Friday, August 6, 2010

''A stranger to his own century''

From Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter IX (1794):
The artist is indeed the child of his age; but woe to him if he is at the same time its ward or, worse still, its minion! Let some beneficent deity snatch the suckling betimes from his mother’s breast, nourish him with the milk of a better age, and suffer him to come to maturity under a distant Grecian sky. Then, when he has become a man, let him return, a stranger, to his own century; not, however, to gladden it by his appearance, but rather, terrible like Agamemnon’s son, to cleanse and to purify it. His theme he will, indeed, take from the present; but his form he will borrow from a nobler time, nay, from beyond time altogether, from the absolute, unchanging unity of his being. Here, from the pure ether of his genius, the living source of beauty flows down, untainted by the corruption of the generations and ages wallowing in the dark eddies below.

The theme of his work may be degraded by vagaries of the public mood, even as this has been known to ennoble it; but its form, inviolate, will remain immune from such vicissitudes. The Roman of the first century had long been bowing the knee before his emperors when statues still portrayed him erect; temples continued to be sacred to the eye long after the gods had become objects of derision; and the infamous crimes of a Nero or a Commodus were put to shame by the noble style of the building whose frame lent them cover.

Humanity has lost its dignity; but art has rescued it and preserved it in significant stone. Truth lives on in the illusion of art, and it is from this copy, or afterimage, that the original image will once again be restored. Just as the nobility of art survived the nobility of nature, so now art goes before her, a voice rousing from slumber and preparing the shape of things to come. Even before truth’s triumphant light can penetrate the recesses of the human heart, the poet’s imagination will intercept its rays, and the peaks of humanity will be radiant while the dews of night still linger in the valley.

But how is the artist to protect himself against the corruption of the age that besets him on all sides? By disdaining its opinion. Let him direct his gaze upwards, to the dignity of his calling and the universal law, not downwards toward fortune and the needs of daily life.

Work for your contemporaries; but create what they need, not what they praise. . . . Banish from their pleasures caprice, frivolity, and coarseness, and imperceptibly you will banish these from their actions and, eventually, from their inclinations too. Surround them, wherever you meet them, with the great and noble forms of genius, and encompass them about with the symbols of perfection, until semblance conquer reality, and art triumph over nature.

(Illustration is Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818.)

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