14 Mar 2009

Schiller, "Reflections on the Use of the Vulgar and Low Elements in Works of Art"

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary, after which I reproduce the text. Paragraph headings are my own.]

"Gedanken über den Gebrauch

des Gemeinen und Niedrigen in der Kunst"

"Reflections on the Use of the Vulgar and

Low Elements in Works of Art"

§1 The Noble Sublime versus the Ignoble Vulgar

Schiller first classifies the things that are vulgar (gemein).

Vulgar things

a) do not appeal to our minds, but rather,

b) interest solely our senses.

Of course, by this definition, there are infinitely many material things that will appeal to our senses rather than to our minds. Yet, art has the power to elevate the dignity of such vulgar things by portraying them nobly. So our question when judging art is not "are the depicted objects the sorts of things that normally appeal merely to our senses?" Rather, we ask "does the artist render these material objects with a noble form?" The way artists may do so is by endowing the object with a spiritual element and by uncovering dimensions that express its greatness.

For example, consider the vulgar historian. He will detail all the irrelevant and common aspects of a historical figure, such as his clothing and insignificant actions. And he will do so as though these features were as important to the hero as are his "sublimest" accomplishments. On the other hand, he will not portray the hero's grandest actions in a way that allows us to see what is admirable about them. Thus the vulgar historian does neither

a) describe the hero's common features in a noble way, nor does he

b) describe the hero's praiseworthy actions in a noble way.

Now consider instead the historian of genius. He has a noble mind. So of course he describes the hero's sublime actions with due nobility. But in addition, he depicts the hero's private life and less significant actions in a way that makes us value them more and become more interested in them.

The Dutch and Flemish painters exhibit a taste for the vulgar. Consider Adriaen Brouwer.

Peasants Brawling over Cards.

But the Italian painters show more of a grand and noble taste. Consider Panini's Pantheon.

Or Tiepolo's Appearance of the Virgin to St. Philip Neri.

But the Ancient Greeks go even further than the Italians. They reject every vulgar feature and subject, and instead always aim for the ideal.

Consider this statue of Zeus.

And this statue of the Sphinx.

§2 Grand Portraits Emphasize the Great and Indicate the Base

Vulgar Portraits Emphasize the Ignoble at the Cost of the Grand

Schiller will now explain how a portrait painter can depict his subjects in either a grand or common (gemein) manner.

It is common if the portraiter

a) reproduces accidental details with the same care he uses to render the essential features, and

b) neglects the noble details so to emphasize the insignificant ones.

It is grand if he

1) intentionally accentuates the most interesting aspects of his subject, and

2) does no more than suggest or indicate the insignificant features so that he may spend most of his attention on what is great.

"And the only thing that is great is the expression of the soul itself, manifesting itself by actions, gestures, or attitudes." (2d)

§3 The Vulgar and Noble in Poetry, for example, Achilles' Shield

The poet may also treat his subject commonly or grandly.

He treats it commonly if he

1) dwells on valueless facts, and

2) skims rapidly over important elements.

He treats his theme grandly if he

a) associates his theme with what is great

Schiller offers an example of such poetic grandeur. We would think that the crafting of a shield to be a common affair. However, Homer devotes elaborate attention to describing the dramatic scenes depicted on the shield [see this entry for a closer look at the text and shield.]

§4 Base is Lower than Vulgar.

For, not Only Does It Lack Nobility,

It is also Vile as well.

There is even a degree lower than the common or vulgar (Gemeinen). This lower level is the base or gross (Niedrige). The vulgar is something negative, because it lacks inspiration or nobleness. The base is negative as well in this way. But the gross also has something positive to it. For, it expresses course feeling, bad morals, and contemptible manners.

Vulgarity just exhibits the lack of positive traits. So we merely regret that absence. Baseness, however, indicates that there is a lack of some quality that we should always expect to be depicted.

For example, we may distinguish two types of revenge.

1) vulgar revenge: the revengeful person exhibits a lack of generosity.

2) base vengeance: the vengeful person uses contemptible means to satisfy his hunger for revenge.

The base always implies something coarse or uncouth (Grobes, Pöbelhaftes), and it reminds us of the mob. Common features, however, can be found in the most well-born and bred man, "who may think and act in a common manner if he has only mediocre faculties." We act in our vulgar interests when we are concerned only with our own interests. In contrast, we act nobly when we forget ourselves "to procure some enjoyment for others." Yet, even a noble man can act basely if he served his own interests at the cost of his honor, and if he does act decently.

