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Before expressing my own convictions, and in the hope that my position may be better understood, you will pardon my saying that, having devoted the greater part of my time to philology and literature, I trust that I may escape being accused of bias when I advocate a much stronger emphasis being placed upon the history of art as a most important discipline in our colleges. I advocate it as a virile subject. I advocate it as a balance wheel to the "spirit-deadening” or materialistic disciplines of the curriculum. I advocate it as a subject that will broaden and deepen, as well as give culture to, the mind and heart. I advocate it as a subject that “will swim out with a shipwrecked man."
It is significant that the history of art is elected in German universities by many students of theology, law and medicine as a broadening and cultural course. The subject is invading even the German technical schools, along with the languages, ethics and history. In America the history of art till recent years has not been taken seriously. The fault lay largely with the female institutions where a little dabbling in oils and painful thrumming on a piano were, and in some cases still are, dignified by the high-sounding name of “art." The slowness of its adoption even as an elective course in many institutions has been due, furthermore, to the encroachment of the so-called “sciences” on the more literary branches. While having the greatest respect for the natural sciences as such, I greatly fear, nevertheless, that the prominence given to them in some quarters, in a country devoid of aesthetic traditions, is causing the main object of the college course, as I conceive it, to be distorted. We do not wish to make intellectual Baedekers of our sons, mere encyclopedias of facts no matter how useful, but beings susceptible of all those higher emotions of the soul which can be nurtured only by intimate contact with the great minds and thoughts of the past. In placing a relative valuation upon the natural sciences we must not forget that, were humanity to disappear from the face of the earth, the materials of science would continue to exist. Science is impersonal. Art and literature, the products of inspiration, are personal. The
, natural science of the past belongs to him who wishes to study its results. But a Homer or a Raphael cannot be produced in a test tube.
The resuscitative overdose of the natural sciences given to the old college course was simply the swinging too far of the pendulum. The charge had been brought that the memorizing of Greek or Latin grammar, and the laborious translation of some little-understood author was neither educative nor uplifting. The cry went forth for something "modern.” The natural sciences, being most unlike the old disciplines, were seized upon with avidity. The result was not unforeseen. Instead of kindling “high and passionate thoughts” theythrough no fault of their own-fed fat the groveling worm of materialism that was gnawing at the vitals of college life. Is it then surprising that the secretary of one of the largest and best known manufacturing concerns of America, who as a practical business man will not be open to the charge of “mere sentiment,” that he, on returning from Europe and deploring his inability to understand and appreciate much of what he saw, should exclaim, “My education was defective; my taste has not been cultivated.”
It is well that President Schurmann, of Cornell University, an institution which-however unjustly—has frequently been designated as holding the practical and materialistic things in high esteem, has publicly pleaded for better training along aesthetic lines. This growing recognition of the aesthetic and spiritual shortcomings of our American institutions of learning, added to our more intimate intercourse with the Old World, is bringing about a readjustment of values. America is beginning to see with Schiller that a civilization can lack that "dignity” which “art has saved and preserved in momentous stones.” In a spiritual sense there is an indefinite longing,
“... for something better, more adorned
Of human life.” Slowly but surely the realization is gaining ground that the subject of art history properly taught tends to anything but superficiality. The virility of a subject could scarcely be questioned which deals with the universality of a Leonardo da Vinci and with the titanism of a Michaelangelo, or that has to do with the pyramids and a “Notre Dame.” The vigorous qualities of heart and mind which have placed a distinctive stamp upon American character, and have leveled mountains of difficulty in the years of our national expansion, will find plenty of inspiration in a Rodin or a Behrens. A Velasquez is no teacher of mollycoddles. More and more it is coming to be seen that art, like history, has its philosophy. Art history does not deal with “pretty.” pictures or “graceful" statues as such, but with the idea behind or in the work of art. Science deals with nature. Art deals with “man added to nature.” We call a painting a “Rembrandt” because the subject disappears and only the creator subsists. The work makes us imagine the noble, admirable powers expressed by the genius of the painter.
As we have become familiar with the virile side of the art works of the Old World we have discovered that their subject matter is serious and all-embracing. "Religion, philosophy and art,” says Hegel, “have the same content.” What that content is and what its evolution has been as it passed from a struggling partiality to an all-embracing universality it is the office of art history to show. When the realization comes that the history of art is, under another form, but the history of man with his aspirations and his moral activities, the parallel between it and the history of literature becomes striking. The art of the painter and sculptor, to as high a degree as poetry, are products of inspiration, of talent. The same consideration which gives value to the history of the expansion of man's mind from its stage of incipient culture represented by the simple religious cult down through Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Goethe, finds a parallel in the history of religious inspiration as first recorded in the rude paintings in the catacombs, and developed through the mosaics of Ravenna and the works of Giotto, Fra Angelico and Raphael.
