Chapter 19 – Pictures and Personalities

Chapter XIX
PICTURES AND PERSONALITIES
W. John Murray
The Realm of Reality
Divine Science Publishing Assoc.
New York, 1922.

“O Lord, Thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we all are the work of Thy hand.”
–Isaiah 64:8

[223] The poem from which I wish to draw the lesson which is to follow is that of Browning entitled, “Old Pictures in Florence.” In the first place Browning emphasizes the statement made by Jesus that, “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country, and among his own people.” He does so by pointing out the neglect and misunderstanding of those great painters of Italy by the Italians themselves, who were so close to the great masters that they could not perceive their greatness. He seems to feel that the artists themselves have, in many cases, painted as Jesus spoke, in parables, without leaving any key to the parables in art by which men who came after them might penetrate the divine mystery.

As so many have done since his time, Browning haunted the old churches of Florence where he loved to gaze on the works of his beloved [224] Giotto and others, and it grieved him to see tourists give but a passing glance to the old masters’ works and regard them as so much peeling paint on wrinkling canvas. He fancied he could see the ghosts of the old masters watching in agony the stupid eyes of those who came, merely to say they had been to see, and he likens their state of soul to a great thing wronged by a small one, “A lion who dies of an ass’s kick.” The souls of the dead artists seem to call upon him to defend them from the praise of the witless ones who “hum and buzz” today, but who, if they had lived in the masters’ times, would have passed them by with never a word of praise or encouragement.

He compares the artist with the laborer whose sleep is sweet and who is not troubled as to whether or not posterity will appreciate his efforts, even if his contemporaries do not, and he shows how the artist suffers, as Jesus suffered, when he cried out as he looked back over Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how oft would I have gathered thee together as a hen doth her chickens, but ye would not.” Artists die in despair over the inability of the rest of us to perceive what they are trying to tell us of the things which can never be understood save by symbols, but Art lives on, as Browning proves, when he traces art from the statues of the Greeks to the paintings of the Italians and then shows how the Italians improved on their own masters.

All of this points, it seems to me, to the idea [225] in Browning’s mind which is back of all art, as we know it, to that which we are just beginning to understand, which is the fine art of creating for ourselves, out of that plastic substance called Thought, the things we desire. When art has served it purpose it has revealed to man his own potentialities; and it has not served its purpose until it has done this, for art is not the mere creation of something in stone or on canvas for the purpose of attracting the eye and delighting the aesthetic sense. The religion of art, for there is a religion of art, as there is one of the soul, is to portray man’s perfectness and to suggest the possibility of attaining that perfection, and through this suggestion to stimulate endeavor.

Browning sees in Greek statuary a suggestion of the human form as it ought to be, and as it was originally. He shows by comparison how far short we fall of physical perfection, not to speak of spiritual development. We would be more kingly than our fellows, yet we cannot sit with the same dignity as did Theseus. We would be a model for an artist, but we lack the use of arms and knees as The Son of Priam used them. We cannot show our emotions of indignation at social injustices, nor our superiority in hours of danger as Apollo did, nor can we express our grief as did Niobe over the loss of her children. The office of art is not to carve in marble nor paint on canvas the impossible in human experience, but so to elevate the souls of men that what is portrayed may be performed.

[226] It is for this reason, when we have viewed all there is in the world of art, that we are to look within and ask if in ourselves there is not something waiting for expression. Comparing statues in stone with latent capacities in soul, and looking from one to the other as from suggestion to demonstration, Browning says:

Growth came when, looking your last on them all,
You turned your eyes inwardly one fine day
And cried with a start–What if we so small
Be greater and grander the while than they?
Are they perfect of lineament, perfect of stature?
In both, of such types are we
Precisely because of our wider nature;
For time, theirs–ours, for eternity.
Today’s brief passion limits their range;
It seethes with the morrow for us and more.
They are perfect–how else? they shall never change:
We are faulty–why not? we have time in store.
The Artificer’s hand is not arrested
With us; we are rough-hewn, no wise polished.
They stand for our copy, and, once invested
With all they can teach, we shall see them abolished.

The human artist has done all that he can for his statue when, out of shapeless marble, he fashions the form which entrances, but which cannot speak. Anatomically perfect, but mentally deficient, finished in construction but lacking in consciousness, it is a mute revelation of what man might be as a talking animal if only he knew how to fashion himself in healthy tissue by the renewal of his mind. When statues and paintings have [227] done all they can for us in revealing perfectness of form, they have lifted thought up to the contemplation of something better and more enduring than deformity and decrepitude; for they have introduced us to the Ideal.

But a mere introduction to the Ideal, while it is gratifying to the senses, is not sufficient. It is not enough that we appreciate art if we remain forever on the plane of the aesthetic, for the aesthetic is itself nothing more than a beautiful symbol of the spiritual, without which spiritual, the aesthetic is a shadow without substance. It is for this reason that the artistic temperament, or the aesthetic nature devoid of divine understanding, is so frequently at the mercy of its emotions. Having no scientific, spiritually scientific, background, the artist is a sensitive plant which blooms in the sunshine of success and fades in the gloom which misunderstanding casts about those who see beauty without perceiving Truth.

