Art and Morality
The harmony in music teaches, without intention, the lesson of proportion in life. The bird in his song has no moral purpose, and yet the influence is humanizing. The beautiful in nature acts through appreciation and sympathy. It does not browbeat, neither does it humiliate. It is beautiful without regard to you. Roses would be unbearable if in their red and perfumed hearts were mottoes to the effect that bears eat bad boys and that honesty is not the best policy.
Art creates an atmosphere in which the proprieties, the amenities, and the virtues unconsciously grow. The rain does not lecture the seed. The light does not make rules for the vine and flower.
The heart is softened by the pathos of the perfect.
The world is a dictionary of the mind, and in this dictionary of things genius discovers analogies, resemblances, and parallels amid opposites, likeness in difference, and corroboration in contradiction. Language is but a multitude of pictures. Nearly every word is a work of art, a picture represented by a sound, and this sound represented by a mark, and this mark gives not only the sound, but the picture of something in the outward world and the picture of something within the mind, and with these words which were once pictures, other pictures are made.
The greatest pictures and the greatest statues, the most wonderful and marvelous groups, have been painted and chiseled with words. They are as fresh to-day as when they fell from human lips. Penelope still ravels, weaves, and waits. Ulysses’ bow is bent, and through the level rings the eager arrow flies. Cordelia’s tears are falling now.
The greatest gallery of the world is found in Shakespeare’s book. The pictures and the marbles of the Vatican and the Louvre are faded crumbling things, compared with his, in which perfect color gives to perfect form the glow and movement of passion’s highest life.
Everything except the truth wears, and needs to wear, a mask. Little souls are ashamed of nature. Prudery pretends to have only those passions that it cannot feel. Moral poetry is like a respectable canal that never overflows its banks. It has weirs through which slowly and without damage any excess of feeling is allowed to flow. It makes excuses for nature, and regards love as an interesting convict.
Moral art paints or chisels feet, faces, and rags. It regards the body as obscene. It hides with drapery that which it has not the genius purely to portray. Mediocrity becomes moral from a necessity which it has the impudence to call virtue. It pretends to regard ignorance as the foundation of purity and insists that virtue seek the companionship of the blind.
Art creates, combines, and reveals. It is the highest manifestation of thought, of passion, of love, of intuition. It is the highest form of expression, of history and prophecy. It allows us to look at an unmasked soul, to fathom the abysses of passion, to understand the heights and depths of love.
Compared with what is in the mind of man, the outward world almost ceases to excite our wonder. The impression produced by mountains, seas, and stars is not so great, so thrilling, as the music of Wagner. The constellations themselves grow small when we read “Troilus and Cressida,” “Hamlet,” or “Lear.” What are seas and stars in the presence of a heroism that holds pain and death as naught? What are seas and stars compared with human hearts? What is the quarry compared with the statue?
Art civilizes because it enlightens, develops, strengthens, ennobles. It deals with the beautiful, with the passionate, with the ideal. It is the child of the heart. To be great, it must deal with the human. It must be in accord with the experience, with the hopes, with the fears, and with the possibilities of man.
No one cares to paint a palace, because there is nothing in such a picture to touch the heart. It tells of responsibility, of the prison, of the conventional. It suggests a load – it tells of apprehension, of weariness and ennui. The picture of a cottage, over which runs a vine, a little home thatched with content, with its simple life, its natural sunshine and shadow, its trees bending with fruit, its hollyhocks and pinks, its happy children, its hum of bees, is a poem – a smile in the desert of this world.
The great lady, in velvet and jewels, makes but a poor picture. There is not freedom enough in her life. She is constrained. She is too far away from the simplicity of happiness. In her thought there is too much of the mathematical. In all art you will find a touch of chaos, of liberty; and there is in all artists a little of the vagabond – that is to say, genius.
The nude in art has rendered holy the beauty of woman. Every Greek statue pleads for mothers and sisters. From these marbles come strains of music. They have filled the heart of man with tenderness and worship. They have kindled reverence, admiration and love. The Venus de Milo, that even mutilation cannot mar, tends only to the elevation of our race. It is a miracle of majesty and beauty, the supreme idea of the supreme woman. It is a melody in marble. All the lines meet in a kind of voluptuous and glad content. The pose is rest itself. The eyes are filled with thoughts of love. The breast seems dreaming of a child.
The prudent is not the poetic; it is the mathematical. Genius is the spirit of abandon; it is joyous, irresponsible. It moves in the swell and curve of billows; it is careless of conduct and consequence. For a moment, the chain of cause and effect seems broken; the soul is free. It gives an account not even to itself. Limitations are forgotten; nature seems obedient to the will; the ideal alone exists; the universe is a symphony.
The old Greek statues, frankly, proudly nude, whose free and perfect limbs have never known the sacrilege of clothes, were and are as free from taint, as pure, as stainless as the image of the morning star trembling in a drop of perfumed dew.
The Greeks, through their love of physical and mental development, gave us the statues – the most precious of all inanimate things – of far more worth than all the diamonds and rubies and pearls that ever glittered in crowns and tiaras, on altars or thrones, or, flashing, rose and fell on woman’s billowed breast. In these marbles we find the highest types of life, of superb endeavor and supreme repose. In looking at them we feel that blood flows, that hearts throb and souls aspire. these miracles of art are the richest legacies the ancient world has left our race.