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IX: Admiration

Religion is found in association with the desire to express beauty of form from the days of the cave-artists who, in the case of the animals represented, preserve a naturalistic style, though their masked human figures verge on the monstrous, as if the bestial still competed with the human in mystic value. Though stylized or purely geometrical art favours abstract thinking, emotion attaches more readily to concrete wholes, and in many ways fine art can assist religion in bringing out the quality of that which is worthy to be admired and loved.

AS science has its emotional source in curiosity, so fine art can be said to arise out of admiration; although it may be well to remind ourselves at the start that, no less than science, fine art is an activity which, as such, involves a good deal more than simple feeling in its psychological composition. Considering them, however, simply from the side of the emotions, as it is our prime concern to do here, we note at once that the two have something in common; for both are disinterested attitudes of mind. It is, in fact, as if science and fine art alike invited a man to lose himself in the contemplation of the object. On the other hand, the relation with the object thus set up in each case is to all appearances different. The scientific interest is prying and penetrating. The artistic interest, in sharp contrast, would seem to be content with a surface-view. Thus the poet’s passionate affirmation that ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ is, on the face of it, a paradox. Appearances are notoriously deceitful; so that the most artful rearrangement could scarcely remedy their natural illusoriness, but on the contrary might rather be rated as an additional falsification of the already false. If, then, the only approach to truth and reality were by the way of science, it might be hard to shake Plato’s uncompromising verdict, namely, that an art such as poetry is something pleasant rather than conducive to the good life. It is only fair to add that Plato said this in the course of a polemic, directed no doubt chiefly against contemporary developments of the cheaper sort.

Nevertheless, William James was surely right when he bid us distinguish between ‘knowledge of and ‘acquaintance with’—in other words, between piecemeal apprehension and wholesale comprehension. For wisdom is justified of both of these her children. Analysis and synthesis may, as some philosophers imagine, meet and merge in the Absolute. For human beings, however, who are still in process of learning, and hence can at best hope to become relatively wise, each method is bound to have the advantage over the other by turns. Aesthetic experience, therefore, is not to be disparaged offhand as a way of truth because it makes no pretence to wield the dissecting-knife of science, and hence is not penetrative in this almost literal sense. For let us recur to the fact that in their full nature both science and fine art are activities. This means that in our dealings with the world of things the initiative lies with us; although in each case our emotional reaction to the object involves a sort of self-surrender, as if we allowed it to possess us, yet we ourselves started the wooing. The mind is a Pygmalion who must create his bride before she can come to life in his arms. Now aesthetic experience of the artistic order is in its mode of objectification synthetic rather than analytic; and, in general, synthesis is prior to analysis in the process of object-making. Out of the welter of fleeting impressions something must be caught and held; and this is done in the first instance by shaping it—giving it form. For things to appear at all, they must be seen at least in silhouette. Thus recognition of the form will necessarily precede any exploration of the matter. Before the parts can be examined separately there must have been a preperception of the whole. It would seem, then, that a sense of form is the beginning of wisdom; and, since this can be also said, though in a deeper sense, of the fear of God, it may be that something can be done to bring these two statements into line by studying fine art and religion in their earliest historical relations with one another.

Now admiration is more than selective interest. It might be defined as selective interest quickened by love. In the struggle for existence man has to attend to matters unpleasant as well as pleasant, and, maybe, chiefly to the former. Even so, as R. L. Stevenson tells the children,

The world is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

We can love the world, in our gregarious fashion, for its very crowdedness. We enjoy gazing on the many faces—at all events so long as they are friendly faces. Unfortunately, however, the world is likewise thronged with various sworn foes of our race whose faces are intuitively odious; and to these we would gladly shut our eyes, were it not necessary to be ever watchful. At most we can snatch a timorous joy by contemplating such forms of evil indirectly by means of the imagination—as if one sat safely by the hearth and saw bogey shapes in the fire. I am thinking of the predilection sometimes evinced by religion for the ugly and sinister in its acknowledged symbols. Yet I am convinced that there is more hope than fear at the heart of human religion. Hence the art that it favours ought to rejoice chiefly in those lovable and friendly forms of which there is so plentiful a supply in Nature—she who is daedala rerum, ‘fashioner of things in their variety’, as Lucretius, anticipating Stevenson’s thought, said long ago.

