[Sidenote: The nature of prose.]
The descent from poetry to prose is in one sense a progress. When use has worn down a poetic phrase to its external import, and rendered it an indifferent symbol for a particular thing, that phrase has become prosaic; it has also become, by the same process, transparent and purely instrumental. In poetry feeling is transferred by contagion; in prose it is communicated by bending the attention upon determinate objects; the one stimulates and the other informs. Under the influence of poetry various minds radiate from a somewhat similar core of sensation, from the same vital mood, into the most diverse and incommunicable images. Interlocutors speaking prose, on the contrary, pelt and besiege one another with a peripheral attack; they come into contact at sundry superficial points and thence push their agreement inwards, until perhaps a practical coincidence is arrived at in their thought. Agreement is produced by controlling each mind externally, through a series of checks and little appeals to possible sensation; whereas in poetry the agreement, where it exists, is vague and massive; there is an initial fusion of minds under hypnotic musical influences, from which each listener, as he awakes, passes into his own thoughts and interpretations. In prose the vehicle for communication is a conventional sign, standing in the last analysis for some demonstrable object or controllable feeling. By marshalling specific details a certain indirect suasion is exercised on the mind, as nature herself, by continual checks and denials, gradually tames the human will. The elements of prose are always practical, if we run back and reconstruct their primitive essence, for at bottom every experience is an original and not a copy, a nucleus for ideation rather than an object to which ideas may refer. It is when these stimulations are shaken together and become a system of mutual checks that they begin to take on ideally a rhythm borrowed from the order in which they actually recurred. Then a prophetic or representative movement arises in thought. Before this comes about, experience remains a constantly renovated dream, as poetry to the end conspires to keep it. For poetry, while truly poetical, never loses sight of initial feelings and underlying appeals; it is incorrigibly transcendental, and takes every present passion and every private dream in turn for the core of the universe. By creating new signs, or by recasting and crossing those which have become conventional, it keeps communication massive and instinctive, immersed in music, and inexhaustible by clear thought.
[Sidenote: It is more advanced and responsible than poetry.]
Lying is a privilege of poets because they have not yet reached the level on which truth and error are discernible. Veracity and significance are not ideals for a primitive mind; we learn to value them as we learn to live, when we discover that the spirit cannot be wholly free and solipsistic. To have to distinguish fact from fancy is so great a violence to the inner man that not only poets, but theologians and philosophers, still protest against such a distinction. They urge (what is perfectly true for a rudimentary creature) that facts are mere conceptions and conceptions full-fledged facts; but this interesting embryonic lore they apply, in their intellectual weakness, to retracting or undermining those human categories which, though alone fruitful or applicable in life, are not congenial to their half-formed imagination. Retreating deeper into the inner chaos, they bring to bear the whole momentum of an irresponsible dialectic to frustrate the growth of representative ideas: In this they are genuine, if somewhat belated, poets, experimenting anew with solved problems, and fancying how creation might have moved upon other lines. The great merit that prose shares with science is that it is responsible. Its conscience is a new and wiser imagination, by which creative thought is rendered cumulative and progressive; for a man does not build less boldly or solidly if he takes the precaution of building in baked brick. Prose is in itself meagre and bodiless, merely indicating the riches of the world. Its transparency helps us to look through it to the issue, and the signals it gives fill the mind with an honest assurance and a prophetic art far nobler than any ecstasy.
[Sidenote: Maturity brings love of practical truth.]
As men of action have a better intelligence than poets, if only their action is on a broad enough stage, so the prosaic rendering of experience has the greater value, if only the experience rendered covers enough human interests. Youth and aspiration indulge in poetry; a mature and masterful mind will often despise it, and prefer to express itself laconically in prose. It is clearly proper that prosaic habits should supervene in this way on the poetical; for youth, being as yet little fed by experience, can find volume and depth only in the soul; the half-seen, the supra-mundane, the inexpressible, seem to it alone beautiful and worthy of homage. Time modifies this sentiment in two directions. It breeds lassitude and indifference towards impracticable ideals, originally no less worthy than the practicable. Ideals which cannot be realised, and are not fed at least by partial realisations, soon grow dormant. Life-blood passes to other veins; the urgent and palpitating interests of life appear in other quarters. While things impossible thus lose their serious charm, things actual reveal their natural order and variety; these not only can entertain the mind abstractly, but they can offer a thousand material rewards in observation and action. In their presence, a private dream begins to look rather cheap and hysterical. Not that existence has any dignity or prerogative in the presence of will, but that will itself, being elastic, grows definite and firm when it is fed by success; and its formed and expressible ideals then put to shame the others, which have remained vague for want of practical expression. Mature interests centre on soluble problems and tasks capable of execution; it is at such points that the ideal can be really served. The individual's dream straightens and reassures itself by merging with the dream of humanity. To dwell, as irrational poets do, on some private experience, on some emotion without representative or ulterior value, then seems a waste of time. Fiction becomes less interesting than affairs, and poetry turns into a sort of incompetent whimper, a childish fore-shortening of the outspread world.
[Sidenote: Pure prose would tend to efface itself.]
On the other hand, prose has a great defect, which is abstractness. It drops the volume of experience in finding bodiless algebraic symbols by which to express it. The verbal form, instead of transmitting an image, seems to constitute it, in so far as there is an image suggested at all; and the ulterior situation is described only in the sense that a change is induced in the hearer which prepares him to meet that situation. Prose seems to be a use of language in the service of material life. It would tend, in that case, to undermine its own basis; for in proportion as signals for action are quick and efficacious they diminish their sensuous stimulus and fade from consciousness. Were language such a set of signals it would be something merely instrumental, which if made perfect ought to be automatic and unconscious. It would be a buzzing in the ears, not a music native to the mind. Such a theory of language would treat it as a necessary evil and would look forward hopefully to the extinction of literature, in which it would recognise nothing ideal. There is of course no reason to deprecate the use of vocables, or of any other material agency, to expedite affairs; but an art of speech, if it is to add any ultimate charm to life, has to supervene upon a mere code of signals. Prose, could it be purely representative, would be ideally superfluous. A literary prose accordingly owns a double allegiance, and its life is amphibious. It must convey intelligence, but intelligence clothed in a language that lends the message an intrinsic value, and makes it delightful to apprehend apart from its importance in ultimate theory or practice. Prose is in that measure a fine art. It might be called poetry that had become pervasively representative, and was altogether faithful to its rational function.
[Sidenote: Form alone, or substance alone, may be poetical.]
We may therefore with good reason distinguish prosaic form from prosaic substance. A novel, a satire, a book of speculative philosophy, may have a most prosaic exterior; every phrase may convey its idea economically; but the substance may nevertheless be poetical, since these ideas may be irrelevant to all ulterior events, and may express nothing but the imaginative energy that called them forth. On the other hand, a poetic vehicle in which there is much ornamental play of language and rhythm may clothe a dry ideal skeleton. So those tremendous positivists, the Hebrew prophets, had the most prosaic notions about the goods and evils of life. So Lucretius praised, I will not say the atoms merely, but even fecundity and wisdom. The motives, to take another example, which Racine attributed to his personages, were prosaically conceived; a physiologist could not be more exact in his calculations, for even love may be made the mainspring in a clock-work of emotions. Yet that Racine was a born poet appears in the music, nobility, and tenderness of his medium; he clothed his intelligible characters in magical and tragic robes; the aroma of sentiment rises like a sort of pungent incense between them and us, and no dramatist has ever had so sure a mastery over transports and tears.
[Sidenote: Poetry has its place in the medium.]
In the medium a poet is at home; in the world he tries to render, he is a child and a stranger. Poetic notions are false notions; in so far as their function is representative they are vitiated by containing elements not present in things. Truth is a jewel which should not be painted over; but it may be set to advantage and shown in a good light. The poetic way of idealising reality is dull, bungling, and impure; a better acquaintance with things renders such flatteries ridiculous. That very effort of thought by which opaque masses of experience were first detached from the flux and given a certain individuality, seeks to continue to clarify them until they become as transparent as possible. To resist this clarification, to love the chance incrustations that encumber human ideas, is a piece of timid folly, and poetry in this respect is nothing but childish confusion. Poetic apprehension is a makeshift, in so far as its cognitive worth is concerned; it is exactly, in this respect, what myth is to science. Approaching its subject-matter from a distance, with incongruous categories, it translates it into some vague and misleading symbol rich in emotions which the object as it is could never arouse and is sure presently to contradict. What lends these hybrid ideas their temporary eloquence and charm is their congruity with the mind that breeds them and with its early habits. Falsification, or rather clouded vision, gives to poetry a more human accent and a readier welcome than to truth. In other words, it is the medium that asserts itself; the apperceptive powers indulge their private humours, and neglect the office to which they were assigned once for all by their cognitive essence.
[Sidenote: It is the best medium possible.]
That the medium should so assert itself, however, is no anomaly, the cognitive function being an ulterior one to which ideas are by no means obliged to conform. Apperception is itself an activity or art, and like all others terminates in a product which is a good in itself, apart from its utilities. If we abstract, then, from the representative function which may perhaps accrue to speech, and regard it merely as an operation absorbing energy and occasioning delight, we see that poetic language is language at its best. Its essential success consists in fusing ideas in charming sounds or in metaphors that shine by their own brilliance. Poetry is an eloquence justified by its spontaneity, as eloquence is a poetry justified by its application. The first draws the whole soul into the situation, and the second puts the whole situation before the soul.
