The Fine Arts as a Dynamic Factor in Society

J. Odenwald-Unger
1907 American Journal of Sociology  
Before beginning my subject proper I must explain the term "dynamic" as used in my title. It is borrowed from Professor Ward's Dynamic Sociology, and is used in the same sense as it is used in physics, namely as denoting force, a propelling agent. The thesis of this paper is based upon fhe theolry that the feeliilgs, emotions, and passions of mankind constitute the propelling agent or dynamic element in society, corresponding to the physical forces in the lower realms of nature, and that they
more » ... re, and that they can be controlled and guided into beneficial channels by intelligent foresight, just as the physical forces (wind, water, fire, electricity, etc.) are being soi controlled and guided by the inventions of men. My second point is that in the fine arts, including drama and fiction, this dynamic element finds its most perfect expression, and could, if thoroughly understood, be made use olf by, and become a powerful aid to" the sociologist. The paper was inspired by the belief that this is not generally recognized by the sociologists, but that they, on the contrary, consider the fine arts as entirely outside of their domain, as belonging to a side of human mind with which they, as sociologists, have nothing to do-viz., the aesthetic faculty, which derives pleasure from the contemplation of beauty and harmony, but has no part in the improvement of society, indeed turns away with impatience and pain from the disharmonies and stupidities of life to, dwell in an ideal realm, where beauty and happiness reign. "There is nothing dynamical in the influence of the fine arts," says Mr. Ward in Dyncamic Sociology. Enjoyable in themselves, and therefore sources of happiness, their influence is confined to the immediate present, and is incapable of contributing any permanent aid to social progress. Their study belongs entirely to the department of social statics, and this brief notice is merely intended to fix their true position and exhibit their negative character. 656 It has been said that art is nonprogressive; that it serves no useful purpose in the world; that it does not raise the moral tone of society; that it adds no new truth to man's stock of knowledge; that it makes man no more comfortable, no better, no wiser. This might almost be true without constituting an argument against the cultivation of the aesthetic faculty. Love of the beautiful and its pursuits do not claim to constitute either an ontogenetic or a philogenetic force in society. They constitute a typical sociogenetic force. Art is a socializing agency. It is an agency of civilization as distingushed from preservation or perpetuation. It is not a necessity; shall we call it a luxury? It is much more. In a pain-economy it may be a luxury, but above that it becomes a utility. It finally becomes a spiritual necessity. As soon as the class of wants which may be distinguished as needs are satisfied, this spiritual want, which, as we have seen, is planted deep in the animal nature, at once asserts itself; and the satisfaction of a spiritual want is as important as that of a material want. It serves to swell the volume of life. Men have aesthetic interests as well as economic interests, and their claims are as legitimate. THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY is this true? Have the greatest artists of the world been satisfied merely to please and entertain men? It is true probably of the art of primitive peoples, and of a great and important branch of art today. We might call it the idealistic as complared with the realistic art. Not that I consider this a perfectly correct terminology; for the idealistic art should also be realistic or true to nature, and the realistic art is often far more idealistic than the other; yet it will doi for our present purpose. This, idealistic art, which indeed is an end in itself, is by many of the profession as well as the laity still regarded as the only proper and legitimate art, and its end, the desire for beauty and harmony, the only legitimate end, finding expression in the motto: "Art for art's sake." Some, indeed, claim that this is the highest and noblest aim art can have; namely, to soothe and delight the tired mind, to make man forget the worries and troubles of life, to create for him an ideal of harmony and happiness, 'and bring him nearer that heaven of fable which man has ever dreamt about, but has never reached, and which art alone can make him at least fancy for a, moment to have 'entered. But what shall we say of that other art, generally called "realistic," which has, had some of the, if n1ot the, greatest geniuses, of the world as its exponents ? What shall we say of the art of Tolstoy, Ibsen, Hauptmann, Sudermann, Bernard Shaw, Zola, Flaubert? What of the paintings of Veretchagin, Sleevogt, Uhde; the sculptures of Meunier, Rodin, Sinding; or the music oif Wagner, Berlioiz, Grieg, or Glazounoff? I know that some critics maintain this to be no art at all, but vagaries of disturbed minds, or the gloomy pessimism of unsuccessful men. But this is the shallowest of criticisms. The fact is that the greatest artists of all time have not merely wished to please; they have moire often shocked us. Their object has been to be true, and by this very truth to arouse men; to awaken their intellect; to, stir their emotions, to bring a sluggish and lethargic mankind to a realization of the wrongs, the injustice, the cruelty, and the indifference that reign in society. Let us look at a country which, more than any other of the civilized countries of the world, is suffering immeasurable wrongs under the indifference, greed, cruelty, and stupidity of its so-
doi:10.1086/211542 fatcat:peyohhajqredldf3aeldt5etjm