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ANNIVERSARY ORATION, &c.
Could the vote which delegated the task of de. livering the annual oration on the subject of the Fine Arts before this society, have conferred talents equal to the honour it has bestowed, I should not now feel any apprehension least this duty may not be performed in a manner worthy of its purpose. But known, as I am, to most of you, I shall assuredly receive credit for a sincere wish to perform the duty assigned to me to the best of my abilities; and obtain your indulgence for their deficiency, and for the imperfections which the extreme pressure of private business, since my appointment, have occasioned.
The custom of delivering an annual oration, or lecture, before the members of the academies of Europe, has generally for its object the instruction of the students in the principles of art, the correction of their taste, and the encouragement of their zeal and industry, In these institutions, supported by the government as essential to its splendour, and upheld by the unanimous opinion of the governed as promoting one of the most rational and interesting sources of their pleasure, it is unnecessary, in an annual oration, to point out the advantages that result from the culture of the fine arts.
No argument, no declamation, is so con
vincing or so eloquent as experience. The indolent, the luxurious, even the vicious rich, while enjoying the pleasure which the works of art afford to them, are innocent; while encouraging and rewarding them, are useful: nor is the most wretched of the poor, less happy than they, while admiring or boasting the monuments of art that adorn his native city, or the church of his village. To the feelings of the Athenian, who walked in the Poikile-of the Englishman who visits Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's or of the Frenchman, before the Arch of Victory, nothing could be necessary to prove, that the arts have been usefully and honourably employed, in recording the courage, the patriotism, or the virtues of their countrymen.
An easy task, therefore, devolves upon that artist, who is selected to open the course of annual study by a public lecture. Master of the principles and practice of his profession, it is a pleasure to him to exhibit to others the knowledge and the taste that have made him worthy to instruct them.
But at the opening of this infant institution, instruction in the study, or in the practice of any of the fine arts, is less necessary than the labour of proving that these arts have not an injurious, but a beneficent effect upon the morals, and even on the liberties of our country. For we cannot disguise from ourselves, that, far from enjoying the support of the general voice of the people, our national prejudices are unfavourable to the fine arts. Many of our citizens who do not fear that they will enervate our minds and corrupt the simple and republican character of our pur
suits and enjoyments, consider the actual state of society as unfit for their introduction: more dread a high grade of perfection in the fine arts as the certain indication of the loss of political liberty, and of the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. Many despise the arts and their professors as useless, as manufacturing neither food nor raiment, nor gathering wealth by the enterprize of foreign commerce; and still more, ignorant of the delight, innocent as it is exquisite, which they afford, seek employment for their idle hours in the gratifications of sense, and the ostentatious display of riches.
Inasfar as these prejudices, the only real obstacles to the triumph of the fine arts, grow out of the political constitution of society in the United States, the attempt to remove them suddenly by argument will be vain. That such obstacles do exist is certain. On the one hand, the subdivision of wealth, resulting from our laws of inheritance, scatters at the commencement of every generation the funds out of which individual citizens might support the fine arts: and the immense territory over which our population is seeking to spread itself, weakens all combined efforts of private citizens by the separation of distance: on the other, the dread of responsibility in the individual representatives of the people, converting all their notions of good government into the single anxiety to avoid expenditure, withholds that degree of public encouragement, which would give example and fashion to individual favour, and establish a national love and pride in the fine arts.
But mere prejudices, whether of habit, of igno- . rance, or of false reasoning, are to be conquered. In our republic, that which arises from an opinion that the perfection of the fine arts is incompatible with freedom,—while it is the most powerful to retard their progress,-is at the same time the most unfounded in theory, and the most false in fact.
To ancient Greece the civilized world has been indebted for more than two thousand years, for instruction in the fine arts, and for the most perfect and sublime examples of what they are able to produce. But besides this instruction and these examples, we owe to Greece another obligation. The history of Grecian art refutes the vulgar opinion that the arts are incompatible with liberty, by an argument the most irresistible, that of fact upon record.
Homer is supposed to have lived about nine hundred years before Christ. The events he has sung, are supposed to have happened three or four hundred years before his birth, or about twelve hundred and fifty years before Christ.
The arts at that period must have been in a very advanced state to have produced a work of such transcendent merit, as the shield of Achilles. But supposing this shield to have existed only in the imagination of the poet, then the state of the arts in his own days, must have been such, as to have rendered his description probable, for the difference of the ordinary exploits of his men and of his gods is not in the nature, but only in the degree, and in the power and excellence, of their achievements. The Vulcan of Homer was an artist with divine powers; but human artists must have existed, in whose performances he saw