« PreviousContinue »
LIBERTY vs. LITERATURE AND THE FINE ARTS. The enemies of free institutions, founded on an equality of rights and of rank, and a general diffusion of property and intelligence, being accustomed to urge as an objection to such a system, that it in a great measure precludes the progress and perfection of literature and the fine arts, it is our design to subject this assertion to the test of reason and experience. Each of these go to establish the fact, that the enjoyment of freedom is highly favorable to the dignity as well as the intelligence of human character; and if such is the result of liberty in all other departments of intellectual occupation, it seems little less than an absurdity to presume that literature and the fine arts should be the solitary exceptions to this great general rule.
We believe this theory to be entirely unfounded, and as devoid of truth as it is derogatory to the character of freedom. We never wish to see the higher virtues and manlier pursuits, nor the primitive energies, of a free and vigorous people, sacrificed to the exclusive cultivation of literature and the fine arts. We never wish to see the time when the United States shall, in the midst of corruption and effeminacy, seek refuge from the sense of degradation, in the vanity of producing the best poets, painters, sculptors and musicians, or warming themselves, amid the darkness which envelopes the present, in the sunshine of their past glories. In our eyes, the composer of an opera, the prima donna and the prima don, should never come in competition with those who perform great services to the state; nor does it appear to be estimating merit by a just standard, to place Paganini before Washington, or the sculptor who chisels a hero, above the hero himself. Those virtues and talents which are indispensable to the government and safety of nations, the conduct and preservation of their useful institutions, and the general welfare of mankind, are, in our opinion, a far more rational and salutary source of national pride, than the mere accomplishments which, though they adorn society, constitute neither the foundation nor superstructure of true glory, or substantial happiness. The elegant and ornamental should never take precedence of the useful arts, as they have done in Italy, where at this moment they are far behind the United States in all those domestic comforts and conveniences which form so large a portion of the stock of human happiness.
Still, a competent skill in literature and the fine arts is a just source of national pride, and every government, as well as every people, should foster them with a judicious liberality. We do not mean that they should give more for a tune on the fiddle, or an air at the opera, than they are willing to pay for objects of real utility; nor lavish on a successful actor or buffoon, rewards and honors which they
deny to the meritorious statesman, the successful defender of his country, or the powerful asserter of her fame and freedom. Whenever this false estimate becomes the ruling principle of nations and their sovereigns, it has always been found that the ruin, or at least degradation, of those nations was close at hand. Effeminate pursuits succeeded the more manly exercises of the intellect, or the body; genius became the handmaid of luxury, instead of the parent of patriotism and virtue, and prostituted itself to gain the notice of kings, princes, and nobility, instead of laboring to deserve the love and gratitude of the people.
Literature ought ever to have precedence over the fine arts, since while it amuses it enlightens. It is the medium of a great portion of our knowledge — the casket in which is deposited our moral and religious codes
our mentor and instructor. It makes knowledge not only immortal, but increases its vigor and richness from age to age. Like our mother earth, it produces, fosters, and preserves, at the same time.
The fine arts, on the contrary, are rather sources of refined amusement than of salutary instruction. None of that knowledge necessary to the improvement of mankind, the conduct of life, or the attainment of happiness, can be obtained by a contemplation of the Venus de Medicis or the Apollo Belvidere ; nor can it be said with truth, that a man or wornan either, is better or wiser for having studied them to intensity. The same may be said of the productions of the fine arts in general. They afford a rich and innocent source of gratification; they come in aid of human enjoyments ; and are so far the auxiliaries of virtue, that they frequently afford resources for passing that leisure which might otherwise be spent in a manner less innocent. On the whole, however, experience seems to have demonstrated that consummate culture in the fine arts has always hitherto been one of the last stages in the progress of nations, and has ever rapidly followed, if it has not preceded, degeneracy and decay.
Be this as it may, we cannot withhold the expression of our pleasure at seeing the steady progress daily making in this country in literature and the fine arts, because we believe that there is no intrinsic incompatibility between the virtues necessary to preserve liberty, and the pure and rational refinements of a wholesome, natural, manly taste. We have, moreover, long cherished a conviction that the enjoyment of a rational freedom, such as we of the United States are blessed with, associated with a general liberal diffusion of property and intelligence, which always carry with them an improvement in taste, was far more favorable to the cultivation and independence of literature and the fine arts, than all the patronage kings, princes, and nobles, ever bestowed upon them, from their birth to their maturity and decay. This is the position we shall attempt to establish in the ensuing discussion - first, on the ground of general principles and general results ; secondly, on the authority of history and experience.
