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  • The Artist as Prophet:Emerson's Thoughts on Art

This essay reclaims "Thoughts on Art" as Emerson's principal statement about art as part of a general theory of action and creation. It argues that Emerson viewed art as a question of degree, something more or less present in individual artworks. It explores the tension between Emerson's idea that art is created by Spirit and the fact that it is created by artists, and defends Emerson against the charge that, on his view, the artist deserves no credit for his work. Artistic talent and genius overcome obstacles posed by nature and further the artist's pursuit of self-knowledge.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's thinking about art has never been at the forefront of either the philosophy of art or discussions of Emerson's own thought, in part perhaps because of doubts about the depth of his understanding of art. Percy Brown, for example, described Emerson's aesthetic sense as "deficient" and his aesthetic background as "somewhat limited," and claimed that Emerson "dwelt on abstract ideas rather than on the forms of art and its methods of expression."1

But although Emerson was no John Ruskin or Clement Greenberg, he was one of the great orators and prose stylists of his day and a poet who could write "strong, wholly memorable poems that say what has never been said before and that no poet has said better since."2 When Emerson speaks of artistic creation, he speaks from his own experience. Emerson also traveled in Europe, where he sought out and admired great works of painting, sculpture, and architecture. In a field where perhaps the greatest single work was written by a man whose acquaintance [End Page 30] with art was limited to what could be found in Königsberg, Emerson's aesthetic sensibility should not be regarded as so deficient as to render his thoughts on art of little interest.

This paper is an analysis of Emerson's views on art. I argue that his article "Thoughts on Art"—published in the Dial in 1841, when Emerson was thirty-seven, and reprinted with small changes toward the end of his life as "Art" in Society and Solitude—is central to his position, taking seriously Emerson's charge that the artist must act as a prophet.3


The task of "Thoughts on Art" is twofold: to discuss the role of "Spirit" in artistic creation, and therefore its role in the history of art.4 What then is "Spirit"? Emerson was not a systematic thinker and did not hesitate to use different terms to refer to the same thing or the same term to refer to different things. In "Thoughts on Art," the following terms appear that may stand at one time or another for the same thing as "Spirit": "universal soul," "Reason," "Eternal Reason," "Nature," "absolute mind," "mind of humanity," "absolute truth," "Eternal Spirit," "Supreme Being," and "First Cause."5

Nomenclature aside, however, Emerson's general view can be described as follows. In a famous lecture, Emerson told students at Harvard Divinity School that "the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active."6 This mind is Spirit, which he held to be good, true, and beautiful, as "but different faces of the same All" ("Nature," 1:17). The "All" has both a material component (nature) and a spiritual one (mind or soul). Because individual human minds participate in, and think and act for, Spirit, an artist's mind is both an "inlet" to the universal mind and an outlet or "vent" for that mind. Emerson then conceived Art as the activity of Spirit. In the broadest sense, "Art is the spirit's voluntary use and combination of things to serve its end . . . universally, [Art] is the spirit creative" ("TOA," 7:19).

It helps to understand Emerson's view by distinguishing three main senses in which he speaks of "art:"

  1. 1. The thought or inspiration that leads to the activity causing the work (Art1).

  2. 2. The activity of producing the work (Art2).

  3. 3. The work itself (Art3).

[End Page 31] Not only do Art2 and Art3 arise from thought (Art1) but they are arguably thought's objective. One of Emerson's stranger claims is that "every thought that arises in the mind, in its rising, aims to pass out of the mind into act" ("TOA," 7:18).

In a trivial sense, all art is created by Spirit because the cosmos was created by Spirit, but Emerson also distinguishes different actors with different roles. First, nature (the material component) progresses and unfolds by an inner and organic necessity that is simply the ongoing consequence of what Spirit initially set in motion as "first cause." To this belong the growth of plants and the surge of winds. Second are actions of sentient beings (including human beings) that are "unconscious" or "instinctive." "Relatively to themselves, the bee, the bird, the beaver have no art; for what they do they do instinctively; but relatively to the Supreme Being, they have. And the same is true of all unconscious action; relatively to the doer, it is instinct; relatively to the First Cause, it is Art" ("TOA," 7:19). In other words, such actions consist of Art2; the Art1 for such actions goes back to the creation of the cosmos. Finally, there are conscious, noninstinctive actions of mind that involve Art1. These actions thus have a contemporary spiritual component and result in the creation of physical works.

Actions aim, according to Emerson, at either utility or, in the case of the fine arts (music, eloquence, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture ["TOA," 7:21]), beauty—though useful things can be beautiful and vice versa, and some arts (architecture, for example) aim at both. Characteristically, Emerson declined to define "beauty," noting that he is "warned by the ill fate of many philosophers" not to attempt such a definition ("Beauty," 6:154). He did not shrink, however, from identifying qualities that make things beautiful. "We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes" (6:154). The simplicity of art is a major theme of his essay entitled "Art." Further, beauty is unavoidably linked to truth and goodness as merely another face of Spirit, and is "organic," that is, it radiates from within. In this way, it resembles the organic necessity of nature, the beauty of which, according to Emerson, is a major source of artistic inspiration.

