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The Dawn of Art
By GEORGE LANGFORD
N age remote when beasthood was in flower,
Where caves and rock-walls served them to defy
TROGLODYTES-cave men of the Old Stone age-
ALL praise for those to whom meet praise is due,
With the Athenian Greek true ken of art.
How small their means and crude! Gravers of flint
Carved on the walls and ceilings of their caves.
The dark cramped depths befouled with slime and ooze,
By HERBERT J. SPINDEN
Assistant Curator, Department of Anthropology, American Museum
Nationality develops the essentially intellectual bond of common thought. Because of this common thought there is before the people of America the possibility of evolving an art which will represent a new complex of life, based on a philosophy of logical and mechanical efficiency, political equality, and personal service to society. The art to come which fittingly embodies these things will be our national art.
This art must be useful in itself and not a senseless load upon the utilities of the age, nor an empty gratification of vanity. It must be beauty in cotton as much as in silk, in copper as much as in gold. It will be joyous Romance and heartfelt Ceremony in our homes and in our streets, in our work and in our play, for the seven days of the week.
RUE nationality has always expressed itself in art: we judge the nations of the past by the objects of use and beauty which they created. Likewise by our peculiar art shall the nations of the future judge us. But have we been able, up to the present time, to stamp a clear imprint of our collective individuality—or nationality-upon the things that we make and the thoughts that we think? And, if so, are we content to let the record of our achievement stand for all time on the qualities of form and ornament that now enter into our lives?
Most persons, thinking of art only as fine art and knowing the works of European nations where collective individuality is seen in literature, music, costumes, architecture, and many other things, will humbly admit that we have failed to produce in America a mass of works that fittingly embodies our national hopes and ideals. But art is more than fine art and therein lies the promise of our future. We have already laid the ground for coming excellence in ways which few consider.
The Length and Breadth of Art Art, in its widest meaning, is man's expression or embodiment of his ideas of use and beauty in different modes and materials. If the emphasis is laid
on use, the product is called utilitarian art; if on beauty, it is called esthetic art. But never are use and beauty entirely dissociated, for the utmost development of usefulness depends upon orderly construction, and the finest expression of beauty is necessarily organie. There are law and order in common speech as well as in poetry: there are qualities of form which please the eye while they administer to mechanical excellence, in the canoes, cooking pots, and automobiles of everyday life as there are, for instance, in marble statues of all but forgotten gods that we now regard as purely esthetic.
Of course these marble statues of ancient gods originally played an important and useful rôle in the life of the people to whom they are accredited, although to us they are merely beautiful. It was an intensely practical thing for the Greeks to bribe and flatter a god into bestowing his divine favor upon an individual or a city by pledging a statue in his honor, as they believed such means effective. And when to this idea of ensuing benefits were added religious awe, pride of place, and good craftsmanship abetted by competition of fellow workers, the marble monument found a quality greater by far than the quality of the man who carved it. Such art is not individual-it is communal. The at
tention of the Greek sculptor may have been directed toward the human body as an almost exclusive subject for skillful portrayal not because this is necessarily any more beautiful than the bodies of other animals, or plant growths, or shapes of land and sea, but because in the communal understanding the gods had human forms. Other cultural facts doubtless contributed to this specialization but the religious idea was foremost. If the great florescence of Greek culture had come a thousand years earlier, perhaps Hera would have been represented as a cow, like Hathor of the Egyptians, instead of as a stately woman. Under such conditions Greek art would have had a different scope and interest without a necessary decrease in esthetic qualities. In a word, every great expression of art has its roots in communal concepts, religious or otherwise, and the artist is at his best when he forgets himself and speaks for his people and his times. The frieze of Phidias was obscure architectural decoration wrought with sincerity in a place where the gods could see better than the critics. In the history of dead nations from least to greatest there was never art for art's sake, but always art for life's sake.
In addition to these, mention may be made of the welter of signs and symbols strewn over the Far and the Near East by the great religious tides of Buddhism and Mohammedanism. Then there are the numerous specialized fields of decorative art spread across all the continents and down the centuries. For instance, there is the realism of Palæolithic art in ancient France and Spain, and its modern counterpart among the Bushmen of Africa. There are the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron age cultures of Europe and the rich remains of pottery from various archæological provinces in America. Lastly, there are the various "culture areas" of the ethnologists among our present day Indians, South Sea Islanders, and African Negroes.
The term national art may, perhaps, be used in connection with these great creative civilizations but it must be admitted that linguistic bounds, which many persons hold to be the bounds of a nation, are exceeded in nearly every instance by cultural bounds. Community of thought is established more easily within a single language than across several languages, yet there are numerous instances where a single culture covers the field of several languages. A good example is that of the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, the descendants of the ancient cliff dwellers, who speak four distinct languages yet have practically identical religious beliefs, art forms, and social organizations. We naturally think of imperialism and military conquest in relation to the spread of culture, but some of the most artistic peoples have been singularly devoid of the military spirit. Religious conversions account for the spread of significant and symbolic art in some instances and in other instances there simply has been expansion from the area of high culture into adjoining areas of low culture, a phenomenon known to anthropologists as acculturation.
Of the type civilizations already listed the Assyrian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Mayan are primary in features such as the invention of writing, and
the development of elaborate religious and social systems strongly reflected in ceramics, textiles, and architecture. But, long before the foundation of these civilizations, must have come the inventions of agriculture which were independently achieved in the New and the Old World and which made possible a great increase in population and stimulated the growth of religious and social orders.
