Asthetic Culture


In venturing to discuss the means of aesthetic culture, I feel that to formulate canons of taste is the same sort of thing as to draw up rules of conscience; that is, to attempt to do for other people what every one must do for himself. It may be vicious to have a flower pattern on our carpet, and correct to have such a pattern on our curtains; but if so, the perception of the fact must be the result of growth under culture. If it come to us as an edict of fashion that we adorn our rooms with bulrushes and peacocks' feathers; that we use geometrical forms in decorative art, rather than natural forms conventionally treated; that we affect sage-green and terra-cotta,––however good may be the effect of room or person, there is little taste displayed in either. For taste is the very flower, the most delicate expression of individuality, in a person who has grown up amidst objects lovely and befitting, and has been exercised in the habit of discrimination. Here we get a hint as to what may and what may not be done by way of cultivating the aesthetic sense in young people. So far as possible, let their surroundings be brought together on a principle of natural selection, not at haphazard, and not in obedience to fashion. Bear in mind, and let them often hear discussed and see applied, the three or four general principles which fit all occasions of building, decorating, furnishing, dressing: the thing must be fit for its purpose, must harmonise with both the persons and the things about it; and, these points considered, must be as lovely as may be in form, texture, and colour; one point more––it is better to have too little than too much. The child who is accustomed to see a vase banished, a chintz chosen, on some such principles as these, involuntarily exercises discriminating power; feels the jar of inharmonious colouring, rejects a bedroom water-jug all angles for one with flowing curves, and knows what he is about. It may not be possible to surround him with objects of art, nor is it necessary; but, certainly, he need not live amongst ugly and discordant objects; for a blank is always better than the wrong thing1. It is a pity that, in pictures and music, we are inclined to form "collections," just as in poetry. Let us eschew collections. Every painter, every composer, worth the name, has a few master ideas, which he works out, not in a single piece, but here a little and there a little, in a series of studies. If we accept the work of the artist as a mere external decoration, why, a little of one and a little of another does very well; but if we accept the man as a teacher, who is to have a refining, elevating effect upon our coarser nature, we must study his lessons in sequence, so far as we have opportunity. A house with one or two engravings from Turner in one room, from Millet in another, from Corot's pictures in a third, would be a real school of art for the child; he would have some little opportunity of studying, line by line, three masters at least, of comparing their styles, getting their characteristics by heart, perceiving what they mean to say by their pictures, and how they express their meaning. And here is a sound foundation for art-education, which should perhaps, for most of us, consist rather in drawing out the power to appreciate than the power to produce. At the same time, give the young people one or two good water-colour sketches to grow upon, to show them what to see in landscape.

It is not, however, always possible to choose pictures according to any such plan; but in default of more, it is something to get so thoroughly acquainted with even a good engraving of any one picture, that the image of it retained by the brain is almost as distinct as the picture itself. All that the parents can do is to secure that the picture be looked at; the refining influence, the art-culture, goes on independently of effort from without. The important thing is, not to vitiate the boy's taste; better to have a single work of art in the house upon which his ideas form themselves, than to have every wall covered with daubs. That the young people must commonly wait for opportunities afforded by picture-galleries to learn how the brush can catch the very spirit and meaning of nature, is not so great a loss as it would seem at first sight. The study of landscape should, perhaps, prepare them for that of pictures: no one can appreciate the moist solid freshness of the newly ploughed earth in Rosa Bonheur's pictures who has not himself been struck by the look of the clods just turned up by the plough. But, on the other hand, what is to be said to this, from Fra Lippo Lippi?––

   "Don't you mark, we're made so that we love
   First when we see them painted, things we have passed
   Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see:
   And so they are better painted––better to us,
   Which is the same thing. Art was given for that––
   God uses us to help each other so,
   Lending our minds out. Have you noticed now
   Your cullion's hanging face? A bit of chalk,
   And, trust me, but you should though. How much more
   If I drew higher things with the same truth!
   That were to take the prior's pulpit-place––
   Interpret God to all of you!"

Pictures or landscape, all the parents can do is to put their children in the way of seeing, and, by a suggestive word, get them to look. The eye is trained by seeing, but also by instruction; and I need hardly call attention to Mr. Ruskin's Modern Painters, as the book which makes art-education possible to outsiders.

If culture flows in through the eye, how much more through the ear, the organ of that blessed sixth sense, which appears to be distributed amongst us with partial favour. A great deal of time and a good deal of money is commonly spent to secure to the young people the power of performing indifferently upon an instrument; nor is even an indifferent performance to be despised: but it is not always borne in mind that to listen with discriminating delight is as educative and as "happy-making" as to produce; and that this power might, probably, be developed in everybody, if only as much pains were spent in the cultivation of the musical sense as upon that of musical facility. Let the young people hear good music as often as possible, and that under instruction. It is a pity we like our music, as our pictures and our poetry, mixed, so that there are few opportunities of going through, as a listener, a course of the works of a single composer. But this is to be aimed at for the young people; let them study occasionally the works of a single great master until they have received some of his teaching, and know his style. 

1"Nothing can be a work of art which is not useful, that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under the command of the mind, or which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate the mind in a healthy state. What tons upon tons of unutterable rubbish, pretending to be works of art in some degree, would this maxim clear out of our London houses."––WILLIAM MORRIS.