Saturday, November 08, 2014

An Essay on Art and Morality

Towards the end of the 19th century, a school of artists arose who said that art had nothing to do with life, whether moral or social, but that it existed for its own sake. It has not, and it need not have any bearing on life. Its purpose is to achieve perfection in the formal expression of life and nature. They put the manner, the technique before everything else. The result was that poets devoted themselves to discover the exact world, to create the perfect image rather than on express life. The painter sought to achieve delicacy, and harmony in line and color. An illustration of this conception of art is to be found in Rabindranath’s Urvashi, who stood eternally beautiful in the sheer perfection of form the most adorable of al created things, the desired of all the world. She has no ties, no duties, and no assignment in the scheme of life, except to exist as the symbol of beauty. Such a work of art is an end in itself; it is not the means to an end. It does not have any social purpose.

This theory of art is true so far as it suggests that an artist is not a teacher or a preacher. He has not direct purpose with regard to the quality of the life that men live in society. It is in this sense that Keats said, “we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us”: and Shelley declared that didactic poetry was his abhorrence. One need not quarrel with such a view. But when the late 19th century writers like pater, or Baudelaire, or Poe said that art should not have anything to do with the moral values that constitute that essence of life, we are plainly on debatable grounds. A French poet said, “To admire art because it can up life the individual is like admiring the rose because we extract from its medicine for the eye”. Let us examine where this leads us.

First of all, let us at one admit that a logical consequence of our acceptance of this view is the development of an attitude of irresponsibility in the artists; it promotes a sort of aesthetic anarchism. Then the artist becomes a low unto himself, he develops a morbid taste for aspects of life whose trend is nihilistic. The artist no longer reflects life in its wholeness, but in isolated, detached fragments. He expends all the resources of his genius in sharpening, polishing ornamenting these fragments. The significance of the eternal flow of life of life is lost on him. Aldous Huxley’s much-boosted novel point counterpoint illustrates this. Portions of life are caught and reflected brilliantly, heightened and illuminated, but they give only fragmentary glimpses in which the sense of totality is lost.

This view of art has never found support with great poets and artists. The perfection of art does not depend on the perfection of its external form, but on the perfection of the life it reflects. That is why Milton said, “he who would not be frustrated of his hope to write well hereafter in in laudable things ought himself to be a true poet”. For the possession of an organized harmony imparts to whatever the poet does an inward quality – the high seriousness of which Arnold speaks. Life is the subject of art, not only is so far as it achieves perfection, but also in so far as it indicates a movement towards perfection, a reading our to a richer, fuller, nobler life,-a life that is essentially moral.

Thus the artist need not preach morality, he is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with the totality of social life which is essentially moral. Contact with art thus means contact with the substance of life. He thus indirectly discharges a kind of social responsibility to increase their awareness of the true significance of life. The value of art rests on the quality of the life, that it reflects of suggests, whether it is life as a whole or even a narrow incomplete truncated life.

If an artist loses sight of this moral view and contents himself with the perfecting of his technique he is no longer an artist, but only a craftsman. Every artist has to be superior craftsman, but a superior craftsman need not necessarily be an artist. The craftsman has small interests in the ultimate implications of his of his work apart from its salability. But the artist is deeply interested in the ultimate purpose of what he creates quite distinct form its trade value. The moral objective is important for the true artist, for therein he comes in touch with the fundamental issues of life and serves a social purpose.

Finally, there can be no morality greater than being in harmony with the forces of social progress in life, since progress in towards perfection. In seeking to express life in tis continuous striving for a richer fulfilment, every artist becomes a moralist. The moral life need not be a life limited by codes of conduct; rather it is a life that creates its code of conduct as it moves towards progress and perfection. So far as the artist deals with this, his rat is fundamentally moral and has a prophetic role.