[Sidenote: Might it not convey what it is best to know?]
Is there not, we may ask, some ideal form of discourse in which apperceptive life could be engaged with all its volume and transmuting power, and in which at the same time no misrepresentation should be involved? Transmutation is not erroneous when it is intentional; misrepresentation does not please for being false, but only because truth would be more congenial if it resembled such a fiction. Why should not discourse, then, have nothing but truth in its import and nothing but beauty in its form? With regard to euphony and grammatical structure there is evidently nothing impossible in such an ideal; for these radical beauties of language are independent of the subject-matter. They form the body of poetry; but the ideal and emotional atmosphere which is its soul depends on things external to language, which no perfection in the medium could modify. It might seem as if the brilliant substitutions, the magic suggestions essential to poetry, would necessarily vanish in the full light of day. The light of day is itself beautiful; but would not the loss be terrible if no other light were ever suffered to shine?
[Sidenote: A rational poetry would exclude much now thought poetical.]
The Life of Reason involves sacrifice. What forces yearn for the ideal, being many and incompatible, have to yield and partly deny themselves in order to attain any ideal at all. There is something sad in all possible attainment so long as the rational virtue (which wills such attainment) is not pervasive; and even then there is limitation to put up with, and the memory of many a defeat. Rational poetry is possible and would be infinitely more beautiful than the other; but the charm of unreason, if unreason seem charming, it certainly could not preserve. In what human fancy demands, as at present constituted, there are irrational elements. The given world seems insufficient; impossible things have to be imagined, both to extend its limits and to fill in and vivify its texture. Homer has a mythology without which experience would have seemed to him undecipherable; Dante has his allegories and his mock science; Shakespeare has his romanticism; Goethe his symbolic characters and artificial machinery. All this lumber seems to have been somehow necessary to their genius; they could not reach expression in more honest terms. If such indirect expression could be discarded, it would not be missed; but while the mind, for want of a better vocabulary, is reduced to using these symbols, it pours into them a part of its own life and makes them beautiful. Their loss is a real blow, while the incapacity that called for them endures; and the soul seems to be crippled by losing its crutches.
[Sidenote: All apperception modifies its object.]
There are certain adaptations and abbreviations of reality which thought can never outgrow. Thought is representative; it enriches each soul and each moment with premonitions of surrounding existences. If discourse is to be significant it must transfer to its territory and reduce to its scale whatever objects it deals with: in other words, thought has a point of view and cannot see the world except in perspective. This point of view is not, for reason, locally or naturally determined; sense alone is limited in that material fashion, being seated in the body and looking thence centrifugally upon things in so far as they come into dynamic relations with that body. Intelligence, on the contrary, sallies from that physical stronghold and consists precisely in shifting and universalising the point of view, neutralising all local, temporal, or personal conditions. Yet intelligence, notwithstanding, has its own centre and point of origin, not explicitly in space or in a natural body, but in some specific interest or moral aim. It translates animal life into moral endeavour, and what figured in the first as a local existence figures in the second as a specific good. Reason accordingly has its essential bias, and looks at things as they affect the particular form of life which reason expresses; and though all reality should be ultimately swept by the eye of reason, the whole would still be surveyed by a particular method, from a particular starting-point, for a particular end; nor would it take much shrewdness to perceive that this nucleus for discourse and estimation, this ideal life, corresponds in the moral world to that animal body which gave sensuous experience its seat and centre; so that rationality is nothing but the ideal function or aspect of natural life. Reason is universal in its outlook and in its sympathies: it is the faculty of changing places ideally and representing alien points of view; but this very self-transcendence manifests a certain special method in life, an equilibrium which a far-sighted being is able to establish between itself and its comprehended conditions. Reason remains to the end essentially human and, in its momentary actuality, necessarily personal.
[Sidenote: Reason has its own bias and method.]
We have here an essential condition of discourse which renders it at bottom poetical. Selection and applicability govern all thinking, and govern it in the interests of the soul. Reason is itself a specific medium; so that prose can never attain that perfect transparency and mere utility which we were attributing to it. We should not wish to know "things in themselves," even if we were able. What it concerns us to know about them is merely the service or injury they are able to do us, and in what fashion they can affect our lives. To know this would be, in so far, truly to know them; but it would be to know them through our own faculties and through their supposed effects; it would be to know them by their appearance. A singular proof of the frivolous way in which philosophers often proceed, when they think they are particularly profound, is seen in this puzzle, on which they solemnly ask us to fix our thoughts: How is it possible to know reality, if all we can attain in experience is but appearance? The meaning of knowledge, which is an intellectual and living thing, is here forgotten, and the notion of sensation, or bodily possession, is substituted for it; so what we are really asked to consider is how, had we no understanding, we should be able to understand what we endure. It is by conceiving what we endure to be the appearance of something beyond us, that we reach knowledge that something exists beyond us, and that it plays in respect to us a determinate role. There could be no knowledge of reality if what conveyed that knowledge were not felt to be appearance; nor can a medium of knowledge better than appearance be by any possibility conceived. To have such appearances is what makes realities knowable. Knowledge transcends sensation by relating it to other sensation, and thereby rising to a supersensuous plane, the plane of principles and causes by which sensibles are identified in character and distributed in existence. These principles and causes are what we call the intelligible or the real world; and the sensations, when they have been so interpreted and underpinned, are what we call experience.
[Sidenote: Rational poetry would envelop exact knowledge in ultimate emotions.]
If a poet could clarify the myths he begins with, so as to reach ultimate scientific notions of nature and life, he would still be dealing with vivid feeling and with its imaginative expression. The prosaic landscape before him would still be a work of art, painted on the human brain by human reason. If he found that landscape uninteresting, it would be because he was not really interested in life; if he found it dull and unpoetical, he would be manifesting his small capacity and childish whims. Tragic, fatal, intractable, he might well feel that the truth was; but these qualities have never been absent from that half-mythical world through which poets, for want of a rational education, have hitherto wandered. A rational poet's vision would have the same moral functions which myth was asked to fulfil, and fulfilled so treacherously; it would employ the same ideal faculties which myth expressed in a confused and hasty fashion. More detail would have been added, and more variety in interpretation. To deal with so great an object, and retain his mastery over it, a poet would doubtless need a robust genius. If he possessed it, and in transmuting all existence falsified nothing, giving that picture of everything which human experience in the end would have drawn, he would achieve an ideal result. In prompting mankind to imagine, he would be helping them to live. His poetry, without ceasing to be a fiction in its method and ideality, would be an ultimate truth in its practical scope. It would present in graphic images the total efficacy of real things. Such a poetry would be more deeply rooted in human experience than is any casual fancy, and therefore more appealing to the heart. Such a poetry would represent more thoroughly than any formula the concrete burden of experience; it would become the most trustworthy of companions. The images it had worked out would confront human passion more intelligibly than does the world as at present conceived, with its mechanism half ignored and its ideality half invented; they would represent vividly the uses of nature, and thereby make all natural situations seem so many incentives to art.
[Sidenote: An illustration.]
Rational poetry is not wholly unknown. When Homer mentions an object, how does he render it poetical? First, doubtless, by the euphony of its name or the sensuous glow of some epithet coupled with it. Sometimes, however, even this ornamental epithet is not merely sensuous; it is very likely a patronymic, the name of some region or some mythical ancestor. In other words, it is a signal for widening our view and for conceiving the object, not only vividly and with pause, but in an adequate historic setting. Macbeth tells us that his dagger was "unmannerly breeched in gore." Achilles would not have amused himself with such a metaphor, even if breeches had existed in his day, but would rather have told us whose blood, on other occasions, had stained the same blade, and perhaps what father or mother had grieved for the slaughtered hero, or what brave children remained to continue his race. Shakespeare's phrase is ingenious and fanciful; it dazzles for a moment, but in the end it seems violent and crude. What Homer would have said, on the contrary, being simple and true, might have grown, as we dwelt upon it, always more noble, pathetic, and poetical. Shakespeare, too, beneath his occasional absurdities of plot and diction, ennobles his stage with actual history, with life painted to the quick, with genuine human characters, politics, and wisdom; and surely these are not the elements that do least credit to his genius. In every poet, indeed, there is some fidelity to nature, mixed with that irrelevant false fancy with which poetry is sometimes identified; and the degree in which a poet's imagination dominates reality is, in the end, the exact measure of his importance and dignity.
[Sidenote: Volume can be found in scope better than in suggestion.]
Before prosaic objects are descried, the volume and richness needful for poetry lie in a blurred and undigested chaos; but after the common world has emerged and has called on prose to describe it, the same volume and richness may be recovered; and a new and clarified poetry may arise through synthesis. Scope is a better thing than suggestion, and more truly poetical. It has expressed what suggestion pointed to and felt in the bulk: it possesses what was yearned for. A real thing, when all its pertinent natural associates are discerned, touches wonder, pathos, and beauty on every side; the rational poet is one who, without feigning anything unreal, perceives these momentous ties, and presents his subject loaded with its whole fate, missing no source of worth which is in it, no ideal influence which it may have. Homer remains, perhaps, the greatest master in this art. The world he glorified by showing in how many ways it could serve reason and beauty was but a simple world, and an equal genius in these days might be distracted by the Babel about him, and be driven, as poets now are, into incidental dreams. Yet the ideal of mastery and idealisation remains the same, if any one could only attain it: mastery, to see things as they are and dare to describe them ingenuously; idealisation, to select from this reality what is pertinent to ultimate interests and can speak eloquently to the soul.