Emerson's contention that, in both the fine and useful arts, the real actor is Spirit leads him to what he calls the principle or law of the arts: "The universal soul is the alone creator of the useful and the beautiful; therefore, to make anything useful or beautiful, the individual must be submitted to the universal mind" ("TOA," 7:20). The "submission" varies [End Page 32] depending on whether the goal is utility or beauty and, as we shall see, how good or successful the creative act is.

In the useful arts, where the "omnipotent agent is Nature," Emerson's law takes the following form: "Art must be a complement to nature, strictly subsidiary" ("TOA," 7:40). Emerson's contention is that nothing can be useful without conforming to natural laws. "It is the law of fluids," he says, "that prescribes the shape of the boat" (7:40). However, Emerson's point is not merely that useful arts strive to be consistent with nature. His real point is much grander: the useful arts aim at universality by harnessing the infinite forces of nature. In using a shovel to dig a ditch, for example, we endeavor to "place ourselves in such attitudes as to bring the force of gravity, that is, the weight of the planet, to bear upon the spade" (7:21; emphasis added). Note that, though Emerson views utility as a "submission," he does not see it as a loss of freedom; on the contrary, we effectively free ourselves by acting in conformity to law (7:21). We seek the assistance of laws that, as part of "the" mind, "we" created.

Emerson thinks the fine arts require a similar submission. "As in useful art, so far as it is useful, the work must be strictly subordinated to the laws of Nature, so as to become a sort of continuation, and in no wise a contradiction of Nature; so in art that aims at beauty as an end, must the parts be subordinated to Ideal Nature, and everything individual abstracted, so that it shall be the production of the universal soul" ("TOA," 7:28). Nature plays a key role in the fine arts as well. While utility demands conformity to natural (universal) law, the fine arts look to nature for beauty created by Spirit, for inspiration. But the analogy between utility and beauty is less persuasive than Emerson realizes because he seems to be comparing the wrong things. True, in digging a ditch, one seeks to conform to the laws of nature and employ them for one's own purpose. But fine art is also a material medium and requires the same conformity. Did not Jackson Pollock and Vladimir Horowitz employ the force of gravity?

On the other hand, how does it occur to the ditch digger to seek gravity's help? Digging a ditch is not an instinctive or unconscious action; like making a work of art, it also requires thought. The great inventions of science, technology, and practical affairs—and even digging a ditch—seem to rely on the same Art1 and a similar submission to "Ideal Nature" or Spirit that fine art does. Further, Emerson's law states in each case that Spirit is alone the creator of the useful and beautiful. This claim has merit to the extent that Spirit created nature and its [End Page 33] laws and beauty as well, but human beings are actors too and there is surely a limit to their "submission." Where, for example, does the ditch digger's use of his muscles fit into Emerson's analysis?

This leads to consideration of an important tension in Emerson's account of fine art that runs through not only his thinking about art but his thinking in general: the conflict between human selves or minds and the universal mind.7 On the one hand, the "universal soul" is the "creator" of the beautiful in the artwork, but on the other hand, for the artist to "make" something beautiful, he/she must "submit" to the universal soul. Is the artist's action merely inspired by the beauty created by Spirit, or does Spirit in fact act through the artist to create the beauty? In support of the latter view is Emerson's observation that "the artist does not feel himself to be the parent of his work and is as much surprised at the effect as we" ("TOA," 7:23). Similarly, poets are said by Emerson to find their verse, not make it: "the muse brought it to them," he says (7:35). These statements make the artist's work seem like the activities of the bee, bird, and beaver in the passage quoted above, which are "unconscious" relative to the creature that acts and "art" with respect to "the First Cause." They do not seem to fit with the creation of art as a conscious activity of human beings.

To help allay this tension regarding the true actor, we must consider how Emerson thinks the artist will "submit" to the universal mind in making fine art. Spiritual life for Emerson requires a universal perspective where "the positive, dogmatic, personal" are removed ("The Transcendentalist," 1:204). Fine art (Art1) is an "application" of the spiritual "to the state of man."

