Wednesday, December 22, 2010

“Art” by Howard Pyle, 1908

In a letter dated December 22, 1908, architect Cass Gilbert wrote to Howard Pyle:
Your speech at the dinner was a great success. I heard many favorable and enthusiastic comments among the members of the Institute but not one criticism. You seem to have struck exactly the right note. As for myself, I concurred heartily in every word you said.
When I read this statement years ago, I thought, “What speech? What dinner?” Over time I was able to find out that Pyle spoke on December 17, 1908, at the banquet of the 42nd Annual Convention of the American Institute of Architects, at Washington, D.C.

A little more digging turned up the speech itself, printed in the AIA’s Proceedings, published the following year. But it turns out that when Pyle learned that the AIA was to put his words in print, he asked if he could rework them. He explained to Gilbert on December 23, 1908:
As you know, I had composed an entirely different speech from that which I delivered, that which I spoke being hastily arranged during the course of the dinner. I think it should be revised before being given to the public - the points sharpened, and the rhetoric put in better shape than is possible in an extempore address.
And so, the “official” version of Pyle’s speech differed from what he actually said. Unbeknownst to Pyle, however, (and perhaps even to the leaders of the AIA) a transcript of his address as delivered had been sent to The Western Architect and appeared in the January 1909 issue, reprinted below...

by Howard Pyle

What is art? When we ask that question, the idea ordinarily intended is of a picture, of a statue, or a beautiful work of the architect; but art to me has a far greater, a far more vital significance than that. Art is the expression of a human thought in a living and a permanent form. As that thought is great and noble and grand within the man that conceives it, so in that degree is the work that he produces great and noble and grand. There is no school, there is no possible means whereby a great work of art can be created. The great work of art must emanate from the man - not from without, not by lines or rules or methods - it must emanate from the man. What is it that makes the great Saint Gaudens statue of Sherman so very great? It is not its technical skill; it is not any particular form or line or method of construction, but it is that that great man conceives within his mind the image of the hero of our war. Before that hero, advancing from the rock whereon he stands, the very ideal of American victory. It is American. It is not based upon any line or any rule or any method; but it is American, and therefore it is great, because it appeals from a great American soul to the soul of every other American who beholds it.

For three and thirty years I have served steadfastly at my chosen profession as an illustrator. In that time I have beheld the art of illustration, originating from small, obscure beginnings of a discredited handcraft, extend, expand and grow, until today it is almost, if not quite, the most dominant factor in existing American art. In that growth there is symbolized the truth that governs and must govern the product of all works of art. That truth is this: that any given work, to make its final and its most magnificent appeal, must be based upon the divine truth of uses. Unless a work of art meets a use, unless it fits to the demands, the aspirations and the ideals of the age in which it is created, it is a failure, and nothing can possibly make that art a success. [Applause.] The art of illustration is a success. Why? Primarily because the people of this country desire and love that which is beautiful. I have no patience with the talk, that emanates largely from the studios, of educating the American people to understand art. Educate the artist to understand the American people. [Applause.] If the artist understands the American people, there is no question of his work being a success. He does not have to depend upon commissions or ministries or any means to make his art a success, for it is a success in itself, because it emanates from a living soul and reaches to the other living souls who receive it. The art of illustration is a success for the simple reason that the American people love to see that which they read made beautiful with pictured image.

It is not far to seek; it is not a profound equation. All art is great just in the degree it is useful; and it is never great in any other degree. What was it that made the art of Phidias great? His art was created for a specific, definite purpose, as definite and as specific as the illustration today for our great magazines was made for a specific purpose. It was made that those who beheld it might be inspired with reverence for their gods and admiration for their heroes. [Applause.] That was the one reason why it was made, and as it touched the reverence and the respect, and the admiration of the Greeks of that day, so does it touch our reverence, our respect and our admiration today; - that when a living thought is embodied in a form that men can see, and touch and understand, it lives forever. What was it made the work of Michael Angelo, Leonardo, of Raphael, Durer, or Holbein great? Those works were great because each and every one was done for a definite and specific purpose. That purpose was to embody the human ideal of reverence for the divine motherhood; and as those artists poured their souls into those pictures that they made, just in that degree do those pictures. live today. They lived then; they live now, and they shall live forever - because they are human, not because they are technical works of art, but because they are human thoughts of excellent ideals cast into a living, visible work.