Admiration, however, does not in itself amount to fine art, which is, so to say admiration become expressive instead of merely appreciative. Expression implies the use of a medium or vehicle which is artificial in the sense that it is new matter adapted to some lovable form in order the more clearly to bring out its intrinsic charm, the grace inherent in its formal quality. Paradoxical as it may sound, the artist transfers the matter to the form, not the form to the matter; for we adapt the means to the end, and the form whether it be given in nature or in idea is always the final cause of the activity. This adaptation and transference of the matter to suit the form must be carried out adequately; and the skill shown in the preparation of the medium of expression is what we know as style. Thus style is not a primary, but a secondary or incidental, end of fine art; for, though it stands to reason that, if there is to be expression of the form, a certain measure of expressiveness must be imparted to the vehicle, the latter result is attained by the way. Hence to look no further than the style, forgetting that it is but the minister of the form, is a short-sighted policy bound to lead to disaster. Stylism is the bane of art. It comes about chiefly when artists seek to outdo one another instead of seeking after the intrinsic beauty of the form which can never be outdone. Thus the true artist must ever concentrate on the form, and leave the style to look after itself. Great art has an air of innocence and freedom because it is on the face of it careless of style. It always looks as if the genius had never heard of art for art’s sake.

How, then, can fine art and religion obtain mutual benefit by association with each other? Possibly as follows. Religion can help fine art to realize that the form is of God, whereas the style is merely of the copyist Man. On the other hand, fine art can help religion to recognize the formal beauty of the archetypes provided by Deus sive Natura. Whether these things are so, however, cannot be discussed here thoroughly, but only in the light of certain early half-obliterated chapters of human history.

Plunge straight into the prehistoric, and what do we perceive? Fine art triumphant, and that almost at the very dawn of culture, as if the brightness of the coming day were already revealed in promise. Let us pass rapidly by the Mousterian and preceding periods that have left us little except their work in stone. Even here there is plenty to admire; and one regrets the loss of the woodwork, which, in hands that had obtained so complete a mastery over the harder material, must have lent itself to far more varied and delicate refinements. Neanderthal man may have had a brutish appearance, but one is inclined to say ‘handsome is who handsome does’, when one unearths in some cave-shelter, where also lie his bones, a very masterpiece of his making—a double-scraper, let us say, with finely retouched edges that from the trimmed butt or handhold spring symmetrically outwards and then gently recurve to a point, the whole implement not only shapely but glistening with natural colour. That we have nascent fine art here is more than likely. We may even expect a connexion with religion, seeing that the deposition of well-worked flints in graves—one actually lay by the hand of the Le Moustier skeleton and was, moreover, of unusual pattern—might seem to imply a ceremonial use. It would, however, be useless to speculate how far this would affect the status and outlook of the artist—whether it would involve him in a special initiation and special taboos, and in short would turn him into the high-priest of a mystery, whose work was full of wonder for all, because all saw it as part of a greater wonder.

We are on firmer ground when we pass on to those later phases of the Palaeolithic epoch which are marked in Europe by the advent of Homo sapiens—our modest way of describing the man of our own type. Our progenitor, as one might almost call him, and certainly our cousin at a good many removes, has left us memorials of his artistic taste and skill that definitely place his work on a par with the choicest output of subsequent ages. Art is very loosely attached to the time-process, just as a beautiful flower may appear at almost any season. Homer sang divinely when most of ‘the glory that was Greece’ was yet to be; and in like manner painters and carvers whose names we can never know wrought divinely when all the civilization of Europe could so far be contained within a cave. Before glacial times were well over, they sprang up like snowdrops. Whereas, however, the historian can gratefully record the fact, he is at his wits’ end to find any plausible explanation of how and why it so came about. Now if it were a question of simply accounting for that occasional phenomenon, the born genius, historical considerations might prove of little avail, and the problem must be banished to the obscure realm of human genetics. But we have evidently to do here, not with a biological sport in the shape of the odd genius, but with a social tradition of refined craftsmanship, extending over thousands of years, and casting its spell over numberless workers whose individual skill might be anything from barely moderate to well-nigh perfect. So far, then, as these ancient artists were subject to the same psychological climate, the conditions that determined their remarkable activities undoubtedly come within the purview of history; even if now and then some rare spirit proclaims himself exempt from the control of social tendency by the incommunicable quality of his solitary achievement.