[Sidenote: Automatic expression often leaves traces in the outer world.]
We have seen how arts founded on exercise and automatic self-expression develop into music, poetry, and prose. By an indirect approach they come to represent outer conditions, till they are interwoven in a life which has in some measure gone out to meet its opportunities and learned to turn them to an ideal use. We have now to see how man's reactive habits pass simultaneously into art in a wholly different region. Spontaneous expression, such as song, comes when internal growth in an animal system vents itself, as it were, by the way. At the same time animal economy has playful manifestations concerned with outer things, such as burrowing or collecting objects. These practices are not less spontaneous than the others, and no less expressive; but they seem more external because the traces they leave on the environment are more clearly marked.
To change an object is the surest and most glorious way of changing a perception. A shift in posture may relieve the body, and in that way satisfy, but the new attitude is itself unstable. Its pleasantness, like its existence, is transient, and scarcely is a movement executed when both its occasion and its charm are forgotten. Self-expression by exercise, in spite of its pronounced automatism, is therefore something comparatively passive and inglorious. A man has hardly done anything when he has laughed or yawned. Even the inspired poet retains something of this passivity: his work is not his, but that of a restless, irresponsible spirit passing through him, and hypnotising him for its own ends. Of the result he has no profit, no glory, and little understanding. So the mystic also positively gloats on his own nothingness, and puts his whole genuine being in a fancied instrumentality and subordination to something else. Far more virile and noble is the sense of having actually done something, and left at least the temporary stamp of one's special will on the world. To chop a stick, to catch a fly, to pile a heap of sand, is a satisfying action; for the sand stays for a while in its novel arrangement, proclaiming to the surrounding level that we have made it our instrument, while the fly will never stir nor the stick grow together again in all eternity. If the impulse that has thus left its indelible mark on things is constant in our own bosom, the world will have been permanently improved and humanised by our action. Nature cannot but be more favourable to those ideas which have once found an efficacious champion.
[Sidenote: Such effects fruitful.]
Plastic impulses find in this way an immediate sanction in the sense of victory and dominion which they carry with them; it is so evident a proof of power in ourselves to see things and animals bent out of their habitual form and obedient instead to our idea. But a far weightier sanction immediately follows. Man depends on things for his experience, yet by automatic action he changes these very things so that it becomes possible that by his action he should promote his welfare. He may, of course, no less readily precipitate his ruin. The animal is more subject to vicissitudes than the plant, which makes no effort to escape them or to give chase to what it feeds upon. The greater perils of action, however, are in animals covered partly by fertility, partly by adaptability, partly by success. The mere possibility of success, in a world governed by natural selection, is an earnest of progress. Sometimes, in impressing the environment, a man will improve it: which is merely to say that a change may sometimes fortify the impulse which brought it about. As soon as this retroaction is perceived and the act is done with knowledge of its ensuing benefits, plastic impulse becomes art, and the world begins actually to change in obedience to reason.
One respect, for instance, in which man depends on things is for the aesthetic quality of his perceptions. If he happens, by a twist of the hand, to turn a flowering branch into a wreath, thereby making it more interesting, he will have discovered a decorative art and initiated himself auspiciously into the practice of it. Experimentation may follow, and whenever the new form given to the object improves it—i.e., increases its interest for the eye—the experimenter will triumph and will congratulate himself on his genius. The garland so arranged will be said to express the taste it satisfies; insight and reason will be mythically thought to have guided the work by which they are sustained in being. It is no small harmony, however, that they should be sustained by it. The consonances man introduces into nature will follow him wherever he goes. It will no longer be necessary that nature should supply them spontaneously, by a rare adventitious harmony with his demands. His new habit will habitually rear-range her chance arrangements, and his path will be marked by the beauties he has strewn it with. So long as the same plastic impulse continues operative it will be accompanied by knowledge and criticism of its happy results. Self-criticism, being a second incipient artistic impulse, contrasting itself with the one which a work embodies, may to some extent modify the next performance. If life is drawn largely into this deepening channel, physical proficiency and its ideal sanctions will develop more or less harmoniously into what is called a school of art.
[Sidenote: Magic authority of man's first creations.]
The first felt utilities by which plastic instinct is sanctioned are of course not distinctly aesthetic, much less distinctly practical; they are magical. A stone cut into some human or animal semblance fascinates the savage eye much more than would a useful tool or a beautiful idol. The man wonders at his own work, and petrifies the miracle of his art into miraculous properties in its product. Primitive art is incredibly conservative; its first creations, having once attracted attention, monopolise it henceforth and nothing else will be trusted to work the miracle. It is a sign of stupidity in general to stick to physical objects and given forms apart from their ideal functions, as when a child cries for a broken doll, even if a new and better one is at hand to replace it. Inert associations establish themselves, in such a case, with that part of a thing which is irrelevant to its value—its material substance or perhaps its name. Art can make no progress in such a situation. A man remains incorrigibly unhappy and perplexed, cowed, and helpless, because not intelligent enough to readjust his actions; his idol must be the self-same hereditary stock, or at least it must have the old sanctified rigidity and stare. Plastic impulse, as yet sporadic, is overwhelmed by a brute idolatrous awe at mere existence and actuality. What is, what has always been, what chance has associated with one person, alone seems acceptable or conceivable.
[Sidenote: Art brings relief from idolatry.]
Idolatry is by no means incident to art; art, on the contrary, is a release from idolatry. A cloud, an animal, a spring, a stone, or the whole heaven, will serve the pure idolater's purpose to perfection; these things have existence and a certain hypnotic power, so that he may make them a focus for his dazed contemplation. When the mind takes to generalities it finds the same fascination in Being or in the Absolute, something it needs no art to discover. The more indeterminate, immediate, and unutterable the idol is, the better it induces panic self-contraction and a reduction of all discourse to the infinite intensity of zero. When idolaters pass from trying to evoke the Absolutely Existent to apostrophising the sun or an ithyphallic bull they have made an immense progress in art and religion, for now their idols represent some specific and beneficent function in nature, something propitious to ideal life and to its determinate expression. Isaiah is very scornful of idols made with hands, because they have no physical energy. He forgets that perhaps they represent something, and so have a spiritual dignity which things living and powerful never have unless they too become representative and express some ideal. Isaiah's conception of Jehovah, for instance, is itself a poetic image, the work of man's brain; and the innocent worship of it would not be idolatry, if that conception represented something friendly to human happiness and to human art. The question merely is whether the sculptor's image or the prophet's stands for the greater interest and is a more adequate symbol for the good. The noblest art will be the one, whether plastic or literary or dialectical, which creates figments most truly representative of what is momentous in human life. Similarly the least idolatrous religion would be the one which used the most perfect art, and most successfully abstracted the good from the real.
[Sidenote: Inertia in technique.]
Conservatism rules also in those manufactures which are tributary to architecture and the smaller plastic arts. Utility makes small headway against custom, not only when custom has become religion, but even when it remains inert and without mythical sanction. To admit or trust anything new is to overcome that inertia which is a general law in the brain no less than elsewhere, and which may be distinguished in reflection into a technical and a social conservatism. Technical conservatism appears, for instance, in a man's handwriting, which is so seldom improved, even when admitted, perhaps, to be execrable. Every artist has his tricks of execution, every school its hereditary, irrational processes. These refractory habits are to blame for the rare and inimitable quality of genius; they impose excellence on one man and refuse it to a million. A happy physiological structure, by creating a mannerism under the special circumstances favourable to expression, may lift a man, perhaps inferior in intelligence, to heights which no insight can attain with inferior organs. As a voice is necessary for singing, so a certain quickness of eye and hand is needed for good execution in the plastic arts. The same principle goes deeper. Conception and imagination are themselves automatic and run in grooves, so that only certain forms in certain combinations will ever suggest themselves to a given designer. Every writer's style, too, however varied within limits, is single and monotonous compared with the ideal possibilities of expression. Genius at every moment is confined to the idiom it is creating.
[Sidenote: Inertia in appreciation.]
Social inertia is due to the same causes working in the community at large. The fancy, for instance, of building churches in the shape of a cross has largely determined Christian architecture. Builders were prevented by a foregone suggestion in themselves and by their patrons' demands from conceiving any alternative to that convention. Early pottery, they say, imitates wicker-work, and painted landscape was for ages not allowed to exist without figures, although even the old masters show plainly enough in their backgrounds that they could love landscape for its own sake. When one link with humanity has been rendered explicit and familiar, people assume that by no other means can humanity be touched at all; even if at the same time their own heart is expanding to the highest raptures in a quite different region. The severer Greeks reprobated music without words; Saint Augustine complained of chants that rendered the sacred text unintelligible; the Puritans regarded elaborate music as diabolical, little knowing how soon some of their descendants would find religion in nothing else. A stupid convention still looks on material and mathematical processes as somehow distressing and ugly, and systems of philosophy, artificially mechanical, are invented to try to explain natural mechanism away; whereas in no region can the spirit feel so much at home as among natural causes, or realise so well its universal affinities, or so safely enlarge its happiness. Mechanism is the source of beauty. It is not necessary to look so high as the stars to perceive this truth: the action of an animal's limbs or the movement of a waterfall will prove it to any one who has eyes and can shake himself loose from verbal prejudices, those debris of old perceptions which choke all fresh perception in the soul. Irrational hopes, irrational shames, irrational decencies, make man's chief desolation. A slight knocking of fools' heads together might be enough to break up the ossifications there and start the blood coursing again through possible channels. Art has an infinite range; nothing shifts so easily as taste and yet nothing so persistently avoids the directions in which it might find most satisfaction.
