Arts Liberate the Spirit
GEORGE SANTAYANA, now eighty-seven, has concluded his profound. far-reaching wark, Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty. Society, and Government, a book begun in the thirties and carried on during the war years in his sanctuary, the Convent of the Blue Nuns, in Nome. The book is to be published by Scribner’s this spring, and from it the Atlantic has been privileged to draw a series of essays of which this is the second.
by GEORGE SANTAYANA
THE intuition of Walter Pater that all the arts aspire towards the condition of music may be clearly illustrated and in a sense corrected by the case of architecture. Architecture is a fundamentally economic art and more dominated than any other by its materials, its costs, and its practical uses. Yet its chief masterpieces have been always temples and palaces, triumphal gates and monumental tombs: ediltces that a cynic might pronounce to be scandalously useless. Royal vanity and pious zeal have evidently taken possession of these means of expressing their militant passions and of giving to their social dominations the powerful help of wearing an imposing and bewildering aspect. The Pyramids of Egypt, the Temple at Jerusalem with its vast courts and bastions, the colossal statues and crowded tiers of grotesque sculptures in Indian temples, all show an extreme anxiety to outdo oneself at once in sacrifice and in display, thus turning architecture, like everything else, into something to throw away on one object of consuming passion. What could have happened to the utilitarian craft of house-building that it should be classed in this way among luxuries and treasures?
Useful structures are seldom imposing unless vasl; and then, on acquaintance, they become hateful. The liberal element does not enter into economic works at the bidding of patrons far public, but through adaptation and sympathy established between the workman and his task. This adaptation is it sell partly economic, smoothing and straightening materials so as to render them manageable and better able to fit together, But the straightening defines and assimilates various forms, and the smoothing gives polish and kindles fresh colors; so that under his hands the artisan’s labor mingles constant gratifications with its inevitable difficulties, and the product becomes an object of pleased contemplation and pride.
The eye itself by a native gift is an artist that has to paint pictures in order to convey facts. Even in science such graphic fictions are misleading; for it is only the dynamic effects of objects that matter economically, and the attribution of aesthetic qualities to them is an illusion, and the first of myths. Yet it is this pictorial accompaniment that endears, from childhood, the world to the spirit.
Never will these appearances catch the eye more quickly, or suggest more variations possible among them, than when they present themselves spontaneously in the artisan’s own work. Every detail in construction, like the projection of beam-ends under the eaves, suggests, and is finished off to imitate, the head of a dog or lion; or the jutting eaves themselves, as in China, are curled into a scalloped cornice. In favored climates the walls themselves might discard those dead spaces not essential to their stability and become loggias or arcades; or a farsighted economy might substitute stone piers for inflammable wooden props; the central piers, and ultimately even those at the corners, would become somewhat thicker cylinders; and thereby the basis would be laid for the greatest glories of mature architecture, peristyles and cloisters, traceries and balustrades, and when the principle of the work had been discovered and applied — vaults and domes.
Meantime in communal works, serving the other chief need of society, safety from raids and sieges, city walls and scattered castles, both in town and country, produced unintentionally the most massive and picturesque of effects. The roughness and forbidding blankness of the walls and towers only heightened, by contrast and breadth of setting, such grated gates or windows as might be indispensable; and these offered splendid occasions for the boasts of heraldry to defy the enemy and reassure the citizen with an ever watchful guard of stone monsters.
A passion for plastic and decorative art was let loose by these opportunities offered unwittingly by the harsh necessities of existence; and a marriage of war and play, of religion and magnificence, gave imagination freedom while feeding it on vital and tragie themes.
Now does this marriage of the artistic impulse with moral and political powers, while it gives to liberal arts a prominent part in society and in history, run counter to that aspiration towards pure music which Walter Pater divined in them? I think that in that great enrichment there does lie it great temptation. What happens to a hermit when he is made a great abbot or bishop happens to the pure artist when he figures as a wit or a prophet in the popular mind. And when sensitive connoisseurs, reacting against this enslavement and worldliness in official art, look for pure models, they find them only in interludes, or first sketches, or irresponsible play of minor episodes, happy phrases, or intricate arabesques that peep in the corners of the approved academic masterpieces. It is the artist’s soul that they find there; and they encourage the young artist to defy the great world find to trust his personal rebellious fancy.
