I recently came across the following passage from the architect Ralph Adams Cram’s commencement address at the Yale School of Fine Arts (as it was then called), published in The Ministry of Art (1914):
The artist is bound and controlled by the laws of his art, but doubly is he bound by his duty to society. If he is prohibited — as he is under penalty of aesthetic damnation — from denying beauty or contenting himself with expedients, or sacrificing any jot or tittle of the integrity of his art to fashion, or vulgarity, or the lust of evil things, still more is he bound to mankind by the law of noblesse oblige, and by the fear of God, to use his art only for the highest ends, to proclaim only the vision of perfection, to cleave only to the revelation of heavenly things.
The architect who abandons himself to the creation of ugliness, however academic may be its cachet; the painter who “paints what he sees” or makes his art the ministry of lust; the sculptor who regards the form and sees nothing of the substance; the poet who glorifies the hideous shape of atheism, or the grossness of the accidents of life; the musician who exalts the morbid and the horrible; the maker of ceremonials who assembles depraved arts in a vain simulacrum of ancient and noble liturgies, — these are but traitors to man and God, and however competent their craft, they are enemies of the people, and to them should be meted the condemnation of their kind.
Those unfamiliar with Cram (whose polemics, he tells us, were delivered with a twinkle in his eye) might consult Matthew Alderman’s fine reflection, or better yet, walk into St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York and gaze at what the exacting standards expressed above could actually accomplish.
He was America’s John Ruskin. But our Ruskin could build.