Art - Its Progress On What Dependent
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
On what then are the arts in each country, and of each kind, mainly dependent for their growth and advancement in the nation where they have been planted, and for rising out of their pristine infantine condition to one of importance and excellence; and what are the main propelling causes of their progress ?
The progress of the arts in every country is mainly dependent on three principal and leading causes :-1. The condition as regards refinement and civilization of the nation in which they are cultivated. 2. The intellectual character and genius of that particular people. 3. The intercourse of that nation with other countries in which these arts are in a more advanced state.
The rise and progress of each of the arts in every nation are dependent not only on its intellectual condition, but also on its social and moral state, the prevalence of freedom among its members, and the general tone of feeling which animates the people. As regards painting and eloquence, two arts which are very dissimilar in their nature and characteristics, their advancement and development in every country are very similar in many respects, and corresponding causes influence each of them. These arts, as also poetry, music, architecture, costume, dramatic acting, and gardening, receive their peculiar original character from the genius of the people among which they spring. The quality of the music and the poetry in use influences by turns these arts, and also eloquence ; and indirectly too, perhaps, all the other arts. The manners of the people are moreover influenced by art, and art in turn is influenced by manners. In the early history of each nation, indeed, the state of the arts and the mental condition and manners and habits of the people strikingly correspond.
Each of the arts influences, and controls, and directs the others in their progress, and also affects their condition when arrived at maturity ; and science and learning have both aided and influenced each art. Poetry has raised and advanced painting and sculpture ; and these two latter arts have been often assisted by their power of embodying the ideas originated by the former. Music has befriended poetry, not only as an accompaniment to compositions in that art, but by directing the appropriate and harmonious composition of the stanzas into which the poetic lines are formed. Architecture has also aided painting and sculpture, by affording opportunities for their display; and they have encouraged it in return, by requiring suitable edifices to contain works of art in their own particular department. In a corresponding manner, architecture and music have aided and encouraged one another.
Poetry and eloquence are of course extensively and directly influenced, perhaps more so than any other of the arts, by the character and peculiar turn of the genius of the nation in which they originate or are cultivated. All ages and all nations bear testimony to the truth of this fact. Possibly, indeed, the other arts may be equally subject to this influence, although they do not equally evince it.
The authority of a great genius may have immense influence over art of each kind, either for good or for evil. His excellences may excite admiration, and induce many to strive to emulate him. On the other hand, as the possession of extra-ordinary merits is very often accompanied by extraordinary defects, he may also be the means of inculcating error on certain points with equal authority and effect, and may render attractive what ought to be condemned. His failings and his virtues may be confounded together, and both alike will be blindly imitated by his undistinguishing admirers. Nay, even his gravest faults may be copied by some as an essential part of his excellence.
But there are many other studies and pursuits in every age and nation besides those of an artistical nature, which have an important and immediate influence upon art. Thus in our own country and time, the predominance of the cultivation of science has an overwhelming effect, not only as regards the progress of art, but as regards the peculiarity of its character. Hence, in modern days, while design is far more correct, the imagination is much less vigorous and less free than it was in the earlier periods of society. Religion too, in all ages, and whether Pagan or Christian, has had an important influence upon art. In some respects it has retarded, in others promoted its progress. Paganism retarded it by debasing it as regards the grossness of the representations of that period. Christianity has retarded it by its dread of art ministering to idolatry and superstition. Paganism encouraged the arts by the numerous subjects of representation which it afforded. Christianity has advanced them, not only by giving encouragement to great efforts in art, but by elevating and ennobling them. This is the case both as regards individual artists and nations distinguished for their cultivation of art. The influence both of art and philosophy as regards their effect on the mind of a nation, and the mind of a nation upon them is reciprocal. These pursuits direct and control in an important manner the tastes and feelings and opinions of the people ; and the tastes and feelings and opinions of the people influence and modulate them. In most instances, indeed, the condition of art and philosophy is generated by the state of the public mind, and springs mainly from this source ; although, in turn, it influences the popular sentiment. Legislation, too, is more often influenced by the condition of public feeling and the character of a nation than it influences them. The character of the national mind is reflected by the condition of these pursuits, which seek to lead what in reality they only follow. Thus the state of the arts is the surest indication of that of a country, and of its peculiar character and circumstances at particular periods, more especially as regards its intellectual and moral state. The feelings and opinions and tastes of the people, and their habits and tone of thought, are shadowed forth, as it were, in their artistical productions, with the utmost clearness and precision.
Moreover, as art of each kind appeals to mankind at large, and not to artists alone, so mankind generally should be the supporters and the critics of works of art ; and as art improves the national taste, so the national taste should tend to the sup-port of art. Civilization and art are essential to each other, and should contribute all they can to advance one another.