Two facts stand out in regard to the Aurignacians and their Magdalenian congeners—that they were hunters, and that their art is naturalistic. The two things probably go together up to a point, more especially in view of the fact that the art is mainly concerned with the representation of animals. But to say that they paint and carve with the hunter’s eye will not explain everything. Bushmen, Eskimo, and Australians are all alike hunters, and all are likewise artists in their several ways; yet in the order named they can be ranged in a scale that proceeds from naturalism through conventionalism towards pure symbolism. Thus the hunter’s eye does not necessarily dominate his mind; though, in so far as it does this, we can be sure that it will quicken his sense of the forms, whether quiescent or in action, of the animals on whom he is for ever spying for the most urgent of practical reasons. So intensely practical, indeed, is his interest in them that, if he thinks it worth his while at all to make likenesses of them, he is not likely to content himself with the fun of the thing, but is sure to want his play somehow to help his work. In other words, even granting his earliest experiments in rendering the forms of his beloved animals to have been mere pastime, an outlet for superfluous energy, a serious purpose was almost bound to supervene, such as, I believe, would be in germ religious; for the pictured or sculptured form will have acquired mana.

Now it is a rash assumption too often made that Homo sapiens, who seems at any rate to have been sapient enough to dwell somewhere in the South until Europe was through the worst of the cold, was altogether devoid of artistic experience on his first arrival. On the other hand, if it were otherwise, we could not hope on the strength of the existing evidence to assist at the birth of art, but must be content to watch the progress of a lusty infant of unspecified age. To judge, however, by simple inspection, the term ‘infantile’ may be fairly applied to most of the painting that can be assigned with some certainty to the earlier part of the Aurignacian period; and, if we go by the facts, ignoring opinionative assertions as to the necessary priority of three-dimensional representation, there is no reason to suppose that the sculpture was any more advanced. It may well be, then, that these childlike efforts were on the whole as yet too casual and sketchy to provoke attention, much less awe, in the minds of serious persons. I remember at Gargas, a purely Aurignacian site, how greatly struck I was by the meaningless appearance of the so-called ‘macaroni’—a maze of lines scrawled over the damp clay ceiling of the cave, and made mostly by dragging along the five fingers, though possibly a pronged stick may have been sometimes used as well. Trying hard for a magico-religious meaning, I have somewhere suggested that these finger-patterns might be intended to imitate the claw-scratchings of the cave-bear, so often to be seen on the walls of his subterranean lairs. It is simpler, however, to treat this chaos of meandering strokes as the work of idle hands that scribbled rather than drew. The attempt to read significance into such marks might well come later, and later still the conscious endeavour to make such marks as would be significant from the start. Imagine, then, four stages in the evolution of the Aurignacian artist: first, he scribbles; next he says, ‘This reminds me of a bear’; next he says, ‘I will draw a bear’; lastly, he draws a bear so near to the life that folk exclaim: ‘This is Bruin himself!’ At this point, we may suppose, the drawing comes to have and to exercise mana; for it is obviously wonder-working, since it is such a wonderwork in itself. As for naturalism, I would not say that it must have preceded any symbolism of a more abstract type, but would merely point out that apparently in this case it did. One might guess, however, that a telling likeness might be needed in the first instance in order to bring home the suggestion of a sympathetic connexion, a mystic equivalence, with the real object; whereas later, when the notion had become fixed, the same suggestion could be conveyed by a hint.

