Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Art vs. Nature Debate - 1888

For many days in early December, 1888, members of the Literary and Debating Society in connection with the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church practiced their debating skills in anticipation of the society’s first public debate of the winter season.
          The subject of the debate was “Resolved, that the works of art are more attractive to the eye than the works of nature.”
          The debaters were introduced to the audience at the beginning of the meeting. Col. J. T. Holland and Professor Jesse Gant were the champions of art, while Professor Williams and Professor Miller upheld nature’s claims.
          The Spectator reporter who covered the December 10, 1888 debate felt that the result of this extensive preparation “was such as to fill the debaters with pride and the auditors with admiration.”
          “Art vs. Nature : Memorable Debate on an Important Subject”
               Spectator. December 11, 1888.
          The chairman of the meeting, Rev. J. H. Bell, had some difficulty procuring volunteers from the audience to act as judges of the debate. Finally, five judges were selected and the debate began in earnest.
          Col. Holland was the first speaker. He devoted his time making the argument that “art is more attractive to nature by means of illustrations drawn from the science of agriculture. He pointed out clearly how much more attractive to the farmer is the threshing machine than the ancient methods of getting grain.”
          Professor Williams followed with an argument in favour of nature’s attractiveness over art :
          “Don’t a mother think more of her child than she does a picture of her child? Her child is nature, and the picture is art. Wouldn’t you rather have a young lady alive and full of vigor than a statue of a young lady no matter how fine the statue is?”
          Professor Williams’ point on the beauty of young ladies went over well with the audience and he sat down to loud cheers.
          Professor Gant rose to rebut Professor Williams’ arguments. He demanded to know whether a diamond was not more beautiful after it had been polished than when it was still in the ground.
          As illustrative of art’s superiority over nature, Gant “instanced the article of diet familiar to all good housewives, namely chitterlings, which, he said, are much more palatable when prepared by culinary art than they are in the state of nature.”
          Getting somewhat worked up, Professor Gant’s rebuttal then began to get a little personal :
          “Prof. Williams’ photograph might perhaps be attractive. That was a work of art. But what was attractive about Prof. Williams himself?”
          The next speaker, Prof. Miller, had evidently carefully prepared the points he wished to raise in the debate:
          “He started out with a subtle metaphysical discrimination between the wonderful and the beautiful things which attract the eye in nature”.
 When he began to enumerate the things in nature which he deemed to be “attracting,” Professor Gant bluntly interrupted by saying, “I’d like to raise a point of order. Brother Miller is using the word “attracting” when the word in the resolution is ‘attractive.’ ”
When Professor Miller shot back that the word is “attracting,” voices in the audience called out for the minutes of the meeting to be read in order to settle the dispute.
It so happened that Professor Miller was both a debater and a keeper of the minutes. He had recorded the word as “attracting.”
On hearing this, Professor Gant hotly accused Professor Miller of “deliberately altering the word in the resolution so as to have the champions of art at a disadvantage.”
Professor Miller scornfully denied Professor Gant’s accusation and hot words were subsequently exchanged between them.
Reverend Bell, as chairman, was responsible for resolving the dispute, but he “confessed himself to be puzzled as to how to decide the matter, but in the meantime begged the gentlemen to be calm.”
While Reverend Bell deliberated, someone in the audience rose to ask what the difference was between “attractive” and “attracting.” Professor Gant answered the question by telling the man that if he had to ask for the distinction, he was illiterate.
Finally, Reverend Bell, in a solemn and deliberate tone, rendered his judgement:
“Now, the grammatical phraseology of the phrase is one thing, and its synthetical construction is another thing.”
Church Elder Walker then offered his opinion that “the difference between the two words is that one is a noun or substantive, and the other is an adjective.”
The argument was never settled to Professor Gant’s satisfaction, but Rev. Bell allowed Professor Miller to proceed with his enumeration of things “attracting” in nature:
“He mentioned water spouts, water falls, rocks that resemble human faces, the desert of Africa which contains floods of flowers, and other equally wonderful things as illustrations of the attractiveness of nature.”
Professor Holland completed the first round of the opening arguments by complaining bitterly of the substitution of the word “attracting” for “attractive” in the resolution :
“It makes it difficult to go on with the subject after they changed it to suit themselves.”
Professor Holland then tore into the main body of his speech:
“Clothing was attractive in cold weather; we couldn’t do without it in winter; and clothing was the work of the hand of art. Ever since Franklin caught gas in a bottle, it has been attractive. His opponents would say that was the hand of nature; no, it was the hand of art. Why, we couldn’t live in this country if it weren’t for the hand of art. We would go back in heathenism and be like the gorillas. The Queen of Sheba came all the way from somewhere to see Solomon’s temple. Was that the hand of nature? No, it was the hand of art. Psychology, which teaches us how many thousands of pounds of pressure there is to the square inch, is also the hand of art.”
Professor Holland brought his torrent of words to an abrupt conclusion by dramatically sitting down,“ with the air of a man who had exhausted his subject as well as himself.”
Professor Williams in rebuttal, spoke up well for nature and declared that Professor Gant loved nature so much that he kept four or five photographs of himself in his barber shop window. The professor then returned to his comparison of a statue of a young woman and a real young woman:
          “What good would the statue of a young woman be in a house? It could not keep house for you. What is art anyway? It’s something that comes out of nature. If it wasn’t for nature there couldn’t be any art. I read the paper every evening to read about murders in England. That’s very attractive but it soon dies out. I get tired looking at beautiful pictures; but do I get tired looking at a young lady? Oh, no. Solomon’s temple may have been fine; but none of us ever saw it – I know I never did.”
Professor Gant again rose to his feet to denounce the points made by his opponents and to bring out some new arguments of his own. He said hat Professor William’s point about the attractiveness of Niagara Falls could be refuted by reminding the audience that more people had been attracted to see tight-rope walker Blondin cross the Niagara gorge than would have been there just to see the Falls themselves. To show how art was superior to nature, Professor Gant compared the recently-constructed City Hall to the raw stone out of which it was made.
After Professor Gant concluded, the judges of the debate went to work:
“After comparing notes, they decided in favour of the artists who had scored 18 points, while the naturalists had only made 6.”

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