Edward Carpenter





Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


If this is an evil arising from Art of a low order, on the critical side; there is also an evil, which we need but briefly mention here, arising on the sentimental side. Sensation Art, while it produces certain emotional effects, is really thoroughly false; it encourages the habit of a passive indulgence in the excitement of feeling, while by its want of real spirituality it omits to make any demands for responsive action. Many will recognise the kind of Art I especially mean in tunes com­posed in minor keys by men who are not really artists, or in the harrowing novels, unworthy of the name of romance, which are the works of popular writers of the present day. It is needless to say that this sensation Art ought to be unfailing­ly banished from all service in religion. Yet there is a good deal of it in the highly wrought effects of the Roman Catholic ceremonial, as well as in some of the hymns of our own Church.

But what shall we say of the influence of Art-of painting, for instance-of a really high class? Here, I think, there can be little question that, if it be properly made use of, the good effect is very great. In one of his smaller writings, Schiller compares the influence of the drama for good with that of religion itself. He calls attention to the great difference there is between the knowledge of what may be right and the motive powers which induce men to follow the good. Laws, and commandments, and maxims, may all point out the path, and to a certain extent disclose the results of not following it; but they are after all purely negative; they offer no self-subsistent motive to action. For this we must go to feeling, which is the motive power that God has given us. If intellect is the guide to action, feeling is the source of it. Religion is the highest development of feeling; and Art, as it ever cultivates us towards a higher life, makes us more susceptible to true feeling and more capable of exhibiting that feeling in right action. In this view a high Art may be of the utmost importance to religion. Pictures, for instance, truthfully re­presenting the life of Christ in its spiritual beauty, must go far to make us endeavour to imitate his tenderness and humility, his wise charity, his unassuming stedfastness, in our own lives; they must wake in us deep feelings of reverence and love and high aspirations seeking for fulfilment in every thought and action.

What we have said of painting is mostly applicable too to music and architecture. Anything like sensational music, that is, music in which truth is sacrificed to the attempt at false effects, ought to be strictly banished from all service in religion. Nothing can be more evil than the mockery which all worship becomes, when people assemble together in order to enjoy a temporary exaltation of emotion which will leave them only more depressed and insusceptible of good influences than before. I think, in this respect, the whole tenor of religious life among the Roman Catholics is very much in keeping with the sensational tendency of their ceremonial. All the responsibility of religious action is thrown on the priest. For the layman it is sufficient that his feelings should be deeply moved to penitence for his sins; he then confesses to the priest, feels that he is satisfactorily absolved, and then most probably throws all further care off his mind. The use of penance was formerly much insisted on, and perhaps rightly enough, in order that the offender by his continued actions might prove that his re­morse was not a merely evanescent emotion. But the sim­ple impress of good intention which is common to most people when their feelings are excited is not necessarily of at all a good tendency; and may, as is probably the case if due to bad Art, be productive only of evil.

In architecture there is not so much opportunity for sensation Art. As a rule, people appear to be susceptible to the higher effects of good architecture, while that which is bad produces little or no impression, one way or the other. There is however, I think, in the modern rage for gaudy restoration and disproportionate labour bestowed on carving, an observable tendency in the direction of missing the spirit in the attention to minute and comparatively un­important details, which is so characteristic of false Art.

In both music and architecture there is much Art of that mediocre kind which commends itself to the inexpe­rienced, while to others its virtues seem swallowed up in its many and prominent faults. Practically, it would seem necessary, if we allow Art at all in the service of religious ceremonial, to introduce a great deal of Art of this doubt­ful kind. For if the Church is to be the instructor of the great mass of the people, she must address herself on the whole, not to those who through their wealth or education are in this respect comparatively independent of her, and who can find Art for themselves in their own homes, but to those who are uneducated and in want of help from without. To these a very high order of Art would perhaps be in danger of becoming meaningless. At the same time it is clearly advisable not to allow a mediocre Art to become too fa­miliar, but on the contrary to urge the popular taste con­stantly towards an appreciation of the best models. And I do not think that it can ever be really necessary to make use of a very inferior Art. Let the style be simple enough and the matter sufficiently easy of comprehension, and it will not be long before the popular taste comes to appre­ciate and delight in works of really true merit.

I think then that this is worthy of great attention, with respect to the use of Art simply in our ceremonials. It ought to be the endeavour of everyone, who has a hand in such matters, to introduce Art of the very best kind, whether it be in architecture or painting or church-decoration, or in the chants and anthems and organ voluntaries. At the same time, except perhaps in those rare cases in which the congrega­tion is necessarily only taken from the most educated classes, the Art introduced ought to be very simple in style, especially in the case of music. The attempt, so common now, to introduce elaborate services, which only a small minority perhaps of the congregation can follow, is extremely repre­hensible. It adds to what is already a great evil-the tend­ency to make religious services a luxury and recreation for the rich, while they cease to present any meaning or attraction to the poor. Let the music be good, so that it may as little as possible be a stumblingblock to the refined taste of the educated; let it be simple and quiet, so that all may join in it without difficulty or offence.

Allowing then the importance of Art for the advance­ment of religion, whether in the private life of each individual or in the public ceremonials of a church; it remains for us to ask, with respect to the latter, to what extent the Art introduced ought to be carried, and how far the ser­vices ought to be made to rely on its use. The answer to this, if any definite answer can be given, must lie in the consideration noticed before, that nothing can be of service to religion when it ceases to produce anything more than a vague sentiment which springs up forthwith because it has no depth of earth. As soon therefore as men go to church with the view (consciously entertained or not) of enjoying the excitement of striking music, or as soon as the object of finding a happy means of expressing prayer or thanks­giving and of truly entering into the communion of saints has given place to the wish for a tension of feeling merely for its own sake, and therefore not genuine, then the effect produced has ceased to have any relation to religion, and can only lead to a false belief in the real worth of the emotion. As a rule, any excitement which carries a man to a level of emotion very much above that of his ordinary life is not genuine-in the sense that it can never find expression in that man's actions. It is utterly disproportioned to all the habits and tendencies of his nature, and therefore it is im­possible that he can suddenly turn and twist all that nature into conformity with it. To raise such violent feeling there­fore, deliberately and artificially, cannot be otherwise than false and bad. Happily for us, we are not capable of emo­tions and insight very much beyond ourselves. What we feel or see is through experience derived from ourselves. If it were not so our progress would indeed be short. If we could for a moment realise, in all its fulness, the eternal splendour towards which we are striving, and could then look back on the weakness and misery of our own attempts, we should cease all further effort in despair, and so sink back into the terrible listlessness which contemplates a high ideal only with the sense of the uselessness of trying to at­tain to it. This is a danger, however, to which the excitable and imaginative are quite liable enough.