It is interesting also to observe how intimately the rise and progress of the arts in any particular nation correspond with their rise and progress in the mind of an individual, the same causes and influences producing the same effects ; and the same stages and degrees and modes of development in each case following one another.
Perhaps, it is hardly correct to say that certain countries and certain climates are so unfavourable to art of any kind, that it can never be produced there; inasmuch as the actual production of art depends solely on the constitution of the mind of the producer, in which exists the germ of such art. Nevertheless, I believe that certain countries and certain climates (like certain soils with reference to certain plants) are so entirely inimical to the growth and development of art, that al-though it may be produced there, it can never extensively flourish or attain maturity. Finding nothing in which it can take root, it speedily perishes for lack of nourishment, or is nipped at once by the cold blasts of neglect and discouragement. The influence of climate and natural productions, the character of the country and its inhabitants, and the state of manners and general customs in any particular nation, appear to me, nevertheless, to extend merely to develope and bias the turn and character of art when it has been once invented, and not to be able actually to produce art, the germ of which is to be found only in the mind of the artist. Particular soils cannot generate seeds, to however large an extent they may influence the growth and development of seeds that are already there existent. Upon art in general climate must, nevertheless, exercise an important influence, although, perhaps, mainly in an indirect mode. But upon architecture, as also upon costume, its influence must not only be great but direct as well.
The arts are, moreover, influenced both by religion and the form of government established in a nation, not only as regards their rise or their retrogression, but also in respect to the particular character and qualities which they display ; just as a river flowing through a country is not merely affected as regards the rapidity of its stream by the undulations and declivities of the land, but its appearance is varied by the nature of the soil, the rocks that are scattered in its channel, the trees that grow upon its banks, and the colour of the earth that forms its bed by which its waters are tinctured.
A change of religion may also, according to circumstances, have a very deleterious immediate, though possibly not an ultimately injurious effect upon art, so far as it tends to the disuse or destruction of many ornamental buildings and artistical works which become not only of no service but obnoxious, while it contributes to produce or call forth nothing of this kind to supply their place although after a while this new turning of the soil may cause fresh and vigorous plants to spring up, in beauty and value far exceeding those which they have superseded.
In Greece the arts arose, and for the most part proceeded in their natural growth according to the general progress in refinement and civilization of the people, unaffected to any great extent by the influence of foreign countries as regarded the condition among them of the pursuits, which were not so forward there as in Greece. In Rome, on the other hand, although they also progressed in the same gradual manner, and were much influenced by the state of the nation ; yet their advancement was mainly dependent upon, and regulated by the condition of the arts in other countries, from which artists occasionally visited Rome, as was particularly the case with those of Greece, whose works were brought to Rome, and thus afforded examples to the artists of that great city. In England the progress of art has been more or less influenced by both these causes, being in part dependent upon the growth of refinement and civilization effected by the nation, and in part on the communication we have held with foreign artists and works of art.
Perhaps Greece affords the fairest example of the natural rise and progress of the arts from their original condition to a state of excellence, directed only by the genius of the people; and of the improvement which these arts gain by continual cultivation, uninfluenced by foreign aid or intercourse. But even here, at least during their early stages, Egypt is supposed to have assisted in their progress, although probably it did more as regards the communication of mechanical skill than of taste and genius, as the arts in that country were far more remark-able for the exhibition of the former than of the latter. In Greece they were ere long carried to such a degree of perfection, as to be independent altogether of external influence for urging them on, that illustrious people having far outstripped all their contemporaries in this glorious career.
In Greece, however, as in other countries, art was extensively affected by the various occupations and studies unconnected with it which were followed by the people, in addition to the influence which each particular art exercises on the other branches of this pursuit. Phidias the sculptor owed much both to the philosophy of Plato, and to the poetry of Homer ; the one directed his taste, while the other inspired his genius. Greek artists were men of high cultivation of mind, as well as of deep knowledge of their art. So exalted was the soul of Phidias that he is said to have represented gods better than men.
Of the exquisite nature of pictorial performances in Grecian art, we can only now judge from the designs on the vases which have been transmitted to us from those times. And we may infer, yet further, how supreme that excellence was, from the corresponding excellence in their sculptural efforts.
Opportunities for the study of nature, such as those which were possessed by the Greeks, in the constant view of the human figure, must of course have much aided the progress of painting and sculpture ; and where the human form was found in such perfection and grace as it displayed there, the study of correctness and beauty was inculcated not only by the precepts of arts, but by the example of nature. The gymnastic exercises so frequent in ancient Greece, not merely afforded constant opportunities of seeing the naked form, of seeing it in activity when the muscles were brought into full play, and of observing the most athletic and perfect forms, which were engaged on such occasions,—but this very exercise contributed more than anything else could do to the full and perfect development of those forms.