It seems to us, in the first place, degrading literature and the fine arts below the most ordinary handicraft trades, by presuming that they cannot subsist but in a state of abject dependence on a particular individual, who must not only be rich but noble. It is making menials and paupers of their professors, and placing them on a level
with the tenants of the kitchen, who look up, with abject submission, to the smile and the favor of him who gives them wages in return for labor and obedience. All other pursuits depend on the general wants, habits, and tastes, of the people at large for patronage, and nothing is necessary to their success, but the general diffusion of those wants, habits, and tastes, to produce a liberal remuneration for the exercise of talents and industry, unaccompanied by any feeling of dependence or degradation whatever.
The artist or the literary man who receives a pension from a king, or who exists on the bounty of a great man, must almost necessarily be restricted in the employment of his genius.
The painter or sculptor is in all probability directed in the choice of his subject, not by his own taste, but that of his patron; and the literary dependent must not soar beyond etiquette, nor grasp at forbidden fruit. His wings are clipped, his fancy restrained, and his reason manacled, by the fear of displeasing the master who feeds and clothes him. Vol. taire, who had ample personal experience on this point, during the boasted reign of Louis the Fourteenth, the Macenas of modern times, in speaking of the appointment of Addison to the post of Secretary of State, says, with equal truth and severity :
• Had he been in France, he would have been elected a member of one of the academies, and by the credit of some women, he might have obtained a pension of twelve hundred livres; or else been imprisoned in the Bastile, upon pretence that in his tragedy of Cato, strokes had been discovered which glanced at some persons in power.'
Voltaire was himself a striking example of the miseries of royal patronage, which is frequently but another name for royal persecution. He sought refuge from the latter in the protection of the Great Frederick of Prussia, under whose alternate smiles and frowns he languished a few years, and at length retired to Fernay, where alone he could enjoy the sweets of independence.
It seems to us that mankind are too prone to continue to receive, as a sort of inheritance, and to repeat without discrimination, those maxims which may have once been true, but which have become obsolete and inapplicable by the almost imperceptible yet wonderworking influence of time, and the great changes it produces. At the period in which literature and the arts awakened from the long sleep of ages, in Europe, the feudal system prevailed every where. All property and all power was in the hands of the king, the church, and the nobility; and as a direct inevitable consequence, it was from these alone that the arts, not indispensable to the existence of man in a social state, could receive encouragement, or expect support. Artists of course looked to this source exclusively; and hence we find them in a great degree under the special patronage of monarchs, popes, princes, cardinals, and nobility. It was the same with literary men, who could find no purchasers for their works annong a people who could not read, and of course had no inclination to buy ; and who, if they had, possessed not the means of paying for them. · The only exception to this state of things — and we look upon it as decisive in favor of our theory was the city of Florence, then a democracy. It was in this free city, that literature and the fine arts
first arose from out the obscurity of the dark ages. It is from a democratic community, shining like a solitary star in the dark regions of feudal despotism, that we can distinctly trace the progress of literature and the arts in modern times. It was there that the first Greek scholars opened their schools ; it was there that Dante, the great original of modern poetry, strung his lyre; it was there that painting and sculpture first throw off the fetters of a barbarous taste; and such was the vast influence of its literature, that it wrested from Columbus the glory of giving his name to a new world which he had discovered. And we will ask, who were the first and greatest patrons of those arts and that literature ? Not monarchs or princes, but a family of illustrious merchants, holding their temporary authority by virtue of the choice of the people, and deriving their wealth, not from their labors, but from the pursuits of an enlightened commerce. Nor were they alone the patrons of the arts, since, among the earli. est and finest specimens of sculpture in that distinguished city, are a series of statues voluntarily contributed for its embellishment by the companies of artists and laborers. One of these is by Michael Angelo, and others by the most distinguished of his contemporaries.
