“The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself … is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress.”
“True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her arresting meditation on how art transforms us. That transformation is one of the most powerful personal experiences a human being can have, but it is also one of the most powerful motive forces of progress for humanity as a whole. In art, we depict our ideals and, in depicting them, we challenge ourselves to face the gap between aspiration and actuality, which in turn challenges us to stretch ourselves and close that gap. “All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary, and the object of that contemplation, directly or obliquely, is precisely that discomfiting disconnect between the ideal and the real that drives us to strive for reform. Art, argued the Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren, “is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”
A century earlier, the pioneering social reformer and writer Frederick Douglass (c. February 1818–February 20, 1895) made the most exquisite and enduring case for this function of art in an essay titled “Pictures and Progress,” penned in the mid-1860s and found in the indispensable The Portable Frederick Douglass (public library).
To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.
Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.
Reason is exalted and called Godlike, and sometimes accorded the highest place among human faculties; but grand and wonderful as is this attribute of our species, still more grand and wonderful are the resources and achievements of that power out of which come our pictures and other creations of art.
This faculty of the imagination, Douglass argues, isn’t merely the source of aesthetic stimulation but the inner hand outstretched toward our highest ideals — the one which gives us, to borrow Susan Sontag’s penetrating phrase, “the model of self-transcendence.” He writes:
Art is a special revelation of the higher powers of the human soul. There is in the contemplation of it an unconscious comparison constantly going on in the mind, of the pure forms of beauty and excellence, which are without to those which are within, and native to the human heart. It is a process of soul-awakening self-revelation, a species of new birth, for a new life springs up in the soul with every newly discovered agency, by which the soul is brought into a more intimate knowledge of its own Divine powers and perfections, and is lifted to a higher level of wisdom, goodness, and joy.
This power of the critical imagination, Douglass argues, becomes our mightiest means of bridging the real and the ideal, which is at the heart of all progress:
The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself, giving it form, color, space, and all the attributes of distinct personality, so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation, is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress… It is the picture of life contrasted with the fact of life, the ideal contrasted with the real, which makes criticism possible. Where there is no criticism there is no progress, for the want of progress is not felt where such want is not made visible by criticism. It is by looking upon this picture and upon that which enables us to point out the defects of the one and the perfections of the other.
Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.
But, writing with an eye to photography as a new technology of picture-making, Douglass adds an admonition that applies to every new technology that ever was and ever will be:
This picture-making faculty is flung out into the world like all others, capable of being harnessed to the car of truth or error: It is a vast power to whatever cause it is coupled. For the habit we adopt, the master we obey, in making our subjective nature objective, giving it form, color, space, action and utterance, is the one important thing to ourselves and our surroundings. It will either lift us to the highest heaven or sink us to the lowest depths, for good and evil know no limits.
Art, he cautions, should harness beauty but must always be governed by truth above all else:
Truth is the soul of art, as of all things else.
With the clear perception of things as they are, must stand the faithful rendering of things as they seem. The dead fact is nothing without the living expression.
Complement this portion of The Portable Frederick Douglass, a timelessly rewarding read in its totality, with James Baldwin on the artist’s role in society’s progress, Alfred Kazin on the power of the critical imagination, and Walt Whitman on how art bolsters democracy.
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