Edward Howard Griggs.

The philosophy of art : the meaning and relations of sculpture, painting, poetry and music online

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Copyright, 1913, by
Edward Howard Griggs


MAY 7 1984




Introduction 7


I. The Expression of Human Life in Art .... 21

II. The Interpretation of Human Life in Art . . 41

III. Primitive Sources of Art 57

IV. Defining Forces Behind Art: The Artist ... 81

V. The Development of the Artist as Revealed

in Art 103

VI. Defining Forces Behind Art: The Epoch . . 115

VII. Defining Forces Behind Art: The Race . . . 129

VIII. The Unique Function of Each Fine Art . . 141

IX. The Meaning and Function of Sculpture . . 151

X. The Meaning and Function of Painting . . . 171

XI. The Meaning and Function of Music .... 189

XII. Music and the Spirit 213

XIII. The Meaning and Function of Poetry: The

Relation of Poetry to Sculpture and
Painting 229

XIV. The Meaning and Function of Poetry: The

Relation of Poetry to Music 247




XV. The Unity of the Arts 267

XVI. The Dangers of Art 277

XVII. Beauty and the Life of Appreciation .... 287
XVIII. The Study of Beauty in Nature and Art . . . 301

XIX. Art for Life's Sake 321

Book List 331

Index 341



THE aim of this study is to show what
art is, how it comes out of the life of
man, and what specific function each of
the great ideal arts fulfills in relation to the
human spirit. There is great need of such
study to-day. We in America have been turn-
ing with remarkable interest and enthusiasm
to all fields of art and intellect. It would seem
that the splendid energy which has built up
our wonderful material civilization is now
to find expression in the life of the spirit, with
the promise of equally great achievement there.
There is scarcely an important city in the land
that has not at least the beginnings of a mu-
seum of sculpture and painting. Opportuni-
ties for hearing great music have been multi-
plied several times within a few decades. Gifts
to education and to all aspects of culture have
increased enormously ; while even more signifi-
cant of our spirit is the extent to which we send



our students abroad. In any European school
of fine art at least half the students not native
to the country in question are American. In
other words, we send to foreign schools more
students than all the other nations taken to-
gether. Of course, we ought to do so, for we
are a youthful people and need to learn from
the accumulated culture of the older world;
but the significance of our action is no less
great. All these signs, with the increasing pat-
ronage of the arts by wealth and power, mean
much for our happiness, our culture as a peo-
ple and our contribution to the world.

Unfortunately this great movement is sadly
hampered by ignorance and, worse, by fla-
grant misconceptions as to the meaning and
function of the arts. Turn to the literature of
the subject: there is admirable material on the
technical aspects of the arts, and excellent his-
tory and criticism; but where is any adequate
study of the specific power and limitations of
each of the arts in expressing and interpreting
the human spirit? Lessing's Laokoon is still
the best book we have on the subject; while it
is far behind the experience and what ought to
be the thinking of our time, and attempted at


most only to define the mutual limits of the
plastic arts and poetry. Really the great
books in the field we are attempting include
hardly more besides Lessing's than Leonardo's
Note Books, Wagner's writings and Schiller's
^Esthetic Essays.

Worse than the ignorance and lack of
thought are the prevailing misconceptions.
The most widely accepted of these is in the
mind of the general public. It is the notion
that art is a dispensable luxury, a polite adorn-
ment of life, pleasant enough where there is
ample wealth and leisure, but of no value until
the serious business of life is fulfilled. Utterly
wrong as this notion is, it is nevertheless taken
for granted by the multitude, not only in the
unthinking mass, but in circles of wealth, so-
cial prominence and even of supposed culture.
Indeed, the fault is old and long enduring,
for the cry of the artist in all epochs has been
that his work is not taken as the serious aim
of life it is, but as an adventitious adornment
of the more or less superficial amenities of so-
cial existence. Carlyle voices this in Teufels-
drockh who resents being made polite fringe
on Lady Somebody's "iEsthetic Tea;" while


Goethe's study of the behavior of the emperor
and court toward Helena in the Second Part
of Faust is the most scathing portrayal I know
in literature of the whimsical reaction of the
world of polite society on the miraculous crea-
tion of beauty which should inspire silent awe.

