The Principles Of Aesthetics
by Dewitt H. Parker

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Chapter XIV - The Function of Art: Art and Morality

That an interest is innocent and pleasure giving is no longer considered sufficient to justify its existence; it must also, in order to be sanctioned in our jealous and economical world, prove itself a beneficent influence upon the total man and the group. For the time being at least, the day of laissez-faire is done; men can no longer appeal to their personal needs, their inner necessities, or even their consciences, in defense of their activities. Public opinion, and sometimes reason, are the only arbiters of right. It may well happen that, in a new age, men will be more generous and less exacting, once again recognizing inherent rights in spontaneous activities; but that age is not ours. Not even art can claim privilege; in vain will the artist boast of his genius or the art-lover of his delights, if he can exhibit no pervasive good. It is not enough, therefore, that we should have described the peculiar, inward value of art; we must further establish that it has a function in the general life.

Three classes of people, the puritans, the philistines, and the proletarians, question the value of art in this sense. These classes are, of course, not new to our civilization, but are rather perennial types of human nature, appearing under one or another name and guise in every age. To the puritan, art is immoral; to the philistine, it is useless; to the proletarian, it is a cruel waste.

One illustration of the complexity of human culture is the fact that art has now been regarded as the symbol and ally of goodness, and now as its enemy. This paradox can, I think, be partly explained by making a distinction between the ethical and the moral point of view regarding conduct. From the one point of view, the good belongs to all free, creative acts that look toward the growth and happiness of individuals; from the other point of view, it consists in conformity to law, convention, and custom. It is evident that these two attitudes must sometimes come into open or secret conflict. For law and convention represent either an effort to fix and stabilize modes of conduct that have proved themselves to be good under certain conditions; or else, as is more often true than is admitted, an attempt to generalize the good of some special class or type of men and impose it as a norm for all; and obviously these efforts will, from time to time, be opposed either to the freedom of individuals, or to their growth, under changing conditions.

Now in the sense defined, the spirit of art is fundamentally ethical and, at the same time, fundamentally non-moral. It is fundamentally ethical, for art is itself a freely creative and happy activity, and tends to propagate itself in spontaneity in other fields; it is an inspiration in every struggle for liberty and the remolding of the world. The artist and art lover, who value the expression of individuality in art, cannot fail to appreciate it outside of art. On the other hand, the spirit of art is fundamentally non-moral, for the sthetic attitude is one of sympathy–an attempt at once to express life and to feel at one with it; it demands of us that we take the point of view of the life expressed and, for the moment at any rate, refrain from a merely external judgment. Through art we are compelled to sympathize with the aspiration towards growth, towards happiness, even when it leads to rebellion against our own standards and towards what we call sin. The sympathy, realism, and imagination of art are antagonistic to conformist morality. By making us intimately acquainted with individuals, art leads to skepticism of all general rules.

The puritan, therefore, who is an exponent of the extremest and narrowest conformist morality, is more nearly right in his interpretation of the relation between art and morality than more liberal people who, because of their love of art, seek to ignore or palliate the facts. Hence, in order to defend art, one must reckon seriously with the puritan.

The puritan is fearful, above all, of works of art that represent moral evil. The method of artistic representation, which aims at awakening sympathy for the life portrayed, is bound, he thinks, to demoralize both the artist and the spectator. But art is something more than sympathy, and there are other aspects of the aesthetic experience which tend to render that sympathy innocuous, even from the standpoint of the puritan. In the first place, the sympathy is usually with an imagined life that has no direct relation to the will and gives the spectator no opportunity to enter into and share it–he participates through the imagination, not through the senses. Moreover, neither the mind nor the will is a tabula rasa; no mature person comes to a work of art without certain habits and preferences already predetermined, which no mere imagination can destroy, but only, if at all, some concrete opportunity and temptation. Hence men can lead a manifold life, partly in the imagination and partly in action, without any corruption of heart or paralysis of will. In real conduct, to lead a double life is demoralizing because there choices are exclusive and each of the two lives tends to interfere with and spoil the other; but imagination does not conflict with reality, for they have no point of contact and do not belong to the same world.

