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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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On Encouragement of Art.

by Professor Patrick Geddes.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 585-589


With regard to the historical encouragement of art I shall assume without argument that we are all broadly agreed that in the great communes of the middle ages, which present so many political and industrial analogies to our own times, the public encouragement of art was organic, i.e. was the public expression of the individual and guild activities and interests and sympathies; that the municipal encouragement of art was effected by people who had a considerable amount of art in their domestic lives, out of which the unparalleled splendour of their public life, both temporal and spiritual, naturally arose. The craftsmen of Ghent building their guild-houses, and then the collective guilds the Hotel de Ville--that I take as an actual typical and normal state of things, and the ideal one as well. The criticisms of South Kensington, which we hear on all sides, are evidences that the opposite method cannot satisfy us; in Britain, at least, no such central bureaucracy can answer its purpose.

The advocates of national and municipal encouragement of art, particularly among artists, very often speak as if all that were needed were the voting of abundant subsidies from the central and local governments for art teaching, or for the employment of artists; that is to say, they are in this matter at least--although of course frequently like M. Jourdain without knowing it--State Socialists of the most distinct sort. Nothing, for instance, seems to them more obvious than that the State or municipality should protect us from ugly buildings. But, since the State, like any other purchaser, must know what it is paying for, State support logically and inevitably carries with it State control. A detailed historical inquiry into the various results of public encouragement in France would here be needed, and while on the one side the well-known policy of Colbert and his successors might be shown to have had beneficial results, at least as much would also be urged on the opposite side, and this on artistic grounds above and beyond those of the excessive costliness so notorious of State industries in general.

Consider for a moment what is by far the most vast and costly example of national and municipal organisation of art in modern times, that of the reconstruction of Paris under the second Empire. A certain impressiveness of result is of course undeniable, and the wide imitation of this procedure among the cities of the world has therefore been natural enough. Yet it is probable that there is no longer any person reasonably acquainted with either the artistic or the economic merits of the case who shares this popular optimism. Here one begins to weary of the blank and dreary architectural monotony of interminable boulevards; another to mourn the exchange of the old varied colour for mere whiteness, of light and shadow for mere polished flatness, of quaint irregularity for mechanical finish of ornament and moulding. Another comes to realize the crime of the deliberate and purposeful destruction of well-nigh every house most memorable throughout the historic city. The artist too will understand better the dangers of the national and municipal encouragement of art, for which he is apt too uncritically to clamour, when he considers what it really means to the practice of architecture in France--this continuance not only of the architecture policy, but even the architectural formality of the Empire twenty years after its fall. Here is a community which, albeit in painting and in sculpture the centre of the most splendid activity, of the most abounding originality and skill, remains for practical purposes absolutely fixed in architecture, and this at a level far below that of recent architecture in any of our more important British cities, London, Manchester, or even Glasgow. That ideas and men are not wanting, the stately facades and domes, the polychromatic splendours of the exposition abundantly show. Why, then, this architectural monotony, which even in its vastest public efforts, as in the Ecole de Medecine, or the Palais de Justice, has constructed only a vast sarcophagus of thought? The answer is inevitable. The Paris architect is in no respect a free agent: He is in the iron grip of omnipotent officialism; he cannot do anything really new or good; he must religiously stick to forms outworn, because forsooth of the very carefulness and completeness of the national and municipal ' encouragement' of his art. In the same way, too, the economist knows of the crushing financial pressure of taxation upon a debt which centuries will hardly pay, and the physician and hygienist have long proclaimed the constant depression of the working population--that is, of course, of the majority of the citizens--through this city 'improvement' falsely so called--false too in every respect. Their house accommodation, diminished and more remote from work, is also now far costlier: high taxation has rendered food relatively scarce and dear, while the transformations of all the old quarters, and the enormous speculation associated with these, have increased the irregularity of employment. Even the very broadness of the streets has been purchased at the expense of the depressed health of the rising generation, since the open boulevards have been so largely made by the sacrifice of the internal gardens for which old Paris was so noteworthy; these being too often now represented only by a narrow court, or rather well, of fetid stagnant air. These thirty years, however, all men in authority, from the municipal councilors of old Brussels or old Rouen to the Khedive and the Shah, have been going to Paris in rapt delight, and returning to imitate the same smashing policy of would-be civic improvement, but really of civic ruin. From Rouen to Vienna, from Cairo to Algiers, the past generation of sweeping 'improvement' has wrought a more wasteful and wanton destruction of all that future generations would most have valued, than had all their confused past, their centuries of mingled neglect and war.

