Art is the systematic application of knowledge or skill in effecting a desired result. In a broad sense, it is nature humanized, or re-expressed through the power of the human mind. Man studies the laws of nature, and becomes familiar with her forces, and then intelligently combines, re-arranges and re-presents them in forms that accord with his own ideals. Art is a skillful use of materials. It covers every wise employment of means for the accomplishment of desirable ends. Man is a secondary creator. While nothing is created anew, it is his office and privilege to reproduce, recombine and apply. As he comes into sympathetic at-one-ment with divine laws and methods, he commands and embodies their accomplishments.
The inventor only finds something that already is, in the nature of things. He humanizes or brings into actualization some combination which always existed in the boundless realm of the Absolute. All truth always was, and always will be true, though but the merest fraction has yet had human demonstration.
Art is higher and quite differentiated from instinct. The former is educational and progressive, while the latter only travels round in a little circle. But, by a seeming paradox, there may be bad art while there can be no bad instinct. In the evolutionary scale, art does not exist below the human plane. When pre-Adamic or animal man developed rationality it first became possible.
Art does not exist outside of reasoning mind, and it is only a name for mental method which is more or less skillful. All that ever comes into visibility is only its expression. A beautiful statue or painting is not art but only a work of art. There is no art in an art museum, but only the indexes of artistic genius which lives in human thought and imagination.
In the conventional classification of the arts, we have, first, the mechanical and industrial, often designated as trades; next the liberal arts which include philosophy, and the various sciences, and finally, the fine arts, which as commonly defined, embrace the exercise of the taste and imagination as applied to the production of what is beautiful. In the broader definition, these include, poetry, music, painting, sculpture and architecture. In current use, however, the term is largely confined to visible productions, but it is evident, that the broader interpretation, including poetry and music, is more fitting.
But essential fine art cannot be fully defined by such an area. It really comprehends the cultivation of the human imaging faculty, both in exercise for its own sake, and for sequential expression. All art is mind art. This is no less true in the industrial arts, than in those that are more refined. Their plane of expression is more crude, and their visible productions are in correspondence. There is a larger amount of physical exertion, but back of every such effort there is a qualitative mental action. The real distinction between the industrial and the ornamental, or esthetic arts, is one of motive.
We conventionally term things artistic, in the degree that they appeal to our sense of the beautiful, but high or fine art is that which is most perfectly and beautifully fitting, upon whatever plane expressed. So simple a product of the mechanical arts as a perfect box, if it exactly suit its purpose, is more artistic than a bad statue, even though in a nominally lower department. The intelligent design fits the end sought. While the motive is nominally more crude, the mental action is more perfect. The arrangement of the mental materials which are back of the expression is more truly artistic. Art is mental ability to image correctly. We speak of the cunning hand of the artist. But though the muscles of the hand seem to acquire a kind of education, they are only the passive instruments, and the more perfectly passive in their relation to the imaging faculty, the better the product. The great artist, in sculpture or painting, is he whose hands and tools are not only passive, but utterly lost in their responsiveness to the intensity of the imaginative design.
Let us now examine some of the reasons for considering the skillful activity of the thinking faculty, when exerted in behalf of its own symmetry, as high art. We have already shown that in lower and more limited and visible production, all artistic ability is in the mind, and the greater must include the less. All expert mental activity for the accomplishment of desirable ends is artistic, and the higher the motive, the finer the art.
True art cannot be degraded to the economic or material plane. While a desire for the control or outward possession of a highly artistic work may give it a large commercial value, the truest ownership consists in the measure of human responsiveness which its beauty can awaken. This is the underlying basis of its material value as a possession. Thus it follows that every beautiful product meets with a true owner in every responsive admirer. Often the external possessor can exercise but little real ownership from lack of capacity.
The soul has a riches and coinage of its own which knows no bankruptcy, and which never can be mingled with the realms below.
