Use and beauty

Use and beauty

[First published in The Leader for January 3, 1852.]

In one of his essays, Emerson remarks, that what Nature at one time provides for use, she afterwards turns to ornament; and he cites in illustration the structure of a sea-shell, in which the parts that have for a while formed the mouth are at the next season of growth left behind, and become decorative nodes and spines.

Ignoring the implied teleology, which does not here concern us, it has often occurred to me that this same remark might be extended to the progress of Humanity. Here, too, the appliances of one era serve as embellishments to the next. Equally in institutions, creeds, customs, and superstitions, we may trace this evolution of beauty out of what was once purely utilitarian.

The contrast between the feeling with which we regard portions of the Earth’s surface still left in their original state, and the feeling with which the savage regarded them, is an instance that comes first in order of time. If any one walking over Hampstead Heath, will note how strongly its picturesqueness is brought out by contrast with the surrounding cultivated fields and the masses of houses lying in the distance; and will further reflect that, had this irregular gorse-covered surface extended on all sides to the horizon, it would have looked dreary and prosaic rather than pleasing; he will see that to the primitive man a country so clothed presented no beauty at all. To him it was merely a haunt of wild animals, and a ground out of which roots might be dug. What have become for us places of relaxation and enjoyment—places for afternoon strolls and for gathering flowers—were his places for labour and food, probably arousing in his mind none but utilitarian associations.

Ruined castles afford obvious instances of this metamorphosis of the useful into the beautiful. To feudal barons and their retainers, security was the chief, if not the only end, sought in choosing the sites and styles of their strongholds. Probably they aimed as little at the picturesque as do the builders of cheap brick houses in our modern towns. Yet what were erected for shelter and safety, and what in those early days fulfilled an important function in the social economy, have now assumed a purely ornamental character. They serve as scenes for picnics; pictures of them decorate our drawing-rooms; and each supplies its surrounding districts with legends for Christmas Eve.

On following out the train of thought suggested by this last illustration, we may see that not only do the material exuviæ of past social states become the ornaments of our landscapes; but that past habits, manners, and arrangements, serve as ornamental elements in our literature. The tyrannies which, to the serfs who bore them, were harsh and dreary facts; the feuds which, to those who took part in them, were very practical life-and-death affairs; the mailed, moated, sentinelled security which was irksome to the nobles who needed it; the imprisonments, and tortures, and escapes, which were stern and quite prosaic realities to all concerned in them; have become to us material for romantic tales—material which, when woven into Ivanhoes and Marmions, serves for amusement in leisure hours, and becomes poetical by contrast with our daily lives.

Thus, also, is it with extinct creeds. Stonehenge, which in the hands of the Druids had a governmental influence over men, is in our day a place for antiquarian excursions; and its attendant priests are worked up into an opera. Greek sculptures, preserved for their beauty in our galleries of art, and copied for the decoration of pleasure grounds and entrance halls, once lived in men’s minds as gods demanding obedience; as did also the grotesque idols that now amuse the visitors to our museums.

Equally marked is this change of function in the case of minor superstitions. The fairy lore, which in past times was matter of grave belief, and held sway over people’s conduct, have since been transformed into ornament for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Fairy Queen, and endless small tales and poems; and still affords subjects for children’s story-books, themes for ballets, and plots for Planché’s burlesques. Gnomes, and genii, and afrits, losing their terrors, give piquancy to the woodcuts in our illustrated edition of the Arabian Nights. While ghost-stories, and tales of magic and witchcraft, after serving to amuse boys and girls in their leisure hours, become matter for jocose allusions that enliven tea-table conversation.

Even our serious literature and our speeches are relieved by ornaments drawn from such sources. A Greek myth is often used as a parallel by which to vary the monotony of some grave argument. The lecturer breaks the dead level of his practical discourse by illustrations drawn from bygone customs, events, or beliefs. And metaphors, similarly derived, give brilliancy to political orations, and to Times leading articles.

Indeed, on careful inquiry, I think it will be found that we turn to purposes of beauty most byegone phenomena which are at all conspicuous. The busts of great men in our libraries, and their tombs in our churches; the once useful but now purely ornamental heraldic symbols; the monks, nuns, and convents, which give interest to a certain class of novels; the bronze mediæval soldiers used for embellishing drawing-rooms; the gilt Apollos which recline on time-pieces; the narratives that serve as plots for our great dramas; and the events that afford subjects for historical pictures;—these and such like illustrations of the metamorphosis of the useful into the beautiful, are so numerous as to suggest that, did we search diligently enough, we should find that in some place, or under some circumstance, nearly every notable product of the past has assumed a decorative character.

And here the mention of historical pictures reminds me that an inference may be drawn from all this, bearing directly on the practice of art. It has of late years been a frequent criticism upon our historical painters, that they err in choosing their subjects from the past; and that, would they found a genuine and vital school, they must render on canvas the life and deeds and aims of our own time. If, however, there be any significance in the foregoing facts, it seems doubtful whether this criticism is a just one. For if it be the course of things that what has performed some active function in society during one era, becomes available for ornament in a subsequent one; it almost follows that, conversely, whatever is performing some active function now, or has very recently performed one, does not possess the ornamental character; and is, consequently, inapplicable to any purpose of which beauty is the aim, or of which it is a needful ingredient.

Still more reasonable will this conclusion appear, when we consider the nature of this process by which the useful is changed into the ornamental. An essential pre-requisite to all beauty is contrast. To obtain artistic effect, light must be put in juxtaposition with shade, bright colours with dull colours, a fretted surface with a plain one. Forte passages in music must have piano passages to relieve them; concerted pieces need interspersing with solos; and rich chords must not be continuously repeated. In the drama we demand contrast of characters, of scenes, of sentiment, of style. In prose composition an eloquent passage should have a comparatively plain setting; and in poems great effect is obtained by occasional change of versification. This general principle will, I think, explain the transformation of the bygone useful into the present beautiful. It is by virtue of their contrast with our present modes of life, that past modes of life look interesting and romantic. Just as a picnic, which is a temporary return to an aboriginal condition, derives, from its unfamiliarity, a certain poetry which it would not have were it habitual; so, everything ancient gains, from its relative novelty to us, an element of interest. Gradually as, by the growth of society, we leave behind the customs, manners, arrangements, and all the products, material and mental, of a bygone age—gradually as we recede from these so far that there arises a conspicuous difference between them and those we are familiar with; so gradually do they begin to assume to us a poetical aspect, and become applicable for ornament. And hence it follows that things and events which are close to us, and which are accompanied by associations of ideas not markedly contrasted with our ordinary associations, are relatively inappropriate for purposes of art. I say relatively because an incident of modern life or even of daily life may acquire adequate fitness for art purposes by an unusualness of some other kind than that due to unlikeness between past and present.