a mere swinish pleasure in even noble productions. These dangers are, however, only the inevitable corollary of the peculiar greatness of sculpture and painting 葉he power to appeal directly to the physical vision, and through this to bring home conceptions to the imagination and the intellect with a concrete effectiveness unequaled in other types of art.
Like sculpture and painting, music makes its appeal to the soul only through the medium of the senses, and like them it may forget the soul and appeal only to the sense, in which case it degenerates. There is a type of merely sensuous music that is not much above the plane of the beer drinking and gormandizing to which it is often subordinated. Do not mis-understand me : sensuous pleasure, in right relation, is itself worth while ; properly con-trolled beer drinking may be a sound relaxation; still, music on that plane is scarcely the highest art, and indulged in to excess may intoxicate like the beer.
Even music that is sound and true art involves a special danger, owing to the fact that it appeals so powerfully to the emotions. Emotion is the energy of life; the function of reason is regulative among desires, giving direction and control. Emotion is steam in the boiler of life that sends the engine over the road of progress; reason is the controlling engineer with his hand upon the throttle. No matter how well-trained the engineer and how perfect the machinery, if there is no steam in the boiler the engine goes nowhere. Thus no man ever accomplished anything who did not love something, hate something or desire something. On the other hand, uncontrolled emotion means a wild riot of loosened energies, as a runaway locomotive goes to smash.
Music constantly stimulates and refines the emotional sensibility, and this is good or bad according as it is, or is not, balanced by strong self-direction and self-control. Where there is this strong directive center of character, the greater the emotional sensitiveness, the wider and deeper is the response to nature and life. Where that center is wanting, the refining of the sensibilities makes one an Aeolian harp, vibrating to every wind of beauty and breath of desire, until in the end one becomes a bundle of jaded nerves, giving no longer music but discord in response to the appeal of life. Consider the fate of that strangely gifted poet who wrote :
"To drift with every passion till my soul
The sonnet beginning with these lines reads like the cry of a lost soul様ost, if the statement be personal, because emotion was developed without reason, and sensitiveness was re-fined without balancing self-control.
This form of degeneration comes only in the most highly developed civilization. Art is not to blame for it, but the wrong use of any one of the arts may lead to it; while, for the reasons given, the danger is more subtle in music than elsewhere. It finds occasional pathetic illustration in the lives of musicians of a certain type. Great execution in music is creation; but below that plane a high degree of good execution is possible through technical skill combined with sensitive receptivity. In such a case the musician may lend himself, as a fine instrument, to the genius of the composer, so that the music is recreated through the artist executing. The result is a continual refining of the sensuous and emotional life, and, where the personality is of the receptive type indicated, unless there is a balancing cultivation of strong self-direction, grave danger is present of a subtle but terrible form of moral deterioration. Instances of it are too numerous to require specific mention.
The same truth holds for the one who appreciates. He, too, needs to balance the sensuous and emotional appeal of music by deliberately cultivating self-control and by seeking opportunities for vigorous, self-expressive action. It is well, also, to choose with some care one's companions in hearing even great music ; for the effect of it is to render one, for the time being, more sensitive to any emotional appeal, whether for good or evil. Instances can be given of those who have gone down as a result, indirectly, of the sensuous and emotional intoxication produced by Wagner operas; but the blame is not upon Wagner or his music. These dangers, however, are but the inevitable corollary of the supreme power music possesses 葉he power to appeal through the sense of hearing to the emotional life, and to sweep one on to the sea of feeling as can no other art.
Like the other arts, poetry, too, has the dangers correlative to its functions. Since the sensuous appeal to the eye is less direct than in sculpture and painting, and to the ear less powerful than in music, there is not so much danger of appealing only to the senses in poetry. This happens, however, as in the merely sensuous beauty of certain poems of Oscar Wilde and Paul Verlaine. The vicious effect here is not so great as in the other arts; but just because poetry has more complex relation to the human spirit, and goes further in the interpretation of life, it involves deeper dangers. Literature may pander to decadent taste in lyric, drama or novel; it may dress vice in attractive garments so that it becomes dangerously seductive; it may portray diseased phases of life out of sound relation to the whole. Thus upon the whole personality, including both the emotions and the intellect, the vicious effect may be produced.
Even when literature is itself sane, it may still be misused. It is possible to shed so many tears over the imaginary characters of the drama or novel that one's eyes are dry toward the same tragedy in the street behind us or the house next door. The need is always to return from the symbol of art to the life symbolized; then only does art become a doorway to the deeper appreciation of life. Here, as with the other arts, the danger is merely the other side of the supreme power of the art in expressing and interpreting life.