Edward Carpenter





Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art




In trying to estimate the influence of Art or its importance in the service of Religion, we seem to assume that Art has at any rate some relation to Religion. Yet this is, at the outset, a proposition which many would decline to accept. The general position of Art is indeed from its very nature extremely difficult to determine. If it is true, as many perhaps would maintain, that it deals with or unites two seemingly opposed ideas, the spiritual and the material, it seems likely enough that, on one side, people would incline to treat its influence as nothing but a more or less refined impression on the sensual nerves; or, on the other hand, would be content to remove it from everyday life into a mere sentiment ‘vague as all unsweet' easily mistaken for true religious feeling.

It is, I think, unnecessary to enter elaborately into any theory on the nature of Art. But there is a point in which it must always come into very close contact with Religion, whatever we may hold concerning its origin. There can be no doubt, it seems to me, that, whether it be in music or in architecture or in painting, true Art does, without exception, suggest to the mind the existence of something which is beyond, though ever present in, the sphere of everyday life; something which cannot easily be expressed at all, never clearly, which yet we feel to be akin with our deepest consciousness. I do not think that anyone who has loved music can be ignorant of the irresistible sense it awakens of another world, as it were, flowing ceaselessly around us, into which we are for the time translated with a passing insight into its mystery; nor is it possible to stand amidst beautiful architecture, whether it be in some joyous conception of human Art, or amongst the woods and mountains of Nature's handiwork, without experiencing that feeling of strange wonder and delight, whose very indefiniteness seems to im­print it all the deeper on our minds. Whatever its phase, and Art has many phases, it always comes to us with the sense of something veiled, of something still half-unexpressed, which in its fulness we desire yet find not.


So it happens too that no true artist is ever thoroughly satisfied with his work; that is the penalty of his greatness; though he wonder at its beauty, that very wonder oppresses him with the sense of all that is unexpressed and unshapen. Whatever then be the real nature of this mystery of Art, whether its existence be merely fanciful or whether it be founded on all truth, I say that, in that point, Art does bring us into contact with Religion. It is essentially opposed to a mere so-called Positivism, which really rejoices in negatives; it is essentially opposed to a mere worldly spirit. The true artist, or any who truly rejoice in Art, cannot be worldly; that is to say, with them the interests of ordinary life have bowed before the indescribable sense of something invisible. 'Faith in the whispers of the lonely muse is to them the evidence of things not seen; and therefore true Art, as Words­worth says,


Requires the service of a mind and heart

Though sensitive, yet in its weakest part

Heroically fashioned.

It is a continual protest against that cowardly spirit which often, under the falsely-so-called name of science, would seek protection from the dreaded imputation of believing anything which it cannot prove, or of feeling any enthusiasm for what may possibly be an object of ridicule to others; and while such weakness of spirit will degrade a man of culture so far as to render him incapable of any effective work, the true scientific spirit or the true artistic spirit will, as may so often be seen, give permanent refinement to men of the meanest birth and education.

But I think that there are other, and more direct, ways in which Art comes into contact with Religion. If beauty in Art does excite in us anything more than a mere sensual pleasure, if in fact it provokes in the mind trains of thought and emotion, dimly enough perhaps realised yet sufficient to hold us with a strange power, it must be because the laws of material nature, by means of which the artistic spirit is ex­pressed, are in some sort of correspondence with the invisible world of thought and feeling, and so serve to wake into action that spiritual world within us.

It is this correlation between the visible and the invisible kingdoms which is at once the stumblingblock and the clue in all theories of Art. It lies so near us that we are not in a position to contemplate it, so to speak, from without. The two worlds run so close and intermingle with each other so gradually that we cannot even draw the line of separation between them. Nay, if we take the analogy of all Nature, we may well believe that we never shall be able to draw the line of separation; but rather that we shall at last behold them both, as part of one great plan, identical in their essence though diverse in outward manifestation1.

1 It is useless to say that all our feelings of Beauty are only so many combi­nations of impressions derived from without, but have no further groundwork than that. As has been so often said before, the very faculty of receiving these feelings from without implies the pre-existence of something within us before our contact with the external world. Indeed the merest sensual impressions imply a receptive power, and the more science advances the more it shews us that our own sensations of light, colour, sound, odour, &c. have apparently no necessary connection with the particular movement of nature to which we ascribe them, but are only linked from the beginning to those external movements, so as to become always associated with them in our minds. And thus, as perception of hue or sound is a mysteriously innate fitness or correspondence between the external world and the mind, so is the perception of beauty in Art a fitness between the artistic production and an idea similarly pre-existent in us through an inward birth. Art is n fact symbolical, and arises both in perception and creation-that is, in the fitting of the mind to the external world and in the fitting of the external world to the mind.