In creating art, Emerson has two kinds of universality in mind. First, in the creation of the work, the task of the artist must be to "disindividualize" ("TOA," 7:24), as Emerson coins the word, so as to be receptive to the beauty provided by the universal soul. Stripping away the accidents, circumstances, and inclinations of the artist's own situation and egotism, prejudices, and will, the artist becomes a kind of universal human representative seeing with a universal eye. So inspired, the artist's words or actions then take on the character of a second kind of universality, because the content of what is spoken or created derives from the universal soul itself. In proportion, for example, as a literary work "was not polluted by any willfulness of the writer, but flowed from his mind after the divine order of cause and effect, it was not his, but nature's" ("Thoughts on Modern Literature," 10:100). The artist "must work in the spirit in which we conceive a prophet to speak, or an angel of the [End Page 34] Lord to act" ("TOA," 7:24), that is, to speak or act for the universal soul instead of him/herself. In making the artwork, the individual mind of the artist becomes "for the moment the vent of the mind of humanity":

There is but one Reason. The mind that made the world is not one mind, but the mind. Every man is an inlet to the same, and to all of the same. And every work of art is more or less pure manifestation of the same. Therefore we arrive at this conclusion, which I offer as a confirmation of the whole view: That the delight which a work of art affords, seems to arise from our recognizing in it the mind that formed nature again in active operation.

("TOA," 7:25)

Thus the apparent contradiction—whether Spirit or the artist creates the artwork—is in this sense resolved because the "disindividuated" mind of the artist is the universal mind. The artist's mind is at once an inlet to the universal mind (or Spirit) and an outlet or vent for the same, and properly prepared, inspiration is poured into the artist's mind (the "mold into which the world is poured like melted wax" ("The Transcendentalist," 1:204), to be poured, in turn, into the work of art.8

The creation of the artwork, then, can be said to call for a form of self-knowledge for the artist. The universal mind is like a true self or nature that is ordinarily invisible. "We are immersed in beauty, but our eyes have no clear vision" ("Art," 2:210). Under the right circumstances, however, we access the beauty of the universal self and are inspired to create an artwork. The audience of this work should have a similar encounter, with the artwork causing the audience to feel its own "wealth" ("The Over-Soul," 2:171)—a wealth not acquired but already possessed by the audience as a participant in the universal mind.9

Judgments about artworks should thus claim or justify universality. For Kant, "the judgment of taste exacts agreement from everyone; and a person who describes something as beautiful insists that everyone ought to give the object in question his approval and follow suit in describing it as beautiful."10 Though aware that others may not agree, Kant's judgment of taste effectively demands such agreement. Like Emerson's prophetic artist, a person issuing an aesthetic judgment speaks with a universal voice. Ordinarily, this claim might seem to be grounded on the essential "human-ness" of humanity, as sharing a form of life not shared with, say, a lion; for Kant it was grounded in the harmony of the free play of the imagination and understanding, which is presumed to be the same for all humans on the theory that (like Emerson's artist) the person making the judgment "disindividualizes" himself. [End Page 35]

However, two significant differences seem to distinguish Kant's universality and Emerson's. First, the ground of Emerson's view appears different from Kant's, since Emerson's "artist as prophet" is supposed to be speaking for God, whereas Kant's judgment of taste is, as it were, claiming to speak for humanity. Second, Emerson's universality is designed to explain how the artistic inspiration creates the artwork, whereas Kant is concerned to account for how judging the artwork can claim universality. But rightly understood, for Emerson, speaking for God is really no different than speaking for all, and the artist's hearing God's "voice" in creating the artwork is no different (other than being mediated by the prophet) than the audience hearing it in the artwork itself.

Emerson has been criticized11 for saying that the works of the highest art are "universally intelligible; that they restore to us the simplest states of mind; and are religious" ("Art," 2:213). But Emerson no more than Kant thinks that everyone comprehends and enjoys such works; rather, his view is that by definition the "highest" art (an aspect of his thinking that I will explore in a moment) is created by divine inspiration and is therefore capable of being understood (intelligible) by everyone under the right circumstances, which may require the same kind of "disindividuation" that the artist practiced. And of course the audience must not be asleep, distracted, blind, deaf (in the case of music), or ignorant of the language in which a poem is written.

The universal mind comes to Emerson's aid on another issue. Many artworks—films, or paintings produced by Rembrandt's workshop, for example—are created as cooperative projects. At one point, Emerson characterizes artistic inspiration or the "reappearance of the universal soul" in the artwork as "a jet of pure light" ("Art," 2:213). This makes inspiration appear to be a personal event, like the blinding of Paul on the road to Damascus. But Emerson's inspiration is more like a phone call placed, not to one person but to everyone, even though only one person may answer. Thus, the fact that each "mind" is an inlet of the mind means that more than one person working on the same artistic project may share the inlet and be inspired in the same way.


