Reflections on the use of the vulgar and low elements in works of art

Reflections on the use of the vulgar and low elements in works of art

I call vulgar (common) all that does not speak to the mind, of which all the interest is addressed only to the senses. There are, no doubt, an infinite number of things vulgar in themselves from their material and subject. But as the vulgarity of the material can always be ennobled by the treatment, in respect of art the only question is that relating to the vulgarity in form. A vulgar mind will dishonor the most noble matter by treating it in a common manner. A great and noble mind, on the contrary, will ennoble even a common matter, and it will do so by superadding to it something spiritual and discovering in it some aspect in which this matter has greatness. Thus, for example, a vulgar historian will relate to us the most insignificant actions of a hero with a scrupulousness as great as that bestowed on his sublimest exploit, and will dwell as lengthily on his pedigree, his costume, and his household as on his projects and his enterprises. He will relate those of his actions that have the most grandeur in such wise that no one will perceive that character in them. On the contrary, a historian of genius, himself endowed with nobleness of mind, will give even to the private life and the least considerable actions of his hero an interest and a value that will make them considerable. Thus, again, in the matter of the plastic arts, the Dutch and Flemish painters have given proof of a vulgar taste; the Italians, and still more the ancient Greeks, of a grand and noble taste. The Greeks always went to the ideal; they rejected every vulgar feature, and chose no common subject.

A portrait painter can represent his model in a common manner or with grandeur; in a common manner if he reproduce the merely accidental details with the same care as the essential features, if he neglect the great to carry out the minutiae curiously. He does it grandly if he know how to find out and place in relief what is most interesting, and distinguish the accidental from the necessary; if he be satisfied with indicating what is paltry, reserving all the finish of the execution for what is great. And the only thing that is great is the expression of the soul itself, manifesting itself by actions, gestures, or attitudes.

The poet treats his subject in a common manner when in the execution of his theme he dwells on valueless facts and only skims rapidly over those that are important. He treats his theme with grandeur when he associates with it what is great. For example, Homer treated the shield of Achilles grandly, though the making of a shield, looking merely at the matter, is a very commonplace affair.

One degree below the common or the vulgar is the element of the base or gross, which differs from the common in being not only something negative, a simple lack of inspiration or nobleness, but something positive, marking coarse feelings, bad morals, and contemptible manners. Vulgarity only testifies that an advantage is wanting, whereof the absence is a matter of regret; baseness indicates the want of a quality which we are authorized to require in all. Thus, for example, revenge, considered in itself, in whatever place or way it manifests itself, is something vulgar, because it is the proof of a lack of generosity. But there is, moreover, a base vengeance, when the man, to satisfy it, employs means exposed to contempt. The base always implies something gross, or reminds one of the mob, while the common can be found in a well-born and well-bred man, who may think and act in a common manner if he has only mediocre faculties. A man acts in a common manner when he is only taken up with his own interest, and it is in this that he is in opposition with the really noble man, who, when necessary, knows how to forget himself to procure some enjoyment for others. But the same man would act in a base manner if he consulted his interests at the cost of his honor, and if in such a case he did not even take upon himself to respect the laws of decency. Thus the common is only the contrary of the noble; the base is the contrary both of the noble and the seemly. To give yourself up, unresisting, to all your passions, to satisfy all your impulses, without being checked even by the rules of propriety, still less by those of morality, is to conduct yourself basely, and to betray baseness of the soul.

The artist also may fall into a low style, not only by choosing ignoble subjects, offensive to decency and good taste, but moreover by treating them in a base manner. It is to treat a subject in a base manner if those sides are made prominent which propriety directs us to conceal, or if it is expressed in a manner that incidentally awakens low ideas. The lives of the greater part of men can present particulars of a low kind, but it is only a low imagination that will pick out these for representation.

There are pictures describing sacred history in which the Apostles, the Virgin, and even the Christ, are depicted in such wise that they might be supposed to be taken from the dregs of the populace. This style of execution always betrays a low taste, and might justly lead to the inference that the artist himself thinks coarsely and like the mob.

