The Nature of Art
The Nature of Art
The Nature of Art.
It was once said that “Man made the town, but God made the country;” and I do not know that any expression more immediately or strikingly suggests the two great branches into which all human learning may be divided;—the two great divisions, in one or other of which must be placed all the objects which are presented for our curiosity or our study, in such a Museum as that in which I address you this evening.
The phenomena of nature, and the phenomena of man—the study of nature and the study of man—these two embrace the whole range of human enquiry.
It is no new discovery, although we seem to realize it more distinctly with every fresh step in scientific knowledge, that all the operations which are going on in the universe around us, all the subtle and manifold changes, which transform the external appearance of our planetary home, from epoch to epoch, year to year, season to season, and hour to hour, are conducted, not by the chapter of accidents, not by arbitrary will, but by fixed and irrevocable law.
In our present provisional and partial insight into nature, we call by technical names, and arrange and classify under technical systems, the unity of which, or the connection between which, are at present but very dimly perceived, those hidden relations which subsist between the particles of matter, and which produce the various phenomena which become the subject of our observation and study. That strange quality by which the planets revolve in their orbits, and the mountains remain fixed in their places undisturbed by the gyrations of the world in space, we call the law of gravity. We speak of the laws of chemistry and electricity, of light, and heat, and sound, of statics and dynamics, and of the rest and motion of fluids, and so on; and, with a far less definite sense of what we mean, we talk of the powers of animal and vegetable life; and perhaps the day may come, when we shall be able to recognise in all these various laws, the evidences of one all-comprehensive principle, impressed upon and inherent in all created matter, of which the laws at present within the scope of our philosophy are but partial and subordinate manifestations. However this may be, it will be admitted by all, that the tendency of scientific knowledge has been to present nature to us as under the influence of fixed law, as opposed to arbitrary will.
In the earlier ages of the world, when the intelligence of man had not penetrated beyond a superficial observation of the external appearance of things, he was wont to ascribe to the powers of nature, a personality similar to that which he recognised in himself. He loved to symbolise its localities and operations under the forms of imaginary beings, invested with such human characters and attributes as were suggested by the emotions and feelings which those localities and operations naturally awoke in his mind. Thus the streams and the groves, the winds and the ocean, the volcano and the whirlpool, were clothed in the language of the poet, and in popular belief, with the forms and characters of semi-human beings—fawns and satyrs, nymphs and dryads, Æolus with his cavern-bound winds, Neptune and his Tritons, Vulcan and his Cyclops; until every power of nature was endowed in popular superstition with a personal and individual will, influenced by motives and subject to caprices similar to those of humanity, and operating sometimes for the benefit, and sometimes for the destruction of man.
It has not been until comparatively modern times, and even now, I fear, but over a small part of the human family, that scientific knowledge has triumphed over popular credulity; and that the realm of nature is presented to us in every part, as subject to immutable law, from which the idea of choice or will, of object or design, residing in matter itself or in the powers of nature, is absolutely excluded.
When, however, we pass from the phenomena of nature, to those connected with man, a new scene opens to our view. We stand face to face with free will; with a new creative power at work in the midst of the vast and complex machinery of nature. If you take two seeds from the same plant, apparently, so far as you can judge, similar in all respects, and plant them in the same soil and in the same climate, there shall grow from them two trees widely differing from each other, in size, and strength, and character. Yet we do not suppose for a moment that any act of choice or will on the part of the tree has modified its form or its growth; but rather that the unknown incidents of nourishment and of atmosphere, of sunlight and of moisture, have dictated the development of every leaf and every fibre. But if you take two human beings, apparently similar in the cradle, subject them to the same education and the ame [sic: same] page 4 influences, and observe them at successive periods of their life, you are compelled to admit, that the result in each has not been arrrived at solely by the operation of natural and mechanical laws, but by those laws modified, controlled, interfered with, by the operation of an independent force residing in the man himself,—by his power to choose or to refuse—by his free will.
At what exact point this free will first enters into the scale of nature, is perhaps the most insoluble of all the mysteries by which we are surrounded. Does it appear first with locomotion? Is the cow absolutely free to turn to the right hand or to the left, to crop the wholesome, and reject the poisonous herbage as she pleases? Or are all animals like plants, only more delicate and complicated parts in the one vast mechanism of nature? Or if we admit a certain degree of free will to the higher animals, shall we apply the same law to the oyster and the polypus? Or what shall we say of that large portion of animated nature, which lies in the border land between the animal and vegetable kingdoms? In truth it would appear as if not only the will, but most, if not all, the mental powers of man had their latent germs in the lower animals; and that these germs are more perfectly developed as we rise in the scale of creation. Thus we can trace in animals the emotions of courage and fear, memory and hope, love and hatred, gratitude and revenge, joy and sorrow, and a distinct though imperfect power of reason, connecting cause with effect and governing the actions accordingly. Of the creative power of imagination I am not aware that any trace has been discovered except in man.
To whatever extent, then, if to any, we may consider animals as governed by a personal will under the influence of moral emotions, superimposed upon mechanical law, it is certain that the evidence of such an independent will in man is infinitely greater than in any lower order of beings; and that, so far as we know, he stands alone amidst creation as possessing a creative power of imagination. And there is no reason, because impenetrable mist obscures the boundary line between matter subjected to mechanical law alone, and matter subjected, not only to such law but to the operation of external and independent will, that we should therefore ignore the broad and unmistakable difference between the two classes of facts which present themselves at the opposite ends of the scale; between, on the one hand, such facts as are presented to us by chemical experiments, the result of which we can confidently predict, and, on the other, by the phenomena of human action and caprice, which elude all possibility of scientific mensuration.
