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.
The very existence of art in any form among a people is itself evidence of some kind of social life; and, indeed, as regards pre-historic or ancient life, is often the only record left of life at all.
From its earliest dawn in the pre-historic etchings of the cave-dweller, to the hieroglyphics of the Egyptian; the sculptured slabs of the Ninevite and the Persian; from the treasury of Athens, and the spoils of Troy, to the refinement and monumental beauty of the Parthenon marbles - everywhere art (at first identical with language, or picture-writing) is eloquent of the mode of life; the ideas and ideals which have held sway in the human mind, until they have become precipitated, or crystallized, for us in antique architecture and sculpture, and painting, and the sister arts of design. Until every fragment of woven stuff, every bead and jewel, every fragment of broken pottery still speaks to us out of the past with its "half-obliterated tongue" of the life and thought which have gone away, of buried hopes and fears, of the loves and strife, of the pride and power, which have left but these frail relics to tell their tale.
Egyptian Hieroglyphics on a Wall Decoration
Abydos: Temple of Seti
The keen, observant eye of the primitive hunter noted down unerringly the outlines of the fierce animals he stalked and slew. The same unerring perception of typical form reappears formalized, and more and more abstracted, in the hieroglyphic, which, using the familiar animals and objects of Eastern life as symbols, becomes finally cast, by use and wont, in the course of evolution, into the rigid abstractions of the alphabet. This, though in calligraphic and typographic art entering another course of development, has become quite distinct from the graphic and depicting power which appears to have been its origin; but they are still closely and constantly associated together in our books and newspapers, which form so large a part of, and so intimately reflect, our social life, and which have carried picture-writing into another and more complex stage.
The early Assyrian reliefs, too, in another way may often be considered as a series of emphatic historic statements - a graven writing on the wall. Their object, to record the conquests of kings or their prowess as lion-hunters, their battles and sieges, their prisoners taken, their weapons and munitions of war, the attributes of their symbolic deities. Their value was perhaps as much their descriptive and recording power as their decorative effect.
The archaic Greek passed through the same stage, only gradually evolving that exquisite artistic sense, until the monumental beauty and heroic ideality of the Phidian work is reached to pass away again with the spirit and the life which gave it birth. The wave of Greek civilization rises to the crest of its perfection, and breaks and falls, yet spreads its influence, and leaves its impress upon all lands; unextinguished by the power and pomp of the Roman which succeeded, over which, indeed, in the artistic sense it triumphs, springing to new life in Italy, until it is found wandering- among the ruins and trivialities of Pompeii, where the last stage of ancient life has been preserved, as it were, in amber.
We may drop some natural tears over the death of paganism, feeling that at all events, with all its corruptions, it has placed on record for us in art that joy of life, and the frank acknowledgement of man's animal nature (which no religion or philosophy can afford to leave out of account) and has reconciled them in forms of enduring refinement and beauty. A great deal must be set down to persistence of sunshine, but anyone glancing at what has been left us in various beautiful forms of art from the classical times and countries must feel how much larger an external part art must have played in that life; how constant and intimate must have been its appeal - from the storied pediment and frieze of the temple, to the gilded statues and bronze fountains in the public streets and squares - walls whereon the painter's fancy is let loose - everywhere colour, and overhead the blue sky of Italy or Greece. There was at any rate no room for monopoly in the pleasure of such an external life. The eye of the slave was, at least, as free as that of his master, and the mere common possession of the spectacular pleasure of life is something-. We feel too that the ancient wealth of beautiful art was the direct efflorescence of the life of the time. Everywhere the artist's and craftsman's eye must have been stimulated, the forms of man and woman moving without the restraint of formally cut costume, but freely draped according to the taste of the individual or the demands of the season, or circumstance. He could see the athlete in the arena, the beauty on her terrace, the philosopher in his grove, the colour and glitter of the market-place, the slave at his toil, the warriors clanging out to battle, and all these in the broad and full light of a southern sky. What wonder that his art took beautiful forms. Even the grave was robbed of its gloom by the Greek artist, and death was figured as a gentle and painless leave-taking between friends.
It is impossible to doubt that impressions of external beauty and harmony have a softening and humanizing effect upon the mind. I believe that we are unconsciously affected by such in-fluences - that we are unconsciously happier when we live in pleasantly proportioned rooms, for instance, with harmoniously coloured and patterned walls and furniture. The nerves are soothed through the gentle stimulus of the eye dwelling on happy and refined forms and colours.
With the advent of Christianity, with the spiritual eye fixed upon another world, the form, with the spirit, of art naturally changed, and though the main current of the new teaching was to make man indifferent to externals, after its first timid falterings in the dying traditions of classical design, we know that Christian art became one of the most powerful exponents of its creeds, and by the awe-inspiring influence of the solemn and mystic splendour of the Byzantine and early Gothic churches so impressed the imagination of men's minds that, other causes contributing, the Church became the great depository of artistic skill and inspiration, and used its power of emotional appeal to the utmost, by means of noble and impressive architectural form and proportion, afterwards heightened by every decorative means at the command of the Gothic craftsman in painted glass, carving, mosaic, painting and work of gold and silver and precious stones.