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An essay by George Augustus Moore

Art And Science

Title:     Art And Science
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

"Mr. Goschen," said a writer in a number of the _Speaker_, "deserves credit for having successfully resisted the attempt to induce him to sacrifice the interests of science at South Kensington to those of art." An excellent theme it seemed to me for an article; but the object of the writer being praise of Mr. Tate for his good intention, the opportunity was missed of distinguishing between the false claims of art and the real claims of science to public patronage and protection. True it is that to differentiate between art and science is like drawing distinctions between black and white; and in excuse I must plead the ordinary vagueness and weakness of the public mind, its inability very often to differentiate between things the most opposed, and a very general tendency to attempt to justify the existence of art on the grounds of utility--that is to say, educational influences and the counter attraction that a picture gallery offers to the public-house on Bank Holidays. Such reasoning is well enough at political meetings, but it does not find acceptance among thinkers. It is merely the flower of foolish belief that nineteenth century wisdom is greater than the collective instinct of the ages; that we are far in advance of our forefathers in religion, in morals, and in art. We are only in advance of our forefathers in science. In art we have done little more than to spoil good canvas and marble, and not content with such misdeeds, we must needs insult art by attributing to her utilitarian ends and moral purposes.

Modern puritanism dares not say abolish art; so in thinly disguised speech it is pleaded that art is not nearly so useless as might easily be supposed; and it is often seriously urged that art may be reconciled after all with the most approved principles of humanitarianism, progress, and religious belief. Such is still the attitude of many Englishmen towards art. But art needs none of these apologists, even if we have to admit that the domestic utility of a Terburg is not so easily defined as that of mixed pickles or umbrellas. Another serious indictment is that art appeals rather to the few than to the many. True, indeed; and yet art is the very spirit and sense of the many. Yes; and all that is most national in us, all that is most sublime, and all that is most imperishable. The art of a nation is an epitome of the nation's intelligence and prosperity. There is no such thing as cosmopolitanism in art? alas! there is, and what a pitiful thing that thing is.

Unhappy is he who forgets the morals, the manners, the customs, the material and spiritual life of his country! England can do without any one of us, but not one of us can do without England. Study the question in the present, study it in the past, and you will find but one answer to your question--art is nationhood. All the great artistic epochs have followed on times of national enthusiasm, power, energy, spiritual and corporal adventure. When Greece was divided into half-a-dozen States she produced her greatest art. The same with Italy; and Holland, after having rivalled Greece in heroic effort, gave birth in the space of a single generation to between twenty and thirty great painters. And did not our Elizabethan drama follow close upon the defeat of the Armada, the discovery of America, and the Reformation? And did not Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney begin to paint almost immediately after the victories of Marlborough? To-day our empire is vast, and as our empire grows so does our art lessen. Literature still survives, though even there symptoms of decadence are visible. The Roman, the Chinese, and the Mahometan Empires are not distinguished for their art. But outside of the great Chinese Empire there lies a little State called Japan, which, without knowledge of Egypt or Greece, purely out of its own consciousness, evolved an art strangely beautiful and wholly original.

And as we continue to examine the question we become aware that no further progress in art is possible; that art reached its apogee two thousand five hundred years ago. True that Michael Angelo in the figures of "Day" and "Night", in the "Slave", in the "Moses", and in the "Last Judgment"--which last should be classed as sculpture--stands very, very close indeed to Phidias; his art is more complete and less perfect. But three hundred years have gone since the death of Michael Angelo, and to get another like him the world would have to be steeped in the darkness of another Middle Age. And, passing on in our inquiry, we notice that painting reached its height immediately after Michael Angelo's death. Who shall rival the splendours, the profusion of Veronese, the opulence of Tintoretto, the richness of Titian, the pomp of Rubens? Or who shall challenge the technical beauty of Velasquez or of Hals, or the technical dexterity of Terburg, or Metzu, or Dow, or Adrian van Ostade? Passing on once again, we notice that art appears and disappears mysteriously like a ghost. It comes unexpectedly upon a people, and it goes in spite of artistic education, State help, picture dealers, and annual exhibitions. We notice, too, that art is wholly untransmissible; nay, more, the fact that art is with us to-day is proof that art will not be with us to-morrow. Art cannot be acquired, nor can those who have art in their souls tell how it came there, or how they practise it. Art cannot be repressed, encouraged, or explained; it is something that transcends our knowledge, even as the principle of life.

Now I take it that science differs from art on all these points. Science is not national, it is essentially cosmopolitan. The science of one country is the same as that of another country. It is impossible to tell by looking at it whether the phonograph was invented in England or America. Unlike art, again, science is essentially transmissible; every discovery leads of necessity to another discovery, and the fact that science is with us to-day proves that science will be still more with us to-morrow. Nothing can extinguish science except an invasion of barbarians, and the barbarians that science has left alive would hardly suffice. Art has its limitations, science has none. It would, however, be vain to pursue our differentiation any further. It must be clear that what are most opposed in this world are art and science; therefore--I think I can say therefore--all the arguments I used to show that a British Luxembourg would be prejudicial to the true interests of art may be used in favour of the endowment of a college of science at South Kensington. Why should not the humanitarianism of Mr. Tate induce him to give his money to science instead of to art? As well build a hothouse for swallows to winter in as a British Luxembourg; but science is a good old barn-door fowl; build her a hen-roost, and she will lay you eggs, and golden eggs. Give your money to science, for there is an evil side to every other kind of almsgiving. It is well to save life, but the world is already overstocked with life; and in saving life one may be making the struggle for existence still more unendurable for those who come after. But in giving your money to science you are accomplishing a definite good; the results of science have always been beneficent. Science will alleviate the wants of the world more wisely than the kindest heart that ever beat under the robe of a Sister of Mercy; the hands of science are the mercifulest in the end, and it is science that will redeem man's hope of Paradise.

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George Moore's essay: Art And Science