The history of art, moreover, like the history of literature, has its great movements.
Does the romantic movement of literature show any more distinctly its pre-eminent characteristics of feeling, passion, sympathy, freedom, enthusiasm, than do the works of Delacroix or Overbeck? Is Corneille a more consequent follower of classic principles than David? Are nature, sentiments, characters, historic events less accurately and less forcefully portrayed in painting than in literature? Do we not begin to realize that the painter speaks as directly to
the heart of the student, and possibly even more so, than the poet? To nature poets like a Thomson does not art offer a Corot? To Michelet, a Meissonier? To the Biblical portrayal of the Crucifixion, a Rubens “Descent from the Cross”? To the literary representations of patriotic exultation, a Rude's "Marseillaise''? To historic and appealing characterization Rauch's "Queen Louise”? To the moralizings of a Bossuet, Franz Stuck's “War”? To sublime Miltonian description, a Michaelangelo's “Last Judgment” and “the great epic of the Sistine ceiling”? In power of implacable description, as Lessing clearly showed, the palette of the painter often takes precedence over the pen of the poet. Ariosto cried for the brush of an artist that he might depict womanly beauty, and Italy gave the world a Titian.
Art is a universal language. The world's literatures are separated by the diversity of idioms. A work of art, whatever be its date and origin, speaks directly to the heart. What is often incomprehensible to the reader in literary description owing to one's lack of knowledge of the object or scene described is completely understood when viewed on canvas. The student can grasp in its totality the vast significance of the dramatic moment in a work of art which might impress him less when weakened by necessary literary prolixity. “The painter,” says Bodmer, “leaves a stronger impression than description can possibly offer.”
The catholic temper of the history of art, and its philosophic attitude toward knowledge, makes it an invaluable antidote to provincialism and to exaggerated forms of national egotism. In this respect it at least equals history, and surpasses literature as a college discipline. I would not be understood as minimizing literature in any sense, but it remains a fact that the great majority of college men leave their alma mater with an over-appreciation for materialities, because the stumbling translations of the Ancients or Moderns constitute to their minds all that Greece and Europe seemingly have to offer. They have failed to catch the historical idea'— the inter-relationship of the various disciplines they have studied. Their voyage has been, as it were, through a sunless sea, which has left them all unconscious of the mighty truth of Swinburne's line, “All the
world is brighter, if the Athenian sun return,” which for our purpose might still better read, “if the spirit of art be caught.”
While literature with its wealth of ideas and subtile reasonings is, in a certain sense, richer than the fine arts, yet I firmly believe that, owing to the practical factors of time limit set to literary work in college, and its lack of directness, more great truths and a better grasp upon the philosophy of great periods in man's development can be brought home to the junior or senior student through the history of art than, in the same time, by the study of the literature of Europe. Emile Henzelin, in a recent number of the Revue des Revues, calls art “the clearest and most certain of histories”; while Hegel pronounces it “along with religion the first teacher of the peoples" and "a powerful means of instruction.”
The majority of thoughtful persons, I take it, recognize that the real aim of language study-a universal requirement in our college curricula—is not so much the acquisition of the ability to read and understand the foreign idiom as an end in itself, however practical the accomplishment may be, but rather as a means of attaining to the far higher goal—the knowledge of the literature of a people, as reflecting the development of the mind of the race. In this sense the history of art is the Esperanto of the mind an international language which can be understood without the years of seemingly unrequited linguistic application. It is a language into the greatest productions of which as much content of life has been poured as into the works of a Cervantes or a Manzoni. Winckelmann, Brandi and Symonds have all testified to the pre-eminent role that art plays in studying those “golden ages that have departed with all they loved and praised”; and they insist that through it we are enabled to follow that Ariadne thread which guides us through the windings of national character.
The fine arts, being influenced by the religious, political, economic and material conditions in the midst of which they develop, are one of the most spontaneous manifestations of the civilization and mentality of a people. The view of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, of the sculptures of Chartres, of a painting by Lebrun, contributes more than much reading to a more just appreciation of the civilization of the Theban