Social Process

Chapter 35: Art and Social Idealism

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE art ideal is one of joyous self-expression. It appeals to the imagination because it seeks to bring in a higher freedom by making our activity individual and creative. There is nothing more inspiring, I think, than the lives of brave artists; they seem the pioneers of a better civilization. I am delighted to know that Ruysdael, by love and devotion, put himself into his landscapes and expressed things which others delight to find there. Indeed, I care much less for the landscapes than for this fact of personal self-realization: it gives me a breath of hope and joy, and encourages me in the practice of an art of my own.

The pleasure of creative work and the sharing of this by those who appreciate the product is in fact an almost unlimited source of possible joy. Unlike the pleasure of possessing things we win from others, it increases the more we share it, taking us out of the selfish atmosphere of every-day competition. A work of art is every man's friend and benefactor, and when we hear a good violinist, or see a good play, or read a good book, we are not punished for our pleasure by the sense of having had it at some one else's expense. The artist seems the divine

(411) man; he is free and creative, Re God, and gives without taking away.

It is everywhere the nature of art to show us order and beauty in life. It takes the confused and distracting reality and, by omitting the irrelevant and giving life and color to the significant, enables us to see the real as the ideal. In every-day reality we are like ants in the grass for the bigness of detail: in art we see the landscape. It enlarges, supples, generalizes the mind, giving us life in selected and simplified impressions. Thus almost any genuine art cheers and composes the spirit. One of Millet's peasants, "The Sower," for example, or one of Thomas Hardy's people, differs from anything of the sort we might see more directly as a mournful song differs from the jangle of actual grief: it "reveals man in the repose of his unchanging characteristics," and deepens our sense of life. So in these noisy and unrestful times people flock to the motion-picture shows, or buy cheap fiction, in an eager quest of the ideal. How idle it is to deprecate, justly or otherwise, the poor taste of the masses, as if art were a matter of mere refinement, and not of urgent need 

Beyond this general function of disengaging the ideal, art has, more particularly, that of defining and animating our ideals of human progress. While the severest solitary thought is necessary in understanding society and in framing plans for its improvement, we must look to the drama and the novel, also to poetry, music, painting, sculpture and architecture, to put flesh and blood upon these abstractions and give them a real hold on the minds of the people. I cannot imagine any broad and rich growth of democracy without a corresponding develop-

( 412) -ment of popular art, and one of many indications that our democracy is as yet immature and superficial is its failure to achieve such a development. Our vision of our country is loyal, no doubt, but not deep, mellow, many-colored. The flavor of our civilization is like that of the thin maple-sap just from the tree, not much condensed or deposited in saccharine crystals.

Again, nothing has more power than art to enlarge human sympathy and unite the individual to his fellows. We feel this strongly now and then, as when a multitude rises to sing a patriotic song, but it belongs to all art whose material is drawn from the general human life. And it is in the nature of the higher kinds of art to draw from this general life, where alone idealism has any secure resting-place. So all great art makes us feel our oneness with mankind, and the grandeur of the common lot: the tragedy of King Lear, say, or the Book of Job, or the mediaeval churches, or the figures of Michelangelo, or the great symphonies. It is full of noble reminiscence, and of " touches of things human till they rise to touch the spheres."

Beethoven said that "the purpose of music is to bring about a oneness of emotion, and thus suggest to our minds the coming time of a universal brotherhood," and certainly nothing can do more than popular art to make such a time possible. As music can melt us into a oneness of emotion, so drama and fiction cam arouse and enlarge our social imaginations until we feel the common nature in people who before seemed strange or hostile to us. In this way, for example, Americans learn to find interest and value in the many-colored life of immigrants from Europe.

For much the same reason any high kind of social or-

( 413) -ganization, one that lives in the spirit Of the people and is not a mere mechanism, must exist largely through the medium of art, which chiefly has power to animate collective ideals. Those nations whose national aspirations are incarnated and glorified by poetry and painting may justly claim, in this respect, a higher civilization than those whose achievements are merely political, scientific, and industrial. If democracy is to do for the world all it hopes to do, it must develop greatly on this side; especially since a system that is to be worked by the masses is peculiarly dependent upon the diffusion of its ideals.

