This section is from the book "Ideals In Art: Papers Theoretical Practical Critical", by Walter Crane . Also available from Amazon: Ideals in Art: Papers Theoretical, Practical, Critical.
A great church was inscribed within and without with Bible history, and the lives of saints were enshrined for an ensample to all in the living language of the painter or the carver.
The evil-doer was terrorized by presentments of the torments of a very realistic hell, while the saint was lifted by ecstatic visions of angelic choirs and flower-starred meads of Paradise. Art in the Catholic Church was indeed a preacher and teacher of unparalleled eloquence and moral force. The unlettered could read its open book, the poor and the lame and the halt - and even the blind might be moved by the "full-voiced choir" and "pealing organ."
The splendour and beauty of a mediaeval cathedral must have had what we should now call quite an incalculable educational effect upon the people from the aesthetic and emotional side.
Besides this, the ordinary aspect of the towns must have been full of romance and interest: the variety, and quaint richness of the citizens' houses; the colour and fantastic invention in costume and heraldry; the constant shows and processions, such as those organized by the crafts' guilds, full of quaint allegory and symbolic meaning. A street might be solemn with the black and white gowns of monks and priests, or gay with flaunting banners and the flashing armour of knights, or the panoply of kings and queens. Great gilded wagons, bright with brave heraldry - instead of our black, varnished, respectable carriages, with a modest lozenge on their panels - though these have of late been rather put out of countenance by the more daring and dangerous motor car with its mysteriously veiled and masked occupants, a vehicle lately described by a wit as "a cross between a brougham and a battleship."
Well, between the ordinary wonders of its mixed and perpetual traffic, we in London have now nothing left as a free popular spectacle but the Lord Mayor's Show, or the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race. There is the poster, it is true - that cheap and generally nasty "popular educator." Not always so cheap, either, since one hears of Royal Academicians being secured for the service of pushing commerce at the price of a thousand pounds or so - though the result is generally not a good poster, but only an oil picture spoiled.
Human life, however disguised or uglified with unnatural and inharmonious surroundings, must, of course, always remain intensely interesting. If we all took to wearing sandwich boards to announce our personal tastes or wants to save trouble, I suppose a certain amount of drama would still be possible, and I have no doubt we should soon have aesthetic persons declaring that it was as fine a costume as a mediaeval herald's or Joseph's coat of many colours.
It does not seem as if we could take art and beauty naturally in this country, since the puritan frost came over us. We have suffered from stiffness in our aesthetic limbs ever since. A certain pedantry and affectation which have attached themselves to some parts of the question of art, seem to have created mistrust in the ordinary mind. The ordinary mind has been too much inured to ugliness, perhaps - and habit is dear to all of us. Conscious efforts to produce things of beauty are not always convincing, and even a thing of beauty does not look comfortable without harmonious environment. If Venus were to suddenly rise from the Serpentine (or from New York Harbour) she might be misunderstood.
If we are ever to have beauty in our common life again, beauty must spring naturally from its ordinary conditions, just as beautiful art always is inseparable from its material. Now, it is often said that art has always been the minister to wealth and power, that it has been the private possession of the rich, and its dwelling-place the precincts of courts and the shelter of great houses. If, however, the results of art (so far as the art which appeals to the eye can ever be monopolized) have often become forms of private property, this is only so in a limited degree, and is only partially true; and in regard to the later detached or pictorial forms of art, or in the case of antique bric-a-brac.
Art, in its nobler monumental forms, by the necessity of its existence, has appealed to the whole people of a city or state from a Greek temple to a Gothic cathedral with all the arts of design in retinue.
If, in later days, artists were pressed into the service of kings, great nobles, merchant princes or millionaires, and art became largely tributary to their pomp and magnificence, it was at least at the expense of the whole people. And as, by degrees, partly owing to commercial and mechanical evolution, and partly to the inducement of greater personal credit, social distinction and sympathy (which, after all, are parts of commercial evolution or rather, perhaps, some of its effects) the artistic faculty was drawn more and more into purely pictorial channels, and par-took more and more of the nature of portable and private property, its actual possession became a matter, more or less, for the rich. Even in this stage, however, it has made possible splendid public and national collections - as our own National Gallery, for instance, where the very choicest works of the greatest painters of all time are the actual possession of each and all of us.
Where there has been monopoly of art, and large masses of the people (the workers whose "surplus value" really pays for it) have been excluded from, or deprived of, its enjoyment and socializing influence, is it wonderful that monopoly in art should follow monopoly of land and the means of subsistence? or that those who refuse to recognize, or to respect, common rights in land, and common participation in the pleasures and refinements of life, should refuse to recognize common rights in art also?
The growing enlightenment and demand for justice on the part of the workers, and their growing power and capacity for combination under democratic institutions, will insist upon the abolition of such monopolies; and the spread of the feeling of fellowship and the inter-dependence of all workers will create a sounder public sentiment and morality in the matter of the uses of wealth and the social value of art.