[Sidenote: Adventitious effects appreciated first.]
Since construction grows rational slowly and by indirect pressure, we may expect that its most superficial merits will be the first appreciated. Ultimate beauty in a building would consist, of course, in responding simultaneously to all the human faculties affected: to the eye, by the building's size, form, and colour; to the imagination, by its fitness and ideal expression. Of all grounds for admiration those most readily seized are size, elaboration, splendour of materials, and difficulties or cost involved. Having built or dug in the conventional way a man may hang before his door some trophy of battle or the chase, bearing witness to his prowess; just as people now, not thinking of making their rooms beautiful, fill them with photographs of friends or places they have known, to suggest and reburnish in their minds their interesting personal history, which even they, unstimulated, might tend to forget. That dwelling will seem best adorned which contains most adventitious objects; bare and ugly will be whatever is not concealed by something else. Again, a barbarous architect, without changing his model, may build in a more precious material; and his work will be admired for the evidence it furnishes of wealth and wilfulness. As a community grows luxurious and becomes accustomed to such display, it may come to seem strange and hideous to see a wooden plate or a pewter spoon. A beautiful house will need to be in marble and the sight of plebeian brick will banish all satisfaction.
Less irrational, and therefore less vulgar, is the wonder aroused by great bulk or difficulty in the work. Exertions, to produce a great result, even if it be material, must be allied to perseverance and intelligent direction. Roman bridges and aqueducts, for instance, gain a profound emotional power when we see in their monotonous arches a symbol of the mightiest enterprise in history, and in their decay an evidence of its failure. Curiosity is satisfied, historic imagination is stimulated, tragic reflection is called forth. We cannot refuse admiration to a work so full of mind, even if no great plastic beauty happens to distinguish it. It is at any rate beautiful enough, like the sea or the skeleton of a mountain. We may rely on the life it has made possible to add more positive charms and clothe it with imaginative functions. Modern engineering works often have a similar value; the force and intelligence they express merge in an aesthetic essence, and the place they hold in a portentous civilisation lends them an almost epic dignity. New York, since it took to doing business in towers, has become interesting to look at from the sea; nor is it possible to walk through the overshadowed streets without feeling a pleasing wonder. A city, when enough people swarm in it, is as fascinating as an ant-hill, and its buildings, whatever other charms they may have, are at least as curious and delightful as sea-shells or birds' nests. The purpose of improvements in modern structures may be economic, just as the purpose of castles was military; but both may incidentally please the contemplative mind by their huge forms and human associations.
[Sidenote: Approach to beauty through useful structure.]
Of the two approaches which barbaric architecture makes to beauty—one through ornamentation and the other through mass—the latter is in general the more successful. An engineer fights with nature hand to hand: he is less easily extravagant than a decorator; he can hardly ever afford to be absurd. He becomes accordingly more rapidly civilised and his work acquires, in spite of itself, more rationality and a more permanent charm. A self-sustaining structure, in art as in life, is the only possible basis for a vital ideal. When the framework is determined, when it is tested by trial and found to stand and serve, it will gradually ingratiate itself with the observer; affinities it may have in his memory or apperceptive habits will come to light; they will help him to assimilate the new vision and will define its aesthetic character. Whatever beauty its lines may have will become a permanent possession and whatever beauties they exclude will be rejected by a faithful artist, no matter how sorely at first they may tempt him. Not that these excluded beauties would not be really beautiful; like fashions, they would truly please in their day and very likely would contain certain absolute excellences of form or feeling which an attentive eye could enjoy at any time. Yet if appended to a structure they have no function in, these excellences will hardly impose themselves on the next builder. Being adventitious they will remain optional, and since fancy is quick, and exotic beauties are many, there will be no end to the variations, in endless directions, which art will undergo. Caprice will follow caprice and no style will be developed.
[Sidenote: Failure of adapted styles.]
A settled style is perhaps in itself no desideratum. A city that should be a bazaar of all possible architectures, adding a multitude of new inventions to samples of every historical style, might have a certain interest; yet carnival can hardly be enjoyed all the year round and there is a certain latent hideousness in masquerades in spite of their glitter. Not only are the effects juxtaposed incongruous, but each apart is usually shallow and absurd. A perruque cannot bring back courtly manners, and a style of architecture, when revived, is never quite genuine; adaptations have to be introduced and every adaptation, the bolder it is, runs the greater risk of being extravagant. Nothing is more pitiable than the attempts people make, who think they have an exquisite sensibility, to live in a house all of one period. The connoisseur, like an uncritical philosopher, boasts to have patched his dwelling perfectly together, but he has forgotten himself, its egregious inhabitant. Nor is he merely a blot in his own composition; his presence secretly infects and denaturalises everything in it. Ridiculous himself in such a setting, he makes it ridiculous too by his aesthetic pose and appreciations; for the objects he has collected or reproduced were once used and prized in all honesty, when life and inevitable tradition had brought them forth, while now they are studied and exhibited, relics of a dead past and evidences of a dead present. Historic remains and restorations might well be used as one uses historic knowledge, to serve some living interest and equip the mind for the undertakings of the hour. An artist may visit a museum but only a pedant can live there. Ideas that have long been used may be used still, if they remain ideas and have not been congealed into memories. Incorporated into a design that calls for them, traditional forms cease to be incongruous, as words that still have a felt meaning may be old without being obsolete. All depends on men subserving an actual ideal and having so firm and genuine an appreciation of the past as to distinguish at once what is still serviceable in it from what is already ghostly and dead.
[Sidenote: Not all structure beautiful, nor all beauty structural.]
An artist may be kept true to his style either by ignorance of all others or by love of his own. This fidelity is a condition of progress. When he has learned to appreciate whatever is aesthetically appreciable in his problem, he can go on to refine his construction, to ennoble, and finally to decorate it. As fish, flesh, and fowl have specific forms, each more or less beautiful and adorned, so every necessary structure has its specific character and its essential associations. Taking his cue from these, an artist may experiment freely; he may emphasise the structure in the classic manner and turn its lines into ornament, adding only what may help to complete and unite its suggestions. This puritanism in design is rightly commended, but its opposite may be admirable too. We may admit that nudity is the right garment for the gods, but it would hardly serve the interests of beauty to legislate that all mortals should always go naked. The veil that conceals natural imperfections may have a perfection of its own. Maxims in art are pernicious; beauty is here the only commandment. And beauty is a free natural gift. When it has appeared, we may perceive that its influence is rational, since it both expresses and fosters a harmony of impressions and impulses in the soul; but to take any mechanism whatever, and merely because it is actual or necessary to insist that it is worth exhibiting, and that by divine decree it shall be pronounced beautiful, is to be quite at sea in moral philosophy.
Beauty is adventitious, occasional, incidental, in human products no less than in nature. Works of art are automatic figments which nature fashions through man. It is impossible they should be wholly beautiful, as it is impossible that they should offer no foothold or seed-plot for beauty at all. Beauty is everywhere potential and in a way pervasive because existence itself presupposes a modicum of harmony, first within the thing and then between the thing and its environment. Of this environment the observer's senses are in this case an important part. Man can with difficulty maintain senses quite out of key with the stimuli furnished by the outer world. They would then be useless burdens to his organism. On the other side, even artificial structures must be somehow geometrical or proportional, because only such structures hold physically together. Objects that are to be esteemed by man must further possess or acquire some function in his economy; otherwise they would not be noticed nor be so defined as to be recognisable. Out of these physical necessities beauty may grow; but an adjustment must first take place between the material stimulus and the sense it affects. Beauty is something spiritual and, being such, it rests not on the material constitution of each existence taken apart, but on their conspiring ideally together, so that each furthers the other's endeavour. Structure by itself is no more beautiful than existence by itself is good. They are only potentialities or conditions of excellence.
[Sidenote: Structures designed for display.]
An architect, when his main structure is uninteresting, may have recourse to a subsidiary construction. The facade, or a part of it, or the interior may still have a natural form that lends itself to elaboration. This beautiful feature may be developed so as to ignore or even conceal the rest; then the visible portion may be entirely beautiful, like the ideal human figure, though no pledges be given concerning the anatomy within. Many an Italian palace has a false front in itself magnificent. We may chance to observe, however, that it overtops its backing, perhaps an amorphous rambling pile in quite another material. What we admire is not so much a facade as a triumphal gateway, set up in front of the house to be its ambassador to the world, wearing decidedly richer apparel than its master can afford at home. This was not vanity in the Italians so much as civility to the public, to whose taste this flattering embassy was addressed. However our moral sense may judge the matter, it is clear that two separate monuments occupied the architect in such cases, if indeed inside and outside were actually designed by the same hand. Structure may appear in each independently and may be frankly enough expressed. The most beautiful facades, even if independent of their building, are buildings themselves, and since their construction is decorative there is the greater likelihood that their decoration should be structural.