No doubt there are cases where art itself may be allowed to produce base images: for example, when the aim is to provoke laughter. A man of polished manners may also sometimes, and without betraying a corrupt taste, be amused by certain features when nature expresses herself crudely but with truth, and he may enjoy the contrast between the manners of polished society and those of the lower orders. A man of position appearing intoxicated will always make a disagreeable impression on us; but a drunken driver, sailor, or carter will only be a risible object. Jests that would be insufferable in a man of education amuse us in the mouth of the people. Of this kind are many of the scenes of Aristophanes, who unhappily sometimes exceeds this limit, and becomes absolutely condemnable. This is, moreover, the source of the pleasure we take in parodies, when the feelings, the language, and the mode of action of the common people are fictitiously lent to the same personages whom the poet has treated with all possible dignity and decency. As soon as the poet means only to jest, and seeks only to amuse, we can overlook traits of a low kind, provided he never stirs up indignation or disgust.

He stirs up indignation when he places baseness where it is quite unpardonable, that is in the case of men who are expected to show fine moral sense. In attributing baseness to them he will either outrage truth, for we prefer to think him a liar than to believe that well-trained men can act in a base manner; or his personages will offend our moral sense, and, what is worse, excite our imagination. I do not mean by this to condemn farces; a farce implies between the poet and the spectator a tacit consent that no truth is to be expected in the piece. In a farce we exempt the poet from all faithfulness in his pictures; he has a kind of privilege to tell us untruths. Here, in fact, all the comic consists exactly in its contrast with the truth, and so it cannot possibly be true.

This is not all: even in the serious and the tragic there are certain places where the low element can be brought into play. But in this case the affair must pass into the terrible, and the momentary violation of our good taste must be masked by a strong impression, which brings our passion into play. In other words, the low impression must be absorbed by a superior tragic impression. Theft, for example, is a thing absolutely base, and whatever arguments our heart may suggest to excuse the thief, whatever the pressure of circumstances that led him to the theft, it is always an indelible brand stamped upon him, and, aesthetically speaking, he will always remain a base object. On this point taste is even less forgiving than morality, and its tribunal is more severe; because an aesthetical object is responsible even for the accessory ideas that are awakened in us by such an object, while moral judgment eliminates all that is merely accidental. According to this view a man who robs would always be an object to be rejected by the poet who wishes to present serious pictures. But suppose this man is at the same time a murderer, he is even more to be condemned than before by the moral law. But in the aesthetic judgment he is raised one degree higher and made better adapted to figure in a work of art. Continuing to judge him from the aesthetic point of view, it may be added that he who abases himself by a vile action can to a certain extent be raised by a crime, and can be thus reinstated in our aesthetic estimation. This contradiction between the moral judgment and the aesthetical judgment is a fact entitled to attention and consideration. It may be explained in different ways. First, I have already said that, as the aesthetic judgment depends on the imagination, all the accessory ideas awakened in us by an object and naturally associated with it, must themselves influence this judgment. Now, if these accessory ideas are base, they infallibly stamp this character on the principal object.

In the second place, what we look for in the aesthetic judgment is strength; whilst in a judgment pronounced in the name of the moral sense we consider lawfulness. The lack of strength is something contemptible, and every action from which it may be inferred that the agent lacks strength is, by that very fact, a contemptible action. Every cowardly and underhand action is repugnant to us, because it is a proof of impotence; and, on the contrary, a devilish wickedness can, aesthetically speaking, flatter our taste, as soon as it marks strength. Now, a theft testifies to a vile and grovelling mind: a murder has at least on its side the appearance of strength; the interest we take in it aesthetically is in proportion to the strength that is manifested in it.