In the second place, a work of art is an appeal to mind as well as to sympathetic feeling. It is no mere stirring of emotion and passion, but a means to insight into them. The attitude of reflection which it engenders is unfavorable to impetuous action. Providing no immediate stimulus to action, it allows time for a better second thought to intervene. Even when it offers suggestions for unwonted acts, it furnishes the spirit and the knowledge requisite for determining whether they will fit into the scheme of life of the spectator. It is characteristic of the puritanic critics of art, in their eagerness to find motives for condemnation, to overlook this element of reflection.

It is forgotten, finally, that by providing an imaginative experience of passion and adventure, art often becomes rather a substitute for than an incentive to them. The perfection of form, the deep repose and circle-like completeness of the work of art, tend to prevent one from seeking a corresponding real experience, which would have none of these qualities, but perhaps only misery and wear and tear instead. Thus the work of art may propagate itself in a search for new aesthetic experiences rather than in analogous conduct.

To the artist who is living the evil life which he expresses, there can be even less danger in expression, than to the spectator. For the expression is not the cause of his life, but only its efflorescence. The roots of evil lie deep below in the subsoil of instinct. Without expression, life would be much the same, only secret instead of articulate. The puritan shows a shocking naivete in thinking that he can reform life by destroying its utterance. Moreover, to express life implies a certain mastery over it, a power of detachment and reflection, which are fundamentally ethical and may lead to a new way of living.

Every form of life has an inalienable right to expression. In order to be judged fairly, it must be allowed to plead for itself, and art is its best spokesman. And that we should know life sympathetically is of practical importance; for otherwise we shall not know how to change it or indeed that it ought to be changed at all. Only by knowing other ways of life can we be certain of the relative worth of our own way; knowledge alone gives certitude. Without knowledge we run the risk of becoming ruthless destroyers of things which an intelligent sympathy might well preserve and find a place for in the world.

To all these considerations the puritan will doubtless oppose a truth impossible to deny. Experience, he will say, is one, not many; imagination and action are not separated by an impassable wall; things merely imagined or dreamed, even when they do not directly issue in action, may nevertheless influence conduct through a slow and subtle transforming effect upon the sentiments and valuations which make up its background. Character can be maintained only by a vigilant and steady control over impulses which are always threatening rebellion; purity of mind only through the rigid exclusion of the sensual, luxurious, and ignoble; imaginative sympathy with evil, even when sublimated in art, must necessarily undermine the one and becloud the other. “If thine eye offend thee, cut it out and cast it from thee.”

The truth which the puritan announces does not, I think, warrant the inference which he draws from it or alter the situation as I have described it. For morality, to be genuine, must be a choice; the good must know its alternative or it is not good. Only those who already have a penchant for sin will be corrupted by imaginative sympathy with passion; a character that cannot resist such an influence is already undermined. Life itself is the great temptation; how can one who cannot look with equanimity upon statues and pictures fail to be seduced by live men and women? If men can resist the suggestions that emanate from life they can surely withstand those that come from art. And mere purity of mind is not equal in value to that insight into the whole of life which a freely creative art provides. We wish to penetrate sympathetically all of our existence; nothing human shall remain foreign to us; we would enter into it all; there is no region of the grotesque, the infernal, or the sinful from which we would be shut out. In comparison with the sublimity of this demand for the complete appreciation of life, the warnings of a rigorous moralism seem timorous, and the sanctuary of purity in which it would have us take refuge, a prison.

Whatever conflict there may be between the spirit of art and conformist morality, there is none with a genuine and rational ethics. For the latter would formulate ways of living suited to the diversity of individuals and sympathetic with their every impulse and fancy. It would impose external constraint only where necessary for the existence and perpetuation of social life, leaving to personal tact, good will, and temperance the finer adjustments of strain. But apart from aesthetic culture, there can be no rational morality, for that alone engenders the imaginative sympathy with individual diversity upon which the latter rests. Without imaginative sympathy morality will always be coarse, ruthless, and expressive of the needs and sentiments of some special type which sets out to reform or govern the world. Under such a regimen, which is actual in every community devoid of imagination, virtue must always remain suspect and vice tolerable; the one a hypocrisy, the other a secret and venial indulgence, and nature will take its revenge upon the law in violent or perverse compensations. Hence, instead of being a hindrance, art ought to be a help to a rational morality: its realism should foster sincerity, its imagination, sympathy and justice. The moralist inspired by art would seek to impose upon men only that kind of form and order which is characteristic of art–one which respects the peculiarities of the material with which it works, and issues in a system in which all elements freely participate. [Footnote: Compare Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Fourth Letter: “The civilized man makes nature his friend, and honors her freedom, while he merely fetters her caprice."]

