In reply to the enquiry, What is art? an answer may be made as follows: Art is the involuntary dramatisation of subjective experience. In other words, the crystallisation of a state of mind in images (whether visual, auditory or otherwise). This excludes from art the practical activity of mere illustration, which involves only the combination of empirical observation with skill of craftsmanship. Even the setting down on paper of the signs, words, musical notes, etc., which communicate aesthetic experience, or the transmission of such an experience by the indications of gesture, or audible sounds, is a practical activity to be distinguished from that of creation. However swiftly the record may follow on the heels of spiritual activity of intuition-expression, it is always the externalisation of an already completed cycle. The words of a poem, the lines of a drawing, are not expressive: they are the catalytic stimuli to a renewed aesthetic activity, or expression, on the part of the hearer. It is therefore by ellipsis that we speak of a physical work of art as beautiful. It is scarcely needful to add that questions of personal taste or interest have nothing to do with aesthetic values, however legitimately they may govern conduct.
The element of skill enters only into the voluntary practical activity of externalisation, the use of the language of stimulation. We cannot measure qualities of art by measuring degrees of skill. In fact, there are no degrees of art, nor is it possible to speak of a progress or degeneration of art, in individuals or schools, as we can speak of progress or loss in the realm of knowledge, technique and skill. In the words of Blake: “The human mind cannot go beyond the gift of God, the Holy Ghost. To suppose that art can go beyond the finest specimens of art that are now in the world is not knowing what art is; it is being blind to the gifts of the Spirit.” Wagner and Raphael are not necessarily superior to Palaestrina and Giotto because of their more elaborate technique or superior facility. We can only ask, - In which have we evidence of most profound vision? Which of these artists is the greatest vessel? For this is what we really mean when we relinquish our preoccupation with the accidentals of technique and accomplishment, and still observe that at various moments in the history of a school or an individual there is a varying degree of vision. This is not the variability of art, but of the individual. Two men at the same time, or one man at different times, may go down to the sea, and bring back a bucketful or a cupful of water: but each brings back the same water, whether vessels be large or small, of gold or of clay. In other words, however broad or narrow, noble or ignoble, the subject of the art, however elegant or crude the language, art is always recognisable as art. All that we can demand of an artist is that he should offer us living water: for this water has a miraculous quality, and even though it be offered in a thimble, it will fill a bowl. One can only say that there are greater and lesser artists, as there are greater and lesser lovers: but we can no more speak of progress in art than we could speak of progress in love.
If Mrs. Eddy speaks of the same truth that Jesus speaks of, it is not because of her defective literary education that she fails to touch us, but because of the less intensity or clarity of her experience. The most awkward means are adequate to the communication of authentic experience, and the finest words no compensation for the lack of it. It is for this reason that we are moved by the true Primitives and that the most accomplished art craftsmanship leaves us cold.
It is as hard for the learned artist as for the rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In saying this, we need not forget that the gates are as widely opened to the learned and the rich as to the illiterate and the poor. If anything, too little honour has been paid to craftsmanship and knowledge in recent times. Skill and sophistication, learning and wealth, are neither good nor bad in themselves - that is to say, they can be used or misused. And both are relative terms. Most great artists have been learned in their own time and place (Giotto was acclaimed as a realist), and there is nothing in the coincidence of the external signs of art with the dimensional aspect of nature, which of itself precludes the possibility of communicating by such signs as authentic spiritual experience. We cannot separate the tares from the wheat by distinguishing a naturalistic form of symbolic language. It is not by an intellectual or categorical activity that we can judge the intensity of any artist’s idiom. We cannot judge except by our response; and whether or not we respond will depend on our own state of grace.
Published in Rupam, 1920