A third reason is, because in presence of a deep and horrible crime we no longer think of the quality but the awful consequences of the action. The stronger emotion covers and stifles the weaker one. We do not look back into the mind of the agent; we look onward into his destiny, we think of the effects of his action. Now, directly we begin to tremble all the delicacies of taste are reduced to silence. The principal impression entirely fills our mind: the accessory and accidental ideas, in which chiefly dwell all impressions of baseness, are effaced from it. It is for this reason that the theft committed by young Ruhberg, in the "Crime through Ambition," [a play of Iffland] far from displeasing on the stage, is a real tragic effect. The poet with great skill has managed the circumstances in such wise that we are carried away; we are left almost breathless. The frightful misery of the family, and especially the grief of the father, are objects that attract our attention, turn it aside, from the person of the agent, towards the consequences of his act. We are too much moved to tarry long in representing to our minds the stamp of infamy with which the theft is marked. In a word, the base element disappears in the terrible. It is singular that this theft, really accomplished by young Ruhberg, inspires us with less repugnance than, in another piece, the mere suspicion of a theft, a suspicion which is actually without foundation. In the latter case it is a young officer who is accused without grounds of having abstracted a silver spoon, which is recovered later on. Thus the base element is reduced in this case to a purely imaginary thing, a mere suspicion, and this suffices nevertheless to do an irreparable injury, in our aesthetical appreciation, to the hero of the piece, in spite of his innocence. This is because a man who is supposed capable of a base action did not apparently enjoy a very solid reputation for morality, for the laws of propriety require that a man should be held to be a man of honor as long as he does not show the opposite. If therefore anything contemptible is imputed to him, it seems that by some part of his past conduct he has given rise to a suspicion of this kind, and this does him injury, though all the odious and the base in an undeserved suspicion are on the side of him who accuses. A point that does still greater injury to the hero of the piece of which I am speaking is the fact that he is an officer, and the lover of a lady of condition brought up in a manner suitable to her rank. With these two titles, that of thief makes quite a revolting contrast, and it is impossible for us, when we see him near his lady, not to think that perhaps at that very moment he had the silver spoon in his pocket. Lastly, the most unfortunate part of the business is, that he has no idea of the suspicion weighing over him, for if he had a knowledge of it, in his character of officer, he would exact a sanguinary reparation. In this case the consequences of the suspicion would change to the terrible, and all that is base in the situation would disappear.

We must distinguish, moreover, between the baseness of feeling and that which is connected with the mode of treatment and circumstance. The former in all respects is below aesthetic dignity; the second in many cases may perfectly agree with it. Slavery, for example, is abase thing; but a servile mind in a free man is contemptible. The labors of the slave, on the contrary, are not so when his feelings are not servile. Far from this, a base condition, when joined to elevated feelings, can become a source of the sublime. The master of Epictetus, who beat him, acted basely, and the slave beaten by him showed a sublime soul. True greatness, when it is met in a base condition, is only the more brilliant and splendid on that account: and the artist must not fear to show us his heroes even under a contemptible exterior as soon as he is sure of being able to give them, when he wishes, the expression of moral dignity.

But what can be granted to the poet is not always allowed in the artist. The poet only addresses the imagination; the painter addresses the senses directly. It follows not only that the impression of the picture is more lively than that of the poem, but also that the painter, if he employ only his natural signs, cannot make the minds of his personages as visible as the poet can with the arbitrary signs at his command: yet it is only the sight of the mind that can reconcile us to certain exteriors. When Homer causes his Ulysses to appear in the rags of a beggar ["Odyssey," book xiii. v. 397], we are at liberty to represent his image to our mind more or less fully, and to dwell on it as long as we like. But in no case will it be sufficiently vivid to excite our repugnance or disgust. But if a painter, or even a tragedian, try to reproduce faithfully the Ulysses of Homer, we turn away from the picture with repugnance. It is because in this case the greater or less vividness of the impression no longer depends on our will: we cannot help seeing what the painter places under our eyes; and it is not easy for us to remove the accessory repugnant ideas which the picture recalls to our mind.