Edward Carpenter





Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


It is not at all difficult to see the presence of this evil in modern society. How many there are who, starting with real capabilities for the appreciation of Art, stultify their whole lives by a craving after the sensual excitement it affords them! Music loses its charm unless it is made to startle the ear by a succession of false effects or by passages of glittering execution. Paintings must be daubed with dull flats of glaring colour. The drama, the opera, romance, all are voted uninteresting unless they embody the weakest sensation art. Anything for a new excitement, nothing for a true thought so expressed as to place the artist and his audience in perfect accord. This is all easy enough to understand. All art has, and ought to have, a power of excitement in it; but the excitement so produced is not meant to evaporate away into thin air. If persons who delight in ‘sensation' of every kind had accustomed themselves from the beginning, whenever it excited any higher feeling or impulse within them, to act up to that feeling or impulse, their art would now be a very different thing from what it is; but, in fact, each delay deadens the receptivity for excitement, and then new and newer phases must be sought. Whatever it is, whether reading poetry, or hearing sermons, or going to the opera, or indulgence in dram-drinking, everything which produces a false excitement, that is, an excitement which does not bear fruit in action, is poisonous to body and soul of man.

It is this very thing which is the bane of women's educa­tion of the present day. Their sensibility or receptiveness is now, as a rule, so great in proportion to their capability of action, that it completely outgrows the latter, and having then no support falls into a miserable ruin; and this in conse­quence not only of a complicated state of civilisation, but also of a training which dwarfs all power of action, all tendency to originality. A girl may use up her paints and ‘do' trees and mountains after the copies of her master, in the conventional style; but to study from Nature or to produce a style of her own with real hard work is thought unnecessary and perhaps unfeminine; and, supposing she has no special faculty in art, with the very few other outlets for women's action that there are, it cannot be wondered at that the habit of feeling without acting becomes at last so familiar to her. Women are often apparently more cruel than men, not because they are not naturally more sensitive, but because they are not accustomed to realise their feelings in action; and so they say and do things with little consideration for the hard­ships or the labour they may thus impose on others.

On the other hand, if men strive to realise their art in true work, its influence on them becomes immense. Each contact with it renders their receptive powers more delicate instead of more gross. To such people the excitements which are the indulgence of the infatuated become absolutely painful, and they shrink from the noisy music and the thrilling novels and the grotesquely hideous dramas which please the unim­pressionable minds of the crowd. Gradually to them Nature and Art unfold a glory which is for ever hid from those who do not seek; beauties which lie concealed in the most unpre­tending productions of the great masters; pearls which are trampled upon by the ignorant; the splendour of Nature showered down through leaf and tree and fleecy cloud, with a wealth of beauty which fills them with untold delight.

From all this it seems to me indisputable that Art does awake in the thoughtful observer a very strong desire for accordant action. Goethe asks in one of his smaller poems* what profit there is in Nature or Art if it do not awake a creative power in the soul, and teach it to find expression through the fingers.

*Monolog des Liebkabers.

It is this incentive power in Art, then, which makes it possible for it to be of service to Religion. For though, in virtue of its refining power, it might exalt and intensify our spiritual thoughts, yet, if it were only destined to awake them to a short life unfruitful of action, it could only be of service to a sickly and barren religion, condemned like itself to wither away in the rays of the morning sun. If we agree to what has been said, we may well believe that Art has really a very high office to fulfil. All her worthiness springs from a ground akin to that of the deepest religion. True Art is a sort of unconscious piety, springing from a veneration and delight in the Divine glory, without any distinct reference to personal relation, or even without conscious knowledge of the nature of that it delights in. Thus it may, naturally enough, form a real support to a personal religion. Carlyle says:- ‘Art also and Literature are intimately blended with Re­ligion; as it were, outworks and abutments by which that highest pinnacle in our inward world gradually connects itself with the general level and becomes accessible there­from.' Farther on he writes of ‘that unspeakable Beauty which in its highest clearness is Religion, is the inspiration of a Prophet, yet in some degree must inspire every singer were his theme never so humble.'

Lecky, in his History of Morals, has very ingeniously remarked that there are two kinds of religion. First, that in which the mass of conscious motive powers and affections is disinclined to good and is only kept in train by the almost painful effort of a strong will, following the promptings of the most spiritual conscience or reason. The other, that in which the preponderance of the conscious motives is on the side of good, and where, consequently, the person follows the good joyfully and without constraint or forced effort. As a rule, I think this distinction is that between man's religion and woman's religion, the religion of duty and aspiration and the religion of love. But however this may be, I think it will be interesting to inquire what is the influence of Art on each phase.

It is clear that on the latter kind of religion the power of Art must be very great. The sensitiveness of feeling cultivated by Art brings before us so many motives to good, to kindness, to generosity, to modesty, that it produces a habit, so to speak, of good feeling; and, if obeyed, of good action also. At the same time, as we hinted before, it brings forward many motives to inaction; the very sensitive­ness of feeling, which it produces, urges us to fly from the haunts of misery and evil; the distaste of that which is hide­ous, the longing after that which is beautiful, make the task of facing sin and its offspring in their very stronghold all the more harassing and difficult. He whose mind is culti­vated with the delight in all that is refined and lovely, not only feels positive pain in meeting with and combating the defects of the world, but also in order to do so must give up much of the joy which for the time he might experi­ence in other scenes. This is the burden of the blessing of the artist's nature. Quicker sensibilities to good and lovely, quicker shrinking from sin and death. He who sees most, sacrifices most when he descends into the arena to struggle with evil; for it must be remembered that he must, in a certain sense, descend. He must be willing, in order to raise other men, to lay aside his higher thoughts and feelings so that he may sympathise thoroughly and truly with them and put himself in their position. He must be willing to be misunderstood and calumniated and scoffed at, to be hated and ridiculed by turns; and he must be content to leave his highest work unappreciated and unfinished, in the hope that it may bring forth fruit in its time. The cultivation of Art does, in fact, like all true cultivation, give rise to a fuller life in every way; in multiplying the possibilities of happiness it multiplies the possibilities of grief; in other words, it, as all civilisation does, increases the manifold relations of man, and raises him from the dull monotonous existence of the peasant who drives the team to the quick full life of the educated man who finds interest and excite­ment and sorrow and delight in a thousand things about his path. The blind need not therefore be unduly envious of the seeing; if he is unconscious of many of the joys of the latter, he is also free from many of his sorrows and responsibilities. He who has seen the light must go forth, his face beaming like that of Moses, to give light to others; to shine in the darkness, though the darkness comprehend it not. He must stand alone, his office to fold his sym­pathy about others, to reap sympathy from none. Every great man who has hewn out one step for the world, has laid his body to level the road or to be a stepping-stone for future generations, has saved mankind only through the depth of his own solitude. He, the Master-Christ, who looked through all his nation and time and saw but misery cankered with sin, may well have prayed that the cup might pass from him, for his nature was sensitive beyond what we dream; yet he too shrank not from that terrible soli­tude of his whole life, but was content, according to the eternal law, to sacrifice himself, while he descended to the weakness of men in order to draw all men after him.