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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Source and the Aim of Art

By Samuel Greene Wheeler Benjamin (1837–1914)

[Born in Argos, Greece, 1837. Died in Burlington, Vt., 1914. What is Art?—Essex Institute Lecture. 1877.]

YOU observe, doubtless, that we are proceeding on the assumption that there is a moral or subjective element in art, otherwise called the good and the true—a theory which French artists and critics of the last twenty-five years generally deny both in theory and practice, confining themselves to the physically beautiful as the all-sufficient end of the highest art. That is one reason why contemporary French art, setting aside its technical excellences, is not now and never can be, as now conducted, the highest art, while the Germanic races, acknowledging the moral element in art, have a better chance of reaching the quality of the pictorial art of the Renaissance. But while artists are undoubtedly the interpreters of the emotions and aspirations of an age, or of mankind, and are responsible for what they say, no less than other men, they are at the same time unconsciously the interpreters of these emotions which they share with their fellow-men. A poet who writes with a set purpose to introduce a new style or revolutionize thought, and not because an irresistible impulse impels him, is by so much less a poet; and the same holds good in the case of the artist.

In artists of the first rank the balance of the powers is such that in their works we see approximately expressed the fundamental principle that the good, the true, and the beautiful are the foundations on which art is based. Minor artists show their inferiority by inclining much more strongly to one than to the other, as well as by laying great stress on certain phases of art which are of a temporary character, resulting from conventional abuse of the principles of art, as when the pre-Raphaelites, in their earnest quest after the true in art to succeed the conventionalisms of the eighteenth century, disregarded the limitations which the practice of art imposes on its followers, and undertook to represent every detail they saw in nature on canvas, practically ignoring thereby the ideal in art, and demonstrating the feebleness of the materials at our disposal when we place ourselves face to face with Nature. The contemporary French school also shows that, noble as it is in many respects and worthy our respectful attention, it is yet not equal as a whole to that of the Renaissance in Italy or Spain, for it proceeds on the theory that the beautiful alone is the origin and the end of all art; thus, while recognizing the ideal rather more than the pre-Raphaelite school, it is lacking in another direction, and so far holds a proportionately lower rank.

If the good, the true, and the beautiful are the source of the highest art, the ideal is in its turn the ultimate aim of art, and imparts to mere inanimate stone and mortar, cold marble, or opaque ochres and minerals the power of yielding infinite pleasure to the intellectual and spiritual element in man. To suggest ideas, to quicken the imagination, to touch the secret spring which moves the emotions, and thus to please, to influence, to educate, and to elevate—this is the highest province of art. No mere technical excellences can make up for the absence of the ideal in a work of art; and its presence in a high degree in a statue or a painting may cover a multitude of technical sins. In the exercise of the imagination man becomes a creator, and seems akin to the supreme Creator himself. In the words of Couture, “In art the ideal is everything. With painters of an inferior order you may find surprising technical skill and knowledge; but, lacking the ideal and the moral element, their productions seem of but moderate value.”

Let us not, however, be misunderstood upon this point. The first requisite to good art must be and is excellence in its technical qualities, as in good literature, grand as the ideas of the writer may be, if he have not the power of successfully expressing his thoughts, their influence upon others must amount to little or nothing. So the idealist or moralist who employs art forms to convey his thoughts must have a practical knowledge of the methods of art expression, even more than in the field of letters. A man may be a good colorist and yet a poor idealist, a good copyist from nature but weak in other respects, but he is, notwithstanding, entitled to be considered an artist to a certain degree. But, granting this fact, it still remains true that he who to technical excellence adds high ideal qualities is necessarily the greater artist.