The splendour of art is like a great light illuminating the whole world and making it a richer and more rewarding place for mankind to habit. Yet it has always been a light that men themselves have kindled and tended, following that inborn age to give worthy expression to their own sense of beauty and their delight in their own skill as craftsmen.
They have caused the light to shed its radiance in every place and in every age. The power of men to create beauty is to-day no greater, no more “developed, “than it ever was. It simply takes on different forms and aspects at different periods of history or in different countries. Surveying the whole story of art from the remote past down to the present day, it does seem as if the light glows more intensely at certain times and over certain places, and then in particular ways.
Its rays strike with all the concentrated brilliance of a spotlight on, say the days when builders were raising the great churches of CHRISTENDOM TO THE GLORY OF God; on the surging period of the Renaissance in Italy, when Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and many painters only less supreme than they, were all producing masterpieces at the same time; or on the high summer of classical Greek sculpture or of early Chinese porcelain.
These periods of high achievement, and many others on which the spotlight may play more gently but none the less effectively, will perhaps have the most important place in the survey of the world’s art. But the spotlight effects should never be permitted to blind us to the radiance the streams continuously from all man’s art, past and present alike. For “great” art is not the only art.
One can be as readily charmed and thrilled by a humble piece of Red Indian basketwork, or by some exquisite little Japanese colour-print (for the Red Indiansand the Japanese happen to have excelled in these particular forms of art) as by any noted exhibit in the London National Gallery, the Paris Louvre, or any other of the world’s famous collections.
The most striking proof that art is not something that has evolved and developed and improved through the ages is presented by the very oldest works of art of which anyone knows, the drawings left on the walls and roofs of caves by men who lived before the dawn of history. Call them primitive men if you like; but there is little primitive about their art. Some of it is crude enough, just as much of the art of the present day is crude.
Yet at their best these drawings, made probably 20,000 years ago, have an astonishing beauty of their own. Moreover the reveal an accuracy of observation and a certainty of statement that can be matched only in the very finest work of any subsequent age. As for the wide range of human creative activity that is implied by the word “art,” even in its more limited sense which refers only to things that please the eye (as distinct from music, which charms the ear, or literature which delights the mind, or the drama which can appeal to all three).
Art and its beauty can be presented in many different materials – not only from coloured pigments on canvas but also from stone, ivory, gold, silver, bronze, copper, wood, iron, porcelain and earthenware, enamels and lacquer, and mosaic as we can observe in the creations of artists such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Velazquez and so on.
THE DISTINCTION BETVEEN FINE AND APPLIED ARTS
The mention of purpose brings us to the final point that art is not confined in making of pretty pictures to hang on the walls and statues to adorn our public parks and squares, nor even to the raising magnificently proportioned buildings. We find it flourishing in the design of such highly practical things as pavements, doors, braziers, jugs, plates, lanterns and chessboards.
Not so long ago it was fashionable to make a clear distinction between the “fine” arts and the “applied” arts. Painting and sculpture, in which the artist so often creates beauty through a picture or a carving with no other purpose than to delight himself and others, were put in the former category; whereas the diversion of an artist‘s imagination and skill to the designing of beautiful jugs or salt-cellars, or anything that serves a practical purpose, was called “applied” art, and this was considered to be of a rather inferior sort. Although some forms of art are naturally more practical than others (that of an architect, for example), nothing can be created without being tied to some sort of “purpose” —even if the purpose is merely to show how clever the artist is.
HOW EVERY KIND OF ART HAS ITS OWN PURPOSE
Often there is more than one purpose. Some of the most admired paintings in the world have been painted on the interior walls of churches. Their purpose was at least twofold: to relieve the monotony of a blank wall and to turn men’s mind to God.
Portraits, whether painted on canvas or shaped in marble or bronze, have their own obvious purpose, and the fulfilment of that purpose is the portraitist’s first business: yet so wide is the scope offered to the creative imagination of great painters or sculptors, such as Rembrandt or Epstein, even in the task of “getting a likeness,” that their portraiture can thrill and delight us for its own sake, even when the subjects of the portraits are unknown or long forgotten.
The essential quality that turns mere craftsmanship into art is exactly the same, whatever the origin “purpose” may have been; and we can be moved by it—to a greater or lesser degree, of course, but always in the same way—whether we come across it in the Elgin marbles or in the design of a teapot!
ART THE EXPRESSION OF THE LOVE OF BEAUTY IN THE SOUL OF MAN, IS THE PRIDE AND GLORY OF THE WORLD THROUGHOUT ALL AGES
Look at pictures which are always more rewarding than any words that can be written about them.