How prevalent the same attitude is to-day!
Consider the behavior of persons wandering
through a gallery of painting, saying, "I like
this" or "dislike that," as if they had the right
to like or dislike until they have appreciated
and understood what of human thought and
feeling is given, and with what measure of
adequacy and harmony. Go to the Metropoli-
tan Opera House in New York, when some
masterpiece of Wagner is given. Where *
you find the true music lovers ? Oh, everywhere,
of course — one wants to be fair — but many of
them are standing up in the top gallery ; while,
of the high-priced boxes in the great oval,
many are empty the first hour and empty the
last half hour — society displaying itself and its
clothes as at any other function, with no no-
tion of the attitude necessary to the creation
and appreciation of true art.

There is, of course, another side to this which


all great artists have understood : art can have
no higher function than in transfiguring the
life of this moment. What is posterity if not
men and women such as we, and why should
the artist work for some future time and not
for the living world about him? Leonardo da
Vinci, painter of perhaps the greatest picture
the world has seen — the ruined masterpiece on
Milan monastery wall — was willing to use his
unparalleled genius to prepare some masque or
other artistic pleasure for the court circle at
Milan, given once and never repeated; and
Goethe himself was glad to employ the genius
that created Faust in some like service for the
group at Weimar. When, however, art is
^ade a mere pleasant fringe and polite decora-
tion to the more or less superficial and often
frivolous activities of social life, the wrong
thing is taken for the center and art is pros-

A second error, only less harmful than the
first, prevails also in the mind of the public,
though not so widely. It is very good persons
who make this mistake, often with fanatical
earnestness. Their error is in holding that
art is justified by some obvious didactic moral


teaching. They accept the drama or novel if
it preaches some sermon, the painting if it
carries a moral lesson. Goethe has sufficiently
characterized this point of view. He says: "A
good work of art can, and will indeed, have
moral consequences ; but to require moral ends
of the artist, is to destroy his profession."*
"To destroy his profession": the phrase is not
too strong. In so far as the artist becomes
preacher he is apt to cease to be artist, since
his didactic moral is so much more limited than
the aim of art, which is the presentation of the
whole truth of life in a form of beauty. The
artist must strive for the abiding truth rather
than its changing application. If he deals with
the issue of the hour, it must be in no narrow
partisan spirit, but with the vision of the eter-
nal through the transient. Compare Charles
Kingsley's Alton Locke with Goethe's Wit-
helm Meister to see the difference between the
literature of propagandism, even of superior
excellence, and art. A certain withdrawal
from life and its feverish conflicts is always

* Denn ein gutes Kunstwerk kann und wird zwar moral-
ische Folgen haben, aber moralische Zwecke vom Kiinstler
fordern, heiszt ihm sein Handwerk verderben." — Dichtung
und Wahrheit, book XII, Bohn Library translation, p. 469.


necessary for the artist that he may have per-
spective. To create art one must have lived,
but to create art one must also have withdrawn
from life to the mountain height of spiritual
isolation. Thus always the loneliness and pain
of the great artist: sometimes it finds tender
and sad expression as in Shelley and Chopin;
sometimes it causes the despairing reaction of
a Leopardi or a Schopenhauer; sometimes it
produces the grave irony of a Goethe or a
Wagner; but always it is present, and the
vision of the artist is bought with the pain of
being consciously apart.

Thus the true moral value of a work of art
is in the nature of the work itself, not in an
iEsop Fables' moral appended at the end.
Suppose Shakespeare had affixed to Othello
a statement that he had meant to teach us the
ugliness of jealousy: what a pitiful anti-climax
it would have been! If the moral meaning is
not involved in the very nature of a work of art,
then it is bad art. No, art is not for preach-
ing's sake, any more than it is for adornment's
sake; and many of the "good" people are as
far wrong as the frivolous.

