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Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


When we come to speak of the beauty of animals in general, or of men, we must remember that if we believe they have any wills at all of their own, then their bodies are not merely the product of the forces of Nature, but are varied too by the effect of the indwelling power of the will. Here then is an element of imperfection due to the clash of these two powers. And in man, at any rate, as a responsible creature, there arises a conscious struggle for the mastery. Hence the defeat of the will in man and his degradation to brute nature generally presents us with the most complete impression of ugliness. The human face may be very beautiful in its outlines as a mere product of Nature; but who does not know the beauty added when its lines and curves have come at last to repre­sent the triumph of a true and manly heart ? And who does not know how the most perfect features may be vilified and distorted by a life of sensuality?

The struggle between the will of man and the undeviating tread of Nature's forces is the highest subject of pictorial and dramatic art; and here, as everywhere, the defeat or entanglement of the invisible powers in the more material gives rise to the tragic, or the ludicrous. When the flower, which has so delicately built itself up, is touched by the first breath of decay, the scale is turned against all the invisible forces which held it together; and though it does not at once lose its beauty, yet that is then very dif­ferent from the beauty of the joyous bursting of the bud. So no beauty in Art can be greater than that of the triumph of man, surrounded by adversities, over all the evils of his path: when he moulds trials, temptations, difficulties, and dangers, physical or moral, all to his own will, instead of Falling a prey to them. Nor can anything be more tragic than the crushing of his spirit beneath what seems an ad­verse fate, when bold resistance is overwhelmed by the relent­less powers of external Nature, or the endeavour to stand against temptation foiled by the accumulated habits of many years. On the other hand, this very adversity of fate, when the occasion is one of little importance, transmutes the tragic into the ludicrous. The incongruity of a noble ideal and the wretched material fact is, at once, the source of all sad­ness and of all humour. Even Hamlet becomes ludicrous, when his mother says 'He's fat and scant o' breath,' and it is almost impossible to help laughing even at one's own misfortune when one's hat becomes a plaything for the wind and mocks the most ardent pursuit. So it happens that the misfortunes of others, because we consider them of little importance, become the themes of laughter to ourselves; and the trite saying that there is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous is constantly exemplified. It is difficult to say whether Shakespeare excelled most in tragedy or comedy. Thomas Hood was full of the quickest humour and the deepest melancholy. Wordsworth has scarcely a tinge of un­avoidable sadness, perhaps no sense at all of  the ridiculous. If Mendelssohn or Mozart were kings of exuberant fancy and happy expression, Beethoven, in his passionate sadness, combined with an occasional touch of the most intense hu­mour, is for ever a type of a spirit struggling and striving to express itself with materials for ever too gross to embody the last splendour of that which it has conceived. So it is not a sign perhaps of the highest artist mind when his works are always expressive of the most complete satisfaction. If it were possible that materials should thoroughly express the glory that eye hath not seen nor ear heard, then it would be different; but this is not possible, and therefore, as we said before, there is always the sense, in true Art, of something veiled, something unexpressed; and the true artist knows it and weeps it.

To return; we said that there were three phases of the contest between the invisible and the visible worlds. The first, in which the former triumphs, and moulds all external things to itself in perfectly happy expression; the second, in which the struggle is waged with doubtful issue, where now one side seems to pull the balance down and now the other; and the third, in which the spirit lies dead, crushed down to inaction by the very things that it hoped to have inspired. And it will be seen that the domain of Art lies practically in the second of these three phases. Here and there, the artist may attain the heights of perfect felicity in his work: that is the object for which he is always craving. Here and there, he may give way to the third phase for a moment in order to have a foil, as it were, for other parts of his work. But, in the great mass, the human artist can only expect to range along the higher hopes of a doubt­ful warfare; and it is indeed this fact which, as I shall try to shew hereafter, makes human art of such importance to us; we feel more keenly its sympathy with the strivings of which we are conscious in ourselves, for the very reason that it is not always perfectly successful in its efforts-does not lie in a range altogether above us.

Before proceeding further, however, I think it will be of importance to insist on a distinction in Art which is often not attended to, and the neglect of which often, in conse­quence, gives rise to much confusion.

If Art is, as we have hinted, the attempt to express, by the analogy of outward things, certain undefined ideas of a spiritual nature, it is, I think, evident that man in this endeavour may proceed in two ways. He may either look on the great artist-book of Nature, whether animate or inani­mate, and, by copying and studying parts of that, strive to embody again ideas which he sees there depicted, by to some extent reproducing Nature; or he may, on the other hand, fashion to himself new materials for his service, and, making use of them, express himself in a way that Nature never taught him or, at least, only distantly hinted to him. The first of these methods is followed in dramatic art, painting, sculpture, landscape gardening, and in any phase of the other arts that is in any way imitative of Nature; the second, in music, architecture, dancing and the like. Poetry may be said to belong to both classes; its descriptions and vivid presentations to the mind of things we may have seen and heard bring it under the first head; its use of rhythm and metre is a direct not a pictorial artistic ex­pression, and belongs to the second class.

In thus making a distinction, it must always be borne in mind that such distinctions are only roughly true; paint­ing may allow the introduction of much art of the second class, such as ornamental scroll-work, while music and archi­tecture may often contain artistic imitations of Nature. Also I would say that, in calling the first class imitative, I do not wish the word to be understood quite literally. It is impossible to thoroughly imitate Nature, and if possible, such an imitation would not make the work artistic. In all pictorial art, if we choose so to name the first division, the art consists in the choice, out of Nature's abundance, of that which is most fitted to represent the artistic idea, and in the truthful combination of the materials so chosen. Therefore, if it is intended, in a drama or a picture, to re­present such things as really have happened or exist, it is not necessary or possible to introduce every detail, but the artist endeavours to catch those only which are important for his purpose; and it is the triumph of the artistic mind to be able to seize these quickly and truthfully. If, again, he wishes to take some scene not directly from Nature but from the effort of his imagination, still he can only do so artistically by combining together the treasures he has stored up from a long study of Nature; and if, in this com­bination, he produces anything impossible or untruthful, his work is at once stamped as inartistic. A few lines seem to place many of Shakespeare's characters before us as living beings, and though they may never have existed, yet no one can read his plays without feeling that they might have existed, and that as such they are most perfect studies of Nature portrayed by a master-hand. Look closely at one of Turner's pictures, and it will be evident that he has not attempted to imitate Nature's multiplicity of detail; yet the few touches he has used have each carried their weight to give with incomparable clearness that effect of Nature which he desired to reproduce1. The poet, though he may carry in his mind the clearest image of that which he is depict­ing, confines his art to the representation of a few particu­lars only, and on the truthfulness of this choice depends the success of the production.

1 It must not be thought that there is no beauty in the fulness of Nature's detail, and that this can be safely omitted without losing anything of the whole. This is not true; but, since it is impossible to represent the whole, it has been customary to omit this detail. Pre-raphaelitism was a protest against this custom.