The mission of art is the production of beauty, but only its more subordinate works belong to the plane of visibility. A symmetrical mind and personality is a higher artistic accomplishment than a beautiful statue. The latter, as before noted, is only an outward expression of the beautiful mental image which existed before it, and but the merest fraction of fine ideals ever comes into actuality on the sensuous plane. It therefore follows, that but a very small minority of great artists ever produce marble statues or paintings on canvas. Beauty is a quality. It may be expressed in form or shapeless, objective or subjective. But even in objective form, it is only the index of mind-art. We say that a painting is beautiful, because it perfectly reproduces nature in form, color, tone, foreground and perspective, but in deeper definition, its real merit consists in the fact that the artist has been able to reproduce the sensation in us that he felt in his own soul. We enjoy his work because of this delightful response which is awakened in our feelings. Technical perfection is valueless to an unresponsive soul. Perhaps abstract beauty may be defined as the essence of those ideals which bear the greatest fidelity to nature. But personal standards are so different, that it almost may be questioned, whether or not there be any such thing as abstract beauty on the plane of form. If the fragrance of a rose were very poisonous, the sense of delight with which we now view the graceful blossom would be lost. In other words, though its form and shading be never so perfect, its beauty would be gone. Our names for objective things are therefore the names of our own impressions.
But it seems safe to assume that forms whether in nature or art that are symmetrical, unless limited, as in the case of the supposed rose by some unlovely quality, awaken sensations of delight in the human soul. But any technical excellence that is in excess of the imaging faculty of the observer is lost. On the other hand, if it be inferior to his own ideal, it awakens no subjective response.
Beauty, then, is neither more nor less than an harmonious vibration of soul, whether set in motion by expressions on the material, moral, or spiritual plane. While it may be stirred into action through the channels of the outer senses, it would appear logical, that immaterial beauty, or that which is contained in thought-quality, must be superlative, if not even all-inclusive.
We are finally brought to the conclusion that all that is delightful and lovable in the universe, is but an extension or reflection of soul-quality. While the form and tint of a flower are the occasion of a delightful sensation, its cause is always subjective. Even in the absence of the outward suggestive form, the imaging faculty may be trained to project into the mind its mental picture, and pleasure is experienced.
The most intrinsic and supreme beauty is that of the spiritual domain. The graceful lines and harmonious proportions that appear in a masterpiece on canvas by a Raphael, or in a statue by Canova, cannot be compared with a symmetrical soul. The intelligent designing of soul-beauty through lofty thinking is transcendent as a fine art.
But conventional curricula, and educational assumption have not recognized thinking as a fine art, or even an art at all. With all our assumed high ideals of education, thought has remained untrained and mostly unguided. Its activities have been largely employed for storing away a great mass of unrelated and arbitrary facts, or in other words, for building a showy mental warehouse, externally ornamental but often internally hollow. Such is denominated learning. A thing may be a matter of history, or even an undoubted present fact, and yet have no value. Worthless lumber occupies valuable room in the psychical depository. The chaff of negation, friction and sensuous realism is an unprofitable harvest.
Take the study of history, to which so much time is conventionally devoted. It is almost an unbroken record of human friction, ambition, war and conquest. It contains little or no idealistic stimulus, but mostly a burden of depressing realism. The evolutionary condition of humanity, being lower in the past than at present, it is a going backward in consciousness, not merely chronologically, but psychologically, ethically and spiritually. It is unartistic, because it is an arbitrary survey of a land of crudity and ignorance where the motive and action are heavier and grosser than those of the living present. By this we would not disparage the normal study of the past as a matter of relation and evidence of progress, but only of making the mind a storehouse for unmeaning facts and events of negative quality.
What would we think of an artist, who should spend hours each day in a gallery filled with misshapen and ill-designed statues that were entirely below his present power of productive attainment? To turn about in the evolutionary highway, is to consciously live in the low-vaulted past and to saturate ourselves with its friction. Such is crude art, or rather not art at all. It may involve plenty of thought activity, but little or no artistic training.
A mere technical expertness of thought, cultivated for its commercial value, in some measure may be necessary under present conditions, but it is not high art. Weighed by the false standards of a material commercialism, such an arbitrary adroitness may be financially remunerative but not ideal.
In the realm of fiction, the subtle tracings and suggestions of coarseness, if put in graphic form command the highest pecuniary reward. To take a ten thousand dollar prize, a story must be written upon a "realistic" plane. It must appeal to the sensuous instincts, if not directly to the lower propensities that still under veneer prevail among the great majority. If it can powerfully stir that class of mental strings into sympathic vibration, it is regarded a success. But it is false art.