I know, indeed,—and I notice it, not because it will enter into consideration this evening, but because it would be disingenuous if I were to pretend to be ignorant of the fact;—I know it has been argued, that man himself, not only in his lower and material organisation, but even in the more subtle and impalpable action of his reason, his imagination, and his will, is equally the unconscious subject of the same immutable law which he recognises in external nature; that he is no more than a passive and predestinated instrument—no more than one inert link, in the mechanical chain of cause and effect, which unites the past to the future in the sequence of the operations of nature. I will pass by the wide field for discussion which this strange philosophy opens to our view; because it is sufficient for our purpose this evening to assume, that, even were the doctrine of predestination established, were it proven that free will in man is a chimera, and the creative powers of his imagination no more than a delusion, still the laws of human action, what we are content to call his power of choice, his free will, are so entirely different from and independent of the natural laws of growth and change, that, as compared with the latter, we may logically consider man as possessed of an inherent power of action, independent of mechanical law. And we recognise this power, not only as modifying his own growth and development, but still more clearly in the action of man upon the world which he inhabits, in the creations of his hand and his brain. I have said the tree grows in obedience to mechanical law. Given its origin, and the circumstances surrounding it, and it must of necessity have attained its own particular form and stature and character; that individual one and none other. But the house does not grow in obedience to any such law. It was not in compliance with any such law that there are so many windows in the roof above me, instead of six or seven or any other number. That particular number, and so all the special proportions of this building, were the result of choice and design on the part of the architect, who was free to select or reject as he pleased. And so it is that when we pass from the operations of nature to the works of man, we pass from the world of nature into the world of Art; for Art is a term which embraces every modification in the forms of nature which has been achieved by the intelligence, the imagination, the memory, the creative power, the imitative ability, the skilful ingenuity of man.
What is it, then, which we mean by Art? It is not the mere mechanical combination of matter into new forms, designed for new uses, with which Art deals. Art takes no cognizance of the principles of structure, or the nature of materials, or the composition of the elements which it uses as a language in which to convey its ideas. Art deals only with the images produced, in respect to their beauty or their ugliness; that is to say, in respect to the effect which such images have upon the mind of man; upon that quality of his mind which receives pleasure from the perception of beauty, and pain from the presence of the opposite. And this feeling of pain or pleasure is evoked, not only by the manifestation of beauty or the contrary in material form, but from ideas which have a less material embodiment. It is the images which arise in or are impressed on the mind, in respect page 5 to their beauty or the reverse, which, and which alone, are within the realm of Art.
Although Art takes no cognizance of the laws of nature, even when expressing itself in materials subject to those laws, yet it is limited and controlled by them. For example: if you build a house, you must build it in compliance with the law of gravity operating on your materials, or it will cease to be a house; it will tumble down. If you paint a picture, you must use pigments and colors which will not undergo chemical change, or your colors will fade under your brush; the idea in your mind will have no expression. If you would produce a strain of music on a violin, you must rub your bow with resin and not with grease, or your music will remain amongst the eternal silences. If you make a pudding, you must use ingredients which will combine in the manner you expect, or your pudding will curdle, and, as a work of art, will be nothing more than a praiseworthy intention. But still it is not with the material conditions of the work that Art deals. These are within the province of the mechanist and workman, not of the Artist. Nor does Art enquire what are the uses for which a thing is made, nor of its fitness or the contrary for such uses; further than our perception of such fitness or unfitness may enhance or destroy our sense of beauty. Art deals solely with works in respect to their beauty; that is, in respect to their capacity to kindle in the mind that emotion which the contemplation of beauty affords.
When we say that Art is limited by the laws of nature, we mean no more than this—that Art is limited by the possibility of expression in material forms. And all ideas must be expressed more or less in material forms; for even ideas unwritten and unspoken are ineapable of being recognised by the mind, except through the medium of language. If we think at all, we think in a languge of some sort. Art, therefore, must have an expression; and that expression is subject to the laws which govern the materials which it uses for the purpose. But within these limits, subject only to the conditions thus imposed, the artist roams free and uncontrolled in a paradise of his own fancy, peopled by the creations of his own teeming brain. And so, in and around the material world, and out of elements of which he is himself a part, man weaves a new world, which hangs like a vision around the coarser elements of matter, and by the spells of his creative fancy, he calls into existence the world of Art.
I may seem, by what I have said, to imply, that the idea of material beauty is wholly independent of the physical laws which rule the operations of nature. But upon this point we should speak with the caution and modesty becoming a very limited perception of truth. For we do not know that there may not be some necessary connection between the laws of nature and the manifestation of beauty. How can we say that the glories of the evening sky are not a necessary result of the same causes by which the revolution of the earth brings the sun every evening on the horizon; which guide the light of the sun through space, and refract it through our atmosphere, and, absorbing some of the rays, transmit the rest in color to our eyes; which suck up the moisture of the earth into the heavens and suspend it in graceful drapery over our heads? Who shall say that the solemn beauty of the primeval forest is not an essential and necessary consequence of the laws by which the forest grew? Certain it is that the full development of the powers of life in an individual bears with it a higher degree of physical beauty than the same individual exhibits, when its vitality is impaired by age or sickness. The more perfectly fitted things are for the uses for which they are designed, the more beautiful do they frequently appear. For example a yacht is more beautiful than a coal barge, even in the eyes of those who are entirely ignorant of the superiority of one over the other as a machine for sailing. I say not that this is a universal law; but I do say that its frequent appearance is sufficient to raise a doubt, whether the production of beauty may not, in some manner of which we can form no conception, be inherently and necessarily connected with the mechanism of nature.
