Diseases Of Art At Its Highest Perfection In Art
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
Like the human frame, to the growth and gradual progress of which, and its passage through the various stages of infancy, youth, manhood, and old age, it has been compared; art is liable to a variety of deleterious influences, corresponding in their nature and effects to the diseases in a living body, arising from many different causes, and each being more or less pernicious to its vigour and general well-being.
The diseases of different kinds to which art is liable are, probably, to a large extent correspondent, both as regards their origin, variety, and individual character to those in man; some belonging to the material, others to the immaterial part of its constitution ; some exciting it too vigorously, others paralysing its efforts ; some being peculiar to certain constitutions, others common to all constitutions alike. Of these complaints, moreover, some, like those of infants, attack it during the early period of its career, and perhaps have an influence over its character and frame to the latest stage. Others assail it mainly during youth, some in maturity only, and several in old age.
As some diseases are more pernicious to certain constitutions than to others, so some arts are more peculiarly liable to suffer from certain influences than are other arts. And as some diseases are equally fatal to all frames, so the prevalence of certain influences are the sure precursors of the decay of all the arts alike. Not only, moreover, do the same causes operate in producing the decline of each of the arts, but each operate in the same way, and each, as in the case of an animal frame, by occasioning debility and decay. Thus the tendency to frivolity, to tinsel effect, to exaggeration, to insipidity, to excess of novelty, and each of these in all their varieties with which art of each kind, has to contend at every stage of its career, are but so many diseases with which it is beset, and for each of which fit antidotes may be administered with more or less success, and to some of which reference will here be made. And as in the case of an animal frame, disease originates mainly from some defect or disorder, either in the atmosphere or in the food which is imbibed; so it ordinarily happens in the case of art, that each of these diseases springs from, or is caused by some disorder or defect in the sentiment of the people at that particular period, and the only real and efficient remedy for which is the correction of the taste of the nation, and the establishment of right principles for its guidance.
When art attains such a degree of mechanical excellence as to become ornamental, a danger at once arises that it will be degraded into mere ornament ; and in an age of luxury and refinement, meretricious attractions and tinsel are preferred to the most sterling qualities. As a nation begins to degenerate, and gives tokens of its degeneration, when wealth is prized for itself, not for the high intellectual and moral advantages it is capable of securing; so on the same principle, works of art should be regarded not for themselves, or as mere ornamental furniture, but for the high intellectual and moral uses which they are capable of serving.
Prejudice or fashion occasionally for a time usurp authority over the public mind to such an. extent that nothing which is not conformable to their principles is tolerated as correct, or allowed to be in accordance with good taste. Fashion, indeed, may fairly exercise an influence upon, but ought to have no control over taste or art. In reality, fashion is no more determined by taste than taste is by fashion.
The circumstance that fashions change—by means of which objects of taste that excited admiration at one period are discarded for others which, although inferior, are for a time preferred to them—is consequently no proof that there is no correct standard of public taste; inasmuch as the main cause of fashions changing is not the actual change of the principles of taste, but the love of novelty in mankind, which leads them to desire an alteration from one fashion to an-other, and to be for ever substituting something new in the place of that to which they have become accustomed, and of which they have grown weary. Fashion is, in fact, the constant variation produced by the action of public opinion from time to time upon matters of taste. It fluctuates, as it were, like a tide ebbing and flowing as different contending causes obtain the ascendancy, and affect the public mind.
Taste is indeed, itself, so far, not only liable to change, but there is perhaps hardly anything which is so exposed to fluctuations as is this. Probably, however, it is not so much subject to be corrupted in its nature, as to be perverted in its direction. False glitter is most ruinous to it in this respect, against which the establishment of sound and correct principles is the surest protection. Those rivers whose bed lies the deepest, are the least liable to wander from their course.
We may perceive different and even opposite influences acting upon and directing in various ways the development and the growth of each art, analogous to the manner in which soil and climate and weather affect the progress of each plant. This is observable in the rise of every separate nation, and of every separate art and as each nation has its peculiar distinctive characteristic in this respect, so each art will be affected and moulded according to the character of the nation in which it is cultivated. This remark is applicable alike to each style in art, as well as to each art.
Nevertheless, the variety of taste exhibited in different nations, and even by the people of the same nation, according as this is influenced by circumstances, ought not to be admitted as any proof that there is no sure standard or criterion by which a just opinion with respect to matters of taste can be formed. On matters of reason, indeed, which are deemed especially to admit of certainty as regards their solution, men differ quite as essentially, and quite as widely, as they do on matters of taste.