In relation to the house, however, the facade in such an extreme case would be an abstract ornament; and so, though the ornament be structural within its own lines, we have reverted to the style of building where construction is one thing and decoration another. Applied ornament has an indefinite range and there would be little profit in reasoning about it. Philosophy can do little more at this point than expose the fallacies into which dogmatic criticism is apt to fall. Everything is true decoration which truly adorns, and everything adorns which enriches the impression and pleasantly entertains the eye. There is a decorative impulse as well as a sense for decoration. As I sit idle my stick makes meaningless marks upon the sand; or (what is nearer to the usual origin of ornament) I make a design out of somebody's initials, or symbolise fantastically something lying in my thoughts. We place also one thing upon another, the better to see and to think of two things at once.
[Sidenote: Appeal made by decoration.]
To love decoration is to enjoy synthesis: in other words, it is to have hungry senses and unused powers of attention. This hunger, when it cannot well be fed by recollecting things past, relishes a profusion of things simultaneous. Nothing is so much respected by unintelligent people as elaboration and complexity. They are simply dazed and overawed at seeing at once so much more than they can master. To overwhelm the senses is, for them, the only way of filling the mind. It takes cultivation to appreciate in art, as in philosophy, the consummate value of what is simple and finite, because it has found its pure function and ultimate import in the world. What is just, what is delicately and silently adjusted to its special office, and thereby in truth to all ultimate issues, seems to the vulgar something obvious and poor. What astonishes them is the crude and paradoxical jumble of a thousand suggestions in a single view. As the mystic yearns for an infinitely glutted consciousness that feels everything at once and is not put to the inconvenience of any longer thinking or imagining, so the barbarian craves the assault of a myriad sensations together, and feels replete and comfortable when a sort of infinite is poured into him without ideal mediation. As ideal mediation is another name for intelligence, so it is the condition of elegance. Intelligence and elegance naturally exist together, since they both spring from a subtle sense for absent and eventual processes. They are sustained by experience, by nicety in foretaste and selection. Before ideality, however, is developed, volume and variety must be given bodily or they cannot be given at all. At that earlier stage a furious ornamentation is the chief vehicle for beauty.
[Sidenote: Its natural rights.]
That the ornate may be very beautiful, that in fact what is to be completely beautiful needs to be somehow rich, is a fact of experience which further justifies the above analysis. For sensation is the matter of ideas; all representation is such only in its function; in its existence it remains mere feeling. Decoration, by stimulating the senses, not only brings a primary satisfaction with it, independent of any that may supervene, but it furnishes an element of effect which no higher beauty can ever render unwelcome or inappropriate, since any higher beauty, in moving the mind, must give it a certain sensuous and emotional colouring. Decoration is accordingly an independent art, to be practised for its own sake, in obedience to elementary plastic instincts. It is fundamental in design, for everything structural or significant produces in the first instance some sensuous impression and figures as a spot or pattern in the field of vision. The fortunate architect is he who has, for structural skeleton in his work, a form in itself decorative and beautiful, who can carry it out in a beautiful material, and who finally is suffered to add so much decoration as the eye may take in with pleasure, without losing the expression and lucidity of the whole.
It is impossible, however, to imagine beforehand what these elements should be or how to combine them. The problem must exist before its solution can be found. The forms of good taste and beauty which a man can think of or esteem are limited by the scope of his previous experience. It would be impossible to foresee or desire a beauty which had not somehow grown up of itself and been recognised receptively. A satisfaction cannot be conceived ideally when neither its organ nor its occasion has as yet arisen. That ideal conception, to exist, would have to bring both into play. The fine arts are butter to man's daily bread; there is no conceiving or creating them except as they spring out of social exigencies. Their types are imposed by utility: their ornamentation betrays the tradition that happens to envelop and diversify them; their expression and dignity are borrowed from the company they keep in the world.
[Sidenote: Its alliance with structure in Greek architecture.]
The Greek temple, for instance, if we imagine it in its glory, with all its colour and furniture, was a type of human art at its best, where decoration, without in the least restricting itself, took naturally an exquisitely subordinate and pervasive form: each detail had its own splendour and refinement, yet kept its place in the whole. Structure and decoration were alike traditional and imposed by ulterior practical or religious purposes; yet, by good fortune and by grace of that rationality which unified Greek life, they fell together easily into a harmony such as imagination could never have devised had it been invited to decree pleasure-domes for non-existent beings. Had the Greek gods been hideous, their images and fable could not so readily have beautified the place where they were honoured; and had the structural theme and uses of the temple been more complicated, they would not have lent themselves so well to decoration without being submerged beneath it.
[Sidenote: Relations of the two in Gothic art.]
In some ways the ideal Gothic church attained a similar perfection, because there too the structure remained lucid and predominant, while it was enriched by many necessary appointments—altars, stalls, screens, chantries—which, while really the raison d'etre of the whole edifice, aesthetically regarded, served for its ornaments. It may be doubted, however, whether Gothic construction was well grounded enough in utility to be a sound and permanent basis for beauty; and the extreme instability of Gothic style, the feverish, inconstancy of architects straining after effects never, apparently, satisfactory when achieved, shows that something was wrong and artificial in the situation. The structure, in becoming an ornament, ceased to be anything else and could be discarded by any one whose fancy preferred a different image.
For this reason a building like the cathedral of Amiens, where a structural system is put through consistently, is far from representing mediaeval art in its full and ideal essence; it is rather an incidental achievement, a sport in which an adventitious interest is, for a moment, emphasised overwhelmingly. Intelligence here comes to the fore, and a sort of mathematical virtuosity: but it was not mathematical virtuosity nor even intelligence to which, in Christian art, the leading role properly belonged. What structural elucidation did for church architecture was much like what scholastic elucidation did for church dogma: it insinuated a logic into the traditional edifice which was far from representing its soul or its genuine value. The dialectic introduced might be admirable in itself, in its lay and abstruse rationality; but it could not be applied to the poetic material in hand without rendering it absurd and sterile. The given problem was scientifically carried out, but the given problem was itself fantastic. To vault at such heights and to prop that vault with external buttresses was a gratuitous undertaking. The result was indeed interesting, the ingenuity and method exhibited were masterly in their way; yet the result was not proportionate in beauty to the effort required; it was after all a technical and a vain triumph.
[Sidenote: The result here romantic.]
The true magic of that very architecture lay not in its intelligible structure but in the bewildering incidental effects which that structure permitted. The part in such churches is better than the symmetrical whole; often incompleteness and accretions alone give grace or expression, to the monument. A cross vista where all is wonder, a side chapel where all is peace, strike the key-note here; not that punctilious and wooden repetition of props and arches, as a builder's model might boast to exhibit them. Perhaps the most beautiful Gothic interiors are those without aisles, if what we are considering is their proportion and majesty; elsewhere the structure, if perceived at all, is too artificial and strange to be perceived intuitively and to have the glow of a genuine beauty. There is an over-ingenious mechanism, redeemed by its colour and the thousand intervening objects, when these have not been swept away. Glazed and painted as Gothic churches were meant to be, they were no doubt exceedingly gorgeous. When we admire their structural scheme we are perhaps nursing an illusion like that which sentimental classicists once cherished when they talked about the purity of white marble statues and the ideality of their blank and sightless eyes. What we treat as a supreme quality may have been a mere means to mediaeval builders, and a mechanical expedient: their simple hearts were set on making their churches, for God's glory and their own, as large, as high, and as rich as possible. After all, an uninterrupted tradition attached them to Byzantium; and it was the sudden passion for stained glass and the goldsmith's love of intricate fineness—which the Saracens also had shown—that carried them in a century from Romanesque to flamboyant. The structure was but the inevitable underpinning for the desired display. If these sanctuaries, in their spoliation and ruin, now show us their admirable bones, we should thank nature for that rational skeleton, imposed by material conditions on an art which in its life-time was goaded on only by a pious and local emulation, and wished at all costs to be sumptuous and astonishing.
[Sidenote: The mediaeval artist.]
It was rather in another direction that groping mediaeval art reached its most congenial triumphs. That was an age, so to speak, of epidemic privacy; social contagion was irresistible, yet it served only to make each man's life no less hard, narrow, and visionary than that of every one else. Like bees in a hive, each soul worked in its separate cell by the same impulse as every other. Each was absorbed in saving itself only, but according to a universal prescription. This isolation in unanimity appears in those patient and childlike artists who copied each his leaf or flower, or imagined each his curious angels and devils, taking what was told of them so much to heart that his rendering became deeply individual. The lamp of sacrifice—or perhaps rather of ignorance—burned in every workshop; much labour was wasted in forgetfulness of the function which the work was to perform, yet a certain pathos and expression was infused into the detail, on which all invention and pride had to be lavished. Carvings and statues at impossible elevations, minute symbols hidden in corners, the choice for architectural ornament of animal and vegetable forms, copied as attentively and quaintly as possible—all this shows how abstractedly the artist surrendered himself to the given task. He dedicated his genius like the widow's mite, and left the universal composition to Providence.