I have said that Art, in the proper sense of the term, does not deal with the productions of man in any other respect than as regards their beauty. Indeed, the term is often used in a more limited sense, as applying only to works which are produced solely for their beauty—such as pictures, statues, and so on; which are therefore called, par excellence, works of Art. But it is clear that the term is capable of a much wider application; because, if we make anything for a special use, if it be only a toasting fork, we can conceive a vast variety of forms in which it may be moulded, all of which may equally subserve the same end, but which may differ widely from one another in ornament and in beauty. In so far as the thing is a machine for doing a particular work, it is beyond the cognizance of Art; but in so far as it is more or less beautiful, it is a work of Art.
Hence it is that not only objects which are made solely for creating pleasure, such as pictures and statues, but things which are in the first instance designed for physical utility, are equally works of Art. Thus our churches, our houses, our chairs and tables, our fire-irons and our clothes, our carriages and our crockery, all bear witness, not only to the skill of the workman, but to the inventive fancy of the artist; and the graceful curvature of a chignon has no more claim to the dignity of Art than the delicate coloring of a tobacco-pipe; though the one object is designed to enhance the beauty of women, the other the comfort of men; nor does it alter the result that the former as signally fails as the latter succeeds in its mission.
In short, there is nothing upon which man bestows labor which does not come more or less within the realm of Art. Hence it is page 6 that the study of Art is co-ordinate with the study of mankind. It is not only in monuments and pictures and statues, but in every specimen of handicraft, that we read the history of the people by and for whom they were made. A people thus unconsciously writes its own history in the daily works of its hands. For by these records we learn not only what its workmen and its artists could do, but what the people for whom they worked used to admire. The artist not only acts upon, but is reacted upon, by the age and race in which he lives. When he aims at producing the beautiful, he is influenced by the consciousness of what his patrons, the public, will accept or recognise as beautiful. It is the same with the poet. In his creations, the poet unconsciously assimilates the standard of his readers. If he describes a hero, he describes a character such as his age and race recognises as heroic. Thus Homer has not only handed down to us poems which have for centuries commanded the interest and admiration of mankind, but he has preserved to us for ever the great historic fact, what was the true type of a hero in the mind of an ancient Greek. And thus, too, the legends of King Arthur's table teach us what was regarded for centuries in England as the highest standard and model of chivalry. So it is in Art. From the works of past ages we learn what sort of thing it was which a people admired at the time those works were produced. And it is owing to this sympathy between the artist and his race and age, that we trace a distinctive character in the Art of the different nations of antiquity, which can never be mistaken for one another. Thus the Assyrian, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Roman, the Saxon, the Byzantine, the Moorish, and so on, all present peculiar characteristics of style and design and workmanship, which are easily recognised. And there is, moreover, a sort of relation, which it is far easier to appreciate than to describe in language, between the productions of the artist and those of the poet and the historian of the same age and people. Perhaps the most striking instance of this is that presented by the Assyrian sculptures discovered by Mr Layard, and now in the British Museum. Often have I been powerfully moved when gazing on those strange monuments, made, as they are, of the most perishable material, and yet almost miraculously preserved for us for more than two thousand years, by being buried in the warm and dry sand of the desert—often have I thought that those very monuments had been, no doubt, seen by the Prophet Ezekiel himself, when he penned his inspired visions by the banks of the River Chebar; and that the artistic forms by which he was surrounded impressed themselves upon the peculiar imagery in which he delivered his divine message to his captive race. The unity of feeling, of fancy, of imagination, between the language of Ezekiel and the marbles of Nineveh, is too obvious and remarkable not to strike any one who has carefully studied them together.
And thus we read in the material works of Art, as in the creations of the poet, the character of the imagery, the style of workmanship, the type of ornament, the sort of ideas, in fine, in which the people for whom the work was made were accustomed to seek the gratification of that yearning for the beautiful, which is one of the ruling powers of the human soul. The most barbarous people has some sort of perception of the difference of forms, in respect of their beauty; and seeks, it may be in very grotesque ornament and distorted images to gratify its capacity for admiring. And so it leaves behind, in the works of its hands, a record from which we may infer somewhat of the character of its mind and the state of its civilization.
