Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/March 1903/Science versus Art-Appreciation

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1413614Popular Science Monthly Volume 62 March 1903 — Science versus Art-Appreciation1903John Quincy Adams




A PERSON traveling for the first time in a foreign land is often puzzled by its customs and institutions. He can not understand why people lay so much stress on forms which seem to him trivial, and, with good intentions, habitually do so many things which he considers immoral and vicious. These will remain incomprehensible to him as long as he attempts to judge them by the laws and habits of his own land—the common mistake of travelers.

In like manner, an inhabitant of the realm of science, entering the domain of art, misconceives its character, because he does not understand its language, methods nor traditions. The scientist carries with him into the field of art the mental habits and standards peculiar to his native soil, and whatever can not be measured by scientific methods escapes his notice.

We know that the botanist, the housewife and the farmer see a different set of properties in the common dandelion, and would classify it respectively as composite, food or weed. In the same way, one sees in each object what one looks for, and this is determined by one's mental habits. It is but logical that the scientists should seek in environment the leading characteristics of science, and should expect to arrive at truth by analysis and generalization.

Scientific ideas rule not only the scientists—they dominate also our science-trained age. Evidence of this confronts us whichever way we turn.

We see nearly every field of human effort controlled by specialization. It is no less clear that the aim of the manufacturer, as of the investigator, is to set forth 'the latest thing out.' Every province of human interest has been brought under scientific classification, so that nearly all thought is now cast in 'general ideas.' This mode of thinking ignores individuality and sees in men and things only units of a class. For this reason, man is content with countless repetitions of the same form because his class idea is realized if it find in each object the few characteristics common to the group. Therefore, in general many of man's needs are satisfied with mere form, and if he sees objects possessing these formal features sitting in art's accustomed seats, he does not call in question their titles, but allows articles of furniture, forms of ornament and styles of architecture to retain their historic names, and though their beauty has departed like the glory of some ancient family, he renders homage to their silly and meaningless descendants because of their name and position. The world has been filled with these ugly forms made in the name of art, but they only bear witness that science has subdued the earth and now holds undisputed sway.

Not only has it driven art into the background, but it has misrepresented its character.[1]

Science has led man to expect art to set forth phenomena, to illustrate events, to communicate knowledge with absolute exactness. It has taught us to believe a work of art worthless unless it give precise information which can be verified by an appeal to facts. But man turns to art for the fulfilment of these expectations only to be sadly disappointed. Weary and cast down, crowds leave the museums with curiosity unsatisfied, with small addition to their learning, but denouncing art for failing to keep the promises of science. As well condemn the law of gravitation for the death caused by a falling rock.

Accustomed, as we are, to the precise and unequivocal terms of science, we expect the language of art to be equally explicit, and just at this point we are led astray by supposing that the artist—like the scientist—has something definite to communicate. Like the pioneer, the artist does not know what is ahead of him, but, driven by his creative impulse, beset by all sorts of perplexities, he struggles on over unknown regions until he reaches a point which satisfies him. What he produces is the outcome of his creative power, which picks and chooses its material from nature, breaks up and recombines again, and this process is continued until an effect is produced which his esthetic judgment pronounces good. The very terms which the artist uses are vague and indefinite, each one having an infinite number of meanings, determined not by any inherent quality, but by its relation to other terms in the same work of art. For example, a straight line has little esthetic value in itself; nevertheless, it is of great importance in one picture and almost indispensable in another. In like manner, the meaning of every bit of color varies with each change in its combination with other colors; or a musical tone may be a commonplace noise in itself, but as a part of Lohengrin's Wedding March it thrills one with delight. For this reason, a dictionary of artistic language is impossible. Not a line, a form, a color nor a rhythm stands for a definite idea, the meaning of each one depending not only upon its relative position as expressed by the artist, but also as appreciated by the spectator or listener.