The artist of the future will be he who sees the Ideal in Spirit and externalizes his vision in the flesh. Art, like the religious sentiment in the human soul, is ever in a state of ascending development. From the first crude attempts on the part of man to fashion things out of wood and stone, to the exquisite statuary of the Greeks, countless ages passed. It was not because human skill was constantly improving, so that hands which before were clumsy now became dexterous, but because man’s perception of the Perfect unfolded as man advanced in spiritual consciousness [228] and, because of this, art could not remain in the wood and stone age of expression.

Beautiful as statuary is, it nevertheless lacks that warmth which color lends, and so an advance is made from cold stone to warm paint. If, at first, beautiful eyes stared out from their stony sockets, now art decrees that they shall speak to us in tones of brown or blue, gray or hazel. If, before, lips were hard and cold, now art affirms they must be red and potent, inviting the kisses of children. The hair must not forever continue to maintain a perpetual stoniness, but it must now bespeak the hue of the model in all the requisite delicacy of wave and beauty. Art in paint has not come to destroy art in stone; rather has it come to fulfill promises to the race that the best of today shall be included in the best of tomorrow, which will be better, because man is ever improving.

It is because of the steady ascent of art from the crude to the refined that we can, in fancy at least, see the approach of that new conception which will not remain content to make inanimate matter look more life-like, but which will work in the very flesh itself, so that the body will become transformed according to a law as fixed as the law back of science by which a block of marble becomes a Venus or an Apollo. We can easily accept the truth embodied in the scriptures which says that we are the clay in the hand of the Potter, and that God can make of us whatsoever He wills; but it is a New Thought which [229] assures us that by the exercise of our reflected Creative Intelligence we can make of ourselves the thing we desire to be. This idea must have been in the mind of Browning when he asked:

Shall Man, such step within his endeavor,
Man’s face, have no more play and action
Than joy which is crystallized forever,
Or grief, and eternal petrifaction?
On which I conclude, that the early painters,
To cries of “Greek Art and what more wish you?”–
Replied, “To become now self-acquainters,
And paint man, man, whatever the issue!
Make new hopes shine thro’ the flesh they fray,
New fears aggrandize the rags and tatters:
To bring the invisible full into play!
Let the visible go to the dogs–what matters?

Always non-progressiveness says to progressiveness, “Greek Art, and what more wish you?” But this question is asked in different words with each succeeding generation. The non-progressive mentality does not believe it can improve on existing conditions, and so it falls from mediocrity to inferiority and finally goes out “unwept, unhonored and unsung.” Not realizing the power of spiritualized Thought to carve a glorious present out of an ugly past or a happy future out of a disturbing present, the average man allows thought to circle about himself and his troubles much as a foolish cow walks around and around the stake to which she is tethered, until the rope becomes so short and unstretching that she has nothing to nibble but dust. By the proper use of [230] Thought, man becomes an artist with the “pattern showed to him on the Mount” for his model.

I am reminded of a story which a well-known evangelist told me in company with some friends who had been gathered together at the house of an associate to entertain him. In a large city in the middle west, where he was engaged at his work of leading souls to the better life, he was the guest of a few public spirited men who regarded his work as most important, and who felt that it would be a good idea to show him the city’s best sights at such times as he was not engaged in preaching. One of these was a pottery shop where some of the most artistic pottery in America was made. After seeing all the simpler forms of constructed pottery with all that preceded these in the clay mixtures and adapting machinery, he was taken into the shop where the finest products of the potter’s art were produced.

The potter in charge was asked to make a Corinthian vase. He began by taking from the vat a lump of clay which he at once commenced to model according to a pattern which stood before him. In a very little while the vase was complete and was placed on a board next to the workman’s table. But presently the workman seized it and, as he did so, the bystanders observed that it was failing in its narrow part. The shank was not strong enough to support the upper portion, and hence the bending which the workman was quick to observe. It would never do to allow it [231] to harden in that position and so he began at once to manipulate it into another form, and presently the bystanders beheld in the transformed clay a shapely cuspidor, but a cuspidor, nevertheless.

If we accept Thought as the substance, or clay, out of which we are to construct our Corinthian vases, let us so use it that our product will stand upright and beautiful, fit to receive the Water of Life. It is Thought by which man falls or rises, fails or succeeds.

The dominating factor of the coming ages is the art of dwelling upon the Divine–that of depicting man as man, and not as a weak, finite, feeble creature of the earth, the art of seeing the great idea which is in the mind of God. This is greater than all other art and is that to which all art from its dawn to the present moment has been progressing. It has been gradually, but truly pressing and rising to the point where today we stand, carving our lives in Thought, bringing perfection out of imperfection, for the great Art is the Art of Right Thinking.

Chapter 20

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