But not only do we find a perceptible difference in the character of the Art of different races, but there is also a history in the Art of each. There is a distinct law of growth and change, of culmination and decay. In no Art is this history so distinctly traceable as in the Greek and the Roman. The Roman, indeed, may be regarded as merely an off-shoot and product of the Greek; for in Rome, Art was exotic and imitated, not indigenous. And this, no doubt, arises from the fact, first, that no other race has left us anything like the same number of works of Art extending over so many centuries, in coins, and gems, statues and vases, made in imperishable materials; and, secondly, because no nation ever approximated to the Greek in the perception and love of the beautiful; and therefore in the Art of no people is there the same difference between its worst and best works. Now we find one remarkable law pervading this history of Art; namely, that it grew with the growth of a race, and decayed with its national vigor. And this is by no means accounted for by the increased wealth which accompanies national prosperity; for neither a man nor a people can do more than it is in them to do, because they get more money for it. There is, besides, abundant evidence, that the standard of Art and the perception of beauty do not rise and fade with mere wealth. Long before the time when the wealth of the Roman began to decay, he had lost the only inspiration he ever received from his Greek master; and his Art was rapidly degenerating, when his wealth and luxury were at their greatest. But with the Greeks, the growth of their race, not only in the parent States but in all the numerous colonies which studded the coasts of the Mediterranean, from the Pillars of Hercules to the valleys of Lycia, is written in indelible characters upon their Art, from the earliest ages to the culmination of their glory in the age of Pericles; and in the same language, the decay of national life after the time of Alexander the Great, is recorded with equal fidelity. And so well ascertained is this law of growth and change, that the archæologist is never at a loss to assign to any work of Art, the approximate period in which it was produced. If you take the series of coins of any one city, such as Thurium or Tarentum, in Magna Græcia, on which one type occurs throughout, you get page 7 the most perfect illustration of the growth of Art. The common type on the coins of Thurium was a rushing bull; on those of Tarentum, on the obverse, a horse, and on the reverse, a boy riding on a dolphin. In the earlier part of the series of these works, you find the first attempts of the artist to express his idea. The character of the work is hard and rude, but thoroughly honest and conscientious. You can see that he is doing his best. He never slurs an outline, but always renders it distinctly. There is no flow in the lines, they are rigid and unyielding. They are like the first lispings of the child to speak; the effort is great and the success imperfect, but you feel that it is but lisping—it is not the language the child will one day talk. As time goes on, the work improves; the skeleton is filled in with flesh—the detail is elaborated. The artist gets a more complete mastery over his subject, but loses none of his truth; for it is evident that he is still taking his inspiration from Nature. Recollect, I am not speaking of the life of one artist, but of the operation of many cycles of years. Each artist deals with the same type, sacred to his city from its relation to its mythical traditions, but he does not copy from his predecessors. He works in the studio of Nature and owns no other master. And so, at last, you have in some of these little silver coins, no larger than a shilling, some of the most glorious works of Art which the world has produced. It was this character of faithfulness and honesty to his Art and his subject, which was the peculiarity of Greek, as it is of all truly great Art. Take, for example, those marbles which stand unrivalled in the artistic efforts of mankind—the groups from the Pediment of the Parthenon, now in the Elgin Gailery of the British Museum. These statues stood more than forty feet from the ground; they were somewhat larger than life size; and they stood, of course, against the wall of the pediment, so that one side only could be seen, and that from a distance. And yet you find that, not only in front, but behind, the same wonderfully elaborate and detailed work has been devoted with the most lavish and ungrudging honesty. The hard and brittle material vanishes from sight as you gaze; now melting into softest flesh, which seems as if it would yield to the pressure of the hand; now ossifying into bone; here quivering in a muscle, there palpitating in a vein. If we be inclined to say—why waste so much labor on a work, so much of which was never to be seen? I reply, the man who had failed so to work for the unseen, would have been incapable of producing what was seen; for the true artist works, not for gain or for applause, for vanity or for fame, but in a pure unselfish, and absorbing love of his Art, and in reverend adoration of the spirit of beauty which he worships. And in Ancient Greece this passion for Art was no doubt elevated and intensified by the feeling of religion. It was not in painting portraits of one another's faces, and chronicling imperfections, but in striving to realise forms fit to impersonate the gods, that Art attained its highest perfection.
If we turn now from the period of growth and culmination, to that of decadence, we find the picture reversed. The lines are no longer wrong through unsuccessful effort, but through careless neglect. The artist, instead of going to Nature for his inspiration, is evidently only copying from his predecessor, and his expression becomes wavering and indistinct. The outlines are slurred, and the faults of the past repeated and exaggerated. The character of the work becomes sensuous as the feeling becomes superficial. The sacred type has changed from a faith to a fashion; and so the artist's right hand loses its cunning, and can no longer grasp the idea, when the soul of the idea itself is passing away. There is one most remarkable instance of this history of decadence in the barbaric imitations of the coins of Macedon. The common type upon the coins of Philip and Alexander was the head of some deity personifying the King, or rather the head of the King in the character of the god, bound with a fillet of laurel leaves. Barbarous races seem to have copied this type from one to the other, until at last the original type became so indistinct that it was lost. There are ancient British coins, in which the head consists of nothing more than some rude lines and dots; and it is only by seeing a whole series of these coins at once, and tracing the deterioration down from one to the other, that you can believe that a head is intended at all. Amidst this chaos of marks, the laurel wreath, being the easiest to copy, remained somewhat more distinct, when other parts of the head had disappeared; and there are some curious coins of Cunobolinus, one of the kings of Britain in Roman times—the Cymbeline of Shakespeare—in which some artist, evidently a genius in his way, finding these curious marks on the coin he had to imitate, and not liking to imitate what he did not understand, assumed that they were meant for an ear of wheat, and reproduced an exceedingly good representation of an ear of wheat evidently taken from Nature. Thus, in course of time and by the decadence of Art, the head of Philip of Macedon is changed into an ear of wheat. A singular analogy to the cynical philosophy of Hamlet.
