Edward Carpenter





Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


In all these cases the art consists in the embodiment of ideas by the reproduction of images derived from Nature. But when we turn to the other class of Art, which we may call symbolic, the matter is different. For although, in the case, for instance, of architecture, it is possible to say that the thought of piling stones on one another was suggested by the wonderful forms of rock and crag, or the indefinite inter­lacing of arches by the embrace of lofty trees; yet it is clear that there is nothing in Nature like a cathedral, nor any­thing in wood or mountain which it was designed to be a representation of. So we may say that the effects of music are hinted at in the songs of birds or the deep rolling of the torrents; but we cannot really doubt that, in the cadences of his voice, and in the concerted music of his orchestras, man uses a form of expression entirely his own and as independent of Nature as anything can be. In poetry, as we said before, there is a rhythm and a metre which belong to the symbolic class. For if such rhythm is sometimes used to imitate an actual effect of Nature, as in Southey's Lodore, yet this is not its legitimate province, but rather it is an instrument solely of the poet's own creating, whereby he gives force to his artistic ideas, while his words picture forth the same idea by the means of images gathered from the world around.

It may seem forced to some to insist on this distinction between pictorial or descriptive art and that which is more directly constructive or symbolical; but the distinction is of some importance, and many have recognised it so far as to refuse any possible similarity of nature or design to paint­ing and music, and to deny all unity to the different branches of Art. In truth, however, the struggle which I have spoken of as the groundwork of Art underlies everything we see, whether it be in the building up of matter throughout external Nature by the action of intangible forces, or whether it be in the struggle with that Nature again which takes place when the human will comes in contact with it; and beauty arises whenever the more spiritual succeeds in mould­ing the more material to itself, whether it be, as we noticed before, in the gradual rearing up of a graceful tree from the inert earth, or whether it be in the triumph of the spiritual will in man over the sensual tendencies of his earthly nature. Therefore, as we recognise its own peculiar beauty in every scene of Nature, so wherever man too succeeds in moulding things successfully to his higher ideas we may justly call his efforts artistic; whether it be in dress, or in language, or in the carnage of his body, or handwriting, or tone of the voice-the successful cultivation of each of these is an art, and impresses us more or less with a sense of beauty. The difference, of which I have spoken, between what may be called pictorial art and that which we have called symbolic, lies rather in the form of the art. That is to say, the former has been developed more directly through an imitation of the scenes which Nature presents and of the materials which she uses, while the latter is more due to man's constructive originality, which enables him to use new materials with a power of combination entirely his own. Thus it happens that, to a certain small extent, the former may be more ac­quired by study than the latter. In painting, for instance, a person who has a mind capable of seizing and appreciating the important points of a scene may by careful study and use of his materials become a very fair artist, even without any special gift towards form or colour; but in music it is notorious that a man may have the finest appreciative faculty and even the most brilliant imaginative power, and yet, if he be destitute of the natural ear which ought, unconsciously almost, to give body to his thoughts, he will never be able to attain the essential freedom of expression. So real grace of action or of oratory is not altogether attainable by study, it must to a certain extent be inborn. Of course in all these latter forms of Art, such as music, architecture, oratory, men may study from one another, as painters from Nature; but it is clear that this study alone, even combined with the most appreciative powers, can never produce Art of a really high order.

This difference in form being allowed, there is really the closest unity of nature in all Art.  For though, at first sight, it might appear that there could be no resemblance in the ideas conveyed by a beautiful painting and a four-part song, or in the manner of expression in each; yet, the more closely we consider them, the more we shall see that, in fact, the very same principles and modes of treatment do prevail in both.

If we go back to Nature as our primal teacher, we shall find that she never acts, in the most minute matter, without following out certain ideas or principles, which we call the Laws of Nature, and which are indeed the modes according to which, as far as we are concerned, the Author of Nature has chosen to express His will. Nor can we doubt that these laws are indeed very closely connected with Him. They are not mere arbitrary rules serving to give rise to a casual world, or to be replaced by a new set when this world is worn out; but really, if there is any truth in Him who made them, they are the eternal expressions to us of a perfection that as yet we are only dreaming of. And surely we are justi­fied in deducing this a priori, for does it not acquire redoubled force when we discover what are these principles of Nature's action ?-when we see her, first of all, stretching arms of endless might throughout all creation, holding and en­veloping everything with unceasing force, through the wonder­ful grasp of suns or the inconceivably minute inclination of the tiny atoms to one another-and then, on the other hand, when we see her keeping all that mighty power in check as she moves on submissively within her own fixed bounds in perfect moderation, wreathing the light halo round the delicate firefly with the same fingers as she spreads the morning upon the mountains and the thundercloud along the valley-and when we see her, by the light of science, re­maining permanent and indestructible through all the years, and yet, from moment to moment of time, shaking herself out and out with endless variety of change-when we see every little plant and animal fulfilling itself in happy in­dividuality, and, at the same instant, bound by the strongest links of sympathetic dependence on every other part of creation, all things different yet all things for ever knit to­gether fast and close-do we not feel that all these princi­ples, purely scientific as they are, are also consonant with what we know of our highest conceptions ? Do they not speak to us of a Will, embracing everything, ‘which shall endure when all that seems shall suffer shock'-a Will all-powerful, yet not capricious, whose mode of operation is is (sic) itself Reason, fixed, inviolable?-of a creative Intelligence of unchanging essence, for ever assuming new and newer phases through all time? of a Heart, strong in its own person­ality to live and to act, and yet filled with the fulness of all love and sympathy?

If we take these, and all other laws discoverable in Nature, as indicative of Divine perfection, I think it becomes evident that it is the sphere of all Art, of whatever kind, to embody some or all of these laws or ideas1 in its works. And here we shall find the real affinity of all forms of Art. The artist, whatever materials he uses, must, either consciously or unconsciously, mould them to obey these laws. When he takes his art from Nature he copies Nature so as to give force and expression to certain of them which he perceives there; and those details which are not of import­ance for this purpose he may omit. When he moulds his materials for himself, as in architecture or music, he must still mould them to express these ideas, otherwise his work is not artistic. I do not for a moment mean to say that every musician or architect has consciously endeavoured to represent any such ideas; but, in casting about to discover how to convey truthfully what was in him, he has of necessity shapen to himself a mode of expression in which their pre­sence is traceable.

1 "That which, contemplated objectively, we call a Law; the same, contem­plated subjectively, is an Idea."-Coleridge, On Church and State.