Moving forward to the Magdalenian period we can feel surer than ever before that religion is in the closest association with fine art in at least one of its branches—mural painting. In a former lecture I ventured to coin the word spelaeolatry, or cave-worship, for the ritual motive that in those days led mankind to turn their backs on the light of day and seek divine succour in the perpetual gloom of the earth’s hidden places. Not altogether fancifully, perhaps, one can suspect a groping impulse on their part to give symbolic expression to the conviction that religion is not an affair of the outward senses but resides rather in the depths of the heart and spirit—those adyta cordis and penetralia animi of which the ancients spoke. And yet in utter contradiction to such a view, as it would seem, pictured forms of exquisite sense-appeal are offered as veritable sacrifices to the Unseen; so that, apart from some ulterior purpose, it would be waste of effort indeed. The explanation can only be that they were simple-minded enough to give of their best to the suprasensible powers. They must first have learnt to draw and paint outside in the light: so much could be guessed, even if we did not have occasional examples of preliminary sketches, etched lightly on pebble or bone-fragment, wherewith the artist fortified himself in his struggle with flickering lamp and rough wall-surface. Under such conditions, one is tempted to suppose, the mere layman would have scamped his work; for it can scarcely be denied that there are artists, and successful ones, who have more talent than soul. A certain devotion, then, to a calling definitely ranking by long custom as a sacred office may reasonably be postulated on the part of those who wrought so faithfully in the dark. In a word, they were priests; or, if the word seems too strong, they were of the special class that made medicine. Their art was a kind of hieroglyphic, a holy writing on the wall demanding holiness in the writer.

Whether in a very primitive state of society the claims of their vocation would prevent them from being experienced hunters as well is uncertain; but it would matter little if they obtained some of their knowledge of animal forms at second hand, so long as a firm tradition required them to be realistic. Given an established principle such as ‘the more life in the image, the more influence on the living thing’, they would have to conform to the rule; and in so conforming would achieve beauty unawares—such beauty, at any rate, as consists in truth to Nature in her outward and sensible guise. Apart, then, from any question of individual or racial genius, an historical reason may be suggested for this constancy of high artistic purpose in the existence of a social obligation which we may fairly call religious. If religion did not originally create the artist, at any rate it prescribed a function for him that kept him up to the mark. Perhaps it was all the better for being a religion that had not yet had time to become over-specialized. If the artist were so far priest as to be cut off entirely from the lay world of habitual hunters, he would lose the hunter’s eye, and must fail as a realist; even if he could still fall back on the alternative of cultivating a symbolism by the aid of some priestly gift of second sight—a sort of lamp of the spiritual cave-hunter. There is little sign, however, of a divergence towards symbolism in any of the three phases through which the progress of Magdalenian art can be traced. Doubtless, the last phase provides a few examples of animal-figures represented in rather unnatural poses; but these are so far from being stiff, as a symbolism of the abstract and intellectual kind would be likely to make them, that, if anything, they are mobile to the pitch of extravagance. Some see stylism there, as if the artists had forgotten Nature in their efforts to outvie each other. More probably, I think, these somewhat tortured forms are due to an attempt to accommodate the painting to the irregularities of the surface; for all along any hint of meaning in the shape of the cave-wall is dutifully noted and developed by the painter, as well might be the case if the cave itself were sacred.

Before leaving the Magdalenian artists we might pause a moment to consider why they concentrate on animal forms and on the whole show little interest in the human figure. Is it sheer neglect, or deliberate avoidance dictated by the fear of magic? Surely some taboo on depicting human beings, or at any rate the male of the species, in too realistic a shape must have prevailed in the Franco-Cantabrian region; seeing how away in Eastern Spain more or less contemporary Capsians could indulge freely in a scenography of their daily life such as often verges on light genre. In the north, however, one suspects that religion tolerated only the representation of the sacred form of the masked dancer. The so-called ‘sorcerer’ of the cave of Les Trois Fréres, with the head of a reindeer and the limbs of a man, is the outstanding example of this style. Was it good taste, or simple accident, which withheld Magdalenian art from developing in such a direction; for that way lies the monstrous? Between a pure theriomorphism and a pure anthropomorphism there can be no compromise that does not jar on the senses. No doubt religion has to be forgiven if it sees fit to employ composite symbols; for a juxtaposition of incompatible images is by no means fatal to a consistent conception of the divine any more than a mixture of metaphors need destroy the meaning of a sentence. Nevertheless, neither literature nor any other kind of art is served by the contamination and confusion of what might be called the archetypes of creation. What Nature has put asunder, let no man join. Goethe has said that the true artist is he who can work within limits; and here is a limit beyond which aesthetic propriety should never dare to go. Fine art, in a word, abhors the abnormal. Satyrs, centaurs, and even mermaids cannot rise far above the grotesque; while the androgynous is always allied to the obscene. Beauty is neither for the frivolous nor the unchaste, but is the reward of a certain sanity of soul, which disciplines the imagination so that it observes the mean, and hence rejects the monstrous in all its forms.

