The Unique Function Of Each Fine Art
( Originally Published 1913 )
WE have now come to the heart of our study—the effort to define the specific function of each of the fine arts. That each has a distinctive appeal is evident merely in our varying appreciation of them. With most persons, some one art is apt to have a meaning beyond all the others, thus indicating a harmony between the gifts of the student and the specific function of the art preferred. Thus, also, it is rare to find an artist, practising one art, adequately appreciating the others. This is due to the fact that he sees his own art from within, thus realizing its power and scope; while the others he views from without, and thus is apt to see their limitations. Thus the sculptor recognizes the power in his art to appeal directly to the vision, and through the vision to the mind, while he sees how much less effective music or poetry must be in the same field. The musician, as in Browning's Abt Vogler, shows the miracle of his own art, and points the limitations of painting and poetry in contrast.
This tendency is unfortunate, for there is nothing else, except experience, an artist needs so much as to saturate himself in the material of arts other than his own. Other-wise he cannot have breadth of appreciation and the ever-growing grasp of the content of the human spirit, necessary to great creation in any art, and is apt to degenerate into the mere technician or trickster. Every artist must be a man first and an artist afterward, to do great work; and this deep drinking from the fountain sources of other arts helps powerfully to keep him human.
Similarly the student, even though one art appeals supremely to him, needs to respond to them all to attain balanced culture and a full appreciation of the expression of the human spirit. It takes all the arts and all combinations of them to express adequately the life of man. Thus we need to see as clearly as possible the function of each of these arts in relation to the life of man, and to that end must answer three questions:
1. What of the whole content of the human spirit finds expression in the particular art?
2. How and by what means does the specific art accomplish its end?
3. What are its limitations? In other words, where does it terminate? A limitation is always the point at which a power ceases. Thus there is no value in attempting to solve the third question until the other two have been answered. Negative criticism is never of value except after positive appreciation. These are the questions we shall ask, and attempt to answer as thoroughly as possible, in reference to each of the arts under consideration.
That each art has a unique function is proved further by the mere fact of its permanent cultivation across the centuries. If one art could accomplish more easily and effectively all that is done by another, the second art would tend to disappear, or to be cultivated only for the sake of novelty. In-deed, history has seen the rise and practical disappearance of certain arts, once dominant expressions of the spirit.
The art of mosaic work is an admirable example; for in the fifth and sixth centuries it was the main art in which Christian thought found expression. Go to Ravenna, stagnant among its marshes, and visit first the tomb—first cruciform structure in the world, built in the second quarter of the fifth century—of Galla Placidia, that wonderful woman, daughter of one emperor, sister of another and mother of a third, who, after a life of wildest romance, ruled the western world for a quarter of a century. The little building is sunk far below the modern level of the city. You enter and are taken into another world. All round about are wonderful mosaics al-most perfectly preserved, the colors as warm and true as when they were placed upon the walls. On a background of soft, deep blue —like some old Persian tapestry—stand out the stately figures of Christian story, like Greek or Roman gods. There, is a young Apollo of a Christ with the apostles as sheep gathered about him ; here, the grouped disciples with doves drinking at their feet.
Go to the old court church of Theodoric, either side of the noble basilica as well as the end wall covered with mosaics from the sixth century. Down the long nave walls march forever two stately processions of Christian martyrs to their doom and reward. Above, ruder but vigorously expressive scenes, of Theodoric's time, depict with childlike freshness various aspects of the Christian story.
One finds the wealth of mosaic everywhere in Ravenna: in San Vitale, "beautiful as an oriental dream," in the baptistry of the Ari-ans and that of the orthodox, in the great church at the port of Classis—all warmer and more permanent in color, graver and more majestic in spirit, than are perhaps the deco-rations of any other series of temples in the world.
Why, then, has mosaic work sunk to the position of an art cultivated chiefly for purposes of novelty and adornment? The reason is that, excepting the greater permanence of its colors (noted by Ruskin) and the archaic gravity of its religious impressiveness—determined by the very limitations under which the artist labors—all that mosaic can accomplish, as an expressive art, can be done far more easily and effectively by painting. To represent a scene by laboriously piecing together bits of colored glass or stone is a process so painfully difficult, as compared to the free work of brush and colors on wall or canvas, that mosaic work has inevitably lost the position it once held as an independent and, indeed, leading fine art.
Almost identical has been the history of true fresco painting. Every student of Italian painting knows that, from the beginning of the great epoch through the major portion of it, the masters did much of their best work in true fresco, which meant putting the colors on the wall while the plaster was wet. They did, it is true, at times retouch, "a secco"—in dry; but they disliked to use this device because the colors were less permanent than those put on the wet wall. Thus the fresco painter submitted to severe limitations, and what he accomplished within them fills us with amazement. By studying the lines in the plaster we are able to discover how much he achieved in a day. There are spaces of wall, six by four or more feet, painted in a single day by such masters as Andrea del Sarto and Michael Angelo, and never touched again. Marvelous genius, but what a forbidding situation ! The modern master is disinclined to submit to it. He would rather paint on canvas, among the conveniences of his studio, where the lights can be arranged as he chooses and where he can work at his leisure, retouching as he pleases, and then have the finished work attached to the wall it is to decorate. Thus made, it can, moreover, be easily removed if the building is altered or torn down, and the greater permanence of the work is thus assured. If the artist does paint directly upon the wall, he is apt to choose one of the various methods of painting, at greater leisure, on the dry plaster. True fresco painting has thus tended to disappear as an independent fine art, since practically all that it accomplished can be done more easily and effectively by other methods.
In contrast to these arts, Sculpture, Painting, Music and Poetry last. They have been cultivated across all these long centuries, and promise to endure while man cares for beauty. The position they respectively hold may vary widely. Certain of them do not occupy to-day the place once held as dominant expressions of some past civilization. Nevertheless, they all are evidently permanently necessary to the complete expression of the human spirit. This fact alone proves that each of them has some distinctive function, not fulfilled by any other art, in this task of expressing and interpreting the common basis of human life; and what that specific function is, in each instance, it is now our task to discover.