The artist's contact with the universal mind is the source of Art1, which is not the work's material composition (Art3) but the inspiration or idea that informs its creation, or as Emerson cites Aristotle, "the reason of the thing without the matter" ("TOA," 7:19). Emerson's [End Page 36] model of artistic creation is reminiscent of Leonardo's view: "Men of genius are sometimes producing most when they seem least to labor, for their minds are occupied in shaping of the conceptions to which they afterward give forth."12 The emphasis on the artist's mental operations, however, seems to detract from the physical talents we normally regard as an essential ingredient in artistic production (Art2). Thus, Emerson claims that an artist's "art [Art2] is the least part of his work of art [Art3]" (7:21). Similarly, we normally acknowledge the sheer hard work that the artist often devotes to creating the great art that interests Emerson. For every poem like "Kubla Khan" that was supposedly downloaded in the artist's imagination in a dream or vision, thousands of others are the product of hard work and endless rewriting. Michelangelo sometimes took years to finish sculptures and frescoes.

Accordingly, a criticism of Emerson is that his focus on Art1 shortchanges talent, craftsmanship, and hard work, and that his perspective is limited by his glorification of nature as a primary source of Art1, thereby ignoring the importance to art of human feelings, relations, and social and political interaction. Emerson's views could also be attacked on the grounds that few artists see themselves as prophets speaking for God. One could say that Emerson's view of art is so grand that few, if any, artworks can live up to it.

When Emerson speaks of art, however, he generally has in mind the greatest instances of artistic achievement, the goal at which the artist should be aiming. He acknowledges that works of art (Art3) may contain little or no divine inspiration (Art1). Emerson would not claim that the poetry he authored consisted exclusively of divinely inspired beauty. But the divine remains the goal of the artist, who, like the transcendentalist, "believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to the influx of light and power . . . in inspiration and in ecstasy" ("The Transcendentalist," 1:204). Art, he says, "should exhilarate, and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist" ("Art," 2:216).

One should not expect to encounter this as a matter of course. "How many volumes of well-bred metre we must gingle through, before we can be filled, taught, renewed! We want the miraculous; the beauty which we can manufacture in no mill, —can give no account of" ("Literature," 5:143). Emerson emphasizes the pursuit of the miraculous, divinely inspired beauty at the expense of talent and craftsmanship because this was his insight into artistic creation. [End Page 37]

What, then, is the status of works that fail to incorporate the divine inspiration that Emerson seeks? In the greatest art, the triumphant masterpiece, the artist-prophet is, to the extent possible, an accurate reporter of God's message, and God speaks, as it were, directly. To the extent this does not occur—and subject, presumably, to the artist's own technical limitations—it is the fault of the artist's lack of receptivity, "disindividuation," or "submission" to divine inspiration. It can also be a failure to see or think deeply (as every work of literature "proceeds out of a greater or lesser depth of thought" ["Thoughts on Modern Literature," 10:143]); the artist has failed sufficiently to open the inlet. Thus, "so much as we can shove aside our egotism, prejudice and will, and bring the omniscience of reason upon the subject before us, so perfect is the work" ("TOA," 7:24; emphasis added). "In eloquence, the great triumphs of art are, when the orator is lifted above himself" (7:24; emphasis added). As quoted earlier, "every work of art is more or less pure manifestation of" the mind that made the world (7:25; emphasis added). Everything in Emerson's writings on art is driven by this question of the degree of quality and insight.

There is a qualitative and a quantitative approach to Emerson's thinking of the divine inspiration in art as a question of degree. From a qualitative standpoint, the work of art may be better or worse as art to the extent that it clearly and directly conveys the divine message. But Emerson might also think that, to the extent an artwork is less good, it contains, from a quantitative standpoint, less art (in the sense of the divine inspiration in Art1). Emerson the moral philosopher speaks of evil as a negation, privation, or the absence of good: "Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death and nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real" ("Divinity School Address," 1:78).13 Similarly, Emerson the aesthetician thinks that a relatively bad work of art effectively contains less Art1, that is, that the universal mind speaks through the artist more faintly to the extent the work is less good. "Good," after all, like beauty, is just one of the three faces of the universal mind. To paraphrase what Emerson says of "good," Spirit is "the measure of beauty by the degree it enters into all lower forms" ("Self-Reliance," 2:40; emphasis added).

Emerson describes artworks that do not succeed near the highest level in various ways. Sometimes they are said to be buried in outmoded forms no longer relevant to our current life. Works that are produced merely for diversion or enjoyment are described as yielding a degraded pleasure. In that regard, an important reason that artworks contain less [End Page 38] art is not only that the artist fails to be infused with divine inspiration but that he is absolutely looking in the wrong place. "As soon as beauty is sought, not from religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker. High beauty is no longer attainable by him in canvas or in stone, in sound or in lyrical construction; an effeminate, prudent, sickly beauty, which is not beauty, is all that can be formed" ("Art," 2:217).

Interestingly, Emerson here treats what we might call "low beauty" as not beauty at all, which suggests it is not a lesser version of "high" beauty but a different thing altogether, yielding a different kind of pleasure. Low beauty would not then be quantitatively "lesser" than true beauty; like ugliness that is not really ugly, it is not really beautiful. It contains no divine inspiration.