Not for a moment, however, would I be supposed to condemn the Magdalenians for their masked dancer, though I congratulate them on having by choice or by chance abstained from seeking therein a leading motive for their graphic art. After all, if there ever was a time when the human could in all seriousness represent itself as the semi-bestial it was in days when it had barely thrust up its head above the dead level of surrounding animality. Thus those proto-Darwinians, the Arunta of Central Australia, have hardly yet made up their minds whether their ancestors were men or marsupials; and so, too, the European cave-man some ten or fifteen thousand years earlier may have been similarly prone to identify himself with the cave-bear, and his next-door neighbour with the cave-hyena. So long, then, as mankind conceived its relationship to the beasts in terms of alliance rather than of mastery and over-lordship—the latter stage following only on their domestication—religion, ever tolerant of mystery, might well hesitate whether to look forwards or backwards; although fine art, trusting to its instinct for beauty, had already committed itself to the idealization of the distinctively human. For the Arunta commemorate their totemic descent—by no means clearly envisaged as an ascent—in heroic drama involving the use of stage-properties copied, or literally borrowed, from animals and even plants. Yet, even so, the soul of the play resides in the human acting; not to speak of the human authorship behind the acting, which is so well recognized an element in the technique that a sort of copyright law has already come into operation. So far, then, as these performances amount to art—and they no doubt have likewise some religious value for the Arunta, though no explanation of what it may be has hitherto been extracted from them—their form is not essentially determined by their theriomorphic adjuncts. Much later, when Greek drama piously retains the mask, it can have got little good from it; except, perhaps, in comedy, where the antic touch is permissible—the sort of frolicsome by-play that leads an Arunta dancer to imitate the silly movements of an emu’s head, so as to raise a laugh in the crowd. In general, however, the course of development pursued by the most serious and significant forms of the dramatic art have led it further and further away from masquerading and mummery of all kinds.

To revert to the subject of the monstrous, it must be noted that, though never beautiful, it can be deeply impressive, and perhaps for better as well as for worse. Certainly religious symbolism, at the stage at which it still mostly depends for its appeal to the mind on visible and concrete forms, shows no compunction in outraging the decencies of sense with its maladaptions to the human form of the head of a foul-feeding bird of prey, the many arms of a spider, or the many dugs of a sow. If it is revolting as art, it may be edifying as allegory, and one must leave it at that. But the candid historian of human religion must not make the mistake of regarding all its manifestations as equally healthy—that is, equally consonant with its true mission to mankind. A major fallacy to which it has always been liable is to confound the supernatural with the unnatural. But there is a world of difference between the ideal and the abnormal. The latter being out of measure is at once artistically and morally wrong. In order to conceive the divine, religion can but endeavour to assemble all the measures and norms of perfection revealed in our imperfect human nature; but to negate the human by substituting the bestial is, instead of cleansing the soul of its incrustations, to thrust it back further than ever into the slime. Not that we need be puritanically severe in our insistence on a complete break with traditional forms that err against this canon. By all means let the Devil retain his horns and hoofs; for they are appropriate. As for angels, they may have their wings as long as they stand in them and do not use them in flight; since I never saw a pictured angel yet that flew anything but heavily. Nevertheless, let monsters as a class be consigned to the religions of fear; and these, I believe, are aberrations through and through. Speaking for myself, at any rate, I can only shudder, not with horror religiosus but with downright disgust, at the portentous shapes associated with blood-stained rites in West Africa, Ancient Mexico, or even more civilized India. These are on the face of them abominable things—perversities. The art enslaved to such a devil-worship is in itself devilish, whatever technical excellence it may have in the eyes of those who cannot realize that style and significance are one.