Nor was this humility, on another side, wholly pious and sacrificial. The Middle Ages were, in their way, merry, sturdy, and mischievous. A fresh breath, as of convalescence, breathed through their misery. Never was spring so green and lovely as when men greeted it in a cloistered garden, with hearts quite empty and clean, only half-awakened from a long trance of despair. It mattered little at such a moment where a work was to figure or whether any one should ever enjoy it. The pleasure and the function lay here, in this private revelation, in this playful dialogue between a bit of nature and a passing mood. When a Greek workman cut a volute or a moulding, he was not asked to be a poet; he was merely a scribe, writing out what some master had composed before him. The spirit of his art, if that was called forth consciously at all, could be nothing short of intelligence. Those lines and none other, he would say to himself, are requisite and sufficient: to do less would be unskilful, to do more would be perverse. But the mediaeval craftsman was irresponsible in his earnestness. The whole did not concern him, for the whole was providential and therefore, to the artist, irrelevant. He was only responsible inwardly, to his casual inspiration, to his individual model, and his allotted block of stone. With these he carried on, as it were, an ingenuous dialectic, asking them questions by a blow of the hammer, and gathering their oracular answers experimentally from the result. Art, like salvation, proceeded by a series of little miracles; it was a blind work, half stubborn patience, half unmerited grace. If the product was destined to fill a niche in the celestial edifice, that was God's business and might be left to him: what concerned the sculptor was to-day's labour and joy, with the shrewd wisdom they might bring after them.
[Sidenote: Representation introduced.]
Gothic ornament was accordingly more than ornament; it was sculpture. To the architect sculpture and painting are only means of variegating a surface; light and shade, depth and elaboration, are thereby secured and aid him in distributing his masses. For this reason geometrical or highly conventionalised ornament is all the architect requires. If his decorators furnish more, if they insist on copying natural forms or illustrating history, that is their own affair. Their humanity will doubtless give them, as representative artists, a new claim on human regard, and the building they enrich in their pictorial fashion will gain a new charm, just as it would gain by historic associations or by the smell of incense clinging to its walls. When the arts superpose their effects the total impression belongs to none of them in particular; it is imaginative merely or in the broadest sense poetical. So the monumental function of Greek sculpture, and the interpretations it gave to national myths, made every temple a storehouse of poetic memories. In the same way every great cathedral became a pious story-book. Construction, by admitting applied decoration, offers a splendid basis and background for representative art. It is in their decorative function that construction and representation meet; they are able to conspire in one ideal effect by virtue of the common appeal which they unwittingly make to the senses. If construction were not decorative it could never ally itself imaginatively to decoration; and decoration in turn would never be willingly representative if the forms which illustration requires were not decorative in themselves.
[Sidenote: Transition to illustration.]
Illustration has nevertheless an intellectual function by which it diverges altogether from decoration and even, in the narrowest sense of the word, from art: for the essence of illustration lies neither in use nor in beauty. The illustrator's impulse is to reproduce and describe given objects. He wishes in the first place to force observers—overlooking all logical scruples—to call his work by the name of its subject matter; and then he wishes to inform them further, through his representation, and to teach them to apprehend the real object as, in its natural existence, it might never have been apprehended. His first task is to translate the object faithfully into his special medium; his second task, somewhat more ambitious, is so to penetrate into the object during that process of translation that this translation may become at the same time analytic and imaginative, in that it signalises the object's structure and emphasises its ideal suggestions. In such reproduction both hand and mind are called upon to construct and build up a new apparition; but here construction has ceased to be chiefly decorative or absolute in order to become representative. The aesthetic element in art has begun to recede before the intellectual; and sensuous effects, while of course retained and still studied, seem to be impressed into the service of ideas.
[Sidenote: Psychology of imitation.]
Imitation is a fertile principle in the Life of Reason. We have seen that it furnishes the only rational sanction for belief in any fellow mind; now we shall see how it creates the most glorious and interesting of plastic arts. The machinery of imitation is obscure but its prevalence is obvious, and even in the present rudimentary state of human biology we may perhaps divine some of its general features. In a motor image the mind represents prophetically what the body is about to execute: but all images are more or less motor, so that no idea, apparently, can occupy the mind unless the body has received some impulse to enact the same. The plastic instinct to reproduce what is seen is therefore simply an uninterrupted and adequate seeing; these two phenomena, separable logically and divided in Cartesian psychology by an artificial chasm, are inseparable in existence and are, for natural history, two parts of the same event. That an image should exist for consciousness is, abstractly regarded, a fact which neither involves motion nor constitutes knowledge; but that natural relation to ulterior events which endows that image with a cognitive function identifies it at the same time with the motor impulse which accompanies the idea. If the image involved no bodily attitude and prophesied no action it would refer to no eventual existence and would have no practical meaning. Even if it meant to refer to something ulterior it would, under those circumstances, miss its aim, seeing that no natural relation connected it with any object which could support or verify its asseverations. It might feel significant, like a dream, but its significance would be vain and not really self-transcendent; for it is in the world of events that logic must find application, if it cares for applicability at all. This needful bond between ideas and the further existences they forebode is not merely a logical postulate, taken on trust because the ideas in themselves assert it; it is a previous and genetic bond, proper to the soil in which the idea flourishes and a condition of its existence. For the idea expresses unawares a present cerebral event of which the ulterior event consciously looked to is a descendant or an ancestor; so that the ripening of that idea, or its prior history, leads materially to the fact which the idea seeks to represent ideally.
[Sidenote: Sustained sensation involves reproduction.]
In some such fashion we may come to conceive how imitative art is simply the perfection and fulfilment of sensation. The act of apperception in which a sensation is reflected upon and understood is already an internal reproduction. The object is retraced and gone over in the mind, not without quite perceptible movements in the limbs, which sway, as it were, in sympathy with the object's habit. Presumably this incipient imitation of the object is the physical basis for apperception itself; the stimulus, whatever devious courses it may pursue, reconstitutes itself into an impulse to render the object again, as we acquire the accent which we often hear. This imitation sometimes has the happiest results, in that the animal fights with one that fights, and runs after one that runs away from him. All this happens initially, as we may still observe in ourselves, quite without thought of eventual profit; although if chase leads to contact, and contact stimulates hunger or lust, movements important for preservation will quickly follow. Such eventual utilities, however, like all utilities, are supported by a prodigious gratuitous vitality, and long before a practical or scientific use of sensation is attained its artistic force is in full operation. If art be play, it is only because all life is play in the beginning. Rational adjustments to truth and to benefit supervene only occasionally and at a higher level.
[Sidenote: Imitative art repeats with intent to repeat, and in a new material.]
Imitation cannot, of course, result in a literal repetition of the object that suggests it. The copy is secondary; it does not iterate the model by creating a second object on the same plane of reality, but reproduces the form in a new medium and gives it a different function. In these latter circumstances lies the imitative essence of the second image: for one leaf does not imitate another nor is each twin the other's copy. Like sensibility, imitation remodels a given being so that it becomes, in certain formal respects, like another being in its environment. It is a response and an index, by which note is taken of a situation or of its possible developments. When a man involuntarily imitates other men, he does not become those other persons; he is simply modified by their presence in a manner that allows him to conceive their will and their independent existence, not without growing similar to them in some measure and framing a genuine representation of them in his soul. He enacts what he understands, and his understanding consists precisely in knowing that he is re-enacting something which has its collateral existence elsewhere in nature. An element in the percipient repeats the total movement and tendency of the person perceived. The imitation, though akin to what it imitates, and reproducing it, lies in a different medium, and accordingly has a specific individuality and specific effects. Imitation is far more than similarity, nor does its ideal function lie in bringing a flat and unmeaning similarity about. It has a representative and intellectual value because in reproducing the forms of things it reproduces them in a fresh substance to a new purpose.
If I imitate mankind by following their fashions, I add one to the million and improve nothing: but if I imitate them under proper inhibitions and in the service of my own ends, I really understand them, and, by representing what I do not bodily become, I preserve and enlarge my own being and make it relevant ideally to what it physically depends upon. Assimilation is a way of drifting through the flux or of letting it drift through oneself; representation, on the contrary, is a principle of progress. To grow by accumulating passions and fancies is at best to grow in bulk: it is to become what a colony or a hydra might be. But to make the accretions which time brings to your being representative of what you are not, and do not wish to be, is to grow in dignity. It is to be wise and prepared. It is to survey a universe without ceasing to be a mind.
[Sidenote: Imitation leads to adaptation and to knowledge.]
A product of imitative sensibility is accordingly on a higher plane than the original existences it introduces to one another—the ignorant individual and the unknown world. Imitation in softening the body into physical adjustment stimulates the mind to ideal representation. This is the case even when the stimulus is a contagious influence or habit, though the response may then be slavish and the representation vague. Sheep jumping a wall after their leader doubtless feel that they are not alone; and though their action may have no purpose it probably has a felt sanction and reward. Men also think they invoke an authority when they appeal to the quod semper et ubique et ab omnibus, and a conscious unanimity is a human if not a rational joy. When, however, the stimulus to imitation is not so pervasive and touches chiefly a single sense, when what it arouses is a movement of the hand or eye retracing the object, then the response becomes very definitely cognitive. It constitutes an observation of fact, an acquaintance with a thing's structure amounting to technical knowledge; for such a survey leaves behind it a power to reconstitute the process it involved. It leaves an efficacious idea. In an idle moment, when the information thus acquired need not be put to instant use, the new-born faculty may work itself out spontaneously. The sound heard is repeated, the thing observed is sketched, the event conceived is acted out in pantomime. Then imitation rounds itself out; an uninhibited sensation has become an instinct to keep that sensation alive, and plastic representation has begun.