An artist accused of making art that falls short of containing divine beauty might defend himself by saying he is only portraying the world the way it is. "It is not my fault," the artist might say, "that I am not receiving divine beauty, for the world is in large part not beautiful." How can Emerson reconcile his idea that art takes its form from the beauty of nature when the world is apparently replete with ugliness?

There are several possibilities. First, many things that seem ugly, disgusting, or horrible to our sensibilities may not appear so when viewed in the proper fashion or light. "There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful. . . . Even the corpse has its own beauty" ("Nature," 1:12–13). Emerson was not alone in this view: "The Eternal speaks to us in the midst of decay," writes fellow transcendentalist John Sullivan Dwight.14

Second, the presence of virtue lessens or eradicates the impact of ugliness. "We love any forms, however ugly, from which great qualities shine" ("Beauty," 6:160). The goodness of his soul causes a homely man to appear attractive, for example. Third, as a consequence of regarding art as a question of degree, ugliness can be viewed as a negative, the absence of beauty. Emerson could maintain that the world per se is beautiful because, to the extent it is ugly, it doesn't exist. Finally, beauty does not require what is considered extraordinary or magnificent. The recapture of the everyday and ordinary was a goal Emerson shared with contemporaries like Wordsworth and Whitman. Thus, the instinct of genius is "to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary facts, in the field and road-side, in the shop and mill" ("Art," 2:218).

The leafy dell, the city martEqual trophies of thine [Beauty's] art

("Ode to Beauty," 9:175) [End Page 39]

But although Emerson claims the world is beautiful as a manifestation of Spirit, he did not necessarily believe that world was everywhere beautiful or at least everywhere equally so. As we have seen, works of art are more or less beautiful; they are beautiful to the extent they capture the beauty of the universal soul, and it must be the same with the world itself, including nature. Works of art ultimately owe their existence to Spirit and, like everything else, partake of a degree of perfection. This line of thinking leads to looking more favorably on the artist's contribution to artworks.


The spiritual essence of art is only one reason we enjoy art. According to Emerson, nature, as an unconscious actor, contributes significantly to the pleasure actually afforded by artworks. In "Thoughts on Art," Emerson demonstrates this claim by four "deductions," subtractions from the spiritual component of the artwork, and the "genius of the artist," and thus the credit due the artist for the enjoyment afforded by the artwork, given what is attributable to nature.

The first deduction is that art has a material (nonspiritual) basis. The material basis of music, for example, is the "qualities of the air and the vibrations of sonorous bodies" and that of eloquence, the tone of voice, physique, and "play of eye and countenance" of the speaker ("TOA," 7:21). Emerson thinks we must be mindful of the delights afforded by the medium to avoid crediting the artist for the pleasure supplied by nature.

Second, Emerson claims that, to the "unpracticed" or "uncultured" audience not seeking "a fine spiritual delight" in viewing an artwork ("TOA," 7:22), even the crudest compositions can give pleasure. The implication is that, since little art is required to give pleasure, at least some of the pleasure associated with works of art is owed merely to their being artworks, compositions of sounds or colors or words. The medium itself, in other words, gives pleasure even when not fashioned by the hands of a master. Third, some elements of this pleasure are conventional. The pleasure we take in recognizing familiar forms in artworks (such as the trio in a minuet or scherzo movement) should, Emerson says, be deducted from our estimation of the artist's art. Fourth, listening to music in a great cathedral or visiting the remains of a Roman temple on a beautiful day give pleasure not due entirely to the music or temple; pleasure can be derived from the circumstances of our encounter with the work. [End Page 40]

Emerson's deductions—material basis, media, convention and circumstance—all transfer credit for the artwork from the artist to nature. But the deductions do not justify his claim that "an artist's art is the least part of his art" or that "the power of Nature predominates over the human will in all works of even the fine arts. . . . Nature paints the best part of the picture" ("TOA," 7:23–24). At least Emerson qualifies this claim by limiting it to "all that respects their material and external circumstances" (7:23; emphasis added).

Even if Emerson were right about this, it is difficult to see how the deductions fit into his overall philosophy of action. The activity of nature (which ultimately goes back to Spirit) does not seem analogous to the submission to nature required by utility. Perhaps Emerson does not discuss a similar contribution to useful actions, such as how a cool day makes digging with a shovel easier. In any case, Emerson's deductions can be faulted on several grounds. He does not acknowledge that the relation between artworks and nature is a two-way street; artworks also increase the pleasure we take from nature: the beautiful temple adds to the pastoral scene. Similarly, he ignores the fact that artworks can influence the pleasure we take in other artworks—how paintings are hung in a gallery or works of music figure in a program. Most important, Emerson ignores what might be called the "additions," those material and external circumstances posing a barrier to artistic creation that the artist deserves credit for overcoming. A hall filled with an "unpracticed" and "uncultured" audience may delight in an artwork too easily, but a hall filled with effete connoisseurs may too readily dismiss a genuinely beautiful artwork. The ruined temple may be appealing on a beautiful day, but how does it appear on a rainy day?

