Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Advantages of Art in America
By James Jackson Jarves (18181888)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1818. Died at Tarasp, Switzerland, 1888. The Art Idea. 1864.]
FIRST, it has freedom of development, and a growing national knowledge, refinement, and taste, to stimulate it, and strengthen the common instinct of beauty, which never wholly deserts human nature even in the most untoward conditions. It has also a few earnest hearts to cherish its feeling, and promote its spread, with the enthusiasm of sincerity, and conviction of its importance to moral welfare and complete education.
Secondly, it is not overborne by the weight of a glorious past, disheartening the weak of the present, and rendering many, even of the strong, servile and mind-ridden. True, it has not the compensating virtue of lofty example and noble standard; but the creative faculty is freer, and more ready to shape itself to the spirit of its age. Especially is our country free from those weighty intellectual authorities and conventional conditions which powerfully tend to hedge in the student to prescribed paths, undermine his originality, and warp his native individualism.
Thirdly, art is in no sense a monopoly of government, religion, or social caste. It is not even under permanent bondage to fashion. It rather leads or misleads it than is led by it. For its sustenance it appeals directly to the people. Borne along on the vast ocean of democracy, art being a vital principle of life, it will eventually spread everywhere, and promote the happiness of all.
Fourthly, it possesses a fresh, vigorous, broad continent for its field: in the natural world, grand, wild, and inspiriting; in man, enterprising, energetic, and ambitious, hesitating at no difficulties, outspoken, hardy of limb, and quick of action; thought that acknowledges no limits; mind that dares to solve all questions affecting humanity to their remotest consequences, daring, doubting, believing, and hoping, giving birth to new ideas, which are ever passing on to new forms.
But the favorable conditions named are more negative than positive in character. Indeed, in this respect the art of America is on the same footing as the remaining branches of her civilization. Their specific advantages of growth over the Old World are simply greater latitude of choice, and few obstacles to overcome in the way of time-worn ideas and effete institutions. In one word, art is free here; as free to surpass all previous art as it is free to remain, if it so inclines, low and common. But if America elects to develop her art wholly out of herself, without reference to the accumulated experience of older civilizations, she will make a mistake, and protract her improvement. There is a set of men among us who talk loftily of the independent, indigenous growth of American art; of its freedom of obligation to the rest of the world; of its inborn capacity to originate, invent, create, and make anew; of the spoiling of those minds whose instincts prompt them to study art where it is best understood and most worthily followed. Perhaps so! Nevertheless it would be a great waste of time to adopt such a system, and possibly it might fail. This sort of art-know-nothingism is as impracticable, and as contrary to our national life, as its foolish political brother, which perished still-born. We have not time to invent and study everything anew. The fast-flying nineteenth century would laugh us to scorn should we attempt it. No one dreams of it in science, ethics, or physics. Why then propose it in art? We are a composite people. Our knowledge is eclectic. The progress we make is due rather to our free choice and action than to any innate superiority of mind over other nations. We buy, borrow, adopt, and adapt. With a seven-league boot on each leg, our pace is too rapid for profound study and creative thought. For some time to come, Europe must do for us all that we are in too much of a hurry to do for ourselves. It remains, then, for us to be as eclectic in our art as in the rest of our civilization. To get artistic riches by virtue of assimilated examples, knowledge, and ideas, drawn from all sources, and made national and homogeneous by a solidarity of our own, is our right pathway to consummate art.
No invidious nationalism should enter into art competition or criticism. The true and beautiful cannot be permanently monopolized by race, class, or sect. God has left them as free and universal as the air we breathe. We should therefore copy his liberality, and invite art to our shores, generously providing for it, without other motive than its merits. From whatever source it may come, Greek, Italian, French, English, or German, nay, Chinese, Hindoo, and African, welcome it, and make it our own. Let every public work, as are our institutions, be free to the genius of all men. Let us even compete with other nations, in inviting to our shores the best art of the world. As soon as it reaches our territory, it becomes part of our flesh and blood. Whither the greatest attraction tends, thither will genius go and make its home. Titian was not a Venetian by birth, but his name now stands for the highest excellence of that school, as Raphael does for that of Rome, and Leonardo for the Milanese. In adopting genius, a country profits not the artist so much as itself. Both are thereby honored. Foreign governments set a wise example in throwing open the designs for their public edifices to the artistic competition of the world. Least of all should America be behind in this sound policy, for no country stands in sorer need of artistic aid.