Art: The Real Versus The Pretended

Date Published: 
September, 1894
Original Author: 
Joseph Bingham
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 8th Annual Convention

It is fitting that my first words to you should be in recognition, on the part of myself and the gentlemen associated with me in the Memorial Art League, of the importance of the work you are doing and of the admirably effective way in which you are doing it. We believe that a higher standard of culture is involved in it; that the ennobling of our public and private characters as a people will emanate from it, and that the very stability of our institutions and the perpetuity of our republic; itself, are made more secure by it. Whatever tends safely to antagonize the tendency to dispersion that is inherent in our political system; whatever fosters a wholesome pride of birth among us; whatever tends to perpetuate an honorable name, honorably, is a public good. It is because you are doing a work that promises to affect exactly these things in exactly the best way, that we salute you. It is because of this that we tender to you our most sincere and earnest assurance of our cooperation, it is because of this that we shall strive to make our work perfectly supplemental to yours, and it is because of this that I am here to point out to you certain tendencies, which, if left unchecked, we believe will neutralize, in great degree, the work you are doing.

Standing upon the eminence you have built, it would be discreditable to us if our horizon were not wider than yours who are still intensely occupied in building, nor do we think you will accuse us of presumption if we assume to know more of this one subject than you, whose every faculty must have been at its utmost tension in making the conditions possible for the development of the true memorial art that shall give us real art memorials.

As the words "art" and "artist" will occur frequently in what I have to say, perhaps a beginning will best be made by making clear the exact meaning we wish them to convey to you. By "artist" we mean the person qualified, by natural gifts and study, to see in nature and in natural objects, effects, conditions and possibilities too subtle to be detected by others; by "art" we mean the result of the process (whether in paint, in clay, in language or by gesture) by which the artist makes visible to others what his eye has discerned and his ability to show more or less of these, with greater or less distinctness determines exactly his standing in art.

Many painters will put a landscape upon canvas with such skill that you say "that is done to the life" but when you say that, you pronounce at once a condemnation of his work; it seems entirely "natural" to you because he saw only what you would have seen had you been in his place, and you turn away without a single extra pulse-beat; he may have been an admirable workman but he was not an artist.

Tennyson in his ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington, wishes to teach that one who does his full duty will find the hardships encountered in the doing it, seem rather to be pleasures; and at the end he will find the reward that Christianity teaches him to expect. Expressed in this way, the sentiment is excellent and we recognize the truth of it, just as you saw the truth in the landscape supposed, and you turn from it with no deeper impression. But Tennyson was an artist let us see how he expressed it:

"Not once or twice in our rough island-story
The path of duty was the way to glory
He that walks it, only thirsting
For the right, and learns to deaden
Love of self, before his journey closes
He shall find the stubborn thistle bursting
Into glossy purples, which out-redden
All voluptuous garden-roses;

Not once nor twice in our fair island-story
The path of duty was the way to glory
He that ever following her commands
On with toil of heart and knees and hands
Thro' the long gorge to the far light has won
His path upward, and prevailed
Shall find the toppling crags of Duty, scaled
Are close upon the shining table-lands
To which our God himself is moon and sun."

There-can you turn calmly away from that?

You read it again and again while every nerve in you quivers to its rhythm!  Wherever you go the melody of it still sings to you! You are henceforth a better man because of it. Why cannot I, in speaking to you tonight, produce a similar effect? My vocabulary is probably as extensive as Tennyson's and my knowledge of the mechanical rules of the language as great.

So Mr. Church, let us suppose, paints a landscape, every feature of which was once familiar to you; the pasture in the foreground you used to play ball in; the trees in the background you have shot squirrels from. You have a photograph of it perhaps, from which you have pointed out, without emotion to your children the familiar haunts of your boyhood; you have looked upon it a thousand times from exactly the spot where Church stood when he sketched it, but you suddenly discover that you had never seen it until he showed it you. A film seems to be wiped from your eyes and a great homesickness seizes upon you, you realize for the first time how beautiful the old place is!

Has he painted anything that was not there?-by no means. It is only that, being an artist, he has seen where you had only looked.

All departments of art, oratory, the art of speech; acting, the art of impersonation, painting, the art of delineation by color; poetry the art of figurative language; sculpture, the art of delineation by form; in all, perfection is so impossible of attainment that those who approach the nearest are the most acutely aware of its infinite distance and the almost insuperable difficulties of its approach. These difficulties differ in the various departments only in kind not at all in degree. Just how great they are, just what Longfellow meant when he said "art is long," no one has made clearer than Mr. William Black, himself an artist, if only by virtue of the single bit we are about to quote.