In the history of Gothic architecture we may trace the fortunes of free imagination, aspiring towards the condition of music, conquering and dazzling a militant society find a militant Church, and then suddenly failing, leaving its greatest monuments unfinished or patched find half disguised by a sudden passion for the ruins of classic antiquity and the rational government of all human affairs. In this reaction of the lay world against tradition, reason was not based on solid science but on impatience and ambition in superior persons. The lypes of art so revived or invented had the variety and brilliancy of fashions. The Middle Ages, as they grew rich find urban, had become increasingly subject to bold fashions in dress, in romantic fiction, in poetry, and in architecture. This was a symptom of a bybrid heritage, racial and political, which bred contrary tastes and rendered many charming Gothic inventions sterile find short-lived. That is a natural characteristic of liberal arts that kick an economic or traditional foundation, and it persisted in the free manners and thoughts of the Renaissance, making its successive phases and styles, down to our times, as inconstant and arbitrary as the more naïve fancies of the Middle Ages had proved before.
Inspiration comes from the heart, and is always initially as blameless and courageous as life itself. This is its inalienable privilege: but it is born in ignorance and cannot count either on permanent youth for itself or on a place for it in the world. A later fashion, essentially perhaps less authentic, could therefore replace it, especially as the society that dismissed it had not only its new tastes but its modern science and politics to back it. The perfect scorn with which the seventeenth century treated everything medieval was an economic scorn: and the new architeeture, with its regularity, symmetry, and quiet dignity , embodied good sense and good order no less than the rational appeal of its human scale and private convenience.
The lesson to be learned from architecture may be applied to the other arts. Consider music itself. The physical vehicle of sound, gross vibrations of the air, is far less swift and subtle than that of light radiating throughout cosmic space: and this circumstance renders vision a much better means of information than the arts of sound, music and language. in that music hardly informs at all, and language, in informing, greatly overloads and distorts the truth. Therefore spiril, although intelligence is one of its chief functions, suffers horribly from the snares of language, while soothed by its music; and in pure music, freed from the sophistry of words, it finds the vital echo of its potential experiences in their emotional urgency and color, without the irrecoverable and distraeting detail of their accidental occasions. For the flight of time tends to carry the lessons of time away with it; but the organic tropes of music are rich in recoveries and repetitions, and can themselves be repealed by faithful memory and tradition; not that the spirit cares for the temporal longevity of anything, but that it sees, especially in music, the precipitat ion of life falling into recognizable cadences and reaching its natural climaxes with the glow of triumph in the peace of eternity.
All the arts, even the economic arts when they become personally liberal, serve the spirit in this way, by inslinet, not by intention: for the intention of the artist, oven of the musician, is normally directed upon some technical problem, proper to the task assigned and to the phase of art dominant at the time. This predestined service rendered to the spirit has two sides: on the side of the art in its political status, this service is what is now called “creation" that is. originality acceptable to the public, and capable of being ineorporaled in the living traditions of the art. On the side of the spirit, which is essentially a witness and not an agent, this service is liberation from the obstacles or the inner confusions that may have been rendering spirit, in some adventure, bound and not free. The spirit is, in each man, a phase of his psychic life, in which love or intelligence has become self-transcendent, disinterested and lost in its ideal objecl. Will, as Schopenhauer would say, has been eclipsed, and the Idea has come forward and filled the stage. But the Idea here is seen, it is lived; so that there is still a living intuition, perfectly temporal and human, that brings that essence for the moment into the light of day. And this light of day, for the spirit, is pure; it adds no date or place to the eternal form conceived, but sees and loves it for its intrinsic beauty and perfection. In feasting the spirit on this its congenial food, the arts liberate it from what it felt as exile or captivity, and allow it for a moment to be itself.