Thus the common is only the contrary of the noble; the base is the contrary both of the noble and the seemly.

We act basely if we give in to our passions and satisfy our impulses without regard for rules of propriety or morality.

§5 Painting the Base

by Showing What We Should Conceal

and by Evoking Low Ideas

Before we saw how artists may fall into a vulgar style. They may descend further into a low style (Niedrige) as well. He does so by

a) choosing ignoble subjects that offend decency and good taste, and

b) treating them in a base manner by unveiling things propriety requires concealed or by depicting things in a way that evokes base ideas.

The lives of the greater part of men can present particulars of a low kind, but it is only a low imagination that will pick out these for representation.

§6 Coarse Artists Portray Christian Figures Basely

There are depictions of Christ, Mary, and the Apostles that portray them as though they were "taken from the dregs of the populace." Such renditions exhibit low taste, and they indicate that the artist also thinks like the mob.

§7 The Artist May Be Base

To Get Us to Laugh at the Difference

between High and Low Characters

There are some exceptions when art is permitted to portray base images, namely, to evoke laughter. We may maintain our noble nature while also laughing at the contrast between "the manners of polished society and those of the lower orders." If a person of status is drunk, we might be offended. But we laugh when a sailor for example is drunk. "Jests that would be insufferable in a man of education amuse us in the mouth of the people."

Aristophanes, for example, made much use of such humor.

So we may excuse poets whenever they comically depict a base person with the feelings, language, and actions of lower people.

§8 Base Artists Offend Our Morality

and Chain Us to Our Imaginations.

Farces are Excused

So we should not always condemn the poet who inserts features of the common people into their characters of status. However, the poet will offend us when he attributes baseness to these characters. If he does so, he will either:

a) outrage our sense of truth; for, we would rather think that the poet is a liar than to conclude noble men may act so basely,

b) offend our moral sense, or worse,

c) excite our imagination.

The exception is a farce. For in farces, there is a tacit understanding between the poet and spectator that the truth is suspended in the piece.

In a farce we exempt the poet from all faithfulness in his pictures; he has a kind of privilege to tell us untruths. Here, in fact, all the comic consists exactly in its contrast with the truth, and so it cannot possibly be true

§9 Using the Base to Tragically Terrify Us

So the base is admissıble in farces. But it is also permitted under certain conditions in serious and tragic works as well. It is only allowed if the base passes into the terrible. In these cases, the violation of our sense of propriety must be overshadowed by stronger passions: "the low impression must be absorbed by a superior tragic impression."

So for example, theft is a base act. It evokes in our imaginations many accessory ideas and images that we find repugnant. So we assess a low aesthetic judgment of it. But our moral judgment merely looks at the crime abstractly as a crime and not something with accessory ideas. So our moral judgment is not so harsh, but would still condemn the act. So it would seem that artists should avoid depicting robbers. However, if the thief also was a murderer, then he terrifies us. This terror over-rides the influence of the accessory ideas, and it causes us to recognize our freedom to face such fearful things. So we are less aesthetically offended by the robber who murders.

Continuing to judge him from the aesthetic point of view, it may be added that he who abases himself by a vile action can to a certain extent be raised by a crime, and can be thus reinstated in our aesthetic estimation.

However, because this is just one more crime, our moral judgment merely regards this as a worse character. So we see that our moral judgment may contradict our aesthetic judgment. There are possible causes for this. We just addressed the first one: aesthetic judgments depend on our imagination, so the accessory ideas that the crime evokes also influence our aesthetic judgment. When the act is merely base, our imaginations must contend with extra ideas that offend us. But when the act becomes terrible, our reason takes over, and we feel the delight of free pleasure. Moral judgments, however, only rationally deal with the crimes themselves, so a terrible crime would be worse and not better.

§10 The Strength of the Pathetic

Another way that our aesthetic judgment may differ from our moral judgment regards the difference between strength and law. Our aesthetic judgments look for strength. Our moral judgments are concerned with lawfulness.

Let's consider the following passages from "The Pathetic."

We saw in the writings on tragedy that we need to experience a struggle between sensuous nature and moral nature, with morality maintaining the upper hand [see this entry and this onefor more on Schiller's theory of the tragic]. But this means that first the character must exhibit the base forces fighting within him for control.