The philistine’s objection to art is that it is useless. And if we only knew what was really useful, this would be a damning indictment. But, not being much given to abstract reflection, the philistine is usually at a loss to inform us. However, by talking with him, we can eventually divine what he thinks the useful to be. Useful is what contributes to the procurement of those things which he and his congeners value–material wealth, power, and sensual enjoyment. Art is useless because it will not prepare a banquet, build a bridge, or help to run a business corporation. The artist is a contemptible fellow because he cares more for his art than for the things of the world; for whatever the worldling values he thinks every one else should value.

To the artist, criticism of this kind seems to betray the most shameless arrogance, and he meets contempt with contempt. Who is he that would be the judge between worldly goods and beauty? Surely the philistine is no competent judge; for he only can judge fairly between two values who appreciates both, and, by his own confession, the philistine does not appreciate art. Hence the claim of the philistine seems not to merit consideration. Through his lack of sympathy for art, he puts himself beyond the possibility of fruitful debate. In this he is unlike the puritan, who is often all too sensitive to beauty for his own good–hence his alarms.

If the objection of the philistine were the same as the proletarian’s, that art is a luxury, a waste of the energies of the community, which might better be employed in feeding the hungry and saving sinners, it would be more worthy of a hearing; and so he often represents it. But in this he is hardly sincere; and the appropriate answer is a tu quoque, the fitting reply to every piece of insincere criticism. Does the philistine feed the poor and save the sinners? Who is commonly more careless of the workers’ needs and more cruel to the fallen in his self-righteous probity? For the philistine is often a puritan. And who is more luxurious than he? Who consumes more in his own person of the energies of the toilers? It costs little to maintain an artist, but it taxes thousands to support the philistine and his wife. Of course, in return, the worldling performs a service to the community in the organization of industries, but many of these do not sustain the needs of the masses and are devoted to the manufacture of luxuries for the well-to-do.

The insincerity of the philistine’s attitude is disclosed by his changed attitude towards the artist who acquires fame and wealth through his art. For now that the artist shows himself capable of getting the things the philistine values, the latter accords him esteem. Or let an interest in art become fashionable, and once again the philistine is won over.

The traditional hostility between the philistine and the artist is offensive to reason, which would discover points of contact and reconciliation between all attitudes. One apparent place of meeting might seem to be just the worldling’s love of luxury itself. Luxury is a development of pleasure of sense beyond the necessary, paralleling the freedom and refinement of sensation in art. There is, moreover, a certain imaginative quality in reputation and glory, so well-prized by the worldling, which, as we shall see, is akin to the ideality of art. And yet both the imagination and the luxury of the worldling are usually lacking in one element essential to real kinship with the spirit of art–disinterestedness. The worldling’s dreams of glory are projections of ambition, his luxuries subtle stimulations of appetite or instruments of display, her self-adornment a fine self-exhibition or coquetry. The love of insight, the free emotion, the enjoyment of sensuous harmonies for their own sake, are lacking or subordinate. Glory and luxury are too often mere masks of ambition and appetite, and at best counterfeits of beauty. Nevertheless, the luxurious developments of ambition and appetite are ever on the verge of tending toward the aesthetic. For when ambition has no longer to struggle against the world and is satisfied, the imagination that served it may become free; and when appetite is cloyed, the instrumentalities of sensuous pleasure can find a new meaning as beautiful. Then the worldling becomes the patron of the artist and the two are reconciled. And all along this result was preparing. For instinct seldom completely dominates imagination and sensation; there is always some aesthetic freedom in the self-adornment and display of the wealthy. The absence of anxiety may release aesthetic interests that would have died in the struggle for existence; prosperity is often the herald of beauty.

The proletarian’s criticism of art is of unimpeachable sincerity, for when he talks of art as a luxury he speaks from the heart and in answer to bitter experience of want. There is a genuine element of moral indignation in his feeling that there must be something wrong with a public conscience that countenances, even glorifies extravagance, all the while that women slave and children die of underfeeding and neglect. This feeling is intensified when he compares the thousands paid for a single hour of a prima donna’s song or a playwright’s wit with his own yearly wage laboriously earned. What supreme worth does art possess that it should be valued so disproportionately?