In "Shandon Bells" he causes his Scotch painter, Ross, to discourse of his profession thus:

"Suppose ye want to paint a field of ripe corn (grain): do you think by sitting down and paintin' the stalks and the heads-ay, if ye were to spend a lifetime at it and paint fifty thousand of them? Ay! And if ye painted a hundred thousand of them as like could be, ye'd be no nearer gettin at your cornfield. For what ye have to paint is what ye see; and when ye look at a cornfield ye see nae single stalks at all, but a great mass of gold, as it were, with a touch of orange here or paler yellow there, and a wash of green where the land is wet, and sometimes a warm red, even, where the stalks are mixed with weeds; and ye are no going to get that color either by taking the thing into a room and making a clever bit of fuzzy sketch in gray, green and black. Ye've got to put just that something into the cornfield that will make people's hearts warm to it when they see it on your canvas. Suppose that ye've been ill for a month or two, laid on your back; maybe, and sick tired of the pattern on the walls of your room; and at last the day comes when the doctor thinks you might be lifted into a carriage and taken for a drive. And we'll say it's a fine warm afternoon and your heart is just full of wonder and gladness, like, at trees and the soft air; and we'll say that all of a sudden at the turning of the road, ye come insight of this field of ripe corn, just as yellow as yellow can be under the afternoon sky. Ay, and what is it when ye see such a wonderful and beautiful thing what is it that brings tears to your eyes? I say, what is it? For it's that you've got to catch and put in your picture or ye'll be a dread mistake as a painter!"

But sculpture is the branch of art with which you are chiefly concerned. Let us see what it is capable of.

Here are two busts: the one of Homer, the other of Apollo. Look at them closely and there appears no defect of the organs of sight in either and yet, while the Far-darter sees with a wonderful penetration of vision (notice how his eyes seem to look out upon the farthest space) the poet is blankly, hopelessly blind, with a blindness that thrills a pity all through you. Here is art! How easily the sculptor might have shirked his difficulties and by a trick have shown him sightless, and we should then have said "blind isn't he; well its supper time, let's go home."

Again here is a mask of a Satyr-scan every feature in detail and see if you can detect in any one of them a deficiency! Barring the horns (which might be omitted without detracting from the effect) we have here the lineaments of a good looking young man, and yet the face is entirely animal, not the glimmering suggestion of a soul in it! You shudder, and are almost horrified but you cannot turn away from it! It will haunt your dreams! It will almost make you fear the darkness as a child does!

Here again we have art in its very highest expression. We do not know exactly the methods employed by the sculptor but we may be sure that we have here something of the result which the photographer has striven to reach (but will never attain) in the "composite photograph," the combined and idealized expressions found in the faces of a hundred lunatics all concentrated in this one terrible face.

Satyr-satire: What a light this throws upon the meaning of our English word.

Here is another treatment of the same subject by a later and less eminent artist-though still an artist. You will at once notice in this that the human lineaments are so merged in the goat features to become merely fanciful. You admire the trick of it but you readily recognize it as a trick.

Life is here but force and TRUTH are wanting.

I put beside our first satyr a gargoyle, the work of a very skillful model of this city, and made as hideous as his mind could conceive it and his hand fashion it; to this I ask your close attention for a moment. Why can you not do as I request you to do? Why do you just glance at this and turn back to the satyr? Just see how much larger this is! See what a frightful combination of beak of bird, body of lion and head of serpent!

Well, may be you are right after all, and that the terror in this is all of the scare crow variety-that no artist has breathed into it the breath of life. The tricking of it is not clever enough to excite a second glance.

Here are two models, the one a half size "Hope" from which already many statues have been cut (more than likely you will recognize it from some monument in your own grounds) the other a mere sketch for a "Supplication" by Karl Bitter. In the one, every detail is worked out, the hair rippling down over the shoulders and the conventional finger pointing upward. All perfectly correct and proper. Examine it as you will and it is still "faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null," just what a school girl would pronounce "real pretty" but with no suggestion of life in it. Contrast it with this other. Not an attempt to work a single detail; almost thrown together, the hair mere blotches of clay upon the head, the features scarcely distinguishable as features, the interlaced fingers merely suggested, no attempt even at exact anatomical structures, and yet the power of it! What an agony of prayer in every line of it! Surely there is the "fervent, effectual prayer that (if there be truth in Holy Writ) avails much." Here is life, meaning power! Here is no "prettiness," but here is that enduring beauty that holds the gazer spell bound before it! In short, here is the work of the sculptor contrasted with that of the mere model; the one, an artist, the other, an artisan. This is an embodied definition of memorial art.

Have I succeeded in showing you that a mere copying of nature as the untrained eye sees it is not art?

Is it plain to you that he who, in his work fails to stir the inmost centers of emotion may be ever so deft a workman, but he is not an artist?

Have I made it apparent that the mechanical elaboration of detail may mar rather than make?
Is it clear to you that the work of the artist, If worthy of him, is instinct with a vivid, all pervading life?

Will you carry away with you an abiding detestation of the shams that, under the guise of "art monuments" and "artistic memorials" are degrading the grounds that should abound in that which is "lovely and of good report?" If so, my task is accomplished and I have only to wish you God-speed as you return to your work henceforth missionaries in the cause of memorial art.

"But (you say) you have given us nothing but negation! Have you nothing affirmative, nothing positive, for us?"

Dear friends: when we can describe the taste of a strawberry or define the fragrance of a rose, then we may attempt to point out exactly what art is; till then we must be content with realizing what it conspicuously is not.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 8th Annual Convention
Philadelphia, PA
September 11, 12 and 13, 1894