Take again the case of colleges and schools; that wildest of all the hallucinations which have been current during the past generation--that artistic or other attainment is a function of examinations passed, instead of impressions taken in--is still partially current even in France. The attitude of the art-student too is not only as far as possible carefully kept intellectual where it should be primarily sensuous, but is also analytic where it should be synthetic, the spelling, parsing, and analysis repeated in two or three different languages which has done duty with most people for an education, being simply carried in principle into art without more ado. In a technical school at present, for instance, we can probably all realize the reasoned absurdity of analyzing the operations of the art of carpentry into sawing, planning, dovetailing, and the like, and, similarly, that of metal-work into filing, chiseling, and what not, and then keeping the pupils for a month on each of these until they leave the school, having made nothing whatsoever save good wood and metal into shavings and filings, and acquired a disgust for handiwork for evermore. This actual instance of applied parsing in the destructive analysis of a handicraft is simply the conventional method of art teaching.

Associated with this too we have a similar mischief wrought by the of course equally unconscious exaggeration of the principle of division of labour. Hence in a day-school, technical school or college alike we have the school of art as completely isolated from the other departments as the chemical laboratory. The conception of the art school as the centre from which the whole school might be beautified is as yet nowhere recognized: the art teacher is not even allowed to 'meddle' (it would be called) with the general internal colouring of the building; yet he and his students are not only expected to discriminate good colour when they see it, but to acquire, without practice in real work of any kind, the power of laying it on. So they wade through long corridors of dirty colour to their, at best, colourless class-room, there to commence those highly intellectual labors which are alone recognized as counting towards the acquisition of the ultimate amulet or certificate. Yet so great is the vitality of youth, one here and there survives his education, and after a period of convalescence may be able to begin afresh in Paris, or even by himself. Such persons are then proudly described by the school as its successes, and the system is thus protected on all sides from sacrilegious change.

Here, however, is again one of our strategic possibilities of leavening towards the national and municipal encouragement of art--through the schools. Even the Universities are not necessarily hopeless--the new Sorbonne is this year being frescoed by the greatest master; while more magnificent still, the Paris Municipal Council proposes to begin the thorough mural decoration of the Paris schools. The vast issues of this, educational and artistic, would each need a separate paper for their exposition and development; but assuming the practical expediency of following this example, how is it to be done with us? Easily, I maintain. Every year, as Secretary of the local efforts at public decoration, I meet members of some school board who are half disposed to risk the revolutionizing of their dreary whitewashed jail in which lessons are still essentially learned parrot-wise by ear, into a paradise of childhood in which the noblest lessons would be blazoned in gold and colour upon the memory through life. Our way, then, of private initiative instead of governmental compulsion is simple enough. A good start once made there is little fear but that the example will spread. How the younger artists would thus be developed and fitted for greater (if indeed there be greater) tasks; how the central art school would rise to the occasion; how the pupils of the art classes of the school itself would be stirred for life by the actual sight of something at last which was not a wearisome colourless outline or shadow upon paper, and going up to South Kensington, but a colourful reality to which even South Kensington would have in time penitentially to come down--these are only examples of the consequences.

It is indeed only to the children who have not yet to grow up in these conditions that our section can fully address itself; it is for them with their active and constructive discipline instead of the present merely critical and analytic instruction that it must mainly wait. We are as yet only making preparations; here peeling rods, or there spreading leaven.

While the decoration of colleges and schools is thus certainly one of the most important and expedient of all beginnings, it need not by any means be the only one. There are opportunities for mural decorations everywhere; but nowhere more so than in Edinburgh. We need a scale of public decorative work, from the simplest copying and enlargement of good examples in monochrome to the execution of monumental designs in colour; and from brightening of the humblest sick-room up to the permanent historic adornment of the greatest public buildings.

[The above fragment of a paper will give our readers an idea--though a very imperfect one--of Prof. Gedde's inspiring teaching on "Contemporary Social Evolution" given in the course of twenty Lectures at the "Edinburgh Summer Meeting."]