It is impossible to know if the empire which man has over his affections is the effect of a moral force, till we have acquired the certainty that it is not an effect of insensibility. There is no merit in mastering the feelings which only lightly and transitorily skim over the surface of the soul. But to resist a tempest which stirs up the whole of sensuous nature, and to preserve in it the freedom of the soul, a faculty of resistance is required infinitely superior to the act of natural force. Accordingly it will not be possible to represent moral freedom, except by expressing passion, or suffering nature, with the greatest vividness; and the hero of tragedy must first have justified his claim to be a sensuous being before aspiring to our homage as a reasonable being, and making us believe in his strength of mind.

Schiller also explains that sublime feelings and actions overcome us with aesthetical energy. Now, reason requires that every action conform to the idea of good. But the degree of aesthetic energy results not from reason but from our imagination

which requires conformity with good should be possible, or, in other terms, that no feeling, however strong, should oppress the freedom of the soul. Now this possibility is found in every act that testifies with energy to liberty, and to the force of the will; and if the poet meets with an action of this kind, it matters little where, he has a subject suitable for his art.

But not just virtuous acts exhibit liberty.

To him, and to the interest we have in him, it is quite the same, to take his hero in one class of characters or in another, among the good or the wicked, as it often requires as much strength of character to do evil conscientiously and persistently as to do good.

For example,

We prefer to see force and freedom manifest themselves at the cost of moral regularity, rather than regularity at the cost of freedom and strength.

So if the strength of the character's natural instincts threatens to curb his free will, "the aesthetic value of the character is increased, if he be capable of resisting these instincts." So consider a vicious character whose base instincts compel him to conduct his "perverse designs." We will become interested in him when he must risk the liberties of his happiness and life in order to commit his crimes. While on the contrary, virtuous people who act virtuously do not communicate to us that inner struggle that suggests strength of their will and moral courage.

Vengeance, for instance, is certainly an ignoble and a vile affection, but this does not prevent it from becoming aesthetical, if to satisfy it we must endure painful sacrifice. Medea slaying her children aims at the heart of Jason, but at the same time she strikes a heavy blow at her own heart, and her vengeance aesthetically becomes sublime directly we see in her a tender mother.

Thus if one commits a crime by means of a "great force of will," then he will "announce a greater aptitude for real moral liberty" do virtuous acts that are committed because the virtuous character was already inclined to do so. The man who exhibits profound strength to will evil can simply change his maxims and use that strength to do good. So note that we often dislike mediocre characters, while admiring wicked ones. This is because we lose all hope that the mediocre character has the strength to obtain absolute liberty of the will. While on the contrary, each time the strong evil character displays his capacities, "we feel that one single act of the will would suffice to raise him up to the fullest height of human dignity."

So returning to his essay on the vulgar in art, we can see better this second reason why aesthetic judgments may differ from moral ones. For, "a devilish wickedness can, aesthetically speaking, flatter our taste, as soon as it marks strength." But given our example, the two judgments do not come to the same conclusion as with the first way they differ. Before theft was an elevation from murder, so its aesthetic value increased. But because from the moral perspective this is just an additional crime, its moral value decreased. But in the case of strength and law, we obtain different conclusions. For,

a theft testifies to a vile and grovelling mind: a murder has at least on its side the appearance of strength; the interest we take in it aesthetically is in proportion to the strength that is manifested in it.

We see that the terribleness of murder results from his incredible strength to overcome the moral law that society expects him to follow. So we aesthetically judge him favorably, but morally we judge him severely.

§10 Really Bad Crimes are Terrible

Finally there is a third way that moral and aesthetic judgments may differ.

When we witness a "deep and horrible crime," we are concerned more with the consequences than with the aesthetic qualities of the deed. This concern is a stronger emotion that "covers and stifles" our weaker aesthetic repugnance. "We do not look back into the mind of the agent; we look onward into his destiny, we think of the effects of his action." Our interest in the consequences is so profound that the "delicacies of taste are reduced to silence." In this way, our principal impression of the crime in itself crowds-out any possible accessory ideas that the imagination might provide.

To illustrate, Schiller refers us to Iffland's play,

Verbrechen aus Ehrsucht: Ein ernsthaftes Familiengemdlde in fiinf Aufziigen, premiered on 9 March 1784 (Kabale und Liebe had its Mannheim premiere on 15 April), is a strongly didactic play. Dedicated to Dalberg's wife, it has a simple plot. Young Ruhberg, the bürgerlich son of a marriage between an aristocratic mother and a non-aristocratic father, has his head turned by the foolish pursuit of an aristocratic match, steals public money to pay his debts, and is discovered. He is saved from disgrace when the plain-speaking Ahlden, whose son hopes to marry Ruhberg's sister, steps in and repays the sum. The play underlines the virtues of honesty and of living by work and within one's means, and the folly of being dazzled by shows of wealth.