The artistic way to destroy evil is not to hold it in the light and analyze it, with the hope of making it repulsive, but to put it out of the consciousness. Every mental picture is a suggestion, and stirs its corresponding unisons and vibrations in responsive souls. Pope's familiar lines about an acquaintance with vice express both a psychological and scientific truth. We are qualified by every mental delineation. As every atom in the whole cosmos affects every other atom, so every idle thought modifies the mind in some degree and puts its own quality in the ensemble. Even if one detests crime, he cannot long immerse his consciousness in its depicted turbid waves without taking on a little of the slime and sediment. The more immature the mind, the deeper the absorption.
The modern daily press, with its startling headlines and suggestive cuts, portraying crime and scandal, and making mentally graphic everything that is discordant and abnormal through familiarization, is a gigantic force largely exercised in the wrong direction. Through a creative law yet lightly regarded, the seed of innumerable ills, discords and disorders is scattered broadcast, but when its hideous fruit is ripened into objective and material expression, we fail to recognize the connection.
Everything around us has more or less power to transform us into its own image. If human happiness and harmony be desirable, it is bad art to go on ignorantly creating their destroyers. We busily delineate deformity and then wonder where its offshoots all come from. After putting up abnormal patterns, we unwittingly make them bright by daily renewal and polishing.
By irrepealable law, we grow like what we dwell with and feed upon. But after producing our discords by elaborate mechanism, we turn about and conclude that they were made outside and belong to our divinely ordained normal economy. The mind dwells in the midst of its own creations and cannot avoid them. Says Milton —
"A mind not to be changed by place or time,
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."
We galvanize specters into life, and then engage in mortal combat with them. Such is realism. But art, if it be true art, is always noble. Its end is human sanity, normality and harmony, and it works with intelligent skillfulness towards such a consummation.
Systematic mental gymnastics is the efficient means to such an end. Daily seasons of concentrative high thinking, with the discordant external world barred out of the consciousness is of wonderful utility. Not outward things, but thoughts of them make up the thinker's world. After a long enumeration of beautiful ideals, Paul says, "think on these things." But instead of thus enriching our mental treasury, we invite depressions, evils and disorders, and thus create an unwelcome environment. We thereby generate negatives into seeming entities. When not so engaged, we do the next worst thing by filling our minds with a conglomerate and seething mass of useless facts, histories, sensations, opinions and antagonisms which are not vital or constructive. Thought exercised upon rubbish deftly creates more rubbish, and a large part of conventional learning is of this quality. We shall begin to have education worthy of the name, when the principles enunciated by Pestalozzi and Froebel are extended into all grades and departments. What then is the inference? Rivet the thought upon every desirable ideal, physical, moral and spiritual, affirming its potential possession, for this is the way to embody and possess it.
But even so-called evils gradually bring their own antidote. The ugliness of bad art in the imaginative faculty at length becomes unbearable, and this compels a general re-forming. Practical idealism teaches us to work in accord with the laws of our own being. Present ideals are far superior to those which belong to past ages.
To move backward in the theological realm, is to retire from sun-lit apartments into the comparative gloom of a basement.
While the "beacon lights" along the pathway of history may be glanced at as evolutionary land-marks along the slow spiral of human ascent, and while their heroism, as set against the background of their local environment may awaken our admiration, we cannot long afford to leave the comparative high plateau of the present, and go back to encamp upon the malarious lowlands of the past.
The artistic attitude of thought is to stand with back to the past, and eyes towards the future. With its gaze thus directed, ideals continually rise up in the brightening vista and beckon us onward. The past may roughly push us along, but only the future can gently draw.
The great creative law of thought is, that it always presses for expression. There is no exception. It is a positive and enduring tendency even in the animal. It specifies, and then moves on to action and shaping.
Every overt manifestation, whether of heroism or criminality, self-sacrifice or animalism, is a logical harvest. The incubation of warm and vital thinking hatches a visible brood of its own color and shape. Continuous concepts of the imaging faculty, if exercised in a given form or outline, at length cause it to solidify or gain embodiment. Every one may become a great artist, in some department, in proportion as cogitative forces are educated, and their shape and quality beautifully outlined. One who has developed mind-art should be able to surround himself with high ideals, and dwell with them.
