Art For Life's Sake
( Originally Published 1913 )
SINCE art has its own aspects of superiority, as compared with nature, it fulfills its own service for the spirit. Something of the same healing power, exercised by the beauty of nature is in its influence, while it is at least equally exalting, lifting the spirit and stimulating to great action. Art is further a wonderful source of power to see and appreciate the world as it is, and life as it ought to be. When Raphael achieves a Sistine Madonna, it is not merely one more beautiful picture to hang in Dresden gallery, but that an ideal over which ten centuries brooded and prayed is made real for all time, or until the canvas rots and the figures fade from it. So when Shakespeare carves in Pentelic marble the beauty of his Desdemona or shapes the bronze majesty of Cleopatra, or when Dante wakens from the dark fugue of the Inferno the tender melody of his Francesca da Rimini, the result is not merely three more literary paintings for the galleries of the past, but three windows opened into the woman's soul and hence into the life of the human spirit; and to look reverently through these windows is to come back to the every-day world of men and women with deepened power to appreciate the wonder, pathos, comedy, romance, tragedy of common life.
So with our appreciation of nature. Every great landscape painting not only makes its own contribution, but enables us to look out on the world with unsealed eyes. How wonderfully a gallery of sculpture trains us to see the beauty of the forms life molds; how sensitive the music lover becomes to the inarticulate melody of nature; while poetry is forever revealing to us the beauty of common things. The daisy bloomed unnoticed in the grass for uncounted centuries ; it was when Robert Burns called it "Wee, modest, crimson-tippéd flower" that we saw how beautiful it was, and Nye have been talking about it ever since.
Of all the hours of the day or night, perhaps the most moving is that just after the sunset, when the sky lights with red and gold sinking into the gray of the evening, the work of the day is behind and the rest of the night not yet come; when, if we are wise, we pause in our tasks to meditate and dream. That hour has found interpretation everywhere in noble art —in painting, in music, above all in poetry. From pagan Sappho to Byron who, standing on Ravenna's shore beside the pine forest with its flood of memories, paraphrasing Dante and Sappho and uniting the mood of religion with the beauty of the world about him, sings :
"Ave Maria ! blessed be the hour !
Ave Maria! 'tis the hour of prayer!
Oh, Hesperus ! thou bringest all good things
Soft Hour ! which wakes the wish and melts the heart
Who can respond to this, perhaps the most beautiful passage in all Byron, and not find, ever after, deeper beauty in the evening hour and deeper meaning in the meditations it brings?
Equally does art reveal to us the world of ideals. In form and spirit, conduct and character, it portrays concretely types lifted above the world, toward which we must ever aspire. Further, it raises us to the circle and company of the elect. We learn to live in daily communion with the great masters, until Dante and Beethoven, Goethe and Michael Angelo seem closer to us than persons we meet in the street.
Thus supremely for the appreciative student art is for life's sake. Its end is not adornment or didactic teaching, it is not to impress us with technical skill and the mastery of difficulties, it is not to give sensuous pleasure or aesthetic satisfaction; it is for life's sake—that we may possess our heritage, grow in love and wisdom, ever toward the fuller achievement of life.
If this is the end for the appreciative student, how much more so is it for the creative artist. All the phases of the ministry of art he experiences in even higher measure. The healing and exalting influences of beauty are his to the full. If appreciation of beauty clarifies the mind and gives mastery of conceptions, how much more does its creation. If the student is inspired to action, the artist grows in the immediate field of his expression. Each achievement is but the vantage-ground to a new effort, and there is no limit to the possible growth in power to achieve and to appreciate the work of others. When Michael Angelo, taking the seventeen feet of marble injured and rejected by other sculptors, glad as a youth to work with so splendid a piece, la-bored so faithfully that his heroic statue of David issued, faultlessly posed, from the stone, it was not merely one more beautiful statue for the square or hall of Florence; it was that Michael Angelo, through the one achievement, had grown, not only in mastery of his art, but in his power to enter into the work of the Greeks and Romans, and of his Italian contemporaries and predecessors. Further, how the artist's eyes are unsealed to the beauty of the world, his ears set in tune with the music of things. What must he not see of the spec-tack of life and of its ideals, after years of effort to express and interpret its phases.
For every great artist, therefore, art has been a way of life, a means of realizing his own potential humanity. Dante, with life tragically cut off in love and vocation, exiled from the city he loved so well and criticised so harshly, learning all the bitterness of "climbing other people's stairs" and eating the "too salt" bread of patronage, wandering homeless from city to city, settling in the late years at Ravenna—even then stagnant in its marshes be-side the Adriatic Sea—wandering with bent head and slow step under her pine forest, listening to the whisper of God in the music of the moving boughs, and brooding over all that life had failed to give him Dante turns to art and makes of it another way of life, finding, in his own creation of the Divine Comedy, the truth, beauty, love, moral harmony and peace the world had failed to give him.
Michael Angelo, too vast in genius for the age in which he lived, bruised by a succession of artistic tragedies, loving late and knowing the pain of separation through death, lofty and alone, writhing his soul out in Dantesque sonnets—Michael Angelo, through all his struggles and sufferings, found in art to use his own image—the means of shaping from the marble of experience the statue of character.
Beethoven, shadowed, as we have seen, by a somber childhood, saddened by bitter struggles and long-delayed recognition, thwarted in opportunity, cursed at the moment of achievement with the loss of the very sense through which his art could be enjoyed—Beethoven found in the creation of music, even when he could no longer hear it with the outer ear, a way of life through which his own ideal self might be realized.
Goethe said that all his works were but "fragments of a great confession," and recognized that, more than all his poetry, his life was his greatest work of art. Browning, perhaps more fully than any one else, developed in The Ring and the Book the view that the artist, taking the elements of God's world, remolds them into his own world, thus growing up toward that image of God in which he is potentially rather than actually made ; and Browning lived his philosophy. Thus while the lesser men have often dedicated themselves to art, subordinating life to its expressions, the great masters have always found in art a way of life, a means of growing up toward their own ideal of manhood, becoming the men God meant them to be. For them, supremely, art has always been for life's sake.
Must this crowning value of art be reserved for those alone whom the world calls artists? Fortunately not ; for there is one supreme fine art to which all are called—the art of living. There is no aspect of life that cannot be made in some measure fine art. Take the simplest forms of hand labor: it has been the cry of all leaders in the Arts and Crafts movement, from Emerson and Ruskin, through William Morris, to the teachers of our own day, that beauty should not be added to utility after-ward, but identified with it in the making, that there should be no artificial combination of use and beauty, but the useful should be created as art. If that is possible in artisan work, how much more is it in the deepest aspects of life. As there is no honest vocation that cannot be made a fine art, so every aspect of personal relationship is a problem of ever fresh artistic adjustment of one personality to others. If art is, as we have seen, the adequate and harmonious expression and interpretation of some phase of man's life in true relation to the whole, what aspect of life is there that may not be made a fine art?
Thus the service of art to the human spirit is not limited to the few, but is universal for all. Every one may be and ought to be, not only a loving and appreciative student f the fine arts, but a creative artist in the form and color, the melody and harmony of life; and for student and artist alike, art is not for adornment's sake, or preaching's sake, or pleasure's sake, not for the sake of gratifying the senses or exhibiting technical skill, not for art's sake, but for life's sake.