... The anti-court and anti-aristocratic sentiment is not so pronounced as to give offence and panders to the self-image of the virtuous bourgeoisie. (Sharpe 134)

Rhuberg's crime causes "frightful misery" to his family. Look here at some selections from the translation. The father has learned about the crime. And he has fallen gravely ill. The rest of the family falls into hysteria.

These catastrophic consequences take our attention away from the crime and all the morally repugnant ideas it suggests.

We are too much moved to tarry long in representing to our minds the stamp of infamy with which the theft is marked. In a word, the base element disappears in the terrible.
So Ruhberg's theft initially causes us some repugnance. However, because the deed has such terrible consequences, we become far more consumed by them. Hence the accessory ideas the crime evokes in our minds do not matter to us anymore. Rather, we feel the free pleasure of facing the terrible. So again, we have a high aesthetic judgment, but a low moral judgment.

But Schiller has us contrast this play with another one where there is an unfounded suspicion of robbery. Here, a young officer is accused of stealing a silver spoon. But the accusation was ungrounded, and the spoon was later recovered. We do not see the crime, but we imagine it and find it repugnant. So this taints both our aesthetic judgment and our moral judgment. Thus we regard him throughout the play as a base man rather than a man of honor. For, we believe that the laws of propriety require that we only consider someone as a man of honor if they do not show the opposite tendency. And to our knowledge, he seems to show base tendencies. In reality, if the officer is guilty of anything, it would be placing himself in a position where he could be accused of this crime. But really the base character is the accuser, and we do not learn this until the end of the play. To make matters worse, the officer is the lover of a lady of status. So because we think that he is base, that makes his union with the noble character repugnant to us. In fact, when we see the lovers together, we suspect that he has that spoon still in his pocket. Here is an example of an accessory idea the accompanies the idea of the crime. Furthermore, the officer is not aware of how the accusation has tainted the perception of his character. If he were aware, then he would take revenge on his accuser. "In this case the consequences of the suspicion would change to the terrible, and all that is base in the situation would disappear." So we see that in this play, unlike the previous one, our moral and aesthetic judgments are in accord.

§11 When the Sublime Shines through the Base

Schiller now has us make another distinction, namely, between

a) the baseness of feeling, and

b) what is connected with the circumstances and mode of portrayal.

The baseness of feeling is below aesthetic dignity. However, the conditions may agree with aesthetic dignity. For example, slavery is base. And we find it contemptible when a free man has a servile mind. But we do not have contempt for the slave when his labor is conducted without servility. Hence the base condition of slavery can be joined to elevated feeling so to become a source of the sublime.

Schiller's example is the beating of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. The early Christian theologian writes in his "Contra Celsus:"

Might you not, then, take Epictetus, who, when his master was twisting his leg, said, smiling and. unmoved, 'You will break my leg;' and when it was broken, he added, Did I not tell you that you would break it?' (CHAP. LIII.)

Epictetus, whose firmness is justly admired, although his saying when his leg was broken by his master is not to be compared with the marvellous acts and words of Jesus. (CHAP. LIV.)

So Epictetus' master acted basely when he beat his slave. But, because Epictetus showed the power of his moral strength over the torture, he exhibited a sublime soul.

True greatness, when it is met in a base condition, is only the more brilliant and splendid on that account: and the artist must not fear to show us his heroes even under a contemptible exterior as soon as he is sure of being able to give them, when he wishes, the expression of moral dignity.

§11 Painters may not Depict as Much Baseness as Poets Can

Finally, Schiller draws a distinction between the privileges of art and poetry. The poet merely address the imagination. But the artist also directly addresses our senses. Hence our impressions of a painting are more lively than when we read a poem.

Now consider that in order to render his character's inner-life, the painter depicts those natural indications ("natural signs") that people exhibit when feeling something internally. But the poet has more liberty to describe the feelings of his characters using "arbitrary signs." However, the effect of certain exterior presentations can only be depicted visually.

Schiller refers us to a scene in the Odyssey when Ulysses appears in beggar's rags:

Then the goddess, flashing-eyed Athena, answered him: “Yea verily, I will be with thee, and will not forget thee, when we are busied with this work; and methinks many a one [395] of the wooers that devour thy substance shall bespatter the vast earth with his blood and brains. But come, I will make thee unknown to all mortals. I will shrivel the fair skin on thy supple limbs, and destroy the flaxen hair from off thy head, and clothe thee in a ragged garment, [400] such that one would shudder to see a man clad therein.