There is the closest possible relation in principle between the idea of art and that of democracy. The former, like the latter, exalts the inner self-reliance of the individual, saying "look in thy heart and write," or paint, or sing, or whatever the mode of expression may be. The artist, in the act of creation, is always free, he is attending to, bringing to clearness and realizing that which is revealed to him alone, unfolding his highest individuality in the service of the whole, precisely as each citizen is called to do in a real democracy. And in fact there is nothing more democratic than a community of artists, just because of their preoccupation with what is intrinsic and individual.

Moreover the art-spirit, accustomed to cherish individuality, tends to make us impatient of social conditions that are hostile to it. It hates repression and demands democracy as the basis of tolerable living. If we find that our fellow citizens lack self-expression our own life participates in their degradation. It is hardly imaginable that a real artist should be a formalist or a snob. The fact that we are so largely content with products

( 414) that have no art or individuality in them really indicates a lack of higher freedom in ourselves, a low sense of personality and a domination by lifeless conventions.

If artists and lovers of art are often conservative as regards projects of social improvement, this may perhaps be ascribed to the need of sensitive natures for tranquillity, or to their sense of the value of conventions as a foundation for perfected works.

It is true that art culture requires leisure, but not more than we all ought to have, or than the majority, even now, do have. And idleness is hostile to it, because spiritually unhealthy. A man who is in the habit of doing an honest day's work, manual or intellectual, will be in a better state to appreciate music or painting, other things equal, than one who is not. His whole being is more normal, more ethical, better prepared for a higher life. And so private wealth is often more a hindrance than a help.

If there be truth in the idea that only a minority can share the life of art, which is questionable, at any rate this minority, in a democratic society, will be one not of wealth or exceptional leisure, or even of education, but of intrinsic sensibility.

There are those who think that something wholly new is to be looked for in an art of democracy, and I suppose that in fact a larger human spirit will be found in the ideals it expresses or implies, just as every social product must reflect the spirit of the age. I do not see, however, that the general conceptions and methods of art, as the great tradition brings them to us, require any change.

Certainly art will never be commonplace or uniform,

( 415) but always select, distinctive, and as various as life--even as democracy itself is a larger expression of human nature, and not the vulgarizing thing that its opponents have tried to make it out.

Nor will art ever be cheap, in a spiritual sense, and if it is so in a material sense it will be because it is supported and diffused by the community. Devotion to an ideal, material sacrifice, and the higher self-reliance, will always belong to the career of a real artist, as they always have. And as to the appreciator, he must earn his joy by attention, self-culture, and virtue. The only way that masses, under a democratic or any other order, can rise into a higher life, is by becoming worthy of it. A best-seller or a motion-picture show appealing to the superficial and undisciplined sentiment of a million people is not the art we look for, though it may be better than none at all. I take it that we should try for a real culture and self-expression without concerning ourselves primarily with numbers, beyond providing for the diffusion of opportunity. Walt Whitman's verse, so far as it is a noble expression of freedom and brotherhood, is good democratic art, though it has never been popular; but there is nothing especially democratic about the crudity which impairs it; and our New England poets are in no respect more truly American and democratic than in a moral refinement scarcely matched in any other school. If we are to have a form of art that is good in itself and also popular, this will come about, I suppose, by the mutual influence of a line of artists and an appreciating public, each educating and stimulating the other, until the movement penetrates the mass of the people, as has been the case with certain forms of art in Renaissance Italy, or in contemporary France.

( 416)

We must not forget that democracy is itself one of the arts of a free people. I mean that the common man may find expression in a varied, intelligent, and joyous participation in the community life, outside of working-hours; in the conduct of towns, churches, schools, and other popular institutions, and in communal sports and recreations. There is a great deal of this now, and the possibilities are infinite.