I think we all agree that for each learner, science consists essentially of definite, objective facts which must be acquired in much the same way that one gets possession of other external objects. Upon demand, the student must show the amount of stock on hand, and this is taken as the index of his success. When the teacher wants to mark progress, he requires each one to open his mental storehouse and exhibit the sum of its contents.[2] It naturally follows as a corollary that the chief aim of science-teaching is to stimulate the pupil to gain possession of scientific realities, and thus add to his stock of knowledge. Each fact acquired is an addition to his mental possessions. Therefore, he must dispassionately learn what actually exists, never forgetting that he is nature's witness and that his testimony is valuable only in so far as he tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

On the other hand, art can not be analyzed into equal units, nor its composition expressed by a formula. Neither can its character be determined by the application of rules and measurements, for each work of art is a new thing in the world, and is, in fact, a law unto itself. To attempt to measure art by these quantitative and objective standards is like taking a sieve to fetch water. Art being a degree of harmony, an expression of feeling, a way of doing, it can be estimated only by one who has sufficient capacity of feeling. There is no yardstick which can indicate to every person the exact amount of art in any given production. The only way to estimate it is by a direct appeal to one's own internal measure, called appreciation. As Plotinus long ago said, 'The kingdom of Art is within us.' We are misled into thinking that there exists a common objective standard, because we so often find many competent judges agreeing as to the merits of a work of art. Undoubtedly, there may be a great similarity in personal standards due to a common artistic environment and a similar social heritage, which have formed our conceptions of art as of all other objects depending on personal valuation. The main object of art-teaching therefore should be to build up within each pupil the highest possible standard of esthetic appreciation. He must be incited to make esthetic judgments as to the quality of objects, and in this way he develops his capacity to appreciate. Each decision made is a distinct mental growth.

However, to meet the demands of our examination system for a definite quantity of knowledge, we teach only a body of collateral facts so closely related to art as to deceive us into thinking that it is art. We are satisfied to obtain results which can be measured by a definite, objective standard. For example, as literature, we teach analytical grammar, philology, history and events. As a regular exercise in English literature in many schools, students are required to put a beautiful passage of Shakespeare into English! Now, in reality, such a process never carries one beyond the mere incidents of a literary masterpiece, and the one element which makes it a work of art, namely, its power to infect the reader, with the emotion of the writer eludes all such analytical pursuit. Many of us after leaving college, take up Shakespeare, Lowell, Wordsworth or Hawthorne, and are astonished to find them interesting and inspiring. Our apparent purpose in teaching music is to develop dexterity, as though every child were to be a musician.

The plastic arts are taught as parts of an external body of knowledge which the pupil may take in and then give out again, as though his nervous system were glass with the power of transmitting, with more or less accuracy, forms, colors and sounds. Such strong emphasis on the acquisition of technical skill reduces the study of art almost to the level of learning a trade. Those teachers and pupils who pursue higher ideals find themselves in conflict with the accepted educational canons. These, as I said above, demand measurable results which are most easily secured in the plastic arts by devoting the time to training all the faculties to bear upon production. While the appreciation of art may be learned, incidentally, by this method, the index of progress is the amount of dexterity acquired so that all the faculties become set towards making something. This, no doubt, is an excellent way to learn a handicraft, but a questionable method of cultivating understanding and appreciation. Although it can not be denied that a thorough knowledge of how a work of art is produced, of the skill displayed in overcoming special difficulties, affords a peculiar pleasure, we must not forget that the same pleasure comes from seeing, for the first time, anything skilfully done, the difficulties of which one understands. And this is true whether it be artistic or purely mechanical. Whether it be the production of a tone on the violin or the ingenuity of a knitting or type-setting machine. Such ephemeral pleasure comes not from esthetic emotion but from scientific knowledge.

In the days when manufacturing was by handicraft and every workshop was a school of art, there was less need for teaching art in any ether way. But since the factory has displaced the workshop, and the operative the handicraftsman, there is no chance in industry for the application of art, except in a few cases. Art is no longer a quality of the product of every-day work as formerly, and it is hopeless for us to expect it to be. And with its departure from industry, art has vanished from the daily life of men. This is not surprising, because, although the long and toilsome road to art by way of production is closed up by the advent of machinery, we still insist on teaching all pupils to approach by this route. The result is that few ever emerge from the drudgery to enjoy the beauty in the world, because in school they learn only the a, b, c of drawing, painting or modeling and such meager skill is a very poor guide to the great domain of art. In fact it has restricted the attention to a very small part only of the artistic field and so narrowed our conception of art that to-day very few, even intelligent persons, think of art as a possible quality of nearly every human act as well as of its expression in the concrete. I have heard eminent professional men denounce art in language too strong to print, declaring it to be only an absurdity. I once asked one of these art-haters if he thought the room in which we were sitting would be as comfortable and pleasant if it were four times as long and one fourth as wide? I followed his emphatic 'No, of course not!' with the remark that proportion is the corner stone' of decorative art.

