As man beholds the process of creation going on around him in the outer world, he at first supposes himself to be a product of natural forces —or a mere cog in the machinery of the world, as it were. Recognizing only the finite in himself, not yet being aware of the existence of a deeper Self within, it is impossible for him consciously to identify that Self with the creative Spirit he sees manifested outwardly in beauty, goodness, truth, and harmony. But as he gradually becomes conscious of a creative impulse proceeding from within, and follows its leading, he finds himself co-operating in the progressive work of creation.
The scope of the natural world is enlarged through his efforts. In place of rude stone caves he constructs abodes of original design, conforming to such geometrical figures and mathematical principles as his mental development enables him to comprehend and apply. He engrafts on to certain rudimentary forms of the natural world, others of superior excellence. In directions where Nature seems deficient or tardy, he supplies her lack, and supplements her previous achievements, by fulfilling her intentions, completing her efforts, or accelerating her progress.
Nothing could be more perfect, aesthetically, than the snowflake, the oak tree, the mountain peak, the ocean, or the primitive forest. Still, with the infinite possibilities of design, there is always room for fresh expression. Even in directions where Nature's work is incomplete, she aids man in his endeavors by supplying the rough material for further undertakings. He steadily enlarges her scope by bringing to light hitherto unperceived treasures, manifesting ideals previously unrecognized, elaborating simple forms, and producing new effects. Architecture, landscape improvement, horticulture, adaptation of natural forces to the requirements of a progressive civilization—these are among the achievements that attest man's ability to amplify and extend the works of Nature. In the fine arts he gives further expression—through many mediums, and according to a variety of tastes— to the Spirit he finds already abundantly manifested in Nature.
Thus we see that Nature and Art constitute one world. They blend so imperceptibly that, in many cases, the line of demarcation between superhuman and distinctively human expressions is obliterated. Their mode of revelation is the same, and their forms are of the same description. Both are perceptible through the same outward medium—sight. They are partial expressions that a deeper consciousness enables us to recognize as the work of one Creator.
Genius is spiritual insight. It penetrates the outer envelopes of life and makes it possible for one to assume a central view-point from which all things appear in their true relations. Every man has the power to lay down at will his personal consciousness, to exchange the finite standpoint for the infinite, to merge his separate existence in the Universal, and to allow his thought to become poised at the center of Being. In that state he shares the creative spirit, and is inspired with a deep longing to manifest the ideal world. The finite man creates nothing; he simply serves as an instrument of the Infinite—a medium through which the universal Life finds expression; just as the wire in an incandescent lamp is a means of radiating light when the current is passed through it.
Material forms are symbolical. They suggest spiritual ideas. Ideas are projected into external form by the intervention of thought—mental images susceptible of unlimited modification. These images remain latent in the mind until the search-light of consciousness illumines and reproduces them in memory. On attempting to formulate his ideal visions, the creative artist appropriates the mental images most accessible and best suited for embodiment, and weaves them into original designs—models of outward representation. He may not be able consciously to trace the process by which this result is achieved. The finite consciousness must be passive in order that the Infinite may fully possess Its instrument. For this reason the standpoint from which the artist creates and that from which he contemplates his work, are sometimes widely separated. He may even fail to recognize his own productions when he approaches them in the capacity of the critical observer, instead of that of the creative instrument.
The deeper Self often accomplishes results that fairly bewilder the finite agent through whom they are achieved. It always builds better than the finite man conceives. One need not be consciously aware, as he writes, paints, or composes, of the deeper meaning of his work.
Some men of genius underestimate their creations, while others overestimate theirs. In Art, as in Nature, the deeper Self creates with lavish hand, and frequently scatters abroad the choicest material with prodigal recklessness.
Every man is a genius, did he but know it; for he has latent capacities waiting to come into exercise whenever he allows himself to forget his finitude in contemplating and obeying the Infinite, which incessantly calls to him from within. If he listens to the voice it grows louder; if he obeys, it becomes more authoritative—until, in time, he forgets the impotence of the lower self and identifies his life habitually with the higher.
Nearly every man needs, most of all, to learn to adapt or apply what he already knows. He has latent resources that need developing, and dormant powers that need quickening. "Common sense" is genius in embryo. The dullest mind is stored with information enough to produce the works of a Homer or a Shakespeare; but the fire of genius must be kindled slowly, by experience, before it will awaken memories, call forth slumbering thoughts, and reconstruct ideals from the scattered elements of past life.
It is not the province of Art to copy forms. Genuine Art expresses ideas, as Nature herself does, and with the same kind of creative impulse—therefore in essentially the same guise. Both are inspired by the self-same Source, so that their aims are necessarily in perfect accord. The ideals of the true artist are identical with those of Nature. He feels the creative impulse as it is revealed in its vigor and purity in Nature. When he reproduces the likeness of existing forms, it is not for the sake of imitating or mimicking them, but because his finer perceptive instinct enables him to discern in forms ready at hand in Nature, certain pure ideas; and an indwelling Presence, of which he is conscious and with which his own life has become identified, clothes those ideas according to the peculiar artistic predilections or specially cultivated tastes of the individual mind through whose instrumentality they find outward shape. The Author and Creator of all expression within the provinces of both Nature and Art, when permitted to act spontaneously, produces similar results. Poet, seer, prophet, and artist realize something of the Universal in their several spheres. It is not Henry Smith who writes verses, paints, or composes immortal works, but the infinite Spirit acting through the personal agent.
A painting in imitation of some old masterpiece, even though so cleverly executed that only a connoisseur can distinguish it from the original, possesses little intrinsic worth because it is simply a copy. Although its forms and colors may exactly correspond with those of the genuine work of the master, yet the counterfeit lacks the spirit with which he endowed his work: just as a mechanically modeled figure of the human body lacks the breath of life. Genius infuses into a work the spirit that causes it to hold the same vital relation to the universal ideal as do living organisms to the soul of Nature. It is the Spirit that creates and quickens, in both Nature and Art. All works are vehicles of the Spirit, and possess intrinsic values according to the measure of the Spirit with which they are endowed. The great painter instils the quality of his inspiration into the very colors and canvas he uses. It is indelibly stamped on the physical and psychical forces with which he has to deal, and that is what gives value to his productions. It is its spirit, rather than details of expression, that satisfies the appreciative observer. Many immortal paintings are open to severe criticism, from a technical point of view, for faulty perspective or imperfect coloring. Even Nature produces blemishes and monstrosities; but though the vehicle be deformed, it still serves, in a measure, to reveal the immanent Spirit.