And along with this we need a real art of democratic intercourse, disciplined and considerate, which shall give all of us the joy of self-expression and of feeling that others are expressing themselves in like freedom.\

There are many who doubt whether self-expression, and therefore an art-spirit, is possible along with the specialization of modern work. But it is not clear that specialization as such can destroy this spirit, even in the task itself, provided one is conscious of working for a worthy whole. The mediaeval cathedrals were built by groups of masons, each of whom, no doubt, had his own special and for the most part humble task. If all shared the productive joy, as it is thought they did, it must have been because the work as a whole appealed nobly to the imagination, because there was fellowship and esprit de corps among the members of the group, and because each man felt free to use his intelligence and taste within his own sphere. If your work is suited to you, and you delight in the whole to which it contributes, the chief conditions of an art spirit are present.

It is not so certain as is often alleged that modern factory work, in its actual detail, is and must remain mere drudgery. In general, it is good management to give a man the most intelligent work he is fit for, and, in gen-

(417) -eral, this kind of work will evoke most interest and self-expression. Much of what appears to be drudgery to an onlooker is not really so-there is commonly more room for skill and individuality in manual work than is apparent from the outside--and what is really so should tend to be eliminated by better training and placing, more considerate management, a better spirit of co-operation, and other probable improvements.

No doubt the free play of individuality, for most of us, must be sought outside of working-hours, but there should be something of self-expression and the spirit of art in all work.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of our idealism is that it does not imagine living social wholes. So strong is the individualist tradition in America and England that we hardly permit ourselves to aspire toward an ideal society directly, but think that we must approach it by some distributive formula, like "the greatest good of the greatest number." Such formulas are unsatisfying to human nature, however justly they may give one aspect of the truth. The ideal society must be an organic whole, capable of being conceived directly, and requiring to be so conceived if it is to lay hold upon our imaginations. Do we not all feel the dispersive, numerical, uninspiring character of "the greatest good of the greatest number" as a call to faith and action? It is like covering a canvas with ten thousand human figures an inch high and crying: "Behold the ideal man!" No number, however vast, and no aggregation of merely individual good can satisfy the need of the imagination for a unitary conception. It is well to dwell at times on personal opportunity, comfort, self-expression, and the like, but at other times,

( 418) and especially times of spiritual exaltation, we must have the vision of a larger good.

And our conception of life as a race in which every one must have a fair start, is useful but inadequate. It overstresses competition and fails to set before us worthy objects of endeavor. We need a conception more affirmative and inspiring, which shall above all give us something worth while to live for, something that appeals to imagination, hope, and love.

I think those nations were not wholly wrong who, rejecting the extreme doctrines of utilitarian individualism, have maintained the idea and feeling of a transcendent collective reality. Hegel's view that " the state is the march of God in the world" appears mystical to us, but is in reality no more so than our exaltation of the individual. It is true that in Germany the dominant classes seized upon this doctrine of an ideal whole and made it an instrument for exploiting the masses of the people. But we constantly see that great truths are used for selfish ends, and we have a close parallel in the exploitation of the idea of individual freedom by English and American commercialism to maintain its own ascendancy.

The idealization of the state, the impressing of a unitary life upon the hearts of the people by tradition, poetry, music, architecture, national celebrations and memorials, and by a religion and philosophy teaching the individual that he is a member of a glorious whole to which he owes devotion, is in line with the needs of human nature, however it may be degraded in use by reactionary aims. Our country is backward, inferior to countries far less fortunate, in the richness, beauty, and moral authority of its public life. Our freedom is too commonly cold, harsh, and spiritually poor, and hence not really free. Let us hope that

( 419) no theories may deter us from building up a national ideal of which love, beauty, and religion can be a part. We need a collective life which, without repressing individuality, personal or local, shall afford central emblems that all may look up to and a discipline in which all may share.