A short time ago, in conversation with a very successful worker (an Oxford man) in one of the great social settlements of London, I was emphasizing the importance of art in social work. He interrupted me with: "Oh, yes, we don't go in for art here, but they do at Toynbee Hall. We go in for music, acting plays, literature and dancing." He seemed very much taken aback when I exclaimed; 'But I include all those under art.'

This testimony of these two typical witnesses, I have selected from a large amount of evidence which shows, that to most persons art is a small book written in a strange tongue. It seems incredible that the intelligent world should limit art to pictures and statues. Even Mr. Whistler, when he says: 'There never was an art-loving nation,' evidently has in mind only the plastic arts; for there never was a people who did not love art in some form. Ever since man began to reshape the external world; to employ his leisure to give pleasure to himself and others, art has been the one universal mode of communicating feeling. There is not, and there has never been, a group of people which has not expressed its emotions in some form of art.

As I have said above, science is largely responsible for the widespread misconceptions and indifference to art. It has dug a new channel into which it has turned the current of our thought. Out of these conditions naturally arise methods of teaching art which reinforce our wrong notions and increase our apathy; for the results approved by science are produced by pupils and teachers devoid of all appreciation for art.

In art, as in all forms of human activity, to produce and to consume are diverse operations which call into play different sets of intellectual faculties. Why, then, are not both producers and consumers legitimate claimants to recognition in education? In the nature of things, is there any reason for granting the claims of production, only, and teaching art in all our schools as though all children were to be nothing but producers? Is it not as important to use wisely as to make well? In art, should not children be taught to appreciate, independently of the use of tools? Certainly, no one will maintain that appreciation depends upon ability to do, but on the capacity to understand. One may enjoy the beauty of a house although one lack the skill to drive a nail; great pleasure may be had from the splendors of a gothic cathedral without knowing how to build one; and even the primrose may fill one with esthetic delight.

Here, then, we have two educational ideals. While I do not wish to minimize the great value of technical training in handicrafts as a means of developing character, I wish to insist that learning to do and learning to enjoy are independent and totally different functions. Every writer on economics dwells upon the important distinctions between makers and users, and the common experience of every-day life teaches that it is possible for man to make what he detests and thoroughly enjoy what he can not do.

There is no doubt of our ability as producers, and this vast power has been obtained by sacrificing our artistic instincts on the altar of production. Our modern society, like some great oak, has put forth all its vitality to extend one mighty branch, but to do this, it has sacrificed its symmetry and beauty.

