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THE FINE ARTS AS A DYNAMIC FACTOR IN SOCIETY
MRS. J. ODENWALD-UNGER
Before beginning my subject proper I must explain the term “dynamic” as used in my title. It is borrowed from Professor Ward's Dynamic Sociology, and is used in the same sense as it is used in physics, namely as denoting force, a propelling agent. The thesis of this paper is based upon the theory that the feelings, emotions, and passions of mankind constitute the propelling agent or dynamic element in society, corresponding to the physical forces in the lower realms of nature, and that they can be controlled and guided into beneficial channels by intelligent foresight, just as the physical forces (wind, water, fire, elec. tricity, etc.) are being so controlled and guided by the inventions of men. My second point is that in the fine arts, including drama and fiction, this dynamic element finds its most perfect expression, and could, if thoroughly understood, be made use of by, and become a powerful aid to, the sociologist.
The paper was inspired by the belief that this is not generally recognized by the sociologists, but that they, on the contrary, consider the fine arts as entirely outside of their domain, as belonging to a side of human mind with which they, as sociologists, have nothing to do—viz., the aesthetic faculty, which derives pleasure from the contemplation of beauty and harmony, but has no part in the improvement of society, indeed turns away with impatience and pain from the disharmonies and stupidities of life to dwell in an ideal realm, where beauty and happiness reign. “There is nothing dynamical in the influence of the fine arts,” says Mr. Ward in Dynamic Sociology.
Enjoyable in themselves, and therefore sources of happiness, their influence is confined to the immediate present, and is incapable of contributing any permanent aid to social progress. Their study belongs entirely to the department of social statics, and this brief notice is merely intended to fix their true position and exhibit their negative character.
In Pure Sociology he says:
It has been said that art is nonprogressive; that it serves no useful purpose in the world; that it does not raise the moral tone of society; that it adds no new truth to man's stock of knowledge; that it makes man no more comfortable, no better, no wiser. This might almost be true without constituting an argument against the cultivation of the aesthetic faculty. Love of the beautiful and its pursuits do not claim to constitute either an ontogenetic or a philogenetic force in society. They constitute a typical sociogenetic force. Art is a socializing agency. It is an agency of civilization as distingushed from preservation or perpetuation. It is not a necessity; shall we call it a luxury? It is much more. In a pain-economy it may be a luxury, but above that it becomes a utility. It finally becomes a spiritual necessity. As soon as the class of wants which may be distinguished as needs are satisfied, this spiritual want, which, as we have seen, is planted deep in the animal nature, at once asserts itself; and the satisfaction of a spiritual want is as important as that of a material want. It serves to swell the volume of life. Men have aesthetic interests as well as economic interests, and their claims are as legitimate.
While thus fully recognizing the fine arts as civilizing agencies, he yet considers their influence restricted to one class of wants, the aesthetic desires of mankind, and holds that they neither have nor desire to have any share in the improvement of society, except in so far as they add to the volume of life. As to the origin of the aesthetic faculty, it is to be found far back in animal and plant life, where it arose as an aid to the reproductive forces; pleasing forms, colors, sounds, and perfumes in plant and animal being produced in response to a desire to please and attract the other sex. It originated as a means to a very important end—an end without the accomplishment of which the race or species would have perished. But in the human race it gradually became an end in itself. The aesthetic faculty or appreciation of beauty having been firmly established, its satisfaction finally became the only end. “It actually creates desire in order to satisfy it,” says Mr. Ward. Now, this attitude toward art fully explains the comparative indifference of the sociologist and of all who have to deal with social phenomena. If the aim and object of art is merely to please and gratify an aesthetic sense which has nothing to do with the problems and difficulties of life, then art lies outside the domain of the Sociologist. But is this true? Have the greatest artists of the world been satisfied merely to please and entertain men? It is true probably of the art of primitive peoples, and of a great and important branch of art today. We might call it the idealistic as compared with the realistic art. Not that I consider this a perfectly correct terminology; for the idealistic art should also be realistic or true to nature, and the realistic art is often far more idealistic than the other; yet it will do for our present purpose. This idealistic art, which indeed is an end in itself, is by many of the profession as well as the laity still regarded as the only proper and legitimate art, and its end, the desire for beauty and harmony, the only legitimate end, finding expression in the motto: “Art for art's sake.” Some, indeed, claim that this is the highest and noblest aim art can have; namely, to soothe and delight the tired mind, to make man forget the worries and troubles of life, to create for him an ideal of harmony and happiness, and bring him nearer that heaven of fable which man has ever dreamt about, but has never reached, and which art alone can make him at least fancy for a moment to have entered. But what shall we say of that other art, generally called “realistic,” which has had some of the, if not the, greatest geniuses of the world as its exponents? What shall we say of the art