Read CHAPTER IV of The Gate of Appreciation, free online book, by Carleton Noyes, on ReadCentral.com.

THE VALUE OF THE MEDIUM

AS I swing through the wide country in the freshness and fullness of a blossoming, sun-steeped morning in May, breathing the breath of the fields and the taller by inches for the sweep of the hills and the reaches of sky above my head, every nerve in my body is alive with sensation and delight. My joy is in the fragrance of earth, the ingratiating warmth of the fresh morning, the spacious, inclosing air. My pleasure in this direct contact with the landscape is a physical reaction, to be enjoyed only by the actual experience of it; it cannot be reproduced by any other means; it can be recalled by memory but faintly and as the echo of sensation. There is, however, something else in the landscape which can be reproduced; and this recall may seem more glorious than the original in nature. There are elements in the scene which a painter can render for me more intensely and vividly than I perceived them for myself. These elements embody the value that the landscape has for my emotions. The scene appeals to something within me which lies beyond my actual physical contact with it and the mere sense of touch. The harmony that the eye perceives in these open fields, the gracious line of trees along the stream’s edge, the tossing hills beyond, and the arch of the blue sky above impregnating the earth with light, is communicated to my spirit, and I feel that this reach of radiant country is an extension of my own personality. A painter, by the manipulation of his color and line and mass, concentrates and intensifies the harmony of it and so heightens its emotional value. The meaning of the scene for the spirit is conveyed in terms of color and mass.

Color and mass are the painter’s medium, his language. The final import of art is the idea, the emotional content of the work. On his way to the expression of his idea the artist avails himself of material to give his feeling concrete actuality and visible or audible realization. He paints a picture, glorious in color and compelling in the concentration of its massing; he carves a statue, noble in form or subtly rhythmic; he weaves a pattern of harmonious sounds. He values objects not for their own sake but for the energies they possess, their power to rouse his whole being into heightened activity. And they have this power by virtue of their material qualities, as color and form or sound. A landscape is gay in springtime or sad in autumn. The difference in its effect upon us is not due to our knowledge that it is spring or autumn and our consciousness of the associations appropriate to each season. The emotional quality of the scene is largely a matter of its color. Let the spring landscape be shrouded in gray mist sifting down out of gray skies, and we are sad. Let the autumn fields and woodland sparkle and dance in the crisp golden sunlight, and our blood dances with them and we want to shout from full lungs. In music the major key wakens a different emotion from the minor. The note of a violin is virgin in quality; the voice of the ’cello is the voice of experience. The distinctive emotional value of each instrument inheres in the character of its sound. These qualities of objects art uses as its language.

Though all art is one in essence, yet each art employs a medium of its own. In order to understand a work in its scope and true significance we must recognize that an artist thinks and feels in terms of his special medium. His impulse to create comes with his vision, actual or imaginative, of color or form, and his thought is transmitted to his hand, which shapes the work, without the intervention of words. The nature of his vehicle and the conditions in which he works determine in large measure the details of the form which his idea ultimately assumes. Thus a potter designs his vessel first with reference to its use and then with regard to his material, its character and possibilities. As he models his plastic clay upon a wheel, he naturally makes his bowl or jug round rather than sharply angular. A pattern for a carpet, to be woven by a system of little squares into the fabric, will have regard for the conditions in which it is to be rendered, and it will differ in the character of its lines and masses from a pattern for a wall-paper, which may be printed from blocks. The designer in stained glass will try less to make a picture in the spirit of graphic representation than to produce an harmonious color-pattern whose outlines will be guided and controlled by the possibilities of the “leading” of the window. The true artist uses the conditions and very limitations of his material as his opportunity. The restraint imposed by the sonnet form is welcomed by the poet as compelling a collectedness of thought and an intensity of expression which his idea might not achieve if allowed to flow in freer channels. The worker in iron has his triumphs; the goldsmith has his. The limitations of each craft open to it effects which are denied to the other. There is an art of confectionery and an art of sculpture. The designer of frostings who has a right feeling for his art will not emulate the sculptor and strive to model in the grand style; the sculptor who tries to reproduce imitatively the textures of lace or other fabrics and who exuberates in filigrees and fussinesses so far departs from his art as to rival the confectioner. In the degree that a painter tries to wrench his medium from its right use and function and attempts to make his picture tell a story, which can better be told in words, to that extent he is unfaithful to his art. Painting, working as it does with color and form, should confine itself to the expression of emotion and idea that can be rendered visible. On the part of the appreciator, likewise, the emotion expressed in one kind of medium is not to be translated into any other terms without a difference. Every kind of material has its special value for expression. The meaning of pictures, accordingly, is limited precisely to the expressive power of color and form. The impression which a picture makes upon the beholder maybe phrased by him in words, which are his own means of expression; but he suggests the import of the picture only incompletely. If I describe in words Millet’s painting of the “Sower” according to my understanding of it, I am telling in my own terms what the picture means to me. What it meant to Millet, the full and true significance of the situation as the painter felt it, is there expressed upon his canvas in terms of visible aspect; and correspondingly, Millet’s meaning is fully and truly received in the measure that we feel in ourselves the emotion roused by the sight of his color and form.