The pleasure derived from an object of art—as from any object of enjoyment—does not depend upon an external standard, for, though a work of art may be pronounced perfect by competent judges, I may derive no pleasure, whatever, from it. In order to enjoy, I must be able to join hands with the artist and partake of his feelings. Every artistic conception is surrounded by an atmosphere of pleasurable emotion, and the art consists in giving expression to this. To be infected with this feeling, the mind of the spectator, like the sensitive plate in a camera, must be prepared to receive it, that is, it must possess the requisite capacity. Let us keep clearly before us that our goal, now, is not the acquisition of facts and opinions; it is not learning esthetic rules, nor relying upon some authority; these may assist, but no amount of such collateral truths can add aught to one's standard of appreciation—this can be done only by the action of the mind itself. The power to enjoy art, like the strength of the blacksmith's arm, is developed only through use. As a meteor entering the earth's atmosphere is set on fire by friction, so the feelings are enkindled by vital contact with art. Now this does not come alone from visiting picture galleries; attending grand operas, or reading the poets. These are favorable conditions, but in order to increase the power of appreciation, one's esthetic sense must find a place to rest its foot—where it may pause with delight. This implies the perception of art. In this we have the process of growth, for the standard of appreciation is built up out of a countless number of these esthetic judgments—judgments rendered by the joint action of the emotion and the intellect. Hence the art-teacher is typified by the horticulturist who trims, buds and nourishes, making all conditions as favorable as possible, but recognizing that here his power ends, and that all growth must come from within. As all plant culture requires essentially the same methods, so the cultivation of appreciation rests on a few identical principles, no matter what branch of art is studied. Beneath the apparent diversity, art is a unity.—When the pupils of Angelo asked: 'Master, which is the greatest art?' he replied: 'I know of but one art.' So that our art instruction must rest on the great fact that art is not something done in a corner, but is as broad as human life. Not a nook nor cranny of human activity which does not hold some gem of joyous workmanship. Art shuns no medium, but clothes alike the Parthenon and the humblest object of daily use with dignity and. beauty. As it forms some part of the environment of every child we naturally begin to build its standard of appreciation with the material nearest to hand. In literature, we do not begin with Wordsworth and Emerson, nor in music with the Ninth Symphony; why should we begin the study of plastic art with its most exalted forms? Life's interest centers in its immediate environment, and as it is with this that all rational education begins, we commence our instruction by teaching children to appreciate the art in the common and familiar objects which they touch and handle every day. In spite of the most rigid demands of utility, a big percentage of man's toil is devoted to the ornamentation of practical objects. The concrete world takes on every whimsical shape or color that can be thought of to solicit favor, and we pick out objects chiefly for the attributes which please the eye. Few will deny that very much of this is in bad taste and does not satisfy the esthetic sense, but gratifies some merely transitory feeling. Notwithstanding, we surround ourselves with these tawdry objects, because in the bewildering flood of forms and colors in which human effort takes shape we must direct our course by the chart with which we are most familiar, and this as the world goes is a price-list. Trusting too much to this, and urged on by fickle motives, it is not strange that in our search for art we lose all bearings, like the sailors perishing from thirst who hailed a distant ship for a little fresh water: 'Dip down! You're in the Amazon!' was signaled back.

Though few are aware of it, in every neighborhood are some works of art in daily use, and more hidden away in garrets, such as articles of table service, embroideries, household furniture, toys, kitchen utensils and workmen's tools. Nearly every kind of article has at times been made by artists. What a surprise to most young people to find out that art is not something afar off; to discover, as well, that every object made by man is full of meaning, having not only a character of its own, but being also an epitome of its maker's biography and a page of the history of his time. In fact it is a truer record of human action than printed page or spoken word.

With such a wide range of objects, the choice must be left to the teacher who can guide only where his love and appreciation light the way. As any object will do for a sign-post to beginners in this field, let us take a good specimen of a Chippendale chair which we place before the pupils. We call attention to its simplicity; lead the pupils to see the sincerity shown in its workmanship; to feel the dainty touches of originality in working out a pattern; help them to see the sufficiency of clean wood, free from ostentatious ornament, sham graining, and specious varnish; point out that the carving does not vaunt itself but artlessly adds to the charm of the whole; aid them to find out that no small curve could have been left off without loss of beauty; lead them up to appreciate its symmetry and unity—the highest notes in a work of art.

To place beside this a costly and gaudy chair, and to contrast it point for point with the Chippendale, will clarify many hazy esthetic perceptions. A mere hint will persuade most pupils of the futile attempt to make an ugly object beautiful by excessive ornamentation; that the chief end of varnish seems to be to fill cracks and cover up faulty workmanship; and that a chair filled with twistings and turnings is not unlike the fool who thinks he will be heard for his much speaking.

Let the young people but look at and think of the two chairs, and the simple dignity of the one will soon bring to view the braying vulgarity of the other. Their character will come out strongly if the pupils are prompted to strip off, in thought, as much as they can from each chair, without marring its beauty or taking from its utility. The Chippendale will bear the loss of very little, if any; whereas the other can give up a large heap of rings, warts, grooves, paint and contortions without taking from its usefulness, but, on the contrary, adding much to its beauty. Now as a better chair rises out of this rubbish, an economic truth will come into view: that a large amount of labor is spent to produce ugliness—to debase raw material. As one by one the artistic objects of common life are examined in this way and approved by this quickened power of appreciation, the non-artistic, also, will be forced to stand before the bar of the esthetic judgment to give an account of their purpose in the household. In most houses, the great number that will have to plead 'guilty' to the charge of worthless, defective or faulty must lead to an inquiry as to the function and relation of articles in the home, and an added zest will be given to this study of decoration by the discovery that the choice and arrangement of furniture are fingerposts to character. We see, in turn, the homes of the loquacious, the conventional, the shallow, the vain, the sincere, the refined, the deceitful, the vulgar; in fact most human virtues and weaknesses are unconsciously stamped on man's chosen surroundings. Such a study of decorative art will fit the student to take up, in the same way, other branches of art, and finally painting and sculpture.