Homer leaves it to our imagination to determine how vivid we construct this image, and how long we dwell on it. Thus the image will not be vivid enough to "excite our repugnance or disgust." But if a painter or tragedian depicted this scene, "we turn away from the picture with repugnance." The reason for this is that when depictions are visual, it is left up less to our wills to determine the vividness of the repugnant imagery. So when we see such an image, we cannot help but have all the accessory images that offend us. So visual depictions of such base images impinge upon our freedom, but poetic ones do not.

Text from the translation:


I call vulgar (common) all that does not speak to the mind, of which all the interest is addressed only to the senses. There are, no doubt, an infinite number of things vulgar in themselves from their material and subject. But as the vulgarity of the material can always be ennobled by the treatment, in respect of art the only question is that relating to the vulgarity in form. A vulgar mind will dishonor the most noble matter by treating it in a common manner. A great and noble mind, on the contrary, will ennoble even a common matter, and it will do so by superadding to it something spiritual and discovering in it some aspect in which this matter has greatness. Thus, for example, a vulgar historian will relate to us the most insignificant actions of a hero with a scrupulousness as great as that bestowed on his sublimest exploit, and will dwell as lengthily on his pedigree, his costume, and his household as on his projects and his enterprises. He will relate those of his actions that have the most grandeur in such wise that no one will perceive that character in them. On the contrary, a historian of genius, himself endowed with nobleness of mind, will give even to the private life and the least considerable actions of his hero an interest and a value that will make them considerable. Thus, again, in the matter of the plastic arts, the Dutch and Flemish painters have given proof of a vulgar taste; the Italians, and still more the ancient Greeks, of a grand and noble taste. The Greeks always went to the ideal; they rejected every vulgar feature, and chose no common subject.

A portrait painter can represent his model in a common manner or with grandeur; in a common manner if he reproduce the merely accidental details with the same care as the essential features, if he neglect the great to carry out the minutiae curiously. He does it grandly if he know how to find out and place in relief what is most interesting, and distinguish the accidental from the necessary; if he be satisfied with indicating what is paltry, reserving all the finish of the execution for what is great. And the only thing that is great is the expression of the soul itself, manifesting itself by actions, gestures, or attitudes.

The poet treats his subject in a common manner when in the execution of his theme he dwells on valueless facts and only skims rapidly over those that are important. He treats his theme with grandeur when he associates with it what is great. For example, Homer treated the shield of Achilles grandly, though the making of a shield, looking merely at the matter, is a very commonplace affair.

One degree below the common or the vulgar is the element of the base or gross, which differs from the common in being not only something negative, a simple lack of inspiration or nobleness, but something positive, marking coarse feelings, bad morals, and contemptible manners. Vulgarity only testifies that an advantage is wanting, whereof the absence is a matter of regret; baseness indicates the want of a quality which we are authorized to require in all. Thus, for example, revenge, considered in itself, in whatever place or way it manifests itself, is something vulgar, because it is the proof of a lack of generosity. But there is, moreover, a base vengeance, when the man, to satisfy it, employs means exposed to contempt. The base always implies something gross, or reminds one of the mob, while the common can be found in a well-born and well-bred man, who may think and act in a common manner if he has only mediocre faculties. A man acts in a common manner when he is only taken up with his own interest, and it is in this that he is in opposition with the really noble man, who, when necessary, knows how to forget himself to procure some enjoyment for others. But the same man would act in a base manner if he consulted his interests at the cost of his honor, and if in such a case he did not even take upon himself to respect the laws of decency. Thus the common is only the contrary of the noble; the base is the contrary both of the noble and the seemly. To give yourself up, unresisting, to all your passions, to satisfy all your impulses, without being checked even by the rules of propriety, still less by those of morality, is to conduct yourself basely, and to betray baseness of the soul.

The artist also may fall into a low style, not only by choosing ignoble subjects, offensive to decency and good taste, but moreover by treating them in a base manner. It is to treat a subject in a base manner if those sides are made prominent which propriety directs us to conceal, or if it is expressed in a manner that incidentally awakens low ideas. The lives of the greater part of men can present particulars of a low kind, but it is only a low imagination that will pick out these for representation.

There are pictures describing sacred history in which the Apostles, the Virgin, and even the Christ, are depicted in such wise that they might be supposed to be taken from the dregs of the populace. This style of execution always betrays a low taste, and might justly lead to the inference that the artist himself thinks coarsely and like the mob.