Given Emerson's concept of divine inspiration and the contributions of nature represented by the deductions, he seems to be attacking the artist from both a spiritual and material standpoint. The universal soul is the true maker of the "art" in the picture, and (at least from a material standpoint) nature paints the best part of it. Emerson believes that poets find their verse, not make it, and that poems flow into the mind of the artist through "the divine order of cause and effect" ("Thoughts on Modern Literature," 10:100). Instead of a prophet, the artist suddenly appears more like a trickster claiming to be the author of what in fact God conveyed to him and nature perfected. Why then does the Emersonian artist deserve any credit at all for making a beautiful artwork?

Some writers indeed have emphasized the passivity of intuition and thought for Emerson,15 an emphasis that seems to leave little room to [End Page 41] praise the artist, at least in terms of Art1. The artist him/herself seems almost irrelevant; the transcendentalist, says Emerson, cares only for the depth of thought, not who has it ("The Transcendentalist," 1:204). True, as we have seen, for Emerson the artist is a receptacle, an inlet (as we all are) to the universal mind, which is the creator of art according to Emerson's credo. But the secret to serving as a successful inlet is not to become a passive spectator; it is, as noted earlier, to "disindividualize" oneself, to seek an experience that is universal. This seeking is, simply, a positive abandonment of dogmatism, distraction, prejudice, and individual circumstance. It can be viewed as an artist's acknowledgment of who she really is: from a spiritual standpoint, not entirely a separate thing but a part of the universal soul.

Far from viewing the artist as a mere conduit, Emerson holds the artist in high regard as the person God has chosen to be the prophet of beauty. The artist is like a minister who is only able to teach because he is "the man on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks" ("Divinity School Address," 1:84). Neil Harris describes the transcendentalist view that the artist's treasure "came directly from God. By constant communion and meditation, by magnanimously expending his genius [quoting Elizabeth Peabody] 'the Artist must himself become the masterpiece, which the Creator of Man had in his Idea when he breathed into him a living soul.' The artist was the only complete man, living the sort of life all were meant to live."16

Hence, Emerson's artist also receives credit from spiritual and material standpoints. Much of the world's beauty remains an unperceived mystery to most mortals. "We are immersed in beauty," says Emerson, "but our eyes have no clear vision" ("Art," 2:210). But the vision of the true artist is superior to that of the ordinary mortal, and we value the artist precisely because of his ability to grasp, to receive beauty—"actually to possess the thought or feeling with which he has inspired us" ("TOA," 7:23). "There is, in all great poets, a wisdom of humanity which is superior to the talents they exercise" ("The Over-Soul," 2:170).

The artist's reception of beauty is no use to us unless he successfully communicates (gives vent to) it. This communication is the true office of art and the source of our debt to the artist. "To genius must always go two gifts, the thought and the publication. . . . To make it [truth] available, it needs a vehicle or art by which it is conveyed to men. . . . The most wonderful inspirations die with their subject, if he has no hand to paint them to the senses" ("Intellect," 2:198). [End Page 42]

Art is not reduced to talent, but for "publication," talent is required. "The rich, inventive genius of the painter must be smothered and lost for want of the power of drawing. . . . All men have some access to primary truth, so all have some art or power of communication in their head, but only in the artist does it descend into the hand" ("Intellect," 2:199). The difference between the artist and other mortals is thus not just that artists are more open to the beauty of things,17 though this is certainly a requirement. Those who hear God speak but cannot speak themselves make poor prophets. The artist must be able to translate divine speech into a language humans can understand, which requires talents not shown by others. "Some men, namely, poets, are natural sayers, sent into the world to the end of expression" ("The Poet," 3:5).

Indeed, the artist's talent, the ability to "say," to work material (Art2), can be said to occupy the same status vis-à-vis the spiritual component of the artwork as the deductions themselves; the "play of eye and countenance" may be a conscious manipulation as much as a natural characteristic of the speaker. Saying may also require hard work and dedication on the part of the artist. Here, Emerson's own analogy is instructive. In digging a ditch, the digger takes advantage of the force of gravity, but must also use muscles. Perhaps gravity digs "the best part" of the hole, but it does not dig it all. Again, Emerson rarely extols such efforts and talents because he is chiefly concerned to advance his main aesthetic insight to the perception of beauty.

