Defective General Study Of Art
( Originally Published 1869 )
But while we must in some degree attribute the cause of our inferiority in art to the limited education, or the want of general cultivation of our artists, it is but justice that the public at large should in their turn also bear their share of the blame, as the defect to a great extent arises from the limited attention which on their part is ordinarily bestowed upon the arts, and the neglect which they experience as a branch of polite education. Not that it is here meant to be contended that every individual should learn to draw, or to attain mechanical skill in the arts, in which, indeed, a man may be very dexterous, without possessing any information respecting the higher principles by which they are guided; but it does appear most desirable that the true objects and capabilities of art should be generally understood, together with the grand and leading principles by which it is regulated. This alone can adapt any persons to become patrons of works of art.
Those especially who from their position or their acquirements seek to lead the public mind, who stand forth as the supporters of art, or who aim to direct the taste of the nation by their criticisms on works of art, ought necessarily to be endowed with a full knowledge both of the capabilities which it possesses, and of the legitimate ends for which it should be applied.
Such qualifications are also requisite in that very large and influential portion of the higher orders of society, to whose judgment and discretion are committed the weighty task of erecting, or superintending the restoration of different national edifices throughout the country. How prodigiously, from the want of these capacities, have many of our noblest churches and public buildings in every part of the nation been deteriorated of late years 1 Our landscapes have also in many cases suffered grievously from the unsightly edifices by which they have been disfigured,—public buildings too, the cost of which might have afforded the opportunity of erecting structures which would have adorned instead of disgraced the neighbourhood. In many instances, moreover, the more picturesque the locality and the more beautiful the country where these atrocities have been perpetrated, the more outrageous is the violence done to nature,—as in the county gaols at Warwick and Shrewsbury, and the lunatic asylums at Hanwell and Colney Hatch.
The progress and the perfection attained by the arts in each country, and of each kind, will moreover to a large extent correspond with the measure in which the people at large are imebued with a taste for, and admire and enter into these pursuits ;—are influenced by them, and are ardent in their pro-motion. Athens was as much distinguished from ordinary nations by the popularity, as by the perfection of the arts, where they were not only admired, but adored ;—they formed part not merely of the popular recreations, but of the ordinary pursuits of the people.
One great reason why painting and the arts do not produce more extensive effect is, that they are not generally or really understood. Painting is considered as the mere art of imitating visual objects. Pictures are regarded not as striking instructors of the mind, but as ornamental furniture of the mansion.
If taste is a leading faculty of the mind, surely art ought to be made an essential branch of education. And not only one art, but all the arts should be cultivated, and cultivated together, each aiding and improving and extending the study of the other. For this purpose they ought not only to be taught with the other learned pursuits, but at the same institutions ; and, in fact, to be fully useful, as regards their leadeing principles at least, should be blended with them, as well as with each other.
It necessarily follows, too, that the more correct and the more refined is the criticism of the public, the more judicious, and consequently advantageous will be the dispensation of its patronage. Vulgar prejudice is then less likely to influence, or meretricious excellence to pervert it.
One chief reason why among the Greeks, the arts reached the perfection which they there attained, and exercised the influence which they there acquired, was their extensive popularity among, and their cultivation by all ranks and classes. Thus, the whole mind of the nation was brought to bear upon them, as they influenced the whole mind. In return for the refinement which the arts promoted, the intellectual vigour and genius of the people were made to patronize the arts. Their orators and poets, as well as painters and sculptors, were inspirited and encouraged by the consciousness that their excellences were appreciated; and were urged on by the knowledge that their defects would be discovered.
Poetry and music with the Greeks were ever the recreaetions of the great and of the cultivated. Heroic poetry was among the earliest and the most influential of the arts of this class, which was accompanied and set off by music; and of all poetry and music, that of a sacred character produces the greatest effects.
Unless the national taste is improved, we can hardly hope that the arts will rise to any great degree of perfection. The instructors of the public mind will mislead instead of guiding those whom they profess to teach, and will be seduced and led astray by that meretricious ornament and false taste, against which they ought to warn others, and from which they should divert them to the admiration of real excellence.
It cannot be doubted, however, that there is a considerable love for art diffused throughout the nation, especially among the highly educated classes, who evince their pleasure in the contemplation of the masterpieces of art, whether in painting sculpture or architecture, by their thronging to the galleries and collections on the Continent, as well as to those in our own country; and by the care and expense which they scruple not to incur in making and enriching their own collections. But even among these persons, a very limited knowledge only is possessed of the real principles and objects of these last-mentioned arts, although with poetry and music they are tolerably well acquainted. Indeed, from the want of a proper study of the arts of painting and sculpture, more especially, many men of talent know nothing of their capabilities and objects; and such persons form their ideas, or rather inadequate notions of them, from certain paltry performances which they have been in the habit of admiring. It is only when their capacities are known fully to persons of genius and cultivation, and are made a branch of general study, that their real importance will be acknowledged, and that the patronage of the great will be extensively afforded to them.
In the study of works of art of high intellectual merit, although we perceive not their excellence at first, by degrees it becomes developed to our minds. As we improve in our taste, their value becomes apparent to us. The very cultivation which they serve to afford, qualifies us to estimate their worth. It was not any deficiency in these works, but our own deficiency, which prevented us from doing justice to them originally. Our true and ample appreciation of them is the surest proof of our own advancement.
Nevertheless, although the public may not be always fitted to decide upon the most exalted and refined efforts in art, yet of art as a whole they are fully competent judges, more especially as to whether it is true to nature, and rightly appeals to the passions and feelings. They are, to the artistical world what a jury is to a court of justice. They may be ignorant of technicalities, but they are able to form the most correct opinion concerning facts. And as regards the higher qualities of art, those of acknowledged abilities and judgment here will always take the lead, while the suffrages of the public will support their opinion where it is well founded, and may often correct it where it is capricious.
The popularity of Shakespeare and Milton, Raphael and Michael Angelo, Flaxman and Wren, Handel and Garrick, and the universal homage paid to them, are as satisfactory testimonials to their real merit, as is the opinion of the critics, of the learned and men of genius. And if it be said that the public estimate only lower and commonplace attractions, and do not appreciate higher excellences; it should be borne in mind that many of the most popular of the great works alluded to, are deficient in commonplace vulgar merit, and are distinguished mainly by their sterling qualities.