The Greek efflorescence had as its base the developed art, religion, and philosophy of the earlier civilizations in the classic field. It started from a higher level of positive achievement. Greek art is characterized by a cold, chaste realism which speaks to all peoples, but it is singularly weak in ornament and is practically devoid of the formal creations arising usually from a belief in beast gods, that are so important in the arts of Asia and the New World.
After the militant era of Rome the art of Greece passed into eclipse and was succeeded by the warm art of the Christians, which on the ornamental side drew many of its forms from the Bronze age and Iron age products of northern Europe. The Renaissance was a rebirth of classic form but not of classic spirit, although in the minds of many persons the most satisfying productions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are really the fullblown flowers of Christian symbolism.
The political units of modern Europe have distinguishable products but none of them has a really great national art. The mere variation in languages creates a feeling of greater difference than actually exists. After all, language affects only a part of the art products of a country, and, at that, nearly all European languages belong to one great family.
The Substance of National Art National art means more than an objective "complex" of design motives, formally related to history, or schools or a mass of monumental sculptures of painting with distinguishable technique. It means permanent and continuous expression of the ideals and emotions that characterize and unite the members of a large social group. Without this spiritual and intellectual content, art is nothing more than an assemblage of shapes and sounds which react harmoniously on sensory organs that are practically the same for all humanity.
Many artistic shapes of universal occurrence have come about for no other reason than that they express absolute esthetics in line and mass, just as variharmony in sounds. ous scales in music express absolute Among such shapes may be mentioned the fret, spiral, and swastika. Geometric art can be understood universally for the simple reason that it has no meaning but, instead, a sensuous appeal. Of course it can be given a meaning: sometimes one hears it said that the swastika is a sign of good luck and that the fret meander represents the endless wandering of the soul after death. Those universal shapes came into being in different parts of the world, as has been said, because they embody a simple and fundamentally artistic relation of lines just as the pentatonic scale embodies a fundamentally artistic relation of sounds. In one region these shapes may have been given the arbitrary meanings stated above, but such meanings are not inherent in the shapes.
Realistic art can be understood universally because it is frankly objective. Of course South American Indians might not understand a drawing of an elephant or a walrus, and an Eskimo would probably turn the picture of a palm tree upside down before he recog nized it as the feather duster of the
CREATING A NATIONAL ART
missionary. The first graphic art in the world, that of Palæolithic man, was realistic and rather finely so. But realistic art may have significance quite beyond the objective fact. To France the fleur-de-lis is more than a flower.
Conventionalized art, as it is often called, or formalized figures that have elements of realism and elements of geometric order, are more intellectual. than either realistic or geometric art. They are not found among the lowest peoples but only among those who have ceremonies, religious beliefs, and so on, of fairly developed types, and their significance is relative, or cultural, rather than absolute. They constitute a positive contribution to the mass of human creations.
The esthetic quality of art will take care of itself if only there is a proper field and sufficient time for selection and the survival of the fittest. The eye and the ear are mechanical organs that naturally select shapes and sounds with certain physical characters. Moreover, many kinds of construction, especially in textile art, compel a fine quality of order in decoration. Besides this, animal and plant forms and even shapes of land and sea have esthetic qualities which are the direct result of the mechanical forces that operate within or upon them, with the result that finely realistic art reflects organic beauty in nature.
But before we can have a really national art we must express or embody a mass of national ideas and emotions in things of everyday life. We have solid ground to build upon and blocks for the building. Politically, the democracy that exists in America today is of a type and quality that has never existed elsewhere in the world. The old religion of rewards and punishments is giving place to a new religion of social service. Mechanically, we have wonderful new appliances to save labor and turn the energy of the hand into energy of the mind. In other
words there is before us the possibility of writing into, art a new complex of life, based on a philosophy of logical and mechanical efficiency, political equality, and personal gratification attainable only through service to society. The art to come that fittingly embodies these things will be our national art even though it spreads beyond our political limits and proselytes the world.
Out of Efficiency Comes Beauty
Out of efficiency comes beauty, that is the law not only of human art but also of that greater art seen in the refinement of all natural forms. Survival in the struggle for life among plants and animals is made possible by the proper correlation of many functions in the body of an organism which is, in effect, a complicated, self-operating machine. When the mechanism is perfect, the lines are good. An esthetic interest resides in shapes modeled for
The proof of the mechanistic basis of esthetics is manifold. In this connection it is interesting to read a passage from the ancient writings of Plato in which Socrates instructs Protarchus concerning the place of knowledge in the handcraft arts. After saying that little will be left if arithmetic, mensuration, and weighing be taken away from any of these arts, he continues:
SOCRATES. The rest will be only conjecture, and the better use of the senses, which is given by experience and exercise, in addition to a certain power of guessing, which is commonly called art and is brought to perfection by pains and practice.
PROTARCHUS. That is very certain.
SOCRATES. Music, for instance, is full of this sort of thing as is seen in the harmonizing of sounds, not by rule, but by conjecture; and this is always the case of flute music, which tries to discover the pitch of notes by a guess, and therefore has a great deal that is uncertain and very little of pure science.
After two thousand years these statements come pretty close to the