Bearing in mind the general law of thought-creativeness, some of the various departments or channels for its exercise may now be suggested.
Beginning with motives which express themselves in material visibility, we find that although these belong to an inferior plane, they are worthy of exercise, and have great educational value. The seen and sensuous are good in their own places, and appeal to the great majority because this grade of consciousness is what prevails. Through the use of these, mind-art is stimulated and prepared for its higher grades of unfoldment.
Evolutionary progress in preference and taste in externals is from the crude and loud, toward a refined harmonious complexity. The gewgaws, high colors and gorgeousness of the barbarian, shock the cultivated taste by their incongruity. They may indicate a powerful impulse, but art is yet undeveloped. As unfoldment takes place, contrasts are softened, tones blended, and harmonized congruity and unity increased. There is finer art. This, whether in costume or habitation, whether utilitarian or decorative.
The elevation of woman from a sensuous subordinate, and toy-like dependent of man, toward a true refinement and a mental and spiritual equality and independence, is outwardly indexed by an increasing preference for harmony and quietude in dress and environment. Still more progress is needed in this direction. The "new woman," if really to be a new woman, has yet much to achieve in overcoming the tyranny of existing conventions.
Though measurably emancipated from the barbarity of tawdry display and hostile colors in clothing and accessories which formerly prevailed, yet the slavery of a false art still largely continues in imposed forms of inutility, inconvenience, untidiness and unhealthfullness. This comes from the lack of independence and individuality. No art can be true art unless it have free and normal expression.
The imposition of an arbitrary authority in habiliment, as decreed by Parisian mandate, is a despotism which should be thrown off. There are yet to be new abolitions of slavery. Artificialism distorts all activity and expression.
But if conventions in the mere appearance of attire and decoration be rigid and irrational, what shall be said of those which distort and enfeeble the human organism? That divine masterpiece, the perfect and symmetrical form of woman is reshaped and deranged under the insane delusion that its beauty is thereby enhanced. Has nature made a mistake in her plans and specifications? The ideals held out in fashion plates and shop-window forms indicate that she has. It is a logical inference that we are trying to correct divine mistakes.
It is difficult to estimate, not only the inartistic deformity but the suicidal tendency of such false mind art in its final results. A cruel unwritten social legislation fetters, obstructs and turns back racial improvement and perfection. Abnormity comes so gradually and insidiously, and is so general, that it is mistaken for the normal. Under the spell of false ideals, thought force becomes disastrous, and its baneful effects go down as a universal legacy to coming generations.
We would by no means locate all the lack of such vital art in the sex already more especially referred to. Both the responsibility and consequences are general, and a universal reformation of ideals is needed.
High art is a close partnership with Nature. We fatally handicap ourselves when we oppose her. She is an omnipotent friend, and lends all her forces to concordant human activity and attainment, but if we vainly insist upon a quarrel, our discomfiture is assured. As we take her hand and let her lead us along her smooth paths, we may revel in her delightful harmonies. They all fit our constitution, for they are in and a part of us.
Spenser's familiar lines, written three hundred years ago —
For of the soul the body form doth take,
For soul is form and doth the body make,
express a truth, which, while poetic in style, is scientific in exactitude. But the great world-current of thought at that time, and since, has been so sensuous and materialistic, that its truth has been hidden. Not until recently has there been any indication that the imperious sway of a crude realism, almost wholly objective and external, was being seriously questioned. But now its weakness is manifest. A constructive idealism is awakening from dormancy into living vigor. It has attained evolutionary ripeness. Its welcome light is now penetrating the dark by-ways and dusty corners of existing systems, and cannot longer be shut out. To those upon the watch-towers, whose finer vision is open, the advent of the great transition is already realized. Its benignant flood of forces is already sweeping away a congealed crust of human limitations, which though self-constructed, has been solid through the ages.
In the mental and spiritual realm are located those unseen forces which are able to fuse and re-cast human expression into shapes of artistic symmetry. In the past, our energies have been employed in unscientific and hap-hazard fashion. All this because we have disregarded the higher law. Instead of arming ourselves with it projectiles, we have kicked against its pricks. We are the executives of its forces and may command them. We can do even more. Through the exercise of a consummate art we measurably reform and re-create for ourselves the objective world.
