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Criticism of the problem of the origin of art.
History is commonly divided into human history, natural history, and the mixture of both. Without examining here the question of the solidity of this distinction, it is clear that artistic and literary history belongs in any case to the first, since it concerns a spiritual activity, that is to say, an activity proper to man. And since this activity is its subject, the absurdity of propounding the historical problem of the origin of art becomes at once evident. We should note that by this formula many different things have in turn been included on many different occasions. Origin has often meant nature or character of the artistic fact, in which case an attempt was made to deal with a real scientific or philosophic problem, the very problem in fact which our treatise has attempted to solve. At other times, by origin has been understood the ideal genesis, the search for the reason of art, the deduction of the artistic fact from a first principle containing in itself both spirit and nature. This is also a philosophical problem, complementary to the preceding, coinciding indeed with it, although it has sometimes been strangely interpreted and solved by means of an arbitrary and semi-imaginary metaphysic. But when the object was to discover further exactly in what way the artistic function was historically formed, the result has been the absurdity which we have mentioned. If expression be the first form of consciousness, how can we look for the historical origin of what is not a product of nature and is presupposed by human history 2 How can we assign a historical genesis to a thing which is a category by means of which all historical processes and facts are understood? The absurdity has arisen from the comparison with human institutions, which have been formed in the course of history, and have disappeared or may disappear in its course. Between the aesthetic fact and a human institution (such as monogamic marriage or the fief) there exists a difference comparable with that between simple and compound bodies in chemistry. It is impossible to indicate the formation of the former, otherwise they would not be simple, and if this be discovered, they cease to be simple and become compound.
The problem of the origin of art, historically understood, is only justified when it is proposed to investigate, not the formation of the artistic category, but where and when art has appeared for the first time (appeared, that is to say, in a striking manner), at what point or in what region of the globe and at what point or epoch of its history; when, that is to say, not the origin of art, but its earliest or primitive history is the object of research. vo This problem forms one with that of the appearance of human civilization on the earth. Data for its solution are certainly wanting, but there yet remains the abstract possibility of a solution, and certainly tentative and hypothetical solutions abound.
Every representation of human history has the concept The criterion of progress as foundation. But by progress must not be ##!" and understood the imaginary law of progress which is supposed to lead the generations of man with irresistible force to some unknown destiny, according to a providential plan which we can divine and then understand logically. A supposed law of this sort is the negation of history itself, of that accidentality, that empiricity, that contingency, which distinguish concrete fact from abstraction. And for the same reason, progress has nothing to do with the so-called law of evolution, which, if it mean that reality evolves (and it is only reality in so far as it evolves or becomes), cannot be called a law, and if it be given as a law, becomes identical with the law of progress in the sense just described. The progress of which we speak here is nothing but the very concept of human activity, which, working upon the material supplied to it by nature, conquers its obstacles and bends it to its own ends.
Such conception of progress, that is to say, of human activity applied to a given material, is the point of view of the historian of humanity. No one but a mere collector of unrelated facts, a mere antiquary or inconsequent annalist, can put together the smallest narrative of
human doings unless he have a determined point of view, that is to say, a personal conviction of his own regarding the facts whose history he has undertaken to relate. No one can start from the confused and discordant mass of crude facts and arrive at the historical work of art save by means of this apperception, which makes it possible to carve a definite representation in that rough and formless mass. The historian of a practical action should know what is economy and what is morality; the historian of mathematics, what is mathematics; the historian of botany, what is botany; the historian of philosophy, what is philosophy. If he does not really know these things, he must at least have the illusion of
knowing them ; otherwise he will not even be able to
delude himself into believing that he is writing history. We cannot here expand the demonstration of the necessity and inevitability of this subjective criterion in every narrative of human affairs (which is compatible with the utmost objectivity, impartiality and scrupulousness in dealing with data of fact and indeed forms a constitutive element in these virtues), in every narrative of human doings and happenings. It suffices to read any book of history to discover at once the point of view of the author, if he be a historian worthy of the name and know his own business. There are liberal and reactionary, rationalist and catholic historians, who deal with political or social history; for the history of philosophy there are metaphysical, empirical, Sceptical, idealist and spiritualist historians. Purely historical historians do not and cannot exist. Were Thucydides and Polybius, Livy and Tacitus, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, Giannone and Voltaire, wholly without moral and political views; and, in our time, was Guizot or Thiers, Macaulay or Balbo, Ranke or Mommsen 2 And in the history of philosophy, from Hegel, who was the first to raise it to a great height, to Ritter, Zeller, Cousin, Lewes and our Spaventa, was there one who did not possess his conception of progress and his criterion of judgement 2 Is there one single work of any value on the history of
AEsthetic which has not been written from this or that
All thinkers labour upon the same problem as to the nature of reality and of knowledge : contemplative Indians and Greek philosophers, Christians and Mohammedans, bare heads and turbaned heads, wigged heads and college-capped heads (as Heine said); and future generations will weary themselves with it, as ours has done. It would take too long to inquire here if this be true or not of science. But it is certainly not true of art ; art is intuition, and intuition is individuality, and individuality does not repeat itself. To conceive of the history of the artistic production of the human race as developed along a single line of progress and regress would therefore be altogether erroneous. At the most, and working to some extent with generalizations and abstractions, it may be asserted that the history of aesthetic productions shows progressive cycles, but each cycle with its own problem and each progressive only in respect to that problem. When many are at work in a general way upon the same subject, without succeeding in giving to it the suitable form, yet drawing always more near to it, there is said to be progress, and when appears the man who gives it definite form, the cycle is said to be complete, and progress is ended. A typical example of this would here be the progress in the elaboration of the mode of using the subject-matter of chivalry, during the Italian Renaissance, from Pulci to Ariosto (using this as an example and excusing excessive simplification). Nothing but repetition and imitation, diminution or exaggeration, a spoiling of what had already been done, in short decadence could be the result of employing that same material after Ariosto. The epigoni of Ariosto prove this. Progress begins with the beginning of a new cycle. Cervantes, with his more open and conscious irony, is an instance of this. In what did the general decadence of Italian literature at the end of the sixteenth century consist P Simply in having nothing more to say and in repeating and exaggerating motives already discovered. If the Italians of this period had even been able to express their own decadence, they would not