It remains to consider the more abstract kind of symbolism which is also germane to religious art. I see no reason to think that a design approaching to the geometrical is invariably a degraded holomorph; though undoubtedly the substitution of part for whole has had its share in producing the ideogram. For it seems quite possible that an arrangement of notches, made, let us say, in the course of whittling a stick with a flintknife should please the eye by its symmetry, and should on future occasions be reproduced for the sake of the decorative effect. Such notching might, moreover, have meanwhile acquired another sort of meaning as a memoria technica serving for tally or message-stick. In certain cases, then, one might expect the aesthetic and the semantic interests to combine—just as they do in precious manuscripts or incunabula of which the form is worthy of the contents. Thus a formalism almost entirely of the mind’s making, as being derived from artificial characters bearing little or no sensible likeness to the things for which they stand, may come into existence side by side with the naturalism that recalls things in and by their concrete appearance. Between these opposite poles of art all manner of intermediate styles are found; but, in proportion as mental evolution favours intelligence of the logical and mathematical type, all the gain is likely to be on the side of formalism and the loss on the other. Representationism, with its naïve desire to tell a story, goes down before the symbolism that is content to indicate a thought by means of a cipher. Truth who once wore a garment of many colours down to her feet has had it gradually curtailed by her advisers until to-day there is often nothing left but a few threads.

Now were religion of the pure intellect rather than of the heart, that central organ to which intellect and even consciousness itself are subject, all might be well, and a symbolism of the most formal type might suffice for its needs. But religion is a matter of full-blooded emotion, and therefore cannot afford to cut itself off from the sense-channels that feed the nobler feelings such as admiration. Nay, its best method of eliminating the sensual is to give the sensuous full power to enrich and gladden the serious life. At most then the grosser forms of sense-symbolism must be gradually discarded. The old-world celebrations involving unbounded eating and drinking can be spiritualized until completely purged of their licence. Then, as regards smell, the odour of sanctity need not be reinforced by artifice, not even by means so seductive as the use of tobacco. As for complicated vestments and the like, if they go the way of masks, they may not greatly be missed any more than the garish uniforms of the obsolete type of soldier. But these things hardly come within the domain of the fine arts. Architecture, however, does; for, though its material is gross, it handles it finely, impressing the delicate texture of a dream on the crude timber and stone and baked mud. Nay, architecture might almost be said to come into being under the inspiration of religion; for the idea of a God’s house awoke the imagination of the builder as that of a man’s house had never done before. May it be long before a country is prouder of its railway-stations and banks than of its temples! Of painting and sculpture enough, perhaps, has been already said. Suffice it to add that, although secular influences have encouraged much good work, it has, perhaps, always needed the impulsion of religion to attain the sublime; witness Phidias as against Praxiteles, or Raphael as against Rubens. There remains the symbolism of sounds as embodied in literature and music. Whereas its secular literature is the glory of the West, the aesthetic quality of its religious writings is not so well sustained, nor is this on a par with the inspiration of the Ancient East, unless the Vedas, the Psalms, and the Book of Job are judged to be sufficiently offset by Plato, Dante, and Milton. Music, however, which touches the heights at least as often in its religious as in its lay efforts, is essentially European and modern; and it may be that a symbolism so ethereal in its sense-mechanism and hence so well fitted to express intellectual beauty will prove most satisfying to the religion of the future.

And what of the present? Any study of the savage is bound to yield this reflection: that, if he is too undifferentiated in his way of life, we on our part may be over-specialized in ours. Plenty of factory-hands are available, but there seem to be altogether too few wise heads in charge of the business of living well. Now it is plainly the function of religion to play the Platonic philosopher-king and rule in the name of the Good; but how are the disunited churches going to unify the world? Perhaps they would be more likely to forget their dissensions if they thought more of their common task, which is to make mankind one in heart and soul. Perhaps, too, the way to set about it would be to make more of beauty as an aid to good living. If a love of beauty came out so early in our race, it must lie pretty deep. Nothing, however, can stir the depths of the inner man so effectually as religion; though history shows that, by doing so, it brings up to the surface good and bad alike. But beauty is the least ambiguous of all the good things of life. So here at least is a sound doctrine for religion to preach—that more beauty means more love.