Yet, sincere as this complaint is, it is largely misdirected; for art is not the extravagance which it may superficially seem to be. Most of the best art has been produced by poor men who never dreamed of the prices that would be paid for their work when they were old or after they were dead. And these prices represent no consumption of the labor and capital of the community, but only a transference of wealth from one man to another. Even when the artist is paid large sums for his picture or opera or play, these sums do not represent their real cost, but only what they can command in a market controlled by rich consumers. The real cost of genuine art is very small–only enough to maintain the artist in freedom for his work; for he would still produce without the incentive of large rewards. The seeming extravagance of art cannot, therefore, be blamed upon art itself, but upon the price system of modern capitalist economy. And this, of course, is clearly perceived by the “intellectual proletarians,” who are willing to accord to the artist a place of honor as fellow-worker and “comrade,” and direct their attacks, not upon him, but upon capitalism.

There is, however, a deeper root to the proletarian’s grievance against the artist–the feeling that the moral principle of mutuality is violated in their relationship. The workman plows for him, cooks for him, builds for him, spins for him, but what does he do in return? He paints pictures, makes statues, writes novels or poems or plays or sonatas which the workman has neither the leisure nor the education to enjoy. The money paid by the artist to the artisan represents nothing which the former rightfully owns or can give, but only a claim to the labor of other men, enforced by the system of wage-economy. Of course, not only art but all speculation, all pure science and disinterested historical knowledge, is subject to this criticism. And such criticism is no longer purely academic, for to-day there exist large masses of men in every community determined to bring about a “world dictatorship of the proletariat” based on just this principle of mutuality in the relations of men. Is this principle itself rational, and would art survive in a regime which embodied it? These, I repeat, are no longer speculative, but intensely practical problems.

Those who fear for art in a society where the process of democratization should go to its extreme limit of development point to the moving picture, the cheap magazine story and novel, the vaudeville and “musical” comedy, as a hint of what to expect. These, they will say, are the popular forms of art, to the production of which the artist would have to devote his time and skill in return for subsistence. Under the present system the people get what they want, but in a proletarian state nobody would be allowed to get anything else.

Of course, as to what would happen in a workers’ republic, were it ever constituted, we can only speculate; but where we cannot know, there hope has an equal chance with fear. We have the single example of the Russian experiment from which to make inferences, the general validity of which is seriously limited by the peculiarities of the Russian nature and situation. But there, at any rate, we do know that efforts have been made to advance general education, to bring the classic literature within reach of the masses, and to encourage opera and drama. In Russia, at all events, the leaders of the revolutionary movement have sought rather to destroy what they believe to be a monopoly of culture than culture itself; and in England also they have a similar aim.

There can be little doubt, I think, that our capitalist economy does promote a monopoly of culture. Through their control of the market, the wealthy are able to bid up the prices of works of art until they are beyond the reach of the less prosperous. As a result, the best paintings and sculptures, with the exception of those that find their way into museums, are accumulated in inaccessible private collections, and opera and music are made needlessly expensive. One very evil consequence is the substitution of a purely pecuniary standard of valuation for aesthetic standards. I know a painter who made the experiment of reducing the price of his pictures to twenty-five dollars, in the hope that many people who really loved art but were unable to pay large prices would buy them, and that thus, by selling many of his pictures at a low price, he would be able to make as much money as if he sold only a few at the prevailing high rates. The experiment failed completely, for people thought that paintings at such a low price must be inferior, and even those who could afford to buy them, would not. The painter now tried the reverse experiment and raised the prices of all his works, with much better success, for people reasoned–the higher the price, the better the picture. But worst of all, through the purely commercial motives governing those who undertake to supply the people with works of art, the public taste is corrupted; little or no attempt is made to educate the masses, but merely to give them anything that will entertain them after a day of fatiguing labor,–anything that will sell. The demoralizing effect of commercialism upon artists themselves is too well known to require more than a reminder; hasty work for the sake of money supplants careful work for the sake of beauty; whole arts, like that of oriental rug weaving, are thereby threatened with extinction; and, instead of producing spontaneous art that would express themselves, people allow themselves to be merely entertained by things supplied to them, nasty and cheap–folk art disappears.