No doubt there are cases where art itself may be allowed to produce base images: for example, when the aim is to provoke laughter. A man of polished manners may also sometimes, and without betraying a corrupt taste, be amused by certain features when nature expresses herself crudely but with truth, and he may enjoy the contrast between the manners of polished society and those of the lower orders. A man of position appearing intoxicated will always make a disagreeable impression on us; but a drunken driver, sailor, or carter will only be a risible object. Jests that would be insufferable in a man of education amuse us in the mouth of the people. Of this kind are many of the scenes of Aristophanes, who unhappily sometimes exceeds this limit, and becomes absolutely condemnable. This is, moreover, the source of the pleasure we take in parodies, when the feelings, the language, and the mode of action of the common people are fictitiously lent to the same personages whom the poet has treated with all possible dignity and decency. As soon as the poet means only to jest, and seeks only to amuse, we can overlook traits of a low kind, provided he never stirs up indignation or disgust.

He stirs up indignation when he places baseness where it is quite unpardonable, that is in the case of men who are expected to show fine moral sense. In attributing baseness to them he will either outrage truth, for we prefer to think him a liar than to believe that well-trained men can act in a base manner; or his personages will offend our moral sense, and, what is worse, excite our imagination. I do not mean by this to condemn farces; a farce implies between the poet and the spectator a tacit consent that no truth is to be expected in the piece. In a farce we exempt the poet from all faithfulness in his pictures; he has a kind of privilege to tell us untruths. Here, in fact, all the comic consists exactly in its contrast with the truth, and so it cannot possibly be true.

This is not all: even in the serious and the tragic there are certain places where the low element can be brought into play. But in this case the affair must pass into the terrible, and the momentary violation of our good taste must be masked by a strong impression, which brings our passion into play. In other words, the low impression must be absorbed by a superior tragic impression. Theft, for example, is a thing absolutely base, and whatever arguments our heart may suggest to excuse the thief, whatever the pressure of circumstances that led him to the theft, it is always an indelible brand stamped upon him, and, aesthetically speaking, he will always remain a base object. On this point taste is even less forgiving than morality, and its tribunal is more severe; because an aesthetical object is responsible even for the accessory ideas that are awakened in us by such an object, while moral judgment eliminates all that is merely accidental. According to this view a man who robs would always be an object to be rejected by the poet who wishes to present serious pictures. But suppose this man is at the same time a murderer, he is even more to be condemned than before by the moral law. But in the aesthetic judgment he is raised one degree higher and made better adapted to figure in a work of art. Continuing to judge him from the aesthetic point of view, it may be added that he who abases himself by a vile action can to a certain extent be raised by a crime, and can be thus reinstated in our aesthetic estimation. This contradiction between the moral judgment and the aesthetical judgment is a fact entitled to attention and consideration. It may be explained in different ways. First, I have already said that, as the aesthetic judgment depends on the imagination, all the accessory ideas awakened in us by an object and naturally associated with it, must themselves influence this judgment. Now, if these accessory ideas are base, they infallibly stamp this character on the principal object.

In the second place, what we look for in the aesthetic judgment is strength; whilst in a judgment pronounced in the name of the moral sense we consider lawfulness. The lack of strength is something contemptible, and every action from which it may be inferred that the agent lacks strength is, by that very fact, a contemptible action. Every cowardly and underhand action is repugnant to us, because it is a proof of impotence; and, on the contrary, a devilish wickedness can, aesthetically speaking, flatter our taste, as soon as it marks strength. Now, a theft testifies to a vile and grovelling mind: a murder has at least on its side the appearance of strength; the interest we take in it aesthetically is in proportion to the strength that is manifested in it.