Do not these facts, founded on historical authority, sufficiently prove that the institutions of monarchy and aristocracy, and the consequent degradation of a large portion of mankind, are not essential to the most flourishing state of literature and the arts ? Do they not indicate, with the finger of truth, that these embellishments of life need not necessarily be purchased at the price of slavery and dependence? The city of Florence will be found, on consulting the great historian Machiavel - who, though a consistent republican, has been oddly metamorphosed into an advocate of tyranny- to have been at the very time she gave the impulse and the law to the literature and arts of Europe, as much a democracy, as Athens herself, when she stood in the same commanding attitude, at the head of the Grecian State, we may say at the head of the world. If such examples are not more common in history, it is because, with few exceptions, mankind have, in all ages and nations, been trodden under foot by the armed hoof of despotic power.
The general principle is unquestionably in favor of the doctrine, that it is the nature of free institutions to expand and invigorate the faculties of the human mind. Out of a state of absolute barbarism, liberty cannot exist without a general though not an equal distribution of property and intelligence. It presupposes what is indispensable to its being, a people free from actual poverty and its consequent wants ; possessing a spirit which resists all innovation on their rights, and a degree of culture which elevates them above the common level of abject ignorance. Such a people, imbued, as they always will be more or less, with the rudiments of taste, a desire for mental gratifications, and a capacity for improvement, may, and will do, in their collective numbers, all, and more than all, that kings, popes, princes, cardinals, and nobility, have done, or ever will do, for literature and the arts. And this, too, without subjecting artists and literary men to a degrading dependence on the favor or caprice of one single man. Appealing to a wealthy and enlightened community, nay to the whole civilized world, their genius has not only a noble incitement
of a far higher character than that of pleasing one single man, but a wider scope for its exercise, free from all apprehension of the loss of bread or favor, by expatiating in the boundless space of the universe. They need not fear to incur banishment or imprisonment by exploring the depths of philosophy for hidden truths, or vindicating the rights of the human race at the expense of those who inflict on them nothing but wrongs; they have no reason to apprehend the fate of Galileo, Grotius, and hundreds of illustrious victims to the persecutions of jealous power, or bigotted intolerance, for they address themselves to a free people, who neither start at shadows, nor imagine they see in the diffusion of knowledge the downfall of religion and civil government.
On general principles, which furnish the only just grounds for general truths, we maintain, then, that it is a solecism to presume that equal rights, and the general diffusion of property and intelligence, can operate injuriously on the exercise of the human intellect in any department, pursuit, or profession whatsoever. Such a theory is unphilosophical in principle; it is at war with the inflexible union of cause and effect, and it is contradicted by the long experience of mankind, which has clearly demonstrated that free institutions make free minds; and that it would be just as true to assert that the physical powers of man are strengthened by chains, as that his intellectual faculties are expanded by being prohibited from exercise.
For the purpose of maintaining our doctrine on the basis of indi. vidual experience, we will now proceed to compare what the royal and noble patrons have done in former times, with what the people are doing now in other quarters. When the faction of the nobles gained the ascendancy in Florence, over the democracy, they exiled Dante, and persecuted Michael Angelo. Tasso was patronized by the Duke of Ferrara, and after having his heart broken and his rea. son shattered, by the capricious tyranny of his noble patron, died a beggar and a madman. Michael Angelo, having established a fame which made it an honor for princes to employ him, was invited to Rome, and patronized by Leo the Tenth, the Macenas of the purple. Let us see to what this patronage led.
• The artist,' says his biographer, ‘had received instructions to construct a monument for Julius the Second, and he was anxious to complete the work, when he was called from it by the pope (Leo the Tenth,) who insisted upon his going to Florence to build the facade of the Church of St. Lorenzo. He would have remonstrated, but was forced to submit, and while at Carrera procuring the marble, he received a letter from Leo, ordering him to go to the quarries of Pietra Santa for that purpose.
Michael Angelo complied, but reported that the marble there was of bad quality, and that there was no way of conveying it to Florence, without making a road over mountains and marshes to the sea. The pope, however, persisted, and commanded him to proceed; the consequence of which was, that the talents of this great man were buried in those mountains during the whole pontificate of Leo, in raising stone out of a quarry and making a road. Those who desire to know more of the patronage of popes and kings, have only to consult the biography of that great but eccentric artist, Benvenuto Cellini.