If, on the other hand, the commercial motive were eliminated, who can say what might not result, in each community, from the experimentation of men who could not make money but only honor and a living from the profession of providing people with interesting ways of spending their leisure. The increased efficiency of machine tool work will inevitably make possible a great reduction in hours of labor, when the workers themselves control industry for their own benefit rather than for that of a class bent on still further increasing its own wealth and power. It is entirely possible that the leisure of men will then absorb as much of their devoted energies as work does now, and that they will be educated for the one as well as for the other. It is not impossible to hope that, the machine tool supplanting the slave, the commonwealth of workers will develop as free and liberal a life as existed among the citizens of ancient Greece. Then perhaps each group will have its painters, actors, and musicians just as surely as it now has its judges, aldermen, and police.

It is impossible to judge what art might do for people in a reorganized society by what it does for them now. Art has its roots in interests that are well nigh universal. Everybody loves to dance, to sing, to tell a story; everybody loves either to paint or be painted, to sculpture or be sculptured. Again, everybody is at least potentially sensitive to rhythm, harmony, and balance, and to the beauties of lines, colors, and tones. It is not native incapacity, but rather a failure in aesthetic education due to the one-sided emphasis on work rather than play, industry rather than leisure, success rather than happiness, that is responsible for much of the seeming lack of artistic appreciation among the masses. Under a different social system the people may come to recognize the artist as a fellow-worker, elaborating his products in exchange for other desirable things, and may accord him welcome rather than envy.

However, it will doubtless always remain true that the subtler and more intellectual types of art can never become popular. Like higher mathematics, they will continue to be completely intelligible only to the few. Yet I can conceive of no social system likely to grow out of modern tendencies that would suppress them. The artist in the new state would have his leisure, as other men would, in which he could devote himself to the refinements of his art. It is doubtful whether he would have less time for that then than he has now. How many artists under our present system waste a large part of their lives doing hack work of various kinds to make a living; only the fortunate few are masters of themselves. Moreover, under any social system, men would be permitted to spend their surplus income as they chose, and the art lovers of the future are as likely to spend it for art then as now. Not being so rich, they could not reward the artist so munificently as some are rewarded now; but even now most working artists are poor, and the impulse to art is independent of large rewards. Heretical and unpopular artists, who could find no public backing, would come to be supported by their own special clients, as they are to-day. In a complex rational society, the principle of mutuality would be transitive rather than strictly symmetrical–a woman would cook for a machine designer although she got no machine in return, provided the designer made one, say, for the shoemaker, who could thus supply her with shoes. Just so, there is no moral objection to the artist’s receiving goods and services from people to whose life he contributes nothing personally, so long as these people are compensated by those whose life he does enrich. In other words, part of the reward which the art lover would receive for the work he performed would be paid, not to himself, but to the artist–art would be voluntarily supported by those who appreciated it. No complex social life could be maintained under the principle of strict mutuality, and certainly no system that undertook to preserve the variety and spontaneity of human interests. Only a complete dead-level regimentation of human life in accordance with the average desires of the masses, which is unlikely, would destroy the more intellectual and subtle types of art, and, by the same token, speculation and disinterested higher learning. The higher culture has survived many revolutions; it will survive the next, when it comes.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Introduction: Purpose and Method  •  Chapter II - Definition of Art  •  Chapter III - The Intrinsic Value of Art  •  Chapter IV - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Elements of the Experience  •  Chapter V - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Structure of the Experience  •  Chapter VI - The Problem of Evil in Aesthetics, and Its Solution Through the Tragic, Pathetic, and Comic  •  Chapter VII - The Standard of Taste  •  Chapter VIII - The Aesthetics of Music  •  Chapter IX - The Aesthetics of Poetry  •  Chapter X - Prose Literature  •  Chapter XI - The Dominion of Art Over Nature: Painting  •  Chapter XII - Sculpture  •  Chapter XIII - Beauty in the Industrial Arts: Architecture  •  Chapter XIV - The Function of Art: Art and Morality  •  Chapter XV - The Function of Art: Art and Religion  •  Bibliography

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