Of all the arts, eloquence may appear to be most dependent upon the condition of the feelings and tastes of the people among which it is cultivated. As is the case with their coin-age, so must it be with their language ; the greater the wants and the more advanced the condition of civilization, the greater will be the variety and complexity of their terms. Where but few ideas have to be expressed, the simplest language is sufficient; and where only common barter or traffic is carried on, very little variety of coinage is required. As each capacity of the mind developes itself, and is brought into use, fresh coinage for its ideas are needed; and as commerce advances in a nation, a new species of monetary circulation becomes requisite to represent the value of the various commodities availed of.
In considering the various and complicated influences which affect the progress of art of each kind, we must be careful, however, not to omit wholly from the calculation all reference to those which operate to retard or corrupt it, such as the ignorance or coarseness of the people among whom it is cultivated, their exclusive attention to objects of science or commerce, and the like, to which I shall presently advert. But, notwithstanding all this, the arts sometimes flourish and even rise under circumstances apparently very inimical to their growth, and plant their roots in substances which appeared to offer an insurmountable obstacle to their progress. Thus, war and religious dissensions are deemed peculiarly inimical to their advancement. Yet the opportunities for recording the triumphs of the former, and the zeal to display events connected with the latter, have produced some of the noblest and most important efforts in painting, sculpture, and poetry, and afforded opportunities for the most liberal patronage to these arts.
War is deemed inimical to civilization, especially to the arts, in a variety of ways, particularly as the excitement which it occasions prevents attention to them, and the mind of the nation is diverted to pursuits connected with martial science. When peace reigns, the arts of peace reign with it, and are re-sorted to almost necessarily by the ambitious and ingenious as the surest means of achieving renown and glory.
Commerce in early times was highly favourable to the progress of art, as it established a communication between different nations, caused the people of comparatively barbarous countries to become acquainted with the productions of those in a more advanced state, and also induced their artists to visit them. On the other hand, in our day, and when art has attained to its present condition, commerce has been deemed inimical to it, as tending to divert the attention of the nation from artistical and intellectual to sordid pursuits.
All the arts alike are prone to borrow somewhat occasionally from the people of the countries with whom the particular nation where they are followed comes in contact. Thus, both the painting and architecture, and also the poetry and eloquence, or style of language of each people owe more or less to those of the nations with whom it holds intercourse. We have adopted as many principles of painting and architecture, as we have borrowed terms of speech from the Greeks and Romans, various other influences are also to be considered here in each country, as materially affecting art and. progress in civilization generally, We may refer to the changes which occasionally take place in the national character and feeling, whether caused by conquests over the original inhabitants and the introduction of new blood, or by intercourse with other nations merely; and whether these changes were mainly intellectual or moral, in taste, in tone of thought, or in each of these respects. In our own country the successive invasions, whether by Romans, Saxons, Danes, or Normans, the different wars and revolutions, civil as well as foreign, and religious as well as political, which we have passed through, are severally to be regarded as of more or less influence in this respect.
In the empire of art, as well as in political empires, tyranny and arbitrary power may exercise their sway, and with corresponding results. In the former, freedom of thought and action may be suppressed by undue regard to authority, and servitude may be imposed and continued by the exaction of a blind reverence to certain prescribed rules. As revolutions in Governments may sometimes be favourable to liberty, and to the development of the spirit of the people; so revolutions in art may occasionally tend to originality of conception, and to the exhibition of genius. The tyranny of ex-ample may thus be thrown off, and the gifted artist may find him-self liberated from a servile following of those to whom he has been taught to look up not only with respect, but with adoration, and whom he has been in the habit not merely of intensely ad-miring, but of blindly imitating. On the other hand, in art as in. States, the effect of revolution may be to destroy the valuable institutions which it found existing, without making any adequate compensation by the substitution of others of a superior character. It is always easier to break down than to build up, to abolish old dynasties than to establish new ones.
It has sometimes been doubted whether the contemplation and the study of the works of the great masters, especially when seen in a grand constellation together, as at Rome, in the place of illumining the path of the youthful student, or serving as a beacon to direct him onward to the goal at which he is aiming,—have not by their stupendous glory tended to dazzle his eyes, and to perplex rather than direct his course. Instead of being induced to emulation, he becomes lost in admiration. Among so many different great examples, he is in doubt which to select. The distance between himself and his object appears moreover so stupendous,—so vast a gulf is fixed between them—that all hope of arriving at the desired haven is utterly extinguished.
Perhaps, indeed, the works of those of great and original genius, such as Michael Angelo and Shakespeare, are adapted rather to excite suggestions in the mind, than to serve as examples, or as subjects for mere imitation. Hence, the more original the mind of him who studies them, the better capacitated will he be to derive advantage from them.