These two errors in the public mind have


helped breed a third, prevailing among artists
themselves — the notion that art exists for the
sake of exhibiting technical skill in the mas-
tery of difficulties. The great men have never
made this mistake : they invariably have recog-
nized that technical skill is never an end at all,
but always a means — a glorious one — to some-
thing beyond itself; but among lesser artists
the superstition is widely prevalent.

It is easy to see how it arises. Probably
there never was an earnest student beginning
to learn a particular art who did not look for-
ward to creating his masterpiece. The young
poet dreams of his Divine Comedy or Faust,
the painter, of the ceiling of some new Sistine
Chapel, the musician, of compositions that shall
rival Beethoven, the sculptor, of his new Per-
iclean marbles and his brooding figures on
fresh Medicean tombs. With such aspirations
invariably the student begins; but what hap-
pens? Soon he discovers that the road he must
travel is painfully long and beset with hard
obstacles. The embryonic painter, for exam-
ple, finds he must wholly subordinate his own
ideas, draw for years from the antique before
he is allowed even to begin to copy nature.


Only after long discipline in drawing may he
add color, and how long is the road before
any self-expression is permitted. Thus he is
apt to forget all about the end which originally
he had in view, and become absorbed wholly
in conquering the difficulties in the path. To
acquire and exhibit such skill comes more and
more to seem itself the aim.

The just reaction against seeking an adven-
titious end for art accentuates this tendency.
I have always sympathized with the painters'
protest against such a view of their art as
Ruskin preached. Ruskin's work was strong
and permanently helpful; but in all his study
of painting he sought some definitely moral or
religious end in the effect of the art ; yet beauty
is its own sufficient justification; art need seek
no end outside itself; and thus arises the cry
"art for art's sake." On a high plane this is
right ; but when art for art's sake is interpreted
to mean art for technique's sake — for the sake
of exhibiting technical skill in mastering diffi-
culties — then art is reduced to the level of a
juggler's tricks or refined gymnastic. To walk
a tight rope without a balancing pole shows
admirable technical skill, but surely it is not


fine art in the same sense as painting or music.
Technical skill, excellent and desirable as it is,
is always a means and never an end in itself;
and the exhibition of it merely evidences power
which is vain unless used for some aim worth

The third error is thus as far from the truth
as either of the others ; yet one would scarcely
believe how prevalent it is among the rank and
file of artists. Listen to a group of painters
commenting upon the pictures of a gallery.
Of what do they speak: of the way that land-
scape rests and calms the spirit; of the sweep
of humanity in this portrayal of common life?
No; but of the skill with which the lighting is
handled here; the fault in the composition
there; the method of putting on his colors
which this painter has employed. It is natural :
they are constantly working with these tech-
nical problems, and thus they look for the
handling of them in the work of others. The
result, however, is the focussing of their atten-
tion almost wholly on the means employed.

Sit behind a group of musical artists during
the rendering of a Beethoven symphony or a
Wagner opera. Do they speak of the power


of the music to sweep one out on to the bosom
of the sea of emotion, to refresh the spirit and
give the vision of the ideal? No, but of the
skill with which that high note was struck;
the admirable rendering of this difficult pas-
sage by the violins ; the fault in the conductor's
reading of that other passage. Indeed, it is
even possible for the mind to become so ab-
sorbed in the analysis of technique as actually
to lose in power of appreciation. One finds
cases where a student has worked ten years in
mastering the technique of an art, and at the
end of the time has really less power to appre-
ciate spontaneously the art than when he be-
gan his study. This need not happen and ought
not to happen, but the fact that it does occur
shows how far the mastery and exhibition of
technical skill is from the true aim of art.
No, art is not for technique's sake, any more
than it is for adornment's sake, or preaching's
sake. These three misconceptions stand in the
way of our right use of art to-day, and we must
overcome them to make our contribution as
a people and to give art the place it should
occupy in our culture. Art is serious business ;
beauty is the most useful thing we know; the


ideal is no less real than the coarsest material
end. Art is for life's sake.

