Ethics in Modern Art

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Marjorie Bowen
Marjorie Bowen (1885 – 1952)
Herbert Read
Professor Sir Herbert Read (1893 – 1968)
Conway Memorial Lecture
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at Conway Hall 19 April 1939. Chaired by Professor Sir Herbert Read and presented by Marjorie Bowen.

Art can be defined as original and creative activity, not imitative or artisan work. At present, art is freer of traditional constraints and conventions, most of them religious, than ever before. As such, it often offends conventional and conservative taste, especially that formed under the influence of 19th century art. Also, good art, because fundamentally original, is never servile to previous artistic achievement, no matter how elevated and revered the latter may be. And originality means a fresh search for truth and beauty: in this lies the ethical value of art. Such originality, if accepted by society, enriches civilisation.

Despite the opposition and indifference encountered by the modern artist, he has nevertheless penetrated deeply into contemporary life and thought, combating the influence of the cheap, trivial and false by offering an uplifting alternative. This is especially true of the public art of architecture, as well as of music and poetry when they reach a wide audience through the popular medium of radio. As regards the novel, the writer’s impact is connected with the wide intellectual scope of his work, and his willingness to explore, in an unprejudiced way, the problems that afflict humanity. This is part of art’s affirmation of belief in the richness of human life, and humanity’s inexhaustible potential.
In modern literature to an unprecedented extent, such affirmation is found among women writers. They have articulated the feminine point of view in a way impossible to male writers, even the most eminent; in the process, they have influenced male writing. Also, they have joined their male counterparts on equal terms, in protesting against social evils and hypocrisies.

Finally, active encouragement of the arts is needed in British society. This is mainly a question of educating children in appreciation and enjoyment of good art, especially that of their own time.

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