I will not delay you by applying these principles, as I might, to the Christian Art of the Middle Ages, but you will at once perceive what a close analogy there is between the archaic character of the early Greek Art which I have been describing, and that of the Italian masters before the time of Michael Angelo and Raphael, which may be considered as the culmination of Christian Art. You are all now familiar with this early style from its revival under the name of the Pre-Raphaelite school.
Taking, then, these two great principles:—First, that the Art of every race has a distinctive character of its own, which follows it wherever it goes; and, secondly, that the Art in each race undergoes a steady and perceptible change, either for the better or worse; it is apparent how powerful an auxiliary the study of Art becomes, to those who are seeking through other channels an page 8 insight into the history of the human race. The philologist traces the several streams of mankind up to their parent fountains, by analyzing their language, and discovering from what source its first elements, its bases, its roots, were derived. The comparative analomist pursues the same enquiry by studying the minute peculiarities of his physical structure, the form of his skull, and the proportions of his limbs. But the student of Art follows up the investigation by an independent course. He takes the works of the hands of a people, and forces them to tell their faithful, because unconscious, story as to the sources from whence they derived their traditions of taste and of feeling, their modes of interpreting or representing the beautiful, the character of their ornament—in a word, from whence they derived their standard of Art.
I cannot pass from this part of my subject without expressing my conviction, that the machinery thus provided by the study of Art might well be put in motion, and brought to bear upon the very interesting subject of the origin and cradle of the aboriginal inhabitants of these islands. We have a considerable number of works of Maori Art; the most interesting of which is the runanga whare of Tauranga, which is fortunately preserved in this Museum. And there are preserved amongst us a considerable number of canoe heads, spears, and other weapons and vessels, mats, and so on, which must have been produced at the cost of considerable skill and labor. Now, it is obvious to the most casual observer, that there is a similarity of ornament and design and workmanship running through all these objects. The two great questions which we might, by a sufficiently extended study, be able to decide are—where does this Art come from? It was not created in New Zealand for the first time. It was no doubt displayed on the canoes and the arms of the warriors who first landed on these shores; and I have no doubt that it might be traced up, through all its changes amongst the Pacific Islands, to its cradle on the Continent of Asia. I think it not unlikely that a study of the works of the country from which it springs, would enable us to judge, with fair approximation to the truth, of the date at which the Art now existing in New Zealand was severed from its parent stem in Asia. This is a work, which, so far as I know, has yet to be undertaken. And the first step towards it is to bring together into one Museum such as this, a sufficient number of objects of all kinds, arrayed, so far as possible, according to the dates of their production. The latter is, of course, the greatest difficulty. But an object whose approximate date is known, is worth a dozen about which we know nothing. Every effort therefore ought to be made to collect those objects, such as spears and meres, which are known by the Maoris to have been in existence for several generations. I think it quite possible that enough might be done to establish something like the law of change in Maori Art; and then we should be able to answer the second question;—is this an Art in advance or decay? Is it in a period of growth or of decadence? Is this grotesque ornamentation the work of a people struggling out of primitive ignorance towards a higher perfection? or is it the fragment of a higher Art from which the soul has departed, and of which the traditions have been imperfectly preserved, by a people which has relapsed into barbarism? I venture not to offer any theory upon the subject, but I cannot but think that the subject is one full of interest and instruction, and that it is within the scope of such an institution as this to collect the materials which shall enable some competent archæologist to do for Maori Art, what Sir George Grey has so ably done for Maori literature.
I have endeavored to show the relations in which Art stands to physical law, and to explain its limits. I have also shown how it is incorporated into and forms an important part of the external history of man. I proceed now to enquire what are the relations which exist between Art and the subjects of the other intellectual and moral powers of man.
That upon which Art is based, without which it could not exist is the natural and inherent capacity in man to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly;—that quality in his soul which has an affinity for the one, and revolts from the other. And I lay this down as an undeniable truth, that such a capacity is an essential part of the organization of man, in spite of the fact constantly presented to us, that not only individual men, but whole ages and races of men, have derived pleasure from forms and ideas, which to other men and other times have been utterly painful and repugnant. Hence it is that, even amongst cultivated men, we hear the heresy constantly repeated, that Art is all a matter of taste, and that that is beautiful to each man which he feels to be so. And so upon no subject, except perhaps religion, is there so much unsettled opinion as in matters of Art. In the philosophy of Art, as in religion, men range between the extreme limits of a superstitious reverence for authority on the one hand, and, on the other, a sceptical rejection of every thing outside an individual, and mostly an ignorant private judgment.
But does it not seem a sounder philosophy to believe that this great, distinctive, and powerful capacity of the soul—this affinity for the beautiful—is cognate to other capacities and powers of our being? We have a capacity for distinguishing abstract truth from error; and we do not doubt that truth is truth and error error, because the majority of men are only partially capable of perceiving the distinction. We have a capacity for distinguishing right from wrong in morals; and we do not conclude that there is no right or wrong, because whole races and generations of men have failed to recognise which was which. Why, then, should we argue that there is no standard or test of the beautiful beyond individual and undeveloped judgment? Man does not create the essence or principle of beauty, any more than he page 9 does that of abstract truth, or of moral goodness. He only recognises it and assimilates it. If he fails to do so; if he takes that for the beautiful which is not so; if he worships false gods; it is not that the nature of the object is altered, but that his powers are either undeveloped or depraved. Is it not rather the case that all the spiritual and intellectual organs in man are subject to the same law which obtains in the material organs of all animated nature, in that they are more or less perfectly developed by circumstances, and grow by use and cultivation?