There are thus three underlying questions
in the study here undertaken: first, What is
Art? Second, What does Art do to the artist
who creates ? Third, What does Art do to the
student who appreciates? The study deals
primarily with the four great ideal types of
art — sculpture, painting, music and poetry.
Architecture, so largely conditioned by utility,
will be considered in comparison, as will the
composite arts — song, opera, dramatic por-

The method employed is not a review of
philosophy and criticism of art, but a study of
selected masterpieces in each field, asking what
these do to our senses, emotions, imagination
and intellect. This is merely applying to the
realm of art the method universally insisted
upon in all natural science, namely, first find-
ing the facts and then seeking to discover what
these mean. In art, as in science, a little direct,
first-hand study is worth more than much read-
ing of theory. In this work, if I may speak
personally, what I have to offer is at least my
own — not a restatement of criticism and philos-


ophy, but the condensed result of twenty-five
years' study of works of art in each of the four
fields, recording and interpreting what these
masterpieces have done to my senses, emotions,
imagination and intellect. The same method
must be employed by each student if he would
arrive at clear conceptions of the meaning and
function of these several fine arts ; and the re-
flections and conclusions tentatively offered in
the following chapters should be used as a chal-
lenge to the reader's own mind, on the basis of
his own first-hand study of masterpieces in the
respective fields.

"I believe in God, Mozart, and Beethoven, and in their
disciples and apostles; I believe in the Holy Ghost and the
truth of Art — one and indivisible; I believe that this art
proceeds from God and dwells in the hearts of all enlight-
ened men; I believe that whoever has revelled in the glori-
ous joys of this high art must be forever devoted to it and
can never repudiate it; I believe that all may become blessed
through this art, and that therefore it is permitted to any one
to die of hunger for its sake; I believe that I shall become
most happy through death; I believe that I have been on
earth a discordant chord, that shall be made harmonious and
clear by death. I believe in a last judgment, that shall fear-
fully damn all those who have dared on this earth to make
profit out of this chaste and holy art — who have disgraced it
and dishonored it through badness of heart and the coarse
instincts of sensuality; I believe that such men will be con-
demned to hear their own music through all eternity. I be-
lieve, on the other hand, that the true disciples of pure art
will be glorified in a divine atmosphere of sun-illumined, fra-
grant concords, and united eternally with the divine source
of all harmony. And may a merciful lot be granted me!
Amen!" — Wagner, in "An End in Paris," Art Life and The-
ories, p. 90.




WHEN we consider what has been ac-
complished in the field of art our first
impression is of so overwhelming a
wealth and variety that it seems impossible to
gather it all in a single statement. How shall
we define art so as to include works as re-
mote from each other as the Ramayana and
the songs of Burns, the ceiling of the Sistine
Chapel and the music of Chopin, the Poem of
Job and the frescoes of Andrea del Sarto?
Can it be possible to find a unifying principle
for all these? The problem is bewildering;
yet we individually may respond to all these
types of art; they all are our heritage. Thus,
there must be some element common to them
all to make possible the universal human

To find this element, turn for a moment to a
brief poem coming from a time as remote as



possible from our own, a Hymn to the Dawn
from the ancient Vedic literature:

To the Dawn *

"She shines upon us like a young wife, rousing
every living being to go to his work. The fire had
to be kindled by men ; she brought light by striking
down darkness.

She rose up, spreading far and wide, and moving
toward every one. She grew in brightness, wearing
her brilliant garment. The mother of the cows (of
the morning clouds), the leader of the days, she
shone gold-colored, lovely to behold.

She, the fortunate, who brings the eye of the god,
who leads the white and lovely steed (of the sun),
the Dawn was seen, revealed by her rays, with bril-
liant treasures she follows every one.

Thou, who art a blessing where thou art near,
drive away the unfriendly ; make the pastures wide,
give us safety ! Remove the haters, bring treasures !
Raise up wealth to the worshiper, thou mighty

Shine for us with thy best rays, thou bright

Dawn, thou who lengthenest our life, thou the love

of all, who givest us food, who givest us wealth in

cows, horses and chariots.

* F. M. Mueller, A History of Sanskrit Literature, pp.
551 and 552. Williams & Norgate, London, 1860.


Thou, daughter of the sky, thou high-born
Dawn, whom the Vasishthas magnify with songs,
give us riches high and wide : all ye gods, protect us
always with your blessings !"