What is it makes American architecture the most successful art of the day? It is because the inspiration, the ideals, the beauty and graces that emanate in the mind of the architect is cast into the form of use. We talk of the American people not appreciating art. The crowds of American people pour into the public buildings which they themselves built, and who love them because they are beautiful in their eyes, not because they cost so many millions of money, but because they are beautiful. They say: “That is my capitol.” What is it makes the art of the architect successful today? It is because the American eyes can see and behold the visible form of American ideals. I cannot say that the art of painting, of which I am a representative, is so successful, for I do not think that that art is based fundamentally upon the higher uses of humanity, and until it is it cannot be successful.

I would touch again upon what I have heard several times tonight, and that is the education of the American people. I am a plain American. A very charming lady lately accused me of being a Philistine. Well, I am a Philistine. I like my beef and pudding, but I do like other things as well, and I am an American; and as an American I resent the talk that emanates from the studios of educating the American people. Let us instead of talking vaguely about this, recite the true facts, side by side; measure and compare those facts and see their proper significance. Upon the one side is a nation, we will say, of a hundred million people. It is safe to say that it is one of the greatest nations, one of the most enlightened nations in the world - a nation which is successful beyond the highest dreams of success; a nation with high ideals, exalted aspirations; a nation with a limitless future; upon the other side are a group of men (Shall I speak it of my own fellow craftsman?), narrow in their views - necessarily narrow in their views because they are confronted with certain technical rules which make them narrow in their views. As a rule, they are bigoted in their opinions. We all know that, for we are all artists. [Laughter and applause]. Doubting among ourselves as to what is the right thing, it is a great question among the hundreds of schools of art, each differing from the other in his opinion of what is the right thing; callous, not successful as a rule; taking the painters by a large majority, it is not a successful craft. Now, I ask you, with those two pictures placed side by side, which is the better equipped to educate the other? To me there is no doubt about it.

I welcome more than I can tell you the words that have come to me regarding the commission - a government commission or ministry of art - the effect of it - because I would see that commission operate along identically the lines that have made the art of illustration successful. The practical operation of that line is this: On the one side stands the artist equipped to produce beautiful works; upon the other side stands the public, desirous of receiving that which is beautiful. Between the two stand, as a commission (if we may so phrase it) the art editor and the editor in chief of the magazine. The art editor is supposed to be equipped to understand what is beautiful and correct in the art of picture making. The picture is brought to him; that he must pass upon primarily - the picture as being a work of art. Upon the other side of that commission there stands the editor in chief. The editor in chief is in touch with the whole mass of people. He must know that which will touch the heart of a million men. Therefore he demands that that picture shall be so constructed that it shall reach the heart, the understanding and the ideals of a million men. The result, you know as well as I, has been phenomenal. It is incredible to think that in ten and one-half decades the art of illustration should have risen to the height which it represents today. It has risen for no other cause than that it is founded and established upon the love and the desires of the people. That is its foundation and its full foundation; its final foundation.

I have used the simile before as to my ideal of art. I shall venture to use it again. To me the spirit of art is not a poor, weak and puling object, that must be supported by either political or plutocratic patronage. She is strong, erect, straight-limbed, full of the blood of humanity. Her brows are crowned with the stars of Heaven. The mountains are her throne, the earth her footstool, and the everlasting waters of the seas bathe her feet. I use that simile because those things - the sky, the earth, the waters beneath the earth - are the prime equations of humanity. Upon them all finer love and care for art are based. Therefore, that spirit of art that I would serve is crowned and enthroned and bathed by those fundamentals of human life.

I would welcome such a commission as that which has been suggested tonight, not that I think that that commission can create such a spirit of art, but I think that commission can part the curtains of the present, and that that spirit or art can come forth; and, when she is made manifest to the world, then the nations of the earth will come and lay the fruit of her prosperity beneath her shining feet.

1 comment:

kev ferrara said...

A very interesting slice of history. It seems so strange to read of how commonplace high-mindedness was in the arts. How far we have fallen away from the idea that art and architecture should ennoble and uplift and exalt. All these 1900 values seem to have been shredded by the 20th century.

This discussion of a national commission of the arts... I wonder what Pyle would have thought of the NEA and the kind of stuff it promotes.

I suppose the venue precluded Pyle from giving a more specific view about what he thought art was, and whether illustration was art, or how illustration was art, (or whatever). I read one researcher, who indicated that Violet Oakley was taught by Pyle that illustration was “teaching under an aesthetic form” and I wonder if you had encountered any similar construction/assertion?