The essential content of a work of art, therefore, is modified in its effect upon us by the kind of medium in which it is presented. If an idea phrased originally in one medium is translated into the terms of another, we have illustration. Turning the pages of an “illustrated” novel, we come upon a plate showing a man and a woman against the background of a divan, a chair, and a tea-table. The man, in a frock coat, holding a top hat in his left hand, extends his right hand to the woman, who has just risen from the table. The legend under the picture reads, “Taking his hat, he said good-by.” Here the illustrator has simply supplied a visible image of what was suggested in the text; the drawing has no interest beyond helping the reader to that image. It is a statement of the bare fact in other terms. In the hands of an artist, however, the translation may take on a value of its own, changing the original idea, adding to it, and becoming in itself an independent work of art. This value derives from the form into which the idea is translated. The frescoes of the Sistine Chapel are only sublime illustration; but how little of their power attaches to the subject they illustrate, and how much of their sublimity lies in the painter’s rendering! Conversely, an example of the literary interpretation of a picture is Walter Pater’s description of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing linéaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

It is Leonardo’s conception, yet with a difference. Here the critic has woven about the subject an exquisite tissue of associations, a whole wide background of knowledge and thought and feeling which it lay beyond the painter’s range to evoke; but the critic is denied the vividness, the immediateness and intimate warmth of vital contact, which the painter was able to achieve. The Lisa whom Leonardo shows us and the Lisa whom Pater interprets for us are the same in essence yet different in their power to affect us. The difference resulting from the kind of medium employed is well exemplified by Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel.” The fundamental concept of both poem and picture is identical, but picture and poem have each its distinctive range and limitations and its own peculiar appeal. If we cancel the common element in the two, the difference remaining makes it possible for us to realize how much of the effect of a work of art inheres in the medium itself. Painting may be an aid to literature in that it helps us to more vivid images; the literary interpretation of pictures or music gives to the works with which it deals an intellectual definiteness. But the functions peculiar to each art are not to be confounded nor the distinctions obscured.

Pictures are not a substitute for literature, and their true meaning is finally not to be translated into words. Their beauty is a visible beauty; the emotions they rouse are such as can be conveyed through the sense of sight. In the end they carry their message sufficingly as color and mass. Midway, however, our enjoyment may be complicated by other elements which have their place in our total appreciation. Thus a painting of a landscape may appeal to us over and above its inherent beauty because we are already, out of actual experience, familiar with the scene it represents, and the sight of it wakens in our memory a train of pleasant allied associations. A ruined tower, in itself an exquisite composition in color and line and mass, may gather about it suggestions of romance, elemental passions and wild life, and may epitomize for the beholder the whole Middle Age. Associated interest, therefore, may be sentimental or intellectual. It may be sensuous also, appealing to other senses than those of sight. The sense of touch plays a large part in our enjoyment of the world. We like the “feel” of objects, the catch of raw silk, the chill smoothness of burnished brass, the thick softness of mists, the “amorous wet” of green depths of sea. The senses of taste and smell may be excited imaginatively and contribute to our pleasure. Winslow Homer’s breakers bring back to us the salt fragrance of the ocean, and in the presence of these white mad surges we feel the stinging spray in our faces and we taste the cosmic exhilaration of the sea-wind. But the final meaning of a picture resides in the total harmony of color and form, a harmony into which we can project our whole personality and which itself constitutes the emotional experience.

All language in its material aspect has a sensuous value, as the wealth of color of Venetian painting, the sumptuousness of Renaissance architecture, the melody of Mr. Swinburne’s verse, the gem-like brilliance of Stevenson’s prose, the all-inclusive sensuousness, touched with sensuality, of Wagner’s music-dramas. Because of the charm of beautiful language there are many art-lovers who regard the sensuous qualities of the work itself as making up the entire experience. Apart from any consideration of intention or expressiveness, the material thing which the artist’s touch summons into form is held to be “its own excuse for being.”

