CONCERNING ZEITGEIST -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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A certain story is told about Mr. Ruskin, no doubt apocryphal, but at any rate characteristic. A young lady, fresh from the Abyss of Bayswater, met the sage one evening at dinner—a gushing young lady, as many such there be—who, aglow with joy, boarded the Professor at once with her private art-experiences. "Oh, Mr. Ruskin," she cried, clasping her hands, "do you know, I hadn't been two days in Florence before I discovered what you meant when you spoke about the supreme unapproachableness of Botticelli." "Indeed?" Ruskin answered. "Well, that's very remarkable; for it took me, myself, half a lifetime to discover it."

The answer, of course, was meant to be crushing. How should she, a brand plucked from the burning of Bayswater, be able all at once, on the very first blush, to appreciate Botticelli? And it took the greatest critic of his age half a lifetime! Yet I venture to maintain, for all that, that the young lady was right, and that the critic was wrong—if such a thing be conceivable. I know, of course, that when we speak of Ruskin we must walk delicately, like Agag. But still, I repeat it, the young lady was right; and it was largely the unconscious, pervasive action of Mr. Ruskin's own personality that enabled her to be so.

It's all the Zeitgeist: that's where it is. The slow irresistible Zeitgeist. Fifty years ago, men's taste had been so warped and distorted by current art and current criticism that they couldn't see Botticelli, however hard they tried at it. He was a sealed book to our fathers. In those days it required a brave, a vigorous, and an original thinker to discover any merit in any painter before Raffael, except perhaps, as Goldsmith wisely remarked, Perugino. The man who went then to the Uffizi or the Pitti, after admiring as in duty bound his High Renaissance masters, found himself suddenly confronted with the Judith or the Calumny, and straightway wondered what manner of strange wild beasts these were that some insane early Tuscan had once painted to amuse himself in a lucid interval. They were not in the least like the Correggios and the Guidos, the Lawrences and the Opies, that the men of that time had formed their taste upon, and accepted as their sole artistic standards. To people brought up upon pure David and Thorvaldsen, the Primavera at the Belle Arti must naturally have seemed like a wild freak of madness. The Zeitgeist then went all in the direction of cold lifeless correctness; the idea that the painter's soul counted for something in art was an undreamt of heresy.

On your way back from Paris some day, stop a night at Amiens and take the Cathedral seriously. Half the stately interior of that glorious thirteenth century pile is encrusted and overlaid by hideous gewgaw monstrosities of the flashiest Bernini and baroque period. There they sprawl their obtrusive legs and wave their flaunting theatrical wings to the utter destruction of all repose and consistency in one of the noblest and most perfect buildings of Europe. Nowadays, any child, any workman can see at a glance how ugly and how disfiguring those floppy creatures are; it is impossible to look at them without saying to oneself: "Why don't they clear away all this high-faluting rubbish, and let us see the real columns and arches and piers as their makers designed them?" Yet who was it that put them there, those unspeakable angels in muslin drapery, those fly-away nymphs and graces and seraphim? Why, the best and most skilled artists of their day in Europe. And whence comes it that the merest child can now see instinctively how out of place they are, how disfiguring, how incongruous? Why, because the Gothic revival has taught us all by degrees to appreciate the beauty and delicacy of a style which to our eighteenth century ancestors was mere barbaric mediævalism; has taught us to admire its exquisite purity, and to dislike the obstrusive introduction into its midst of incongruous and meretricious Bernini-like flimsiness.

The Zeitgeist has changed, and we have changed with it.

It is just the same with our friend Botticelli. Scarce a dozen years ago, it was almost an affectation to pretend you admired him. It is no affectation now. Hundreds of assorted young women from the Abyss of Bayswater may rise any morning here in sacred Florence and stand genuinely enchanted before the Adoration of the Kings, or the Venus who floats on her floating shell in a Botticellian ocean. And why? Because Leighton, Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, Strudwick, have led them slowly up to it by golden steps innumerable. Thirty years ago the art of the early Tuscan painters was something to us Northerners exotic, strange, unconnected, archæological. Gradually, it has been brought nearer and nearer to us on the walls of the Grosvenor and the New Gallery, till now he that runs may read; the ingenuous maiden, fished from the Abyss of Bayswater, can drink in at a glance what it took a Ruskin many years of his life and much slow development to attain to piecemeal.

That is just what all great men are for—to make the world accept as a truism in the generation after them what it rejected as a paradox in the generation before them.

Not, of course, that there isn't a little of affectation, and still more of fashion, to the very end in all of it. An immense number of people, incapable of genuinely admiring anything for its own sake at all, are anxious only to be told what they "ought to admire, don't you know," and will straightway proceed as conscientiously as they can to get up an admiration for it. A friend of mine told me a beautiful example. Two aspiring young women, of the limp-limbed, short-haired, æsthetic species, were standing rapt before the circular Madonna at the Uffizi. They had gazed at it long and lovingly, seeing it bore on its frame the magic name of Botticelli. Of a sudden one of the pair happened to look a little nearer at the accusing label. "Why, this is not Sandro," she cried, with a revulsion of disgust; "this is only Aless." And straightway they went off from the spot in high dudgeon at having been misled as they supposed into examining the work of "another person of the same name."

Need I point the moral of my apologue, in this age of enlightenment, by explaining, for the benefit of the junior members, that the gentleman's full name was really Alessandro, and that both abbreviations are impartially intended to cover his one and indivisible personality? The first half is official, like Alex.; the second affectionate and familiar, like Sandy.

Still, even after making due allowance for such humbugs as these, a vast residuum remains of people who, if born sixty years ago, could never by any possibility have been made to see there was anything admirable in Lippi, Botticelli, Giotto; but who, having been born thirty years ago, see it without an effort. Hundreds who read these lines must themselves remember the unmistakable thrill of genuine pleasure with which they first gazed upon the Fra Angelicos at San Marco, the Memlings at Bruges, the Giottos in the Madonna dell' Arena at Padua. To many of us, those are real epochs in our inner life. To the men of fifty years ago, the bare avowal itself would have seemed little short of affected silliness.

Is the change all due to the teaching of the teachers and the preaching of the preachers? I think not entirely. For, after all, the teachers and the preachers are but a little ahead of the age they live in. They see things earlier; they help to lead us up to them; but they do not wholly produce the revolutions they inaugurate. Humanity as a whole develops consistently along certain pre-established and predestined lines. Sooner or later, a certain point must inevitably be reached; but some of us reach it sooner, and most of us later. That's all the difference. Every great change is mainly due to the fact that we have all already attained a certain point in development. A step in advance becomes inevitable after that, and one after another we are sure to take it. In one word, what it needed a man of genius to see dimly thirty years ago, it needs a singular fool not to see clearly nowadays.

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