Plus ca change…

From Arthur Davison Ficke’s Chats on Japanese Prints (1915):

Much is said unwisely about the elevating and educative power of art. The man in the street has come to believe that the elevating force resides in the theme which a work of art presents–that a picture of Galahad riding for the Grail is a lofty thing, and that a picture of the wings of the theatre during a ballet is a base one. Hence has arisen that unspeakably childish modern school of middle-class painters whose “pictures with a story”–generally a sentimental or edifying story–are the terror of the art-lover. After them, no wonder that even the Cubists came as a relief.

As every artist knows, the elevating power that resides in the mere subject of a picture has at best no more force than a moral maxim; the mind may assent to it, but the heart is unmoved. The same may be said in the case of a poem. The glory of poetry is not that it furnishes elevated sentiments in rhyme for public speakers to quote, but that it embodies music and thought combined in so fitly proportioned and expressive a structure that the reader carries away with him a certain acquaintance with perfection and a lasting desire for ideal beauty in everything.

Thus it is only through its power to cultivate the spectator’s sense of form that art may be called elevating. Close familiarity with the productions of great artists gradually develops in the spectator an understanding of proportion, harmony, and conscious design, evoking in him the ability to perceive and even create order and freedom.

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