A deeper community spirit is needed throughout our society. Our towns, cities, and country neighborhoods should have more unity, individuality, and pride, with the local traditions, art, fellowship, and public institutions that express these. We want popular choruses, pageants, social centres, local arts and crafts, an indigenous painting, architecture, and sculpture, a vivid communal life leading up from the neighborhood to the nation.[1]

Our idea of our country has plenty of vigor but lacks definite forms into which to flow. It does not sufficiently connect with real life, and, in ordinary times, is too commonly ineffective in raising us out of selfishness and confusion. Our picture of the republic is mostly a child's sketch, without beauty of form or depth and harmony of color.

The direct and moving vision of the nation is sometimes to be had in our literature, though by no means in such various and familiar forms as we need. You will find it, for example, in Lowell's ode, read in 1865 to commemorate Harvard students lost in the Civil War. I will

( 420) not quote from it at length because its spirit is too impassioned to be congruous here, but read the ode as a whole, or the last two strophes, or even the concluding lines, beginning

"O Beautiful! my Country ! ours once more !
Smoothing thy gold of wax-dishevelled hair"

and you will see what I mean.

Ideals of human wholes like the community, the nation, the Commonwealth of Man, merge indistinguishably into the conception of a greater life, the object of faith and hope, continuous in some way with ours, but immeasurably transcending it. The human mind must ever conceive some kind of a life of God or " kingdom of heaven " answering to its need of a satisfying universe. And this conception is of the same essence and spirit as that of social wholes, which partake of this continuity, make a like appeal to faith and hope, and a like demand for devotion and sacrifice. If we put aside formal doctrine it seems clear that the kind of religion the modern world appears to be embracing, one which feels what is upward and onward in human life as our part in the life of God, is a kind of higher patriotism, hardly separable from our nobler ideals of our country. And patriotism, as it becomes exalted in times of trial, takes on a religious spirit.

It seems likely that social and religious worship, if I may use that term for both, will draw together again and abandon that somewhat artificial separation which political exigencies have brought about. I do not mean that ancient institutions now associated with them will lose their separate identity, so that we shall have a state church

( 421) or an ecclesiastical state; forms of organization persist; but it would not be surprising if a growing unity of spirit and principle should bring the two into practical cooperation.

In the public schools the children learn group forms of play, in which they are accustomed to strive for a whole, and to put its success above their private aims; and they come to feel also that their personality is inseparable from the life of the community of which the school is a part. The spirit of mutual aid and public service should pass easily from the playground to the city, the state, and the nation. Along with this we look for a rise of communal art, in the form of music, plays, pageants, and municipal decoration, which shall enlist the feelings and hallow the larger life with cherished associations. To this we may add whatever ritual of patriotism shall be found expressive of the national spirit, a spirit animated, we hope, by membership in an international federation. And it is only a continuation of this enlarging membership and service to go on, by the aid of symbols and worship, from these visible social wholes to the invisible wholes, also social, of religious faith, to the Great Life in which our life is merged.

On the other side we see the church and the institutions connected with it reaching out toward social ideals and functions, recognizing that the salvation of the individual, possible only through that of society, calls for co-operation and service, without which worship is partial and unreal.

Indeed this spirit, whether we call it religious or social, is by no means confined to the visible institutions of the state or the church. It belongs to the spirit of the time, and may be felt in the several branches of learning, in

( 422) philanthropy, in socialism, in the labor movement, and in the world of industry and trade. The conditions of life favor it, and in spite of all setbacks we may expect it to have an irresistible growth.


  1. " The dispositions of human nature which made synthetic drama at the beginning are ready to make it again. They never needed drama as they do now in their day of exile. A community drama which knew how to use these varied dispositions toward expression-not only song and dance, but the instinct of workmanship, the latent passion which is in multitudes of people for shaping material things into beautiful forms for social use - such a community theatre would become a profound economic necessity, would command kinds of power and quantities of power whose existence we scarcely guess, would create a new social situation In the lives of all those It touched, and would in time be the parent of new art forms and social forms unforeseen, propitious, splendid."-John Collier in The Survey. vol. 36, p. 259.

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