In the end, we credit the artist for being able to convey true beauty despite the deductions, interference of nature, and temptations of low beauty, not to mention what I earlier called the "additions." The need to face these challenges is perhaps one reason why Emerson says the "creating intellect is crippled in some degree by the stuff on which it works" ("TOA," 7:21). Thus, rightly understood, the "credit" lost by the artist by virtue of the deductions is arguably the credit for the pleasure we take in low beauty. The deductions, viewed in one light as enhancements, are (viewed in another light) hindrances or roadblocks that the artist must try to work around to convey the real message.

A final point. The artist's task as a veritable prophet is to educate the audience in the perception of beauty so that the audience can make contact with the universal soul from which beauty flows. But Emerson also thinks art inspires and challenges us regarding the conduct of our own lives. [End Page 43]

Therefore we value the poet. All the argument and all the wisdom is not in the encyclopedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play. In my daily work I incline to repeat my old steps, and I do not believe in remedial force, in the power of change and reform. But some Petrarch or Aristo, filled with the new wine of his imagination, writes me an ode or a brisk romance, full of daring thought and action. He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye to my own possibilities.

("Circles," 2:185)


Since art takes "its form from the broad hint of nature," Emerson attributes much of what is lacking in art to the artist's loss of touch with nature: "Now men do not see nature to be beautiful, and they go to make a statute that shall be" ("Art," 2:217). God does not inspire great art by appearing in a burning bush; his main instrument is the natural world that most effectively displays the beauty and goodness of the universal soul. Where the artist fails to see the beauty in nature, he forgoes the divine inspiration required by true art and tries instead to manufacture the beauty on his own; the artist is like a prophet who, instead of speaking for God, assumes the mantle of God and speaks for herself, a false prophet promoting only the creation of pleasure.

On the other hand, by making beautiful art, the artist actually competes with nature. But the contest is an unequal one; art's reflection of the beauty of nature remains a reflection, since the beauty of nature itself is superior. Emerson is quite clear that no painting of a person, field, or sunset will ever equal the beauties of the things themselves, and even describes paintings and statutes as "cripples and monsters" ("Art," 2:215). Thus, "there is no statute like this living man, with his infinite advantage over all ideal sculpture" (2:212) and "the sweetest music is not in the oratorio, but in the human voice" (2:216).

Imitating nature, however, is not the artist's goal, though Emerson admits that the artist's "copies from experience" are never mere copies, "but always touched and softened by tints" from the ideal forms in her own mind ("Intellect," 2:200). "In our fine arts," Emerson says, "not imitation, but creation is the aim. In landscapes, the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know" ("Art," 2:209; emphasis added). The artist's successful communication is a mere suggestion, intended to lead the audience to have the same or similar insight as that of the artist. [End Page 44]

Arguably, were it not for art's ability to draw attention to beauty, art could be seen as counterproductive, too often turning would-be trampers of field and woodlot into aesthetes inhabiting galleries and cafés. And in some respects, the task of art is indeed self-defeating for Emerson. A person looks at a work of art because it is supposed to be beautiful; she attends to the work, seeks it out for that reason. Why else do we visit a gallery or museum? In "Nature," however, Emerson suggests that the beauties of nature, "if too eagerly hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality. Go out of the house to see the moon, and 'tis mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey" ("Nature," 1:14). Similarly, in his Journals, Emerson notes that he "has enjoyed more from mediocre pictures, casually seen when the mind is in equilibrium, and have reaped a true benefit of the art of painting . . . than from many masterpieces seen with much expectation and tutoring, and so not with equipoise of mind."18

In his comparisons of art to nature, however, Emerson neglects the one advantage art has over nature. As noted earlier, Emerson claims that we take pleasure in fine art because we recognize "the mind that formed nature again in active operation." Nature was perfect ab initio and does not require further tinkering from either the universal soul or the minds of individual persons to keep it that way. To recognize God in nature is to recognize that nature is growing from an original design in which God per se is no longer active. The creation of the work of fine art, on the other hand, still requires divine inspiration; it is a form of current activity, not an unconscious or instinctive action or remote "first cause." Hence, the work of art (and here Emerson is thinking of the greatest works) affords an opportunity to see God (of which our own mind is an aspect) "in active operation" through the creation of a beautiful new thing.

Assuming the artist receives divine inspiration, why bother to make the work of art? As Emerson himself says, "By forbearing to be artists, we might be vessels filled with the divine overflowings, enriched by the circulations of omniscience and omnipresence" ("The Method of Nature," 1:130). Why not just enjoy the divine inspiration when we experience it?

Emerson's answer to this question would be, basically, that the artist cannot help him/herself. Artistic inspiration contains a necessity that forces the artist to express himself in the artwork. This necessity seems to arise in two ways. First, as noted earlier, Emerson holds there is a need for thoughts to pass out of the mind into acts. So, in some general sense, the artist's recognition of beauty is like any other thought [End Page 45] that seeks entry into the world. But according to Emerson, the more profound the thought, the more "burdensome" it is in seeking action. "It is the effect of conversations with the beauty of the soul, to beget a desire and need to impart to others the same knowledge and love. If utterance is denied, the thought lies like a burden on the man" ("Divinity School Address," 1:84).

