by Camille Saint-Saens
What is Art?
Art is a mystery—something which responds to a special sense, peculiar to the human race. This is ordinarily called the esthetic sense, but that is an inexact term, for esthetic sense signifies a sense of the beautiful and what is esthetic is not necessarily beautiful. Sense of style would be better.
Some of the savage races have this sense of style, for their arms and utensils show a remarkable feeling for style, which they lose by contact with civilization.
By art let us understand, if you please, the Fine Arts alone, but including decorative art. Music ought to be included.
I shall surprise most of my readers, when I say that very few people understand music. For most people it is, as Victor Hugo said, an exhalation of art—something for the ear as perfume is for the olfactory sense, a source of vague sensations, necessarily unformed as all sensations are. But musical art is something entirely different. It has line, modeling, color through instrumentation, all making up an ideal sphere where some, like the writer of these lines, live from childhood on, which others attain through education, while many others never know it at all. Furthermore, musical art has more movement than the other fine arts. It is the most mysterious of them all, although the others are mysterious as it is easy to see.
The first manifestation of art occurs through attempts to reproduce objects. Such attempts have been found which date back to prehistoric times. But what is primitive man’s idea in such attempts? He wants to record by a line the contour of the object, the likeness of which he wishes to preserve. This contour and this line do not exist in nature. The whole philosophy of art is in that crude drawing. It bases itself on nature even while making something quite different in response to a special, inexplicable need of the human spirit. Accordingly nothing can be more chimerical or vain than the advice so often given to the artist to be truthful. Art can never be true, even though it should not be false. It should be true artistically, by giving an artistic translation which will satisfy the sense of style of which we have spoken. When Art has satisfied this sense of style, the object of artistic expression has been attained; nothing more can be asked. But it is not the “vain effort of an unproductive cleverness,” as our M. de Mun has said; it is an effort to satisfy a legitimate need, one of the loftiest and most honorable in human nature—the need of art.
If this is so, why should we demand that Art be useful or moral? It is both in its own way, for it awakens noble and honest sentiments in the soul. That was the opinion of Theophile Gautier, but Victor Hugo disagreed. The sun is beautiful, he used to say, and it is useful. That is true, but the sun is not an object of art. Besides, how many times Victor Hugo denied his own doctrine by writing verses which were merely brilliant descriptions or admirable bits of imagination?
We are, however, talking of art and not of literature. Literature becomes art in poetry but forsakes it in prose. Even if some of the great prose writers rendered their prose artistic through the beauty and harmony of their periods and the picturesqueness of their expressions, still prose is not art in its real nature. So, crude indecency aside, what would be immoral in prose ceases to be immoral in verse, for in poetry Art follows its own code and form transcends the subject matter. That is why a great poet, Sully-Prudhomme, preferred prose to verse when he wanted to write philosophically, for he feared, on account of the superiority of form to substance in poetry, that his ideas would not be taken seriously. That explains as well why parents take young girls to hear an opera, when if the same piece was played without music they would be appalled at the idea. What Christian is ever shocked by La Juive or Catholic frightened away from Les Huguenots?
Because prose is far removed from art, it is unsuited to music, despite the fact that this ill-assorted union is fashionable to-day? In poetry there has been an effort to make it so artistic that form alone is considered and verse is written which is entirely without sense. But that is a fad which can’t last long.
Sometime ago M. de Mun said:
“Not to take sides is what the author is inhibited from doing. Art, to my way of thinking, is a setting forth of ideas. If it is not that—if it limits itself solely to considerations of form, to a worship of beauty for its own sake, without regard to the deeds and thoughts it brings to light, then it seems to me no better than the vain effort of an unproductive cleverness.”
The eminent speaker is absolutely right as far as prose is concerned, but we cannot agree with him if poetry is considered.
Victor Hugo, in his marvellous ode, La Lyre et La Harpe brings Paganism and Christianity face to face. Each speaks in turn, and the poet in his last stanza seems to acknowledge that both are right, but that does not prevent the ode from being a masterpiece. That would not be possible in prose, but in the poem the poetry carries all before it.
Why is it that geniuses like Victor Hugo, distinguished minds, thinkers, and profound critics, refuse to see that Art is a special entity which responds to a certain sense? If Art accommodates itself marvellously, if it accords itself with the precepts of morality and passion, it is nevertheless sufficient unto itself—and in its self-sufficiency lies its heights of greatness.
The first prelude of Sebastian Bach’s Wohltemperirte Klavier expresses nothing, and yet that is one of the marvels of music. The Venus de Milo expresses nothing, and it is one of the marvels of sculpture.
To tell the truth, it is proper to add that in order not to be immoral Art must appeal to those who have a feeling for it. Where the artist sees only beautiful forms, the gross see only nudity. I have seen a good man scandalized at the sight of Ingres’s La Source.
Just as morality has no function to be artistic, so Art has nothing to do with morality. Both have their own functions, and each is useful in its own way. The final aim of morality is morality; of art, art, and nothing else.
Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich , edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005. Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.