"It has perhaps never been true in Europe, it is no longer true in America, that it is 'easy to distinguish art from pornography.'"

Certain critics and authors who are quite willing to have the coal-heaver's filthy story debarred from the mails, because it can be understood by coal-heavers, protest against debarring the filthy story of the artist, because only the highly sophisticated can understand it. I object to the discrimination, on democratic principles! I avow that it affects me, an 'equalitarian' of a sort, like a proposal to forbid the coal-heaver beer, because he can get drunk on it, but to allow the comfortable bond-holder champagne — not because he cannot get drunk on it, but because the coal-heaver cannot afford to get drunk on it. The 'morality' implicit in the discrimination reminds one of Falstaff's penitent resolution never to get drunk again except among gentlemen and such as fear God, and not among drunken knaves. In the presence of such moral subtleties, I become an old-fashioned angry upholder of the 'rights of man.' I declare that, if the sophisticated possess a right to have their delight in the salacious gratified by a piece of expert pornography, then my poor coal--heaver has a right to have his delight in the salacious gratified by a piece of inexpert pornography.

But the warier critics avoid this ticklish position. They prefer a quicksand of a more plausible surface. Those who argue for the 'freedom of art' on high aesthetic grounds contend that the moral influence of works of art is vastly exaggerated. The influence of works of art, they declare, is artistic. Aesthetic experience, they assert, is unique in kind.

When one discusses the matter in this fashion, one is soon lost in a metaphysical mist; so let us return to our coal-heaver. What they contend is that the effect of the coal-heaver's inartistic filthy story may be degrading, because it operates in the moral consciousness and may have practical consequences; but that the effect of the author's artistic filthy story may be disregarded, because it operates in the aesthetic consciousness and has no practical consequences.

Has anyone remarked how at variance this aesthetic theory is with the theory upon which a great part of the French, Russian, and English fiction of the last seventy-five years has been constructed? 'What is man?' ask the novelists from Flaubert and Zola and Bourget to Thomas Hardy and Gissing and George Moore. 'A hoop rolled by a whimsical boy,' 'clay on the potter's wheel,' 'a figure of wax under the modeler's thumb.' With such images, they have expressed their constant sense that he is the 'victim of circumstances,' the 'product of environment'; and more than one of them for examples, Flaubert in Madame Bovary and Bourget in Le Disciple have tellingly expressed their belief that literature is a decisive element of the environment, a potent factor in the circumstances.

The distinction between the moral and the aesthetic consciousness, so vehemently insisted upon by many contemporary critics,—with a suspicion that the 'freedom of art' depends upon maintaining it,—has, so far as I can discover, but slender support from modern psychology, and it is constantly belied by common experience. We find no independent bureaus in man for dealing separately with moral and with aesthetic facts. The entire psychophysical organism receives them as a unit. Every image presented to the mind makes its record in the nerves, and tends to produce an appropriate 'motor response.'

We are all by inheritance mimetic monkeys; we tend, like the untutored members of the A.E.F. in France, to imitate everything that we see and hear. There is tension of the vocal organs, even in silent reading; and our chests vibrate to the sounds of a symphony. The face of an impressionable coach involuntarily mirrors the actor speaking his lines at a rehearsal. Children, after reading the Gospels, play at crucifying their playmates.

As we grow older, we learn to check the overt expression of these spontaneous responses of the nervous organism; but what we call an 'aesthetic response' appears to be only a practical response checked at a certain, or rather at a quite uncertain, point. The spontaneous response is still frequently recorded in dreams. A man to whom every kind of cruelty is abhorrent, having speculated in a waking hour with a kind of curious horror upon the kind of person who could have obeyed that injunction: 'Let him that is with sin among you cast the first stone,' dreams in the following night that he and another are engaged in casting stones upon some person in a pit; and wakes himself by the intensity of his aversion from the spontaneous and merely mimetic cruelty of his imagination.

In our waking hours, the check on the imagination, which prevents it from stimulating the nerves to a visible 'motor response,' is sometimes in this form: 'This is not real — I am in a theatre.' Often it takes the form of a moral consideration: 'I shall make a fool of myself.' 'What would people think of me?' The indeterminate moving line between practical conduct and so--called aesthetic experience depends upon moral and kindred 'inhibitions'; so that we may almost assert that our esthetic experience is determined and, in a sense, created by our moral discipline.

But common experience proves that, in impressionable persons, the activity of nerves and imagination stimulated by works of art has the possessive and unopposable force of a dream, and controls the physical organism, sometimes with quite inaesthetic consequences. Samuel Pepys records that the ravishing music, at a performance of 'The Virgin Martyr,' 'did wrap up my soul, in pure aesthetic delight, and 'made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife.' The following passage from Wordsworth's Excursion is pure enough art, and should therefore be 'without consequences,' as the Croceans would say, 'in the practical sphere': —

Jehovah,—with his thunder and the choir
Of shouting angels, and the empyreal thrones,—
I pass them unalarmed.

But Crabb Robinson tells us that reading this passage brought on a fit of illness in William Blake — a 'stomach complaint which nearly killed him.' Wordsworth was a contemporary of Blake's; and I myself have been similarly affected by the works of some of my own contemporaries. One of the works of art which has most excited the suppressive agents puts me to sleep; but all the others which have come to my notice affect me somewhat like a glass of warm water and mustard. These violent effects may, however, also be produced by pieces of 'fossil literature' taken out of what Mr. Untermeyer calls 'the lifeless and literary storehouse' of the past. I have seen a sufficiently unemotional man, of fifty and upwards, driven from the theatre in blinding tears by the presentation of a dramatic work nearly twenty-five hundred years old — The Trojan Women. And Professor Hatfield has recently argued, in the Publications of the Modern Language Association, that Scott's novel, Anne of Geieretein, had practical consequences in certain features of that very practical body, the Ku Klux Klan.

The Greek dramatists let their audience know that much rough and lustful business goes on in this world. The reason why they did not actually present on the stage Clytemnestra with her axe braining Agamemnon in his bath was, I suppose, that with their customary clearness of insight into human nature they perceived that aesthetic experience is seldom or never pure. The effect of that violent stimulus to the nerves and imagination would be incalculable. Some spectator with the image working in his brain might mimic that dreadful action in a waking dream. There is little reason for assuming that the moral check which prevents aesthetic experience from overflowing into practical conduct is more highly developed in us than it was in the Athenians. Our reading public is not so free from Barbarians and Helots that we can afford wholly to disregard the psychological facts which appear to have convinced the most 'aesthetic' of peoples that the publishers of works of art are among the chief makers of public morals.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In