[Sidenote: How the artist is inspired and irresponsible.]
The secret of representative genius is simple enough. All hangs on intense, exhaustive, rehearsed sensation. To paint is a way of letting vision work; nor should the amateur imagine that while he lacks technical knowledge he can have in his possession all the ideal burden of an art. His reaction will be personal and adventitious, and he will miss the artist's real inspiration and ignore his genuine successes. You may instruct a poet about literature, but his allegiance is to emotion. You may offer the sculptor your comparative observations on style and taste; he may or may not care to listen, but what he knows and loves is the human body. Critics are in this way always one stage behind or beyond the artist; their operation is reflective and his is direct. In transferring to his special medium what he has before him his whole mind is lost in the object; as the marksman, to shoot straight, looks at the mark. How successful the result is, or how appealing to human nature, he judges afterwards, as an outsider might, and usually judges ill; since there is no life less apt to yield a broad understanding for human affairs or even for the residue of art itself, than the life of a man inspired, a man absorbed, as the genuine artist is, in his own travail. But into this travail, into this digestion and reproduction of the thing seen, a critic can hardly enter. Having himself the ulterior office of judge, he must not hope to rival nature's children in their sportiveness and intuition.
In an age of moral confusion, these circumstances may lead to a strange shifting of roles. The critic, feeling that something in the artist has escaped him, may labour to put himself in the artist's place. If he succeeded, the result would only be to make him a biographer; he would be describing in words the very intuitions which the artist had rendered in some other medium. To understand how the artist felt, however, is not criticism; criticism is an investigation of what the work is good for. Its function may be chiefly to awaken certain emotions in the beholder, to deepen in him certain habits of apperception; but even this most aesthetic element in a work's operation does not borrow its value from the possible fact that the artist also shared those habits and emotions. If he did, and if they are desirable, so much the better for him; but his work's value would still consist entirely in its power to propagate such good effects, whether they were already present in him or not. All criticism is therefore moral, since it deals with benefits and their relative weight. Psychological penetration and reconstructed biography may be excellent sport; if they do not reach historic truth they may at least exercise dramatic talent. Criticism, on the other hand, is a serious and public function; it shows the race assimilating the individual, dividing the immortal from the mortal part of a soul.
[Sidenote: Need of knowing and loving the subject rendered.]
Representation naturally repeats those objects which are most interesting in themselves. Even the medium, when a choice is possible, is usually determined by the sort of objects to be reproduced. Instruments lose their virtue with their use and a medium of representation, together with its manipulation, is nothing but a vehicle. It is fit if it makes possible a good rendition. All accordingly hangs on what life has made interesting to the senses, on what presents itself persuasively to the artist for imitation; and living arts exist only while well-known, much-loved things imperatively demand to be copied, so that their reproduction has some honest non-aesthetic interest for mankind. Although subject matter is often said to be indifferent to art, and an artist, when his art is secondary, may think of his technique only, nothing is really so poor and melancholy as art that is interested in itself and not in its subject. If any remnant of inspiration or value clings to such a performance, it comes from a surviving taste for something in the real world. Thus the literature that calls itself purely aesthetic is in truth prurient; without this half-avowed weakness to play upon, the coloured images evoked would have had nothing to marshall or to sustain them.
[Sidenote: Public interests determine the subject of art, and the subject the medium.]
A good way to understand schools and styles and to appreciate their respective functions and successes is to consider first what region of nature preoccupied the age in which they arose. Perception can cut the world up into many patterns, which it isolates and dignifies with the name of things. It must distinguish before it can reproduce and the objects which attention distinguishes are of many strange sorts. Thus the single man, the hero, in his acts of prowess or in his readiness, may be the unit and standard in discourse. It will then be his image that will preoccupy the arts. For such a task the most adequate art is evidently sculpture, for sculpture is the most complete of imitations. In no other art can apprehension render itself so exhaustively and with such recuperative force. Sculpture retains form and colour, with all that both can suggest, and it retains them in their integrity, leaving the observer free to resurvey them from any point of view and drink in their quality exhaustively.
[Sidenote: Reproduction by acting ephemera.]
The movement and speech which are wanting, the stage may be called upon to supply; but it cannot supply them without a terrible sacrifice, for it cannot give permanence to it expression. Acting is for this reason an inferior art, not perhaps in difficulty and certainly not in effect, but inferior in dignity, since the effort of art is to keep what is interesting in existence, to recreate it in the eternal, and this ideal is half frustrated if the representation is itself fleeting and the rendering has no firmer subsistence than the inspiration that gave it birth. By making himself, almost in his entirety, the medium of his art, the actor is morally diminished, and as little of him remains in his work, when this is good, as of his work in history. He lends himself without interest, and after being Brutus at one moment and Falstaff at another, he is not more truly himself. He is abolished by his creations, which nevertheless cannot survive him.
[Sidenote: High demands of sculpture.]
Being so adequate a rendering of its object, sculpture demands a perfect mastery over it and is correspondingly difficult. It requires taste and training above every other art; for not only must the material form be reproduced, but its motor suggestions and moral expression must be rendered; things which in the model itself are at best transitory, and which may never be found there if a heroic or ideal theme is proposed. The sculptor is obliged to have caught on the wing attitudes momentarily achieved or vaguely imagined; yet these must grow firm and harmonious under his hand. Nor is this enough; for sculpture is more dependent than other arts on its model. If the statue is to be ideal, i.e., if it is to express the possible motions and vital character of its subject, the model must itself be refined. Training must have cut in the flesh those lines which are to make the language and eloquence of the marble. Trivial and vulgar forms, such as modern sculpture abounds in, reflect an undisciplined race of men, one in which neither soul nor body has done anything well, because the two have done nothing together. The frame has remained gross or awkward, while the face has taken on a tense expression, betraying loose and undignified habits of mind. To carve such a creature is to perpetuate a caricature. The modern sculptor is stopped short at the first conception of a figure; if he gives it its costume, it is grotesque; if he strips it, it is unmeaning and pitiful.
[Sidenote: It is essentially obsolete.]
Greece was in all these respects a soil singularly favourable to sculpture. The success there achieved was so conspicuous that two thousand years of essential superfluity have not availed to extirpate the art. Plastic impulse is indeed immortal, and many a hand, even without classic example, would have fallen to modelling. In the middle ages, while monumental sculpture was still rudely reminiscent, ornamental carving arose spontaneously. Yet at every step the experimental sculptor would run up against disaster. What could be seen in the streets, while it offered plenty of subjects, offered none that could stimulate his talent. His patrons asked only for illustration and applied ornament; his models offered only the smirk and sad humour of a stunted life. Here and there his statues might attain a certain sweetness and grace, such as painting might perfectly well have rendered; but on the whole sculpture remained decorative and infantile.
The Renaissance brought back technical freedom and a certain inspiration, unhappily a retrospective and exotic one. The art cut praiseworthy capers in the face of the public, but nobody could teach the public itself to dance. If several great temperaments, under the auspices of fashion, could then call up a magic world in which bodies still spoke a heroic language, that was a passing dream. Society could not feed such an artificial passion, nor the schools transmit an arbitrary personal style that responded to nothing permanent in social conditions. Academies continued to offer prizes for sculpture, the nude continued to be seen in studios, and equestrian or other rhetorical statues continued occasionally to be erected in public squares. Heroic sculpture, however, in modern society, is really an anomaly and confesses as much by being a failure. No personal talent avails to rescue an art from laboured insignificance when it has no steadying function in the moral world, and must waver between caprice and convention. Where something modest and genuine peeped out was in portraiture, and also at times in that devotional sculpture in wood which still responded to a native interest and consequently kept its sincerity and colour. Pious images may be feeble in the extreme, but they have not the weakness of being merely aesthetic. The purveyor of church wares has a stated theme; he is employed for a purpose; and if he has enough technical resource his work may become truly beautiful: which is not to say that he will succeed if his conceptions are without dignity or his style without discretion. There are good Mater dolorosas; there is no good Sacred Heart.
[Sidenote: When men see groups and backgrounds they are natural painters.]
It may happen, however, that people are not interested in subjects that demand or allow reproduction in bulk. The isolated figure or simple group may seem cold apart from its natural setting. In rendering an action you may need to render its scene, if it is the circumstance that gives it value rather than the hero. You may also wish to trace out the action through a series of episodes with many figures. In the latter case you might have recourse to a bas-relief, which, although durable, is usually a thankless work; there is little in it that might not be conveyed in a drawing with distinctness. As some artists, like Michael Angelo, have carried the sculptor's spirit into painting, many more, when painting is the prevalent and natural art, have produced carved pictures. It may be said that any work is essentially a picture which is conceived from a single quarter and meant to be looked at only in one light. Objects in such a case need not be so truly apperceived and appropriated as they would have to be in true sculpture. One aspect suffices: the subject presented is not so much constructed as dreamt.
[Sidenote: Evolution of painting.]