of Tolstoy, Ibsen, Hauptmann, Sudermann, Bernard Shaw, Zola, Flaubert? What of the paintings of Veretchagin, Sleevogt, Uhde; the sculptures of Meunier, Rodin, Sinding; or the music of Wagner, Berlioz, Grieg, or Glazounoff 2 I know that some critics maintain this to be no art at all, but vagaries of disturbed minds or the gloomy pessimism of unsuccessful men. But this is the shallowest of criticisms. The fact is that the greatest artists of all time have not merely wished to please; they have more often shocked us. Their object has been to be true, and by this very truth to arouse men; to awaken their intellect; to stir their emotions, to bring a sluggish and lethargic mankind to a realization of the wrongs, the injustice, the cruelty, and the indifference that reign in society. Let us look at a country which, more than any other of the civilized countries of the world, is suffering immeasurable wrongs under the indifference, greed, cruelty, and stupidity of its socalled upper classes, and let us see if its art can be called a luxury; if in it we do not rather hear all the passionate longing, the infinite horror, the dull pain and misery, on the one hand, and, on the other, the revolutionary frenzy, the imperious call for justice, the ever-renewed appeal to the intelligence of the people to right their wrongs. I speak of Russia. I wish I could have brought with me an orchestra to play for you the wildest compositions of Tschaikowski, Rachmanikoff, Glazounoff, and you would not think that music merely wants to please. In music all the emotions of a people—its longings, aspirations, passions, all the wants and desires that cannot or dare not find expression in words—are expressed; but also its joys, its triumphs, its happiness and delight. If, as Mr. Ward says, “we must admit the right of feeling, or, if you please, of passion, to rule the world,” then this dynamic factor, these surging emotions, as yet inarticulate and with no intelligence to guide them, find expression in music, are, as it were, brought to the consciousness of people, are reinforced in the passionate strains of harmonic art. Says Tolstoy:
What is music? What does music accomplish? And why does it accomplish what it does accomplish? One is told music elevates the soul. Nonsense. A lie, a villainous lie! Yes, it has an effect—I speak of myself; it has a mighty effect, but not a soul-elevating one. Its effect is neither elevating nor lowering. Its effect is directly upon the soul; in other words, it is a psychical exciter. How can I explain this more clearly? Music compels me to forget my true position. It exiles me from my proper one, forces me into a strange one; in fact, under the impression which music has upon me, I feel what I really do not feel. I understand what I really do not understand. I do what I really cannot do. The way I explain this to myself is as follows: Music is like yawning, and acts like yawning or laughter. I am not sleepy, but I yawn when I see others yawn. I have no reason to laugh, still I laugh when I hear others laugh. Music transports me into the psycho of the composer, and upon my mind is made the same impression as was created upon the author's. Our souls come together, and I allow him to carry me along from one tendency to another. Why I do that I do not know. He who writes music knows why he is in that particular aptitude. It can be attributed to certain actions; therefore the tendency has an importance for him, but not for me. Therefore music is not only exciting and stimulating, but it leads to conclusions. A military march, for example: the soldiers march to it, and the music leads to a conclusion. The dance, I dance:
the music leads to a conclusion. The mass at church—I speak of the holy sacrament—the music led to a conclusion.
This is exactly to the point. Music stirs the emotions, and the emotions must find vent in action; whether that action is for good or evil is a question. Nobody would claim, I suppose, that the flood of cheap music that is inundating America has an elevating influence on the people. Neither can music that cannot be understood. In interpreting music that stands for ideas, some explanation of these ideas should be given. Some attempt at least should be made at intelligent control, and the flood of emotions, aroused or set free, be prevented at least from running into dangerous channels.
But music is only one of the arts. Let us look at painting. Having taken Russia for illustration, we will take one of the most famous Russian painters, Veretchagin, whose pictures aroused a storm of protest, of indignation, of enthusiasm, of wildest feeling, all over Europe and even in America. He was accused of attacking religion, morality, patriotism—all the virtues upon which the welfare of a nation is supposed to rest.
A good deal has been written about my works [he says); many were the reproaches brought against my paintings, those treating of religious subjects as well as those treating of military. It was a very well-known Prussian general who advised Emperor Alexander II to have all my military paintings burned as objects of a most pernicious kind. There were still more inimical commentaries on those of my pictures which treat of religious subjects. And yet they were all of them painted without any preconceived idea—were painted only because their subject interested me. The moral in each case
appeared afterward, coming up of its own account, from the very truthful. ness of impressions.
And this moral was an effective one. Never perhaps have the horrors of war been brought home to the people more convincingly than in his paintings. Says a London paper, the Christian, of December 2, 1887: These paintings are the work of a Russian, Veretchagin—a painter equal to any of his contemporaries in artistic ability, and beyond any painter who ever lived in the grandeur of his moral aims and the application of his lessons to the consciences of all who take the least pains to understand him. He who misses seeing these paintings will miss the best opportunity he will