Edward Carpenter





Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


Here then the question arises which is indeed the very gist of the question immediately before us. Does Art offer any incentive to positive life and action? does it afford any counteracting influence to that spirit of cowardly inaction and retreat which is the curse of quick and delicate sensibilities? I think it is clear that Art, properly studied, does offer such an incentive. True Art, if it draws more sharply for us the distinc­tion between the beautiful and the hateful, is constantly presenting us with the struggle between the active powers on the one side and the heavy, inactive tendencies on the other, and raising in our minds a constant hope on the side of the spiritual and a constant joy in its triumph. By virtue of its relation to the whole spirit of Nature, it brings us into closer contact with the very ‘life of things,' and so seems to urge us on to a freer life and nobler expression of our higher thoughts and aspirations. If the grandeur and majesty of some beauti­ful cathedral, where the restless murmurs of the outer world are caught, as in a delicate ocean shell, but never avail to dis­turb its solemn peacefulness or to mar the deep rolling of its organ tones-if that majesty tend to fill us with a contempt of all the petty affairs of life; or if the beautiful outlines of its tall, fluted columns, lost in the dim height of the roof, seem to carry us away with hidden desires, unfitting us for the common round of everyday work; is it not also true, that all these things awake in us, if we look upon them aright, a real long­ing to tune our lives into harmony with them; to make every act of ours, like the stones in the cathedral, each in its place contribute to the grandeur of a whole life; and every day to point upwards and upwards with its fellows towards a shadow­ed hope that waits us far above? If some great Madonna picture hanging there, with joyous face burdened with the message of overflowing love, seem at first sight to have the effect of making the sight of sinful men and women hateful to us; is it not much more its rightful effect to cast over them the veil of its loving presence and invest all mankind with the halo of its own brightness, and to awake a wish in each beholder to make himself also worthy of the goodness which he sees there depicted? I do not think we can doubt that Art, if properly studied, has this incentive effect. Yet it might be exceedingly difficult to prove this from cases of well-known individuals or from the history of nations, on account of the intangible nature of the point at issue. There are cases, how­ever, of men like Mendelssohn, of sterling goodness, whose goodness was yet so associated with their art, that we can hardly help believing that one of the strongest motives to the blamelessness of their lives was the wish to be worthy of that beauty that had taken their souls captive with an irresistible attraction. And I think it cannot be denied that there is, among the Roman Catholics, or amongst those of the Angli­can Church who make most use of the impressions produced by music and painting and architecture, a readiness and energy of well-doing and a veneration, often wanting amongst those who discard all such aids.

It appears to me certain that man's relation to Art in any shape ought always to imply two processes, the receptive and the creative. In those men whom we call artists it is evident­ly so. They receive the idea first, either from Nature or from the workings of their own imagination, in what may be called a perfectly passive state; for indeed that wonderful working of the imagination has little to do with a man's own will, but he looks on, as from without, waiting silently for what it may bring to him. Then, after that, they set to work-and it must always be remembered that it is real work and not a mere pastime-to express themselves in lan­guage which will convey to others all the beauty they have seen. And the case is not different with those other men who receive the message of Art, but are not by the world called artists. If they are to study Art to any purpose, they must become artists too; they cannot be content with mere receiving, they must be up and doing also. And there is none so weak but that he may find one means of expression. Pen or pencil may fail, the ear for sound or the eye for colour may be blunt, but everyone may try to realise in his own actions something of that sense of beauty, which is ever restless within him till it has found an outlet. In this sense everyone may be an artist; nay, in this sense everyone must be an artist, or his love of Art will fade into a mere sensual pleasure, and his power of rendering become a piece of me­chanical trickery. For this sense of the word Art is not a forced one; the highest and truest Art of all is in a man's own life; where his will, deriving its inspiration from above, comes into the field with all the crowded passions and the blind instincts and affections which, for good or evil, are the last outcome of the material nature that man shares with the lowest animals; where it draws some to its side, making them its servants for good; shakes itself free from the clinging grasp of others, and seeks to develop all together into a har­monious whole, crowned with order and might. Here is a struggle, and here may be a spiritual triumph, which may well seem to be the type of all other arts, and here is a moral beauty round which all the other beauty in Nature and Art seems to wreathe itself as round the very source of its brightness.

No one can continue to hear or feel the beauty of Art who does not listen to her words, and that not with a vain, dilettante languor, but with the steady effort to fully realise them, and to lead a life worthy of her message. This is the case with everything else. As Butler remarks in his Analogy, some impressions, when constantly repeated, seem at last to wear out and fade away till we are no longer conscious of them. Others again grow and grow upon us with a tremen­dous power. And the difference will always be found to depend on this, that in the second case the impression has borne fruit in action, in the first it has not. Many instances of this will occur to everyone; such, for instance, as the readiness with which a man will learn to sleep through any amount of unimportant noise, while he will hear with extraordinary quickness any the slightest sound at which he is accustomed to rouse himself.

The evil of cultivating a study of Art which bears no fruit in action is that we thus lose one of the best and strongest motives to good; and, by degrading the love of beauty, degrade ourselves too at the same time. With Art this degra­dation is unhappily possible to a great degree without any immediate consciousness on our part; for this reason, that the laws of beauty in Art being, as we have seen, the most com­plete development of the physical laws of Nature, and our bodies being perhaps the highest products of the working of those laws, it comes to pass that things which are consonant with the development of all those laws are beneficial to our bodies, and therefore also agreeable to our senses. Hence Art carries with it a pleasure purely sensuous, as is quite evident, whether in the quick, stimulating changes of music, or in the healthy air and pleasing variety of the scenes of Nature. Nor do I wish to inveigh against the indulgence of this sensual enjoyment, I think its existence only serves to shew how difficult or impossible it is to draw any marked dividing line between our higher nature and our more animal instincts. But I think this sensual side, so to speak, to all Art does make it possible for men to go on pursuing it with pleasure under the impression that they are aiming at its highest beauty, when they are really losing themselves by degrees in the degradation of a simply mechanical and mean­ingless pastime. It is a warning to us, in all our pursuits or employments, never to lose their best and truest worth by mistaking the value of the letter and the spirit. How often does the study of flowers, for instance, degenerate into a mere childish scrambling after everything new, with little regard for the relative value of the new discovery, and none for its beauty, except in so far as it be a rarity or a monstrosity! And so with other sciences. But in the pursuit of Art, I would almost say that it is the rule; the beauty of every composition is lost in the anxiety to criticise, with becoming skill, some new variety of detail. An unexpected succession of chords, a new way of putting on the colours, or a curious effect produced, anything that being novel is not of vital importance, is sufficient to send the art-critic into a discourse in which all appreciation of the spirit of the composition is forgotten.

If this is one danger of Art, that other of its gradual degradation to a sensational mockery, though not perhaps quite so common in our country and time, is still equally important. If we look back at the ancient civilisations, we can see how often this very thing became the stumblingblock over which they fell. At Athens perhaps especially does this force itself upon us. No nation started with such an intense veneration for the beautiful, moral and physical, and with such high artistic capabilities as the Greeks, and as long as they preserved the vigour and purity of that feeling by a career of noble action, they produced some of the greatest spirits and the finest artistic works of the world; but when after their contact with Asia they began to decline, it was because that high sense had degraded itself into a handmaid to luxury, and so the true Art left them, or rather, in fact, they deserted it.