Page images
PDF
EPUB

NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.

No. CCX.

JANUARY, 18 6 6.

ART. I. — THE CONDITIONS OF ART IN AMERICA.

The American people do not well understand, nor much care for, the arts that have to do with visible beauty. To beauty itself they are not indifferent. Beauty as it exists in nature is probably of as much concern to the Americans as a nation, as to most other nations. But they do not readily respond to the appeals of beauty as seen in art. And for the theory and practice of art that deals with beauty they care very little.

This fact would probably be confessed by every American who has considered the subject at all. It must, indeed, be evident everywhere outside the limits of narrow circles of society in our Eastern cities to every one who knows anything of art, and evident within those limits also to every one who knows art well. And yet, as facts absolute are less clearly seen than facts relative, this one can be rightly estimated only by comparison. If we compare the value set upon these arts in America with the value set upon other expressions of thought in America, or with the value set upon the same arts in Europe, we shall better understand the extent and the importance of the deficiency.

There is no more striking mental phenomenon than the interest felt by the American people in that branch of literature which is most nearly allied to art, namely, poetry. Among the great multitude of readers in America there are thousands who love poetry, there are thousands who can tell good poVOL. CII. — NO. 210.

1

etry from bad. There are thousands who do, in their daily reading, tell good poetry from bad, rejecting Tupper and reading Tennyson. We do not forget the demand for “ Proverbial Philosophy," or for other such intellectual fruit, - the love of mediocrity will claim our attention hereafter, but the demand for these things is, after all, more easily explained, more to be looked for, than the demand for Tennyson. For this love of good poetry includes a tolerably rational judgment of poetry. The high and rare power. of distinguishing between different degrees of merit, in poetry, is possessed in greater or less degree by many Americans of a class to which we do not often look for critical judgment. Admitting that but few persons can feel the most subtile qualities of any work of genius, yet, among readers of Shakespeare, for instance, counted as they are by thousands, it will be found that the best plays are the most read. There is a very large class of readers whose opinions about books are worth something to themselves; there is a smaller but still considerable class of those whose opinions are worth giving, worth asking for; and the members of these two classes constantly ask and readily receive the original judgment of a still higher and smaller class, the class of critics. Few as our critics have been, some of them have been excellent. The great names of Americans known to the world in connection with original thought are names of critics of rare delicacy and justness of perception.

So with music. There are many learners of music, many frequent listeners, many who, from wise or foolish or mixed impulses, make music their specialty. Among these there are some who are capable of discriminating judgment; of the many good performers of even difficult music there is a large proportion who care to play none or to listen to none but thoroughly noble music. Admitting that there is as much foolish and conceited talk about music as about any intellectual or sensational effort whatever, - the words without meaning pass and are forgotten,- there remain some appreciative applause and bisses, some sensible words now and then even in the newspapers, some very just criticisms conveyed in a word and a look from chair to chair in the concert-room, some grave decision by persons competent to decide.

[ocr errors]

Similar conditions prevail in some of the nations of Europe in respect to the arts that are concerned with visible beauty. If we admit that, on the whole, it is not a very great age of art in which we live; if we admit that all that is done and all that bas indisputably been gained is principally useful as enabling us to judge of what more we can do; if we admit that all the actual achievement of the nineteenth century could be mentioned in one of these pages and described in this article, we are still aware that the arts of visible beauty exert a great influence and possess a great power in England, France, and Germany, and that this influence and power are daily growing greater and gaining firmer seats. There is real and welldirected effort ; there is intelligent adjustment of effort to material. There is just criticism. There is wide-spread and still spreading interest. There is sincere love for the arts of the past, and sincere wish to advance the arts of the future. And there is immediate hope for these arts of visible beauty in Europe, - a hope that can be long deferred only by national and international wickedness or folly.

But when we consider the position in America of those fine arts of which there is present question, we find all different. There is no body of art critics in the land whose opinions anybody will receive as of decisive importance. There is no class of true connoisseurs of these arts, few students or lovers of them, whose opinions it is worth anybody's while to ask. There is no large class of persons who care for these arts at all. There are, indeed, a few collectors of etchings and prints; there are a few dillettanti who frequent the studios of popular artists, and talk a learned language of art, in which familiar words have strange meanings. But these have generally no knowledge of the history or the principles of art, and little care for its meaning and spirit. There are those who throng the exhibitions, and those who buy pictures and statues at prices relatively high. But neither a love nor a comprehension of art is to be attributed to these; and their indiscriminate admiration and reckless buying have done much harm to themselves, to the artists, and to the public. If there is wild talk about music and poetry, foolish praise and foolish ridicule for each, and foolish advice given to the students of each, there is

[ocr errors]

just and wise comment as well, and the foolish comment is not wholly confident nor quite at ease with itself. But in regard to painting and sculpture, all is confusion and vague verbiage. The very first principles of drawing with the pen and of modelling in clay are either unknown to or ignored by those who freely criticise and confidently advise. Beginners in music are not encouraged to be bold, and lectured on the necessity of ideal qualities in their work before they can rightly play a leçon pour le piano or compose a polka. Young people are not encouraged to write verses if they show an aptitude for finding rhymes. The would-be musician is told that accuracy, clear and clean playing, is his object, - not a deceptive appearance of ease and rapidity. The easy verse-writer is assured that no verses are wanted, unless, indeed, he has thoughts of his own that can only be spoken in verse. But there are no such just requirements made on those who practise the arts that appeal to the visual sense of beauty. The aspirant is rarely told to work hard and long and humbly, if he wants to be a painter; the boy's conceit rarely gets a wholesome check; the meaningless production is seldom properly disregarded ; bad drawing and clumsy modelling are not called by their right names. Good work, signed by an unknown name, is looked at by few; the degeneracy or the improvement in the popular painter's work is often unnoticed ; the word of encouragement is seldom given where it is deserved and needed. . We have spoken of painting and sculpture only, for these are the only arts, of that large class of arts which deal with visible beauty, that our people know to exist. All the arts of decoration, all the applications of art to manufactures, wait for their recognition. The great art of architecture — an art

including painting and sculpture in all their forms as necessary parts of itself — is almost absolutely unknown to our people. There are no remains of good architecture of past times left us to study; and our architects have not as yet built us any new buildings that can much instruct us. Travellers go to Europe, and a few of them look with care and interest at pictures and sculpture in galleries; but there are scarcely any who look at the great cathedrals as monuments of associated art worthy the most careful and minute study of a student of art. The

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »