The Relation of Art to Morality
Many great minds have endeavored to define beauty only to darken the subject with words; but, though we do not know what beauty is, there are certain facts in regard to it which we do know, and which will guide us in the discussion of its effects.
One of these is, that beauty is never a simple quality, but a relation of qualities. The beauty of a face is not a separate quality but a relation or proportion of qualities to each other. In other words, beauty is never anything essential. One displacement may mar, even destroy the whole beauty, and yet no change the character of the object. Remove that forest and you destroy the whole beauty of the landscape, but the result may be the most beneficial to the fertility of the country. Art then, has no connection with the useful. Is there any more connection with the true?
Poetry is the expression of thought by means of images and scenes. We adopt a system of signs, in which landscapes and forms stand for thoughts. In this way many of the grandest truths are connected with the beautiful. Is there any essential connection? We know that beauty and are often assume some of the greatest truths. The poets, artists and art critics are not a class of atheists. Art is essentially natural, and hence, assumes the truths which are at the foundation of nature. But it is perfectly possible to assume these, and still not enforce them. This we can be sure of, that, that which the immoral delight in, or may even go into ecstatics over cannot be actively moral. The moral and the immoral are so opposed by the nature of things, that if beauty were a moral force, the immoral would, looking at it, be shamed and self-condemned, but this in not so. Some of the great poets and the greatest artists and art critics have been thoroughly corrupt
Moreover, we always find that art is never a positive force, but receives its light and character from the one who studies it. The same poem pleases, with its imagery, the pure and the impure. The same model thrills the moral and the corrupt, and receives any distinctive hue or a distinguishing mark from the observer.
"We receive but what we give,
And in our life does nature live,
Our's her wedding garment,
Our's her shroud."
It is this characteristic of art that reveals her true nature as wholly outside the pale of morals. The sombre soul will find the sombre, and the light, the light. The pure sole will find the pure, and the corrupt the corrupt. No, they will not find; they will put their own qualities into art, for she cannot contradict herself. Art has no active connection with the useful or true. She may be the garb of both, but she is wholly apart from them both in her nature.
The historic argument for this is as strong as could be expected. I cannot better give it that in the words of Ruskin. He says: "Here we are met by the facts, which are as gloomy, as they are indisputable, that while many peasant populations, among whom scarcely the modest practice of the Arts has ever been attempted; the worst cruelty and foulness of savage tribes, has frequently been associated with ingenuity in decorative design; also, that no people have ever attained the higher stage of skill, except at a peri-
(64)-od of their civilization, which has been sullied by frequent violent, and even monstrous crimes, and finally, that the attaining of perfection in art power, has, hitherto, in every nation, been the accurate signal of the beginning of ruin." Woe to any nation whose moral teachers are art critics; whose moral earnestness depends on the effervescing ecstacy produced by beauty. That nation will go the way of all the art world before, and end in a corruption which will be worthy of another scourge of God to sweep it from the earth. The laws of human nature are inflexible and if you satisfy a soul meant to appreciate noble truth by mere feeling, you must look for the outcome, a soul unmanned, corrupt and worthless in all, save as a pillar of salt to warn future generations of the certain result.
But let us remember that art has a correct, a high use. Beauty's place all around us, as if we were intended to be in constant ecstacy. From the flower to the heavens, from the tiny bird to the role of old oceans, and on to the music of the spheres, when "The morning sing together and all the sons of God shout for joy." On every side we meet beauty. And to the noble soul traversing all nature for truth she is his constant ecstacy, gladdening him night and day with a symphony that finds its tone, melody and harmony in his determination to be true to himself. For,
"Would we aught behold of higher worth,
Than that inanimate, could world abroad,
To the poor, loveless, ever anxious crowd.
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair, luminous cloud
Enveloping the earth;
And, from the soul itself must thus be sent,
A sweet and potent voice of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element."