This order of enjoyment, valid as far as it goes, falls short of complete appreciation. It does not pass the delight one has in the radiance of gems or the glowing tincture of some fabric. The element of meaning does not enter in. There is a beauty for the eye and a beauty for the mind. The qualities of material may give pleasure to the senses; the object embodying these qualities becomes beautiful only as it is endowed with a significance wakened in the human spirit. A landscape, says Walter Crane, “owes a great part of its beauty to the harmonious relation of its leading lines, or to certain pleasant contrasts, or a certain impressiveness of form and mass, and at the same time we shall perceive that this linear expression is inseparable from the sentiment or emotion suggested by that particular scene.” In the appreciation of art, to stop with the sensuous appeal of the medium is to mistake means for an end. “Rhyme,” says the author of “Intentions,” “in the hands of a real artist becomes not merely a material element of metrical beauty, but a spiritual element of thought and passion also.” An artist’s color, glorious or tender, is only a symbol and manifestation to sense of his emotion. At first glance Titian’s portrait of the “Man with the Glove” is an ineffable color-harmony. But truly seen it is infinitely more. By means of color and formal design Titian has embodied here his vision of superb young manhood; by the expressive power of his material symbols he has rendered visible his sense of dignity, of fineness, of strength in reserve. The color is beautiful because his idea was beautiful. Through the character of this young man as revealed and interpreted by the artist, the beholder is brought into contact with a vital personality, whose influence is communicated to him; in the appreciation of Titian’s message he sees and feels and lives.

The value of the medium resided not in the material itself but in its power for expression. When language is elaborated at the expense of the meaning, we have in so far forth sham art. It should be easy to distinguish in art between what is vital and what is mechanical. The mechanical is the product of mere execution and calls attention to the manner. The vital is born out of inspiration, and the living idea transmutes its material into emotion. Too great an effort at realization defeats the intended illusion, for we think only of the skill exercised to effect the result, and the operation of the intellect inhibits feeling. In the greatest art the medium is least perceived, and the beholder stands immediately in the presence of the artist’s idea. The material is necessarily fixed and finite; the idea struggles to free itself from its medium and untrammeled to reach the spirit. It is mind speaking to mind. However complete the material expression may seem, it is only a part of what the artist would say; imagination transcends the actual. In the art which goes deepest into life, the medium is necessarily inadequate. The artist fashions his work in a sublime despair as he feels how little of the mighty meaning within him he is able to convey. In the greatest works rightly seen the medium becomes transparent. Within the Sistine Chapel the visitor, when once he has yielded to the illusion, is not conscious of plaster surface and pigment; indeed, he hardly sees color and design as such at all; through them he looks into the immensity of heaven, peopled with gods and godlike men. Consummate acting is that which makes the spectator forget that it is acting. The part and the player become one. The actor, in himself and in the words he utters, is the unregarded vehicle of the dramatist’s idea. In a play like Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” the stage, the actors, the dialogue merge and fall away, and the overwhelming meaning stands revealed in its complete intensity. As the play opens, it cuts out a segment from the chaos of human life; step by step it excludes all that is unessential, stroke by stroke with an inevitableness that is crushing, it converges to the great one-thing that the dramatist wanted to say, until at the end the spectator, conscious no longer of the medium but only of the idea and all-resolving emotion, bows down before its overmastering force with the cry, “What a mind is there!”

In the art which most completely achieves expression the medium is not perceived as distinct from the emotion of which the medium is the embodiment. In order to render expressive the material employed in its service, art seeks constantly to identify means and end, to make the form one with the content. The wayfarer out of his need of shelter built a hut, using the material which chance gave into his hand and shaping his design according to his resources; the purpose of his work was not the hut itself but shelter. So the artist in any form is impelled to creation by his need of expression; the thing which he creates is not the purpose and end of his effort, but only the means. Each art has its special medium, and each medium has its peculiar sensuous charm and its own kind of expressiveness. This power of sensuous delight is incidental to the real beauty of the work; and that beauty is the message the work is framed to convey to the spirit. In the individual work, the inspiring and shaping idea seeks so to fuse its material that we feel the idea could not have been phrased in any other way as we surrender to its ultimate appeal, the sum of the emotional content which gave it birth and in which it reaches its fulfillment.