Probably one of the most remarkable instances of the entire change of taste in the opinions of men in general, is afforded by the different manner in which rude and wild mountainous prospects are regarded at the present day by persons of taste and education, compared with the light in which they were viewed a century ago, as also in earlier times. It is extra-ordinary how little grandeur in scenery seems to have been admired by the ancients ; and although their poets and painters occasionally introduce features of this kind into their compositions, in the description of scenery of this class no allusion is made to their artistical merit. Indeed, until the period of the last century, the grandeur and sublimity of the mountains of Switzerland and Wales and Scotland appear to have been wholly disregarded, even by persons of taste and education who visited those romantic regions. Beauty in scenery, such as is afforded by rivers and woods, and dells and fertile plains, seems, however, to have been much earlier appreciated than was the sublimity arising from Alpine peaks, and precipices, and rocks, and torrents. The most probable and satisfactory mode of accounting for this peculiarity in their taste is that views of the former kind were always associated with, and productive of ideas and sensations of a pleasing and agreeable character, such as we desire to have effected by works of art themselves ; while scenes of the latter kind were connected entirely with emotions allied to pain, being suggestive of danger and terror, such as we especially endeavour to avoid the excitement of in artistical performances. But, on the other hand, although the ancients may be supposed to have neglected objects of grandeur in scenery because they were calculated to cause disagreeable sensations ; yet they at the same time resorted to the description of battles and deeds of horror, both in their pictures and their poems, far more frequently than do the moderns, and indeed these may be said to have been their favourite themes. Possibly, another reason why boldness and grandeur in mountain scenery were not admired and appreciated by the ancients, and by our forefathers, as they now are, is that the regions where objects of this kind abounded were so associated with unpleasant recollections, when travelling there was from various causes very insecure, as to render them too extensively objects of pain to be fit subjects for artistical representation. But the main and real cause was, undoubtedly, the general deficiency in cultivation of taste, when its true principles had hardly been enunciated, and were understood by but very few. Those who visited these remote and dangerous regions had not, consequently, sufficient elevation of mind to be impressed with the objects of sublimity and grandeur there displayed. While the progress of civilization has rendered a visit to those scenes safe and easy, the progress of taste has rendered them also subjects of vivid interest, and of intense gratification.
The abandonment and loss for all practical purposes of the dead languages prove, to a great extent, the revolution in the mind of the world that has taken place during the progress of ages; although it must be admitted that other causes besides this have contributed to such abandonment. With this, more-over, a vast change of feeling and habit has been wrought. And not improbably the intellect of the world has, on the whole, degenerated to an extent corresponding with the de-generation of its mode of expressing itself. Great languages have died, because the great thoughts which they were employed to express have ceased to live.
But taste, like every other faculty or operation of the mind, including the reason, and even the conscience, may become deadened, or may be misled. An erroneous course of education, or a want of intellectual cultivation, may induce a person to form such incorrect notions or principles respecting a work of art, or art in general, or may cause him to be so incapable of entering upon the subject, that his opinion can hardly be deemed worthy of any consideration in the matter. Taste, in this case, is either paralysed or corrupted. As the existence of this faculty is generally admitted, so its occasional abuse or perversion are no more to be received as proofs of its non-existence, than the fact of a man being dead or paralytic is a proof that he never was endowed with vitality or vigour. This liability of taste to be corrupted, corresponding with the liability to disorder of every animated frame, is the grand source of disease in art.
Prejudices of various kinds will at different periods for a time exercise a most injurious influence on the condition of art. For instance, undue admiration of whatever is ancient, of whatever is foreign, of whatever belongs to a certain style, have occasionally secured exclusive attention, and obscured all real merit in every other department. Disease in the public taste may affect various pursuits at the same time. Thus, the love of allegory, which poisoned the mind of the middle ages, perverted whatever of genius for art then de veloped itself. At particular periods of a nation's history, all intellectual pursuits appear to degenerate, and art in common with them. In some cases, the very intellect of the nation becomes obscured. It is probably, however, not so much genius itself which fluctuates, in the cases alluded to, as that at different times different channels for its diversion are dis-covered, either by the peculiar exigencies of a people at such a period, or by a concentration of efforts in one particular direction or pursuit.
As in the early progress of painting and sculpture, the want of beauty and effect in the representation were sought to be atoned for by gorgeous colouring, and by ornaments of gold and precious jewels, in the method described; so in poetry and eloquence, meretricious excellences of a corresponding character, such as forced images and violent antitheses, are wont to be introduced, to compensate for deficiency in true poetical ideas and sterling merit.
Architecture and music, and also gardening, have undergone important changes in their whole character at different periods of their history. But nothing so well illustrates the extra-ordinary fluctuations, and indeed perversions of taste, and through them the diseases to which art is subject, as the various changes in costume, according to the mere whim or fashion of the day, as the caprice of the multitude directs it. What is deemed beautiful one year, is considered hideous in the next. That this does not arise from an actual deficiency in, or an absolute want of taste, is obvious from the fact that, while mankind all unite in crying out for these different changes, and in condemning one month what they extolled the month before, they also all unite in rendering their homage to certain examples of taste, which never fluctuate as regards their popularity and approval. I allude to the classic costume exhibited in ancient art, and to the masterpieces of ancient art them-selves, of which every person agrees in testifying his approval. Works of nature, too, ever hold with unvarying popularity the same pre-eminence.
As each of the arts exercises an important influence over the rest, at every successive stage of their progress ; poetry over music, and music over poetry, and each over the drama, and the drama over each of these ; and as eloquence is extensively influenced by, and extensively influences them all, as do also painting, sculpture, and architecture; so the diseases contracted by one of these arts are at once communicated to the others.