Most of these difficulties vanish if we realise the distinction between the real and the ideal. The ideal is that type to which the real ever tends, as the curve to its asymptote, and the infinite series to its sum, although the one never reaches the other in finite time and space. If you take every oak leaf upon an oak tree, you will perceive that they have all one type, although they all differ from one another. You can conceive the idea of an oak leaf having that perfect form towards which each individual tends, but of which each falls short, some in one particular, some in another; but which the imagination seems to grasp, as the possible perfect form of the oak leaf in its full development. I have already noticed the perfection of Greek Art; this it was which was the key to its excellence—that the artist sought, by the study of the imperfect individual, to reach the conception of the ideal, and so to symbolise the idea of a god under the material form of a perfect man.
If then we would emancipate ourselves from the difficulties which so often entwine us in æsthetical as well as ethical questions, we must shake off the trammels which imperfect development casts around every subject, every idea, every faculty; and endeavor to look, not from the lower standing ground of the real, but from the loftier region of the ideal. Thus we shall recognise that only to be perfectly and eternally true, which man, in the most perfect development of his intellectual faculties, would recognise as such. We should accept as morally right, not that which may seem to man, living under provisional and circumstantial law, to be so, but that which man, in the full perfection of his moral faculties, would acknowledge as a perfect moral law. And so we shall receive as a standard of true excellence in Art, and regard those only to be manifestations of perfect beauty, which man, in the ideal and perfect development of his æsthetic capacity, would feel to be in perfect affinity and harmony with his power of appreciating the beautiful.
But I would endeavor, if I do not weary you, to trace even further the relations which may possibly subsist between, subjectively, the intellectual, ethical, and æsthetical powers in man; objectively, between truth, goodness, and beauty, in the harmony of things. It seems to me, that, prior to the conception of all created being and all action, and a priori prior to the idea of matter, we must conceive some necessary law or principle underlying and pervading the whole structure: underlying, as it were, the possibility of any scheme of creation whatever. Such a principle seems to me to be—the law of truth: and by truth I mean perfect consistency—the perfect harmony of part with part, and of every part with the whole. This is, if we consider it, the widest and most accurate definition of truth. Its absence involves the idea of something more than chaos—of an impossibility of existence at all. This idea of truth seems to be the essence of all possible schemes of all possible creations. The dogma that “God is truth,” which we reverently receive as in harmony with our instincts in religion, is not only the assertion of a fact, or the attribution of an incidental quality to the Deity; it is the enunciation of a necessary philosophical law. Without the law of truth, we are incapable of conceiving that a universe could have been created, or a God could have existed to make it. Now we first come in contact with this principle of truth—involving the idea of its co-relative untruth—in abstract reason. And we have a faculty or quality of our minds, our pure intellect, which recognises and accepts this law in matters which are independent of all action and of all matter. But the moment the idea of a being capable of action, is introduced, it follows that the quality of his action must be determined by the same all-pervading law. Moral goodness, therefore, is truth in action: it is the operation of truth performed upon action: or, to use a mathematical formula, goodness is truth multiplied into action. As yet our reasoning has not involved the existence of matter at all; but no sooner does the idea of matter arise, with all its sensitive attributes of form, color, sound, and so on, than we are compelled to enquire, how this new economy is affected by the omnipresent law in subordination to which it must have been created. The character or quality of form must be determined by the same rule. In other words the operation of truth performed upon form, is beauty; or, to use the same mathematical formula, beauty is truth multiplied into form. I use the word form of course as comprising every external quality of matter by which it becomes present to the mind. If this be so, then, the true, the good, and the beautiful, are no more than the three different manifestations of the same one law, which are recognised by the three spiritual faculties in man, his pure reason, his moral judgment, and his æsthetic power. Having once recognised the idea of truth in the abstract, goodness is truth in action; beauty is truth in form.
And it is curious to observe how this identity between the three seems to be witnessed by the unconscious testimony of language. In our daily communication of thought we are in the habit of interchanging the words by which we express intellectual truth, moral goodness, and physical beauty; as if we were secretly conscious of a unity of idea or principle pervading these three objects which operate upon our different spiritual powers. Thus for example we talk of a good man, and a good picture—meaning by one moral excellence, page 10 by the other beauty. Again we speak of a good bargain—meaning a bargain consistent with its object, to make money. And we should equally use the word good, if the character of the transaction had been the reverse of good morally. Again we speak of the truth of a painting; of the beauty of a mathematical demonstration; and of the beauty of holiness; and we tell a boy at school that it is wrong to tell lies, and that his sum is wrong. Now I say that these unconscious witnesses of language are not unimportant, as testifying that there is a real connection—a common principle, underlying our ideas of truth, goodness, and beauty; so much so, that we seem unable to express our full perception of the one, without borrowing the language we have already assigned to the others. At all events, should this seem to you but a fanciful analogy, I plead that it is no unworthy object to endeavor to trace out one additional thread in the complex fabric of creation, or to elucidate some fresh view of the manner in which the worlds of thought, of feeling, and of matter, are bound together by one common principle, and so minister to the divine and eternal harmony of the whole.