The whole history of painting may be strung on this single thread—the effort to reconstitute impressions, first the dramatic impression and then the sensuous. A summary and symbolic representation of things is all that at first is demanded; the point is to describe something pictorially and recall people's names and actions. It is characteristic of archaic painting to be quite discursive and symbolic; each figure is treated separately and stuck side by side with the others upon a golden ground. The painter is here smothered in the recorder, in the annalist; only those perceptions are allowed to stand which have individual names or chronicle facts mentioned in the story. But vision is really more sensuous and rich than report, if art is only able to hold vision in suspense and make it explicit. When painting is still at this stage, and is employed on hieroglyphics, it may reach the maximum of decorative splendour. Whatever sensuous glow finer representations may later acquire will be not sensuous merely, but poetical; Titians, Murillos, or Turners are colourists in representation, and their canvases would not be particularly warm or luminous if they represented nothing human or mystical or atmospheric. A stained-glass window or a wall of tiles can outdo them for pure colour and decorative magic. Leaving decoration, accordingly, to take care of itself and be applied as sense may from time to time require, painting goes on to elaborate the symbols with which it begins, to make them symbolise more and more of what their object contains. A catalogue of persons will fall into a group, a group will be fused into a dramatic action. Conventional as the separate figures may still be, their attitudes and relations will reconstitute the dramatic impression. The event will be rendered in its own language; it will not, to be recognised, have to appeal to words. Thus a symbolic crucifixion is a crucifixion only because we know by report that it is; a plastic crucifixion would first teach us, on the contrary, what a real crucifixion might be. It only remains to supply the aerial medium and make dramatic truth sensuous truth also.
[Sidenote: Sensuous and dramatic adequacy approached.]
To work up a sensation intellectually and reawaken all its passionate associations is to reach a new and more exciting sensation which we call emotion or thought. As in poetry there are two stages, one pregnant and prior to prose and another posterior and synthetic, so in painting we have not only a reversion to sense but an ulterior synthesis of the sensuous, its interpretation in a dramatic or poetic vision. Archaic painting, with its abstract rendering of separate things, is the prose of design. It would not be beautiful at all but for its colour and technical feeling—that expression of candour and satisfaction which may pervade it, as it might a Latin rhyme. To correct this thinness and dislocation, to restore life without losing significance, painting must proceed to accumulate symbol upon symbol, till the original impression is almost restored, but so restored that it contains all the articulation which a thorough analysis had given it. Such painting as Tintoretto's or Paolo Veronese's records impressions as a cultivated sense might receive them. It glows with visible light and studies the sensuous appearance, but it contains at the same time an intelligent expression of all those mechanisms, those situations and passions, with which the living world is diversified. It is not a design in spots, meant merely to outdo a sunset; it is a richer dream of experience, meant to outshine the reality.
In order to reconstitute the image we may take an abstract representation or hieroglyphic and gradually increase its depth and its scope. As the painter becomes aware of what at first he had ignored, he adds colour to outline, modelling to colour, and finally an observant rendering of tints and values. This process gives back to objects their texture and atmosphere, and the space in which they lie. From a representation which is statuesque in feeling and which renders figures by furnishing a visible inventory of their parts and attributes, the artist passes to considering his figures more and more as parts of a whole and as moving in an ambient ether. They tend accordingly to lose their separate emphasis, in order to be like flowers in a field or trees in a forest. They become elements, interesting chiefly by their interplay, and shining by a light which is mutually reflected.
[Sidenote: Essence of landscape-painting.]
When this transformation is complete the painting is essentially a landscape. It may not represent precisely the open country; it may even depict an interior, like Velasquez's Meninas. But the observer, even in the presence of men and artificial objects, has been overcome by the medium in which they swim. He is seeing the air and what it happens to hold. He is impartially recreating from within all that nature puts before him, quite as if his imagination had become their diffused material substance. Whatever individuality and moral value these bits of substance may have they acquire for him, as for nature, incidentally and by virtue of ulterior relations consequent on their physical being. If this physical being is wholly expressed, the humanity and morality involved will be expressed likewise, even if expressed unawares. Thus a profound and omnivorous reverie overflows the mind; it devours its objects or is absorbed into them, and the mood which this active self-alienation brings with it is called the spirit of the scene, the sentiment of the landscape.
Perception and art, in this phase, easily grow mystical; they are readily lost in primordial physical sympathies. Although at first a certain articulation and discursiveness may be retained in the picture, so that the things seen in their atmosphere and relations may still be distinguished clearly, the farther the impartial absorption in them goes, the more what is inter-individual rises and floods the individual over. All becomes light and depth and air, and those particular objects threaten to vanish which we had hoped to make luminous, breathing, and profound. The initiated eye sees so many nameless tints and surfaces, that it can no longer select any creative limits for things. There cease to be fixed outlines, continuous colours, or discrete existences in nature.
[Sidenote: Its threatened dissolution.]
An artist, however, cannot afford to forget that even in such a case units and divisions would have to be introduced by him into his work. A man, in falling back on immediate reality, or immediate appearance, may well feel his mind's articulate grammar losing its authority, but that grammar must evidently be reasserted if from the immediate he ever wishes to rise again to articulate mind; and art, after all, exists for the mind and must speak humanly. If we crave something else, we have not so far to go: there is always the infinite about us and the animal within us to absolve us from human distinctions.
Moreover, it is not quite true that the immediate has no real diversity. It evidently suggests the ideal terms into which we divide it, and it sustains our apprehension itself, with all the diversities this may create. To what I call right and left, light and darkness, a real opposition must correspond in any reality which is at all relevant to my experience; so that I should fail to integrate my impression, and to absorb the only reality that concerns me, if I obliterated those points of reference which originally made the world figured and visible. Space remains absolutely dark, for all the infinite light which we may declare to be radiating through it, until this light is concentrated in one body or reflected from another; and a landscape cannot be so much as vaporous unless mists are distinguishable in it, and through them some known object which they obscure. In a word, landscape is always, in spite of itself, a collection of particular representations. It is a mass of hieroglyphics, each the graphic symbol for some definite human sensation or reaction; only these symbols have been extraordinarily enriched and are fused in representation, so that, like instruments in an orchestra, they are merged in the voluminous sensation they constitute together, a sensation in which, for attentive perception, they never cease to exist.
[Sidenote: Reversion to pure decorative design.]
Impatience of such control as reality must always exercise over representation may drive painting back to a simpler function. When a designer, following his own automatic impulse, conventionalises a form, he makes a legitimate exchange, substituting fidelity to his apperceptive instincts for fidelity to his external impressions. When a landscape-painter, revolting against a tedious discursive style, studies only masses of colour and abstract systems of lines, he retains something in itself beautiful, although no longer representative, perhaps, of anything in nature. A pure impression cannot be illegitimate; it cannot be false until it pretends to represent something, and then it will have ceased to be a simple feeling, since something in it will refer to an ulterior existence, to which it ought to conform. This ulterior existence (since intelligence is life understanding its own conditions) can be nothing in the end but what produced that impression. Sensuous life, however, has its value within itself; its pleasures are not significant. Representative art is accordingly in a sense secondary; beauty and expression begin farther back. They are present whenever the outer stimulus agreeably strikes an organ and thereby arouses a sustained image, in which the consciousness of both stimulation and reaction is embodied. An abstract design in outline and colour will amply fulfil these conditions, if sensuous and motor harmonies are preserved in it, and if a sufficient sweep and depth of reaction is secured. Stained-glass, tapestry, panelling, and in a measure all objects, by their mere presence and distribution, have a decorative function. When sculpture and painting cease to be representative they pass into the same category. Decoration in turn merges in construction; and so all art, like the whole Life of Reason, is joined together at its roots, and branches out from the vital processes of sensation and reaction. Diversity arises centrifugally, according to the provinces explored and the degree of mutual checking and control to which the various extensions are subjected.
[Sidenote: Sensuous values are primordial and so indispensable.]
Organisation, both internal and adaptive, marks the dignity and authority which each art may have attained; but this advantage, important as is must seem to a philosopher or a legislator, is not what the artist chiefly considers. His privilege is to remain capricious in his response to the full-blown universe of science and passion, and to be still sensuous in his highest imaginings. He cares for structure only when it is naturally decorative. He thinks gates were invented for the sake of triumphal arches, and forests for the sake of poets and deer. Representation, with all it may represent, means to him simply what it says to his emotions. In all this the artist, though in one sense foolish, in another way is singularly sane; for, after all, everything must pass through the senses, and life, whatever its complexity, remains always primarily a feeling.
To render this feeling delightful, to train the senses to their highest potency and harmony in operation, is to begin life well. Were the foundations defective and subject to internal strain there could be little soundness in the superstructure. AEsthetic activity is far from being a late or adventitious ornament in human economy; it is an elementary factor, the perfection of an indispensable vehicle. Whenever science or morals have done violence to sense they have decreed their own dissolution. To sense a rebellious appeal will presently be addressed, and the appeal will go against rash and empty dogmas. A keen aesthetic sensibility and a flourishing art mark the puberty of reason. Fertility comes later, after a marriage with the practical world. But a sensuous ripening is needed first, such as myth and ornament betray in their exuberance. A man who has no feeling for feeling and no felicity in expression will hardly know what he is about in his further undertakings. He will have missed his first lesson in living spontaneously and well. Not knowing himself, he will be all hearsay and pedantry. He may fall into the superstition of supposing that what gives life value can be something external to life. Science and morals are themselves arts that express natural impulses and find experimental rewards. This fact, in betraying their analogy to aesthetic activity, enables them also to vindicate their excellence.