Our first impression from this old song is
one of strangeness. Far as it is from us in
time, it is still farther from our way of thought
and life. We do not worship the Dawn, it
is not a goddess to us. Moreover, with our
way of life, we rarely see the Dawn; yet
read more closely, and the feeling of re-
moteness vanishes. After all, the old poet
is merely recording, under different expres-
sions, universal experience. Light is always
a miracle to a fresh mind. It is not that "God
said, Let there be light, and there was light;"
God says, Let there be light, and there is light,
with each morning. The spreading of the rosy
fingers of the Dawn over the sky, the "grow-
ing in brightness," the "bringing the eye of
the god," the sun — is it not an ever fresh
miracle? The fire on the hearth "had to be
kindled by men" — by hard labor in primitive
times, striking one stone upon another or rub-
bing two sticks together; "she brought light by


striking down darkness." The housewife of
the home moves toward this person or that
one; this housewife of the sky "moves toward
every one," "rousing every living being to go
to his work," this "mother of the cows" — the
light morning clouds that promise the life-
giving milk of the rain. The earthly woman is
revealed by light shining upon her; this god-
dess of the sky is "revealed by her rays,"
"lovely to behold." Is it not just what any
unspoiled nature, with fresh awakened senses,
sees in the Dawn?

Then, changing the key, the universal mean-
ing of light to the spirit of man is given.
Light has always been the symbol of safety
and goodness, darkness of evil and danger.
Little children still cry in the dark; and men,
children of a larger growth, still tremble be-
fore the darkness that shrouds the unknown.
So the eternal prayer: "Drive away the un-
friendly," "give us safety," "thou who art a
blessing where thou art near;" and, as the day
gives opportunity for work, "raise up wealth
to the worshiper, thou mighty Dawn." Thus,
in other language, the poem gives simply and
in the metaphor of strong, direct appreciation,


the two permanent aspects of man's relation
to the everlasting miracle of light.

Thus it is everywhere: art is always an ex-
pression of some phase of man's life or rela-
tion to nature; and it is this universal human
basis that makes possible our appreciation of
works so varied, coming from such different
sources in place and time. You turn to the
Antigone of Sophocles: how strange it is, this
story of a sister who brings herself to suffer
death in cruel fashion merely that she may
give the rites of the dead to the body of her
brother. How foolish you say: his soul would
not have suffered had the rites been omitted;
but hear what she says. The tyrant asks :

"And thou didst dare to disobey these laws?"

Antigone responds:

"Yes, for it was not Zeus who gave them forth,
Nor Justice, dwelling with the gods below,
Who traced these laws for all the sons of men ;
Nor did I deem thy edicts strong enough,
That thou, a mortal man, shouldst overpass
The unwritten laws of God, that know not change.
They are not of to-day nor yesterday,
But live forever, nor can man assign


When first they sprang to being. Not through

Of any man's resolve was I prepared
Before the gods to bear the penalty
Of sinning against these." *

Then we understand: while we, with our dif-
ferent belief and training, might have chosen
a different particular action, she was doing
only what all noble souls have ever done — giv-
ing up her own lesser good for the greater
good of one she loved. So the strangeness dis-
appears, and the common human experience
— thank God it is common — comes home to us
through a form which seems so far away. Thus
always art is an expression of some aspect of
the common basis of human life.

This is evidenced also by the fact that the
different fine arts actually spring from one his-
torical source — an act of worship in the early
Greek world, as we shall see in a subsequent
chapter. Further, reversing the problem, mas-
terpieces in widely different arts may produce
the same dominant impression upon us, thus
proving the unity in the basis from which they

* The Tragedies of Sophocles, translated by E. H. Plump-
tre, p. 145. Routledge & Co., New York.


spring. This likeness among masterpieces in
different fields is indeed so strong that there
are great artists working in totally different
spheres who, nevertheless, are brothers across
the centuries. The particular avenue of their

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Online LibraryEdward Howard GriggsThe philosophy of art : the meaning and relations of sculpture, painting, poetry and music → online text (page 1 of 17)