Essay on the connection between Art and Mortality

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Towards the end of the 19th century, a school of artists arose who said that art has nothing to do with life, whether moral or social, but that it exists for its own sake. It has not and it need not have any bearing on life. Its purpose is to achieve perfection in the formal expression of life and nature. Its mission is fulfilled when beauty is realised. This school put the manner, the technique, before everything. The result was that poets devoted themselves to discover the world beautiful, to create the perfect image rather than to express life.

The painter sought to achieve delicacy and harmony in line and colour. An illustration of this conception of art is to be found in Rabindranath's 'Urbasi', who stands for the eternally beautiful in the sheer perfection of form. She has no ties, no duties, and no assignment in the scheme of life, except to exist as the symbol of beauty. Such a work of art is end in itself; it is not the means to an end. It does not have any social purpose.

This theory of art is true so far as it suggests that an artist is not a teacher or preacher. It is in this sense that Keats said, "We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us." and Shelley declared that he hated moralistic or didactic poetry.

But when in the late 19th century writers like Walter Pater, or Baudelaire, or Poe, said that art should not have anything to do with the moral values that constitute the essence of life, we are plainly on debatable grounds. A French poet said, "To admire art because it can uplift the individual is like admiring the rose because we extract from its medicine for eye."

First of all, let us at once admit that logical consequence of our acceptance of this view is the development of an attitude of irresponsibility in the artists; it promotes a sort of aesthetic anarchism. Then the artist becomes a law unto himself. The artist no longer reflects life in its wholeness, but in isolated, detached fragments. In such fragmentary glimpses, the sense of totality is lost.

This view of art has never found support with great poets and artist like Tagore and Tolstoy. The perfection of art does not depend on the perfection of its external form, but on the perfection of the life, it reflects. That is why Million said, "He who would not be frustrated of his hope to write will hereafter is laudable things ought himself to be a true poet." Life is the subject of art, not only in so far as it achieves perfection, but also in so far it indicates a movement towards perfection.

Thus the artist need not preach morality; he is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with the totality of social life. Contact with art thus means contact with the substance of life. The artist thus indirectly discharges a kind of social responsibility to increase his awareness of the true significance of life. So Shelley has spoken of poets as unacknowledged legislators. People get ideas from the verses of poets. The value of art rests on the quality of the life that it reflects or suggests.

If an artist loses sight of this moral view and contents himself with the perfecting of his technique, he is no longer an artist, but only a craftsman. The artist should be deeply interested in the ultimate purpose of what he creates. The moral objective is important for the true artist, for therein he comes in touch with the fundamental issues of life and serves a social purpose.

Finally, there can be no morality greater than being in harmony with the forces of social progress in life. In seeking to express life in its continuous striving for a richer fulfillment, every artist becomes a moralist. The moral life need not be a life limited by codes of conduct. So far as the artist deals with this, his art is fundamentally moral and he has a prophetic role to play. Indeed, a good story itself is a moral, more readable and artistic than a story with a moral lesson to teach.


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