Through the high art of thought-molding, man may not only utilize existing laws, but gradually become a law unto himself. He steps out from his little traditional groove, into untrammeled range and freedom.
Note the wonderful scope of future possibilities which are capable of realization, through an application of the now well recognized principles of idealism. First, what may mind art do for the human body? It would doubtless be possible, within three or four generations, for the race to become physically beautiful, strong and robust. The general consciousness of the past, has largely focalized itself upon negatives, deficiencies, disorders and evils and has generated them into active expression. When forces, ignorantly employed, pull in opposite directions, progress is impossible. Harmonized, united and pulling together they become invincible. If everyone, day by day, would systematically image positive patterns of harmony, happiness, beauty, strength and perfection they would soon be universally articulate and manifest. Such an exercise might soon be made a mental habit. Granted, the process of realization can be but gradual, yet if negations were once displaced from the field of consciousness, all their deformed and abnormal progeny would steadily fade from sight. We should have no more " bad heredity." Morbidity and disorder would rapidly diminish, and decrepitude and old age steadily be pushed back from the human foreground. Slavish conditions have been rated as normal, simply because they are common. We have unwittingly set up our own ungraceful limitations, which at first have been plastic, but as though made of cement, they have gradually hardened into adamantine walls. The new philosophy of health will show us how to make them crumble, whereby we may be released from bondage.
Such an accomplishment of artistic development as has been outlined, is no overwrought theory, but a practical possibility. So soon as the concurrent thought-forces of men and women become scientifically and artistically shaped, their beautiful casting will materialize before us. There is abundant scattered thought-activity, but concentrative unity is what is needed.
How can a craft be steered if the needle of its compass points, at hap-hazard, in different directions? How can bad art produce beautiful works?" By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?"
There are two vital principles which are inherent in the imaging faculty, that have a significant bearing upon its productions. They are its creative force and its untiring activity. It must create, and it must act. Nothing within or without can prevent it. For centuries man has been trying to discover perpetual motion, but really he has it within him. He has been untiring in his study of every problem of rapid and economical production, while the most busy factory in the world is in his own soul. As he creates after his own patterns, all his works are original. While he is the evolutionary compendium of all that has gone before, he is unlike any part of it. No two individual thought-forms, whether of principles or things, were ever quite the same. The endless variety of physiognomy that we behold is no more differentiated, than the corresponding thought which produced it. Chance has had no hand in this endless complexity.
If we and our ancestors had always thought along exactly the same lines, we should all look alike. In the abstract, there is one full-rounded perfect ideal, and in the actual, every one fills some part of it, but no two quite the same part. The aim of a true mind-art is to constantly increase that proportion.
The potential power of all is stored in each. It has all been involved, but its latency must be quickened. It is like the coiled mainspring in a watch, which is pressing for release and expansion. But we unwittingly resist the enlargement from within. The walls of cold intellectualism, formulated dogmatism and worldly conventions are rigid and unyielding, and our artistic soul aspirations are thereby repressed. We are walking in long used ruts so deep that with difficulty we can step out, and even sometimes hardly look over their borders. We plod along, stamping our own initials upon the unartistic and deformed models that have been strewn by our predecessors. Like sheep, we follow the bellwether, even though the course bend upon itself and lead through sloughs of despond.
But each one may soften his rigidity and let the spring that is within him uncoil, and thus develop an artistic originality. This frees the divine spontaneity in his soul, and symmetrical action and beautiful form are manifested.
Belief in the power within is the key which unlocks vital energy. Faith in a thing must precede its accomplishment. To stimulate belief, we must open up our own possibilities, and keep them in view. Nothing will so lift up and inspire a despairing human unit, as a picture of his own inherent divine and unlimited capacity.
Idealism is therefore the supernal artist that is able to shape and polish mind and body, the latter through the former. The purest models are those which lie clustered at the divine center of man's being. At his very heart is the Christ-pattern, and the closer that he can concentrate his consciousness upon it the grander and more perfect its creative skill. But, as with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, we feel that what we crave is so deep as to be beyond our reach, and we have nothing to draw with. We look into its crystalline depths, and feel our thirst, and at the same time our helplessness. But the divine imaging faculty, with the skill of true spiritual art, bridges the chasm, and lifts the deep potential to the surface of the seen and actual.