If time allowed me, it would be my task to pass under review the various arts in which men have sought to gratify their perceptions of the beautiful, and to show how the principles I have been endeavoring to elucidate are applicable to all alike:—Arts which may be called those purely of the imagination, such as poetry and prose writings; which come within the region of Art, in so far as the modulation of the idea and the choice of expression appeal to our sense of pleasure, and are adopted with a regard to their beauty:—the art of oratory, in which the ideas are not only conveyed in written language, but the pleasure is enhanced by the melody of speech:—music, which like oratory, consists of two arts—the art of the composition, by which the master developes his idea and expresses his feeling by a disposition of possible musical sounds; and the art of singing or playing, by which these possible sounds receive utterance in vocal or instrumental music:—statuary, painting, and architecture, which deal with matter in its form and color:—and even the arts which appeal to our touch—our taste—such as eating, drinking, and smoking, which must claim their place in the realm of Art, in so far as there is a greater or less degree of pleasure to be derived from the combination, situation, and treatment of the materials which subserve to their uses. But time would fail me in the attempt. I will therefore very briefly refer to that one art, which more than any other is within our reach in this country.
All Art in a country like this, in which the whole time, energy, and interest of the population is devoted to business and to the accumulation of wealth, must be in a neglected condition. Of pictures and statues we have comparatively speaking nothing. Poetry we can have as much of as each man wishes, in an age in which books are within the reach of all. Of musical composition the same may be said; but of musical performance I can only say, that if we are to accept the critiques which I see in the local papers, there is nothing more to be desired. Over the Art of dining in the colony I draw a veil. It seems to me a subject to be spoken of only as amongst the sacred memories of the past.
All these Arts we engage in as our tastes or our powers suggest. But one Art there is, which is forced on us of necessity. We may or may not hang our walls with pictures, or adorn our vestibules with statues; but we must have walls and vestibules of some sort. We may or may not indulge in music; but we must have rooms to practice it in; or if we confine our efforts to the serenade, we must have ladies' windows under which to breathe our amorous strains. Over three-fourths of the earth's surface, the existence of an animal of a constructive mind but a thin skin, clothed with neither fur nor feathers, involves the construction of some sort of shelter; and out of that necessity of his nature grows the Art of architecture. Again, there are two features in architecture which give it an importance peculiar to itself. First, that its works are durable, and secondly that they are public. They are not like the production of musical sound, or the enjoyment of a feast, things that are gone and remain only in the memory; nor like clothes, which are perishable and change with the fickleness of fashion. Almost the most perishable structure outlives its builder. And they are public, not private. Your pictures are shut up in your own rooms for the enjoyment of yourself and your friends. Your music is mostly practised in the privacy of your own houses. But it is not so with your house. Once build it, and as a work of Art it ceases to be yours. It belongs to all alike. The bricks and mortar, the wood and the iron are yours, but the form, the image, the Art, is the property of every beholder. The humblest peasant who gazes on the vanes and pinnacles of the neighbouring mansion, as he rests from his labor under the evening sky, can derive as much pleasure from the sight as its lordly proprietor. You can levy no protective duty upon the admiration of your neighbours. You can take out no patent for the monopoly of the enjoyment of beauty. No action for libel will protect you from the rude criticisms of offended taste. Therefore is architecture above all others the catholic art, and more than all others reflects and expresses whatever a nation may have in it of the power of creating the beautiful. And so, on the other hand, there is involved in architecture a responsibility which does not attach to the productions of other arts. You may hide your little uglinesses in your own chambers, and sing out of tune in your own boudoirs, and indulge in tawdry ornament and worship a false fashion in the privacy of social life; but you do not thereby poison the public taste, or pervert the popular judgment. But you cannot erect forms upon which for long years the eye of the public must rest day by day and hour by hour, without more or less moulding the feeling of the community at large. Whether you page 11 wish it or not, every house is a lesson, every town and village a school in art. The extent to which the popular taste becomes moulded by the impression of what is daily before its eyes, is evidenced by the distinctive character which particular towns, villages, and districts acquire in the course of time. Not that all the buildings are the same, but that there is a certain unity of feeling which pervades them all, and which gives a special character to the whole which it retains for ages. I have heard it said,—“of what use is it to devote money or labor to an architecture in perishable materials, in 3×4 scantling and inch boards?” I reply, first, that wood, properly used is by no means so perishable a material as is generally supposed. The church of Beover, in Cheshire, which was restored some years ago, is one of the noblest specimens of the mediæval wooden architecture of England. It was built, I believe, about 1350, and is in perfect preservation. I have heard there still exists a small chapel of oaken logs in which the body of St. Edmund was laid one night on its journey to Bury St. Edmunds, where it was buried. That was in the ninth century, a thousand years ago. Many of our finest roofs are many hundred years old; witness that of Westminister Abbey, built by Richard II. The spire of old St. Paul's, which was burnt in the fire of London, having lasted nearly four hundred and fifty years, was 500 feet high, and was entirely of wood.
But even were it so, I reply that your house itself may perish, but the idea does not perish; the effect on the public judgment is imperishable. If your house be false and hideous, it has diffused its ugliness into the hearts of all beholders for the period of its short but noxious existence. It has to a certain extent incapacitated the public mind from appreciating nobler forms. If you build ugly houses in wood, your children will build uglier houses—were that possible—in stone. All architecture was originally wood. The marble temples and porticos of Athens never lost the forms which were derived from their original wooden construction. England had a wooden architecture specially adapted to her climate, of remarkable beauty. In the perishable structures of earlier times are laid the foundations of that true and cultivated sense of the beautiful, out of which alone a noble Art can arise of more costly and permanent materials.