Emerson describes the true artist at one point as "drunk with a passion for form which he could not resist" ("Art," 2:217). Thus, "every work of art, in proportion to its excellence, partakes of the precision of fate" ("TOA," 7:25; emphasis added), and hence appears "necessary" to its audience. This is the necessity that attends to the words of the prophet, which must not only be divinely compelled but appear to be so compelled, like the necessity of a growing plant.19 The perception of this necessity is owing to the quality of the artwork, and almost by definition cannot be attributed to the deductions mentioned earlier, which are largely a matter of circumstance. The point is important because it underscores the artist's task of producing artworks that appear to embody God's "active operation" in the same inevitable way that nature does.


Emerson thinks our experience of beauty in art facilitates the recognition of beauty in the world as an attribute of Spirit. The artist's task, however, is not simply to make beauty manifest, but to cause a change in the perceptive and intellectual faculties of human beings, for "it is a low benefit to give me something; it is a high benefit to enable me to do somewhat of myself" ("Divinity School Address," 1:83). Thus he says that art's best effect is to make new artists ("Art," 2:216). And this is, ultimately, what art is about for Emerson. Emerson's great project, which runs throughout his writings, is to encourage individuals to seek original inspiration and insight, as he announced at the beginning of "Nature": "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs. . . . Let us demand our own works and laws and worship" ("Nature," 1:7). One could add: "and artworks that are the product of original inspiration and not derived by copying prior works and established styles." [End Page 46]

The study of art, religion, and science and the reception of the thoughts and works of others are not enough for Emerson; everyone must forge their own path in the world and seek out beauty, goodness, and truth for themselves, discounting not only the models of others but even those of their own past in order to remain true to their thoughts and intuitions. Art should thus aim to provoke its audience, as religion should. "Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject" ("Divinity School Address," 1:80). We can hear the artist's prophecy in the artwork, but we must ultimately seek to hear the voice of God ourselves. What is wanted is an original relation to this ultimate beauty, and Emerson's writings on art reflect this aspiration and promote its accomplishment.

Jeff Wieand
Concord, Massachusetts


1. Percy W. Brown, "Emerson's Philosophy of Aesthetics," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 15 (1957): 350–54 (350).

2. Hyatt H. Waggoner, Emerson as Poet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 201.

3. I am not the first to call this out. See P. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 51. See also Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), p. 138.

4. The second objective, which is also a theme of the later essay "Art," is beyond the scope of this paper.

5. See Charles Reid Metzger, Emerson and Greenough (Oakland: University of California Press, 1954), p. 35. See also Jonathan Levin, The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 17.

6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Divinity School Address," in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, ed. Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 76–93 (78). Subsequent quotations from Emerson's writing are from this source and are cited by essay title, volume, and page numbers; the essay "Art" in Society and Solitude is abbreviated "TOA" for "Thoughts on Art," its original title in the Dial, to distinguish it from the essay "Art" in Essays: First Series. [End Page 47]

7. The same tension exists, for example, in his discussion of self-reliance, where "trust yourself" turns into a path to the universal soul.

8. The psychological processes by which this occurs are beyond the scope of this paper, but have been explored elsewhere. Vivian Hopkins attempts this in Spires of Form: A Study of Emerson's Aesthetic Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951).

9. To borrow an idea from Stanley Cavell, Emerson conceives of the self as "always becoming, as on a journey." Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 26. For Emerson, fine art promotes this journey for both the self and the universal mind, the former journey being part of the latter.

10. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 82.

11. Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 82.

12. Giorgio Vasari, Vasari's Lives of the Artists, ed. Betty Burroughs (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 192.

13. See also Stanley Bates, "Emerson, Ralph Waldo," International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2013).

14. John S. Dwight, "The Religion of Beauty," The Dial 1 (1841): 17–22 (21).

15. See, for example, Stanley Cavell, "Thinking of Emerson," in Emerson's Transcendental Etudes, ed. David Justin Hodge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 10–19; Branka Arsic, "Brain Walks," in The Other Emerson, ed. Branka Arsic and Cary Wolfe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), pp. 59–97.

16. Neil Harris, The Artist in American Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 180.

17. Emerson's admiration for artistic talent is best exemplified in his essay on Shakespeare in Collected Works, vol. 4 (1987), Representative Men, ed. Wallace E. Williams and Douglas Emory Wilson, pp. 109–25.

18. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Heart of Emerson's Journals, ed. Perry Bliss (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1938), p. 134.

19. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, pp. 135–40. [End Page 48]

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