Our high possibilities are precious because of the labor and effort required for their realization. Nothing less than interminable cutting, hewing and polishing, will release the beautiful captive statue from the rough block of virgin marble, and so all true art is simply a liberation from rigid, external limitation. We are souls hibernating amid congealed surroundings, but there are signs of spring time. The soft south wind of a diviner consciousness may blow upon our frigidity and make the waters flow.
With all our boasted modern civilization, there are primal principles which have been better understood by some of the more natural and simple peoples of the past. The Spartans were wise enough to systematically surround their wives, when in conditions of prospective motherhood, with beautiful pictures, images and statues, and Lycurgus even enforced this custom by the requirements of law. The final result, was a race of such physical perfection as the world has rarely known. Such an accelerated racial development is at last understood to be as practicable upon the mental and spiritual planes as upon the physical. The Spartans emphasized only the lower domain of the great law, but we, with our over-wrought externalism, have failed to observe even that. It is not proposed here to enter upon the great subject of heredity, but its laws which work along the lines just indicated, are of tremendous and unappreciated import to mankind. Correct and artistic imaging is not only of transcendent importance in the peculiar conditions just noted, but for each and all. The thought of every individual is tributary to the great psychical currents which encircle the earth.
Mental imaging can never become artistic until it is centered above the animal plane. Upon that low level there are no anchors but what will drag when subjected to the strain which comes from the surges of prejudice and passion.
Antagonism is not only false and unartistic, but positively destructive in its tendency. The law of peace and good-will, otherwise known as the law of love, exactly fits the constitution of developed man. High art includes all that is perfectly fitting to a noble end. It is adaptable and constructive. The divinity within which shapes our ends, is the divine imaging faculty which fashions our souls.
This great fact is only of recent and yet partial appreciation, for the supposition has been that the shaping was mostly done for us. We are wrought upon not from without by a Deity of capricious will, but by a God of love through his beautiful and orderly laws which inhere in our own constitution. His method is a working in us "to will and to do." We are so free that we may take of the profusion of divine material, and build it up in the shape we will, even after a Christly model.
What a broadening of art interpretation! No longer limited to marble statues, and painted surfaces, it comprehends every activity of the imaging faculty. We are as truly shaping, shading and tinting these mind forms and spiritual perceptions as is the painter those which he spreads upon canvas. Creation never exhausts itself, or comes to the end of its designs. Its production is inimitably variable. It is probable that during the world history, no two leaves have been exactly alike. The same with thoughts and ideals. The universe is never monotonous, however much it may seem so to us. There is no limitation to man's potential skill or intelligence. With his growing recognition of law, the whole boundless cosmos is his. Every fresh concept of its unlimited scope, releases him more and more from traditional trammel and earthy gravitation. His triumphant freedom will consist, not in being independent of law, but of wielding it. In its name, and with its endorsement, he goes forth creating with ever expanding ability.
All the crude productions of mind-art that meet our gaze along life's highway, have a use not for study, but for avoidance. They are buoys to show the shoal places and rocks. Without these we should aimlessly drift. But if the right road were walled on each side, making divergence impossible, we should become automatons, incapable of growth, through the lack of choice. Our operations would be forced and mechanical. A free choice for a free man among patterns is therefore a necessity.
Truly defined, from the evolutionary standpoint, there is no unmitigated bad art, on the one hand, nor any of perfected quality on the other. All specifications have some relative goodness, and each is a landmark along the path of advancement. Fine art is simply intelligent and normal progress, from the present attainment, wherever that may be. It is a step skillfully taken, from one round of Jacob's ladder to the next, in whatever part of its entire length. Wherever in the great procession we are marching, we need to keep well-marked and harmonious time with the universal trend.
The race is only in its alphabetical exercises. We are like children in the early stages of kindergarten work, molding plastic clay into crude and grotesque forms. We unwittingly shape images of fear, weakness, disorder, decrepitude and old age, and then fall down before the works of our own hands and do them homage, and grow into their likenesses. Our inner vision being blurred, we see so dimly, that we think God formed them for us.
The world is a grand studio, and we are all artists, engaged in chiseling forms, and breathing into them quickening, palpitating life. In proportion as we shape these animated things in accord with the principles of high art, we shall be inspired by their companionship, thrilled by their beauty and molded by their symmetry.