Now I cannot at present even glance at the sources of beauty in architecture, but I may indicate one principle which follows from what we have dwelt on this evening. One principle there is, from which there is no exception; that falsehood, sham, pretence, vanity, are incompatible with all that is great, noble, and beautiful in Art. I will take two instances of what I mean, derived from the architecture of this colony. First, the attempt to imitate stone in wood. This pervades the whole character of our Art. Even our construction is borrowed from stone. I see buttresses to our churches, which, were they of solid stone, would have been a source of strength; but which, being no more than hollow boxes of inch board, covering a prop or strut, are of comparatively little use. Secondly, all the mouldings and ornaments are borrowed from stone, and look well enough as long as they are new; but when the varnish is gone, and the paint cracked, and the wood distorted and shrunk, which very soon happens, they look tawdry and delapidated. We adopt a style of ornament applicable to stone, but which cannot be durably rendered in wood. The result is that our towns look as if they had got up late after spending the past night in dissipation. Again, we complete the whole by painting and sanding the boards, and working the edges so as to make the wall look like stone. And so our building stands staring us in the face with a perpetual falsehood, and one which we can all the time detect. Now whatever we may think of a lie, surely an unsuccessful lie is the most contemptible of human efforts.
One more instance I will take, and it shall be the last. The noblest form in architecture is beyond doubt the gable; running, where both faces are equal, into the pinnacle and spire. The gable naturally arises out of the necessity for throwing the rain off the house-top by a slooping roof; and we have seen in the earlier part of this discourse, that it is out of such necessities that the most beautiful forms frequently grow. But in street architecture it is often more convenient to place the ridge of the roof parallel to the street, in which case the line of the eaves or the parapet of the gutter forms a horizontal line. Now a horizontal line cutting the sky is always a somewhat distressing form; except in the case of the sea horizon, where the infinite delicacy of the ruling, and the immensity of the object, enwrap the feelings and overawe every subordinate sense of pleasure. The horizontal line of the parapet is, however, bearable without offence where it is natural and consistent with the whole idea of the building. But I see frequently in all our towns, a gable turned to the street, and a large dead wall of scantling and boards built up to conceal it. A deliberate and wilful determination to hide the more beautiful form by the less beautiful;—false in construction, for it weakens the house materially by exposing a needless surface to the wind; false in economy, for it costs money without increasing accommodation; utterly false in Art, for it is a miserable sham in every aspect. What then is it for? It is to gratify a false and ignoble vanity. It is to make the house look bigger than it is. I stand opposite such a building, and it seems to say to me, “Now, look at me. You see I am a good substantial two-storied tenement, with an upper storey about ten feet high, and a comfortable upper room with a window in the middle of the wall;—a building of which my architect and owner may well be proud.” I reply: “Friend house, you are a complete humbug. That square front of yours is for the most part exposed to the blasts of heaven, behind as well as in front. You are in a great measure not a house, but a signboard, a hoarding stuck up in the air. That square win-page 12dow is not in the middle of the wall of a large and comfortable chamber, but of a wretched garret, and has been with difficulty squeezed in between the sloping rafters. You are not a two-storied house, but a cottage with one floor and a cockloft; and as a work of art, you are everything that is odious and contemptible.”
The one class of buildings which most awaken my feeling of the beautiful, and they are now very rare, are those small unpretending tenements which were built by the early colonists; some of them not ungraceful in their proportions; all of them possessing the beauty of simplicity and truth, devoid of vulgar pretension, tawdry vanity, and inappropriate ornament.
And I cannot but take this opportunity of earnestly impressing upon you the great responsibility which rests upon the Government of every country, to erect public buildings which shall elevate and educate, instead of depraving the public taste. If a Government represents, as it should do, whatever there is of worth and nobility in the nation; if it be, as it ought to be, an impersonation of the strength and wisdom, the knowledge and the feeling of the people; so ought it, in the public works which it undertakes, to reflect and embody the great qualities of which it is the representative and depository. But besides this, it should ever bear in mind that the external symbols of power are not the expression of a love of pompous or idle pageantry, but arise out of the consciousness, that human nature requires that power must ever present itself to the public in the habiliments which may remind men of the respect and homage which are its due. It is not power in palaces which we have to dread in these countries and in this age: it is power in the tavern and the hovel; and I cannot but tremble for the life of authority which a nation is content to deprive of the external symbols of respect.
Gentlemen, I conclude this long and uninteresting discourse, by entering my humble protest against the sacrifice of public honor and dignity to private wealth and luxury; by entering my protest against the vices of an age which subordinates its love of the beautiful to its worship of wealth; which prefers false glitter to true taste; which makes Art the advertisement of riches instead of their crown and glory; which wears false hair, false jewels, false gold; which makes one storied houses look like two storied houses; whose tastes and whose arts are essentially vain and selfish. I would deliver my own soul by proclaiming, that truth is the one element in Art, as in all that belongs to man, without which he can produce nothing that is permanently great or noble.
And I would suggest to your earnest consideration, whether, having not only been placed by our Creator under the authority of a moral law, but placed also by the same power in the midst of a world teeming, from the infinity of greatness to the infinity of littleness, with forms of unspeakable majesty and beauty, it may not be a mistake greater than most of us suppose, to neglect, individually and nationally, the study of this principle of beauty for the recognition and enjoyment of which we are specially adapted by our nature.