Although now recognized by a few people that these two subjects may be intelligently studied without learning to paint or model, their true educational value is lost through the manner of teaching them. Either they are taught as purely sentimental subjects with which rude facts have nothing to do—as though they possessed some mysterious essence of beauty too ethereal to touch or think on; or else, like chemical substances, they are analyzed into their elements, the relation of their parts determined mathematically and the mannerisms of the artists' pointed out and carefully noted down. Now while certain attributes of a painting and the balance of its parts are curious, and, for certain purposes, important items of knowledge, to single them out and teach them for their own sake, supposing it to be the study of art, is not unlike the mistake of the foolish virgins. The few features of a painting made use of to build up appreciation must be judiciously selected as witnesses to testify to the character of the art and thus assist the student to arrive at a just esthetic decision. The choice of facts for teaching art is determined by the capacity of the learners and like the pawns on a chess board, their value lies in the way they are used. Every choice that man makes illustrates the truth that all appreciation roots in experience; it therefore follows that a work of art is a sealed book to the spectator unless it deals with phenomena which are related to his mental world. For this reason, it is unwise to place before pupils paintings and statues which lead them into a foreign world of ideas and customs. The subject-matter should be explainable by the pupil 's experience, leaving the art as the only new thing. As the character of pictures should be determined by the age and understanding of the pupils, rather than by the glory of the work of art, it naturally follows that for young people it is wise to select those works which portray familiar features of their known world. Our cities contain first-rate collections of modern art which can be thoroughly studied instead of making use of photographs of old masters, so foreign to the pupils. This will not seem so difficult if once recognized that a museum is not a storehouse, but a laboratory.

All art instruction, however good it may be, is bound to remain incomplete unless the school-room, its background, is brought into harmony with it. This can not be done by merely hanging the walls with pictures, as is clearly shown by the attempts in two of our large cities. The class-rooms in at least one public school in each of these cities have been 'decorated' with large and beautiful photographs of famous works of art. But the want of harmony in the proportions of the rooms, the ugly color of the walls and woodwork, the hopelessly commonplace paneling, and the inartistic seats, make the pictures as much out of place as mailed knights in a modern regiment. While such incongruity may make the vulgar stare, it can not but make the judicious grieve.

During recent years the cause of art has been espoused by professional esthetes with whom art is merely a fad. They use it as a means of self-advertisement. Such persons have no feeling for art and are blind leaders of the blind with the well-known result. As Mr. Whistler says in 'Ten 'clock': 'The voice of the aesthete is heard in the land and catastrophe is upon us.' For only he can teach, in whom the spirit of the artist dwells.

Considered and taught from the standpoint of appreciation, art becomes a vital force in the lives of men and forms an important factor of their effective environment. Each person, gratified at his growing powers of appreciating art at first-hand, is led to re-survey the surrounding world with this new artistic standard. This quality of expressing its maker's delight, which many objects possess—and nearly all may possess—is sought for without any other stimulus than the pleasure derived from gratifying the esthetic sense. Each object is made to stand a new trial and respond to a new set of demands. All the elements of environment are scrutinized, then condemned or approved; for, contrary to the popular notion, the majority of mankind have a latent power of appreciation for art, but like the water hidden in the rocks in Cyprus, it will come forth only when struck in the right place and manner.

If a woman, with a good esthetic standard, goes forth to buy furniture, she is no longer in a mood to be persuaded to buy an object, unless it comes up to her conception of beauty. Neither gilded ugliness, expensive tawdriness, nor the 'latest thing out' is wanted, but a character which she can live with and enjoy. Such a demand on the part of a goodly portion of purchasers would materially change the character of our manufactured product and leaven our social and industrial life.

  1. The reader must keep in mind that we are not contesting the great value of science and its methods, but that we object to these methods being applied to art.
  2. As the pupil finds that courses of study, systems of examinations, methods of promotions, and in fact, the phenomena of science itself, are all based on the quantitative and external standard of measurement, it is but natural that the one idea that takes possession of and dominates his intellectual life is that quantity is the sole criterion of success.