One reason given for the Egyptians and Chinese making no advancement in the arts of painting and sculpture beyond the rude efforts which they early attained, is that instead of studying nature, and deducing principles of design and taste from her, they were content only to copy what their predecessors had done, to repeat what others had already effected, and to work after the traditionary recipes which were transmitted from one generation to another, without any solicitude after perfection or improvement beyond what was afforded by the purity or beauty of the mere materials. To some extent, perhaps, in all ages, and even in our own day, the same spirit has influenced and retarded the progress of art.
The study of the works of the great masters, whether in painting, sculpture, poetry, eloquence, music, or architecture, is productive of two opposite results. It raises the mind by infusing into it a portion of the grandeur and beauty and sublimity with which they are endowed; it debases the mind by exacting a servile imitation on account of the indiscriminate adoration paid to these works. Deference to authority, which always more or less implies a surrender of one's own judgment, may be beneficial or prejudicial to art ac-cording to circumstances. Even deference to the highest authority, as to the great masterpieces of ancient art, if blindly rendered, may be injurious, nay even fatal to the true interests and advancement of art. It may check all progress, by destroying all hope of rivalling what appears to be so far beyond the power of the aspirant to equal. Where the authority is erroneous, it may not only mislead, but mislead us blindfold.
As every great genius, in whatever art, more or less influences the age in which he lives, so every great genius is more or less influenced by that age, and in various ways. He also influences and is influenced by his contemporaries ; his rivals and foes as well as his coadjutors and friends. The proneness to imitation, which is one of the earliest dispositions that developes itself, continues. at work through life, and ever exerts itself with unabated vigour. And this induces men to imitate not only the excellences, but the defects and all the peculiarities of those about them. The faculties of reason and taste require to be exerted in order to correct and direct the application of the imitative powers. Thus, the observation of the efforts of others, which may be most injurious if servilely followed, if availed of, which is their only true legitimate use, as hints or suggestions for our own genius to select from, is of incalculable value.
How many different influences contributed to form the style of each great follower of art of either kind, it would be difficult to determine ; although, in the works of many eminent artists, we may distinctly trace in their manner and mode of composition the effect of the various models they studied, whether contemporaries or predecessors. The success to an extraordinary extent of one man in any branch of art, produces at once a host of imitators, and stimulates many to follow in his course.
The influence of the particular scenery of each country on the artistic mind of the nation, deserves also here to be considered. Possibly, indeed, the effect of scenery either of a grand or a beautiful character, on the minds of those who are born and bred amidst its glories, may be of an opposite tendency to that on which we should naturally calculate, inasmuch as such persons have no opportunity in after life, when their powers are fully developed, of being enchanted or astonished by prospects superior to those which they may have already contemplated. We should all of us probably be much more struck by many of the appearances of nature were, they not so common; and indeed, the sights which most affect us do so not so much on account of their grandeur or their beauty as their rarity. Astonishment is one of the essential elements of grandeur and sublimity, as I shall hereafter endeavour to point out ; consequently, objects, however noble, which are quite familiar to us, fail to excite us in this manner. Thus the Swiss and the Welsh are not as nations peculiarly distinguished for producing either painters or poets. Nature, indeed, seems to have afforded a sort of compensation to those districts which are wanting in natural picturesque objects, by giving them men of genius who may supply her deficiencies as regards the influence of such scenes on the national mind.
Scenery of different kinds, however powerful may be its influence in developing talent, cannot certainly do anything to create it. It may stimulate imaginative power, or tend to call forth the display of taste ; but it cannot possibly originate any faculty of this nature. Moreover, influences of the class now under consideration, which mightily affect one man, may be powerless to move another; according to the peculiar constitution of each, as regards his genius and capacity, will be his susceptibility of impression by particular prospects. The influence on the taste and feelings produced by the scenery in which a person was born and brought up, may, however, have an important and permanent effect as regards the predilections that it causes, and the bias that it gives to the mind.
The transplanting of any particular art from the country in which it was produced to a foreign clime, must be in many ways disadvantageous to its progress ; indeed, many of the arts when thus treated have to contend at once with numerous obstacles, corresponding with those experienced by a plant removed into a fresh climate and soil. Thus, new tastes and habits of thought, and turn of genius, and religion of a different character are met with, and to these the recently introduced arts have to adapt themselves.
Although the arts in general may be making great progress at any particular period, and even taste itself be correspondingly advancing in its career; yet it does not necessarily follow that each art should be in the same proportion, or to a corresponding extent, progressing. Particular circumstances may, indeed, exist, which, although not interfering with the general rise of art, may be peculiarly pernicious to that of a particular branch of it, as other circumstances may favour one branch, but be inimical to every other ; and these causes may be allied to or spring from either religion, manners and customs, popular opinion, science, or foreign intercourse, or any other of the numerous elements of civilization.