Vital Art

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Vital Art


Bibliographic Citation

Anny Mali Hicks, “Vital Art,” Mother Earth 1, no. 3 (May 1906): 48-52.


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Anny Mali Hicks.


IN order to estimate the value of any movement, whether social, economic, ethical or esthetic, it must be studied in its relation and attitude to general progress. Its effectiveness should be judged by what it contributes to the growth of the universal conscience. That “no man liveth unto himself alone” is never so true as now, because now it is more generally realized. Therefore, any expression which concerns itself solely with its own special field of action finds itself soon set aside, and presently becoming divorced from reality, ends as a sporadic type. Any expression, however, which responds to the larger life gains a vitality which insures its continuance.

Thus, the effort to apply certain truths not new in themselves, is a tendency to work in harmony with progress. The effort to apply principle, however imperfectly expressed, is important, not because of its results, but because of the desire to relate theory and action in a conduct of life. Almost every type of expression is undergoing its phase of application. Esthetics have somewhat aligned themselves to the others, but at last there is a movement, known as the arts and crafts movement, more properly called applied esthetics, which is the effort to relate art to life. The old banality, “Art for Art’s sake,” is obsolete, and the vital meaning of art is in a more rational and beautiful expression of life, as it were, the continent art of living well.

This is the ideal and educational aspect of applied esthetics. Within the limits of its exclusive circle and within the radius of its special activities there is a trend to contentment with the production of objects of “worth and virtue.” The object of luxury, which in fact has no vital meaning to either the producer or consumer. Were the production of such things to be its only aim, it would soon defeat its own end. But this movement has in reality wider and more democratic ideals. Because of its power to stimulate self-expression and the creative impulses, its greatest and most vital influence is more social than artistic. It principally concerns itself with the desire of the worker to express in his work whatever impulse for beauty may be his. There is no surer way of feeling the pressure of present economic conditions. The value of applied esthetics is as a medicine to stir up social unrest and discontent. Its keynote is self-expression, and it is when men and women begin to think and act for themselves that they most keenly feel social and economic restrictions, and are made to suffer under them. But if suffering is necessary to growth, let us have it and have it over with by all means. No sane being will stand much of it without making an effort to get at its cause. It has been said that the most important part of progress is to make people think; it is vastly more important that they should feel. The average individual is not discontented with his surroundings, else he would go to work to change them. As a product of them he is benumbed by their mechanical influence, and consequently expresses himself within their limits. He is the mouthpiece of existing conditions, and, accordingly, acts in law-abiding fashion.

The larger emotional life, or inner social impulse emanates from those pioneers who, living beyond existing conditions, are the dynamics of society. Through them life pushes onward. The inner impulse becomes public opinion, public opinion becomes custom, custom crystallizes into law. Now the fresh impulse is needed for new growth; where shall it be sought if not in the expression of the emotional life? What form shall the expression take unless it be the purest and most spontaneous form of art, which is without purpose other than the expression of an impulse? This alone fosters the growth of the emotions.

Art, like justice, has many crimes committed in its name, and much called so that is merely a methodical and imitative performance. It is in no wise that spontaneous expression of life which, coming simply and directly as an impulse, takes a decorative or applied form. All the beginnings of art grew up in this way. In primitive peoples it is the first expression of emotional life, which comes after the material need is satisfied. The savage makes his spade or fish spear from the necessity of physical preservation. Thus from the joy of living he applies to it his feeling for beauty.

The earliest forms of art were all applied. Stone carving was applied to architecture, thus colored stones, called mosaics, as wall decorations; from these to the fresco; from the fresco to the pictorial form of painting. To-day the final degeneration of art is in the easel picture, which as an object detached and disassociated from its surroundings, takes refuge in the story-telling phase to justify its raison d’etre. But, alas for the easel picture! alas, also, for the usual illustration, without which most literature would be so difficult to understand. In each case the one is there to help out the other’s deficiency. Two important expressions of art, in a state of insubordination. It is the opera over again, where music and drama keep up an undignified race for prominence. Supposing an illustration were decorative in character echoing in a minor manner the suggested theme, would that not be a fitting background for the story-telling art? The Greeks knew very well what they were about when they introduced the relatively subordinate but decoratively important chorus into their dramas. This as well expresses their sense of relative proportion as does their sculpture and architecture.

What is decorative art, if not a sense of beauty applied to objects of use? That these need the emotional element as well as their element of service is as essential as the life breath in the body. It is the spark of divine fire which relates the actual to the ideal, resulting in the reality. It removes from our surroundings any influence which is solely mechanical. Applied art is alike because of its association with that which is necessary to life.

The test is necessity, not alone the physical, but likewise the emotional necessity, for all sides of our nature must be developed if life is to have full meaning and come to its maturity. The influence of applied esthetics is more vital because it is unconsciously absorbed through constant association. Imagine surroundings where everything which did not have a distinct use were eliminated and where everything else was distinctly fitted to its use. If this were put into practice in the usual household, a certain simplicity would be the result, to say the least. Most things with which we surround ourselves are neither useful nor beautiful. They are either so absurdly over-ornamented as to have their usefulness completely impaired, or else they are the usual mechanical device equally complicated and hideous. Ornament is usually an anomaly, added to cover structural defect. If the relation of the parts to the whole is perfect, beauty is there. But being accustomed to the over-ornamented and wholly mechanical, we do not resent their presence. For what, indeed, is habit not responsible? Even such innocent objects as pictures hang on our walls until they are scarcely noticed by us. Why not change them to suit our moods? Why not, indeed? There are so many of them, in the first place—and one remembers the time and trouble, even the family dissension which it took to hang them. But no one cares much, no one is alive enough to care much—the economic struggle which deadens our other senses is responsible for this also.

No unit of the social body can disentangle itself from existing conditions. Each is affected by all its influences. Some are more, some less, some are so much a part that they are not conscious. These last also suffer, but without knowing why. Vital education would show them. But the factory system pervades the school and art school as well as the factory.

What if the underlying force of education were spontaneous expression, instead of the limited method or system? The cry of the teacher is always, “It is very well to be spontaneous, but we must deal with the child en masse.” The remedy for that is simple, because there is no real necessity to deal with children en masse. It is so much easier to apply the same system to each varied unit of a mass than to discover and help the individual expression of each. The basis of vital art, of vital education, is self-expression; from it and through it comes self-control. Self-repression is as socially uneconomic as jails and standing armies. If, instead of building prisons where human life is entombed, libraries where literature moulds, museums where art becomes archaic, why not establish centers of education, where spontaneous expression is encouraged, and where the soul, mind, and hand are simultaneously developed.

Think of a state where each individual working out from its own standpoint, truly without hypocrisy, would contribute his quota of individual life to the life of the whole. Pleasing himself in his work without fear. Then would come the true democracy, possible only under just economic conditions, where each has equal opportunity for self-expression. Then can the higher emotional life develop necessary to all human growth.


Anny Mali Hicks, “Vital Art,” Mother Earth 1, no. 3 (May 1906): 48-52.




Hicks, Anny Mali, “Vital Art,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed October 17, 2019,