A third reason is, because in presence of a deep and horrible crime we no longer think of the quality but the awful consequences of the action. The stronger emotion covers and stifles the weaker one. We do not look back into the mind of the agent; we look onward into his destiny, we think of the effects of his action. Now, directly we begin to tremble all the delicacies of taste are reduced to silence. The principal impression entirely fills our mind: the accessory and accidental ideas, in which chiefly dwell all impressions of baseness, are effaced from it. It is for this reason that the theft committed by young Ruhberg, in the "Crime through Ambition," [a play of Iffland] far from displeasing on the stage, is a real tragic effect. The poet with great skill has managed the circumstances in such wise that we are carried away; we are left almost breathless. The frightful misery of the family, and especially the grief of the father, are objects that attract our attention, turn it aside, from the person of the agent, towards the consequences of his act. We are too much moved to tarry long in representing to our minds the stamp of infamy with which the theft is marked. In a word, the base element disappears in the terrible. It is singular that this theft, really accomplished by young Ruhberg, inspires us with less repugnance than, in another piece, the mere suspicion of a theft, a suspicion which is actually without foundation. In the latter case it is a young officer who is accused without grounds of having abstracted a silver spoon, which is recovered later on. Thus the base element is reduced in this case to a purely imaginary thing, a mere suspicion, and this suffices nevertheless to do an irreparable injury, in our aesthetical appreciation, to the hero of the piece, in spite of his innocence. This is because a man who is supposed capable of a base action did not apparently enjoy a very solid reputation for morality, for the laws of propriety require that a man should be held to be a man of honor as long as he does not show the opposite. If therefore anything contemptible is imputed to him, it seems that by some part of his past conduct he has given rise to a suspicion of this kind, and this does him injury, though all the odious and the base in an undeserved suspicion are on the side of him who accuses. A point that does still greater injury to the hero of the piece of which I am speaking is the fact that he is an officer, and the lover of a lady of condition brought up in a manner suitable to her rank. With these two titles, that of thief makes quite a revolting contrast, and it is impossible for us, when we see him near his lady, not to think that perhaps at that very moment he had the silver spoon in his pocket. Lastly, the most unfortunate part of the business is, that he has no idea of the suspicion weighing over him, for if he had a knowledge of it, in his character of officer, he would exact a sanguinary reparation. In this case the consequences of the suspicion would change to the terrible, and all that is base in the situation would disappear.

We must distinguish, moreover, between the baseness of feeling and that which is connected with the mode of treatment and circumstance. The former in all respects is below aesthetic dignity; the second in many cases may perfectly agree with it. Slavery, for example, is abase thing; but a servile mind in a free man is contemptible. The labors of the slave, on the contrary, are not so when his feelings are not servile. Far from this, a base condition, when joined to elevated feelings, can become a source of the sublime. The master of Epictetus, who beat him, acted basely, and the slave beaten by him showed a sublime soul. True greatness, when it is met in a base condition, is only the more brilliant and splendid on that account: and the artist must not fear to show us his heroes even under a contemptible exterior as soon as he is sure of being able to give them, when he wishes, the expression of moral dignity.

But what can be granted to the poet is not always allowed in the artist. The poet only addresses the imagination; the painter addresses the senses directly. It follows not only that the impression of the picture is more lively than that of the poem, but also that the painter, if he employ only his natural signs, cannot make the minds of his personages as visible as the poet can with the arbitrary signs at his command: yet it is only the sight of the mind that can reconcile us to certain exteriors. When Homer causes his Ulysses to appear in the rags of a beggar ["Odyssey," book xiii. v. 397], we are at liberty to represent his image to our mind more or less fully, and to dwell on it as long as we like. But in no case will it be sufficiently vivid to excite our repugnance or disgust. But if a painter, or even a tragedian, try to reproduce faithfully the Ulysses of Homer, we turn away from the picture with repugnance. It is because in this case the greater or less vividness of the impression no longer depends on our will: we cannot help seeing what the painter places under our eyes; and it is not easy for us to remove the accessory repugnant ideas which the picture recalls to our mind.

From the Original German:

Friedrich Schiller

Gedanken über den Gebrauch des Gemeinen und Niedrigen in der Kunst.

Gemein ist alles, was nicht zu dem Geiste spricht und kein anderes als ein sinnliches Interesse erregt. Es gibt zwar tausend Dinge, die schon durch ihren Stoff oder Inhalt gemein sind; aber weil das Gemeine des Stoffes durch die Behandlung veredelt werden kann, so ist in der Kunst nur vom Gemeinen in der Form die Rede. Ein gemeiner Kopf wird den edelsten Stoff durch eine gemeine Behandlung verunehren; ein großer Kopf und ein edler Geist hingegen wird selbst das Gemeine zu adeln wissen, und zwar dadurch, daß er es an etwas Geistiges anknüpft und eine große Seite daran entdeckt. So wird uns ein Geschichtschreiber von gemeinem Schlage die unbedeutendsten Verrichtungen eines Helden eben so sorgfältig als seine erhabensten Thaten berichten und sich eben so lang bei seinem Stammbaum, seiner Kleidertracht, seinem Hauswesen, als bei seinen Entwürfen und Unternehmungen verweilen. Seine größten Thaten wird er so erzählen, daß kein Mensch es ihnen ansieht, was sie sind. Umgekehrt wird ein Geschichtschreiber von Geist und eignem Seelenadel auch in das Privatleben und in die unwichtigsten Handlungen seines Helden ein Interesse und einen Gehalt legen, der sie wichtig macht. Einen gemeinen Geschmack haben in der bildenden Kunst die niederländischen Maler, einen edeln und großen Geschmack die Italiener, noch mehr aber die Griechen bewiesen. Diese gingen immer auf das Ideal, verwarfen jeden gemeinen Zug und wählten auch keinen gemeinen Stoff.

Ein Porträtmaler kann seinen Gegenstand gemein und kann ihn groß behandeln.Gemein, wenn er das Zufällige eben so sorgfältig darstellt als das Nothwendige, wenn er das Große vernachlässigt und das Kleine sorgfältig ausführt; groß, wenn er das Interessantesteherauszufinden weiß, das Zufällige von dem Nothwendigen scheidet, das Kleine nur andeutet und das Große ausführt. Groß aber ist nichts, als der Ausdruck der Seele in Handlungen, Geberden und Stellungen.

Ein Dichter behandelt seinen Stoff gemein, wenn er unwichtige Handlungen ausführt und über wichtige flüchtig hinweggeht. Er behandelt ihn groß, wenn er ihn mit dem Großen verbindet. Homer wußte den Schild des Achilles sehr geistreich zu behandeln, obgleich die Verfertigung eines Schildes dem Stoff nach etwas sehr Gemeines ist.

Noch eine Stufe unter dem Gemeinen steht das Niedrige, welches von jenem darin unterschieden ist, daß es nicht bloß etwas Negatives, nicht bloß Mangel des Geistreichen und Edeln, sondern etwas Positives, nämlich Rohheit des Gefühls, schlechte Sitten und verächtliche Gesinnungen anzeigt. Das Gemeine zeugt bloß von einem fehlenden Vorzug, der sich wünschen läßt, das Niedrige von dem Mangel einer Eigenschaft, die von jedem gefordert werden kann. So ist z. B. die Rache an sich, wo sie sich auch finden und wie sie sich auch äußern mag, etwas Gemeines, weil sie einen Mangel von Edelmuth beweiset. Aber man unterscheidet noch besonders eine niedrige Rache, wenn der Mensch, der sie ausübt, sich verächtlicher Mittel bedient, sie zu befriedigen. Das Niedrige bezeichnet immer etwas Grobes und Pöbelhaftes; gemein aber kann auch ein Mensch von Geburt und bessern Sitten denken und handeln, wenn er mittelmäßige Gaben besitzt. Ein Mensch handeltgemein, der nur auf seinen Nutzen bedacht ist, und insofern steht er dem edelnMenschen entgegen, der sich selbst vergessen kann, um einem andern einen Genuß zu verschaffen. Derselbe Mensch aber würde niedrig handeln, wenn er seinem Nutzen auf Kosten seiner Ehre nachginge und auch nicht einmal die Gesetze des Anstandes dabei respektieren wollte. Das Gemeine ist also dem Edeln, das Niedrige dem Edeln und Anständigen zugleich entgegengesetzt. Jeder Leidenschaft ohne allen Widerstand nachgeben, jeden Trieb befriedigen, ohne sich auch nur von den Regeln des Wohlstands, viel weniger von denen der Sittlichkeit zügeln zu lassen, ist niedrig und verräth eine niedrige Seele.

Auch in Kunstwerken kann man in das Niedrige verfallen, nicht bloß, indem man niedrige Gegenstände wählt, die der Sinn für Anstand und Schicklichkeit ausschließt, sondern auch indem man sie niedrig behandelt. Niedrig behandelt man einen Gegenstand, wenn man entweder diejenige Seite an ihm, welche der gute Anstand verbergen heißt, bemerklich macht, oder wenn man ihm einen Ausdruck gibt, der auf niedrige Nebenvorstellungen leitet. In dem Leben des größten Mannes kommen niedrige Verrichtungen vor, aber nur ein niedriger Geschmack wird sie herausheben und ausmalen.

Man findet Gemälde aus der heiligen Geschichte, wo die Apostel, die Jungfrau und Christus selbst einen Ausdruck haben, als wenn sie aus dem gemeinsten Pöbel wären aufgegriffen worden. Alle solche Ausführungen beweisen einen niedrigen Geschmack, der uns ein Recht gibt, auf eine rohe und pöbelhafte Denkart des Künstlers selbst zu schließen.

Es gibt zwar Fälle, wo das Niedrige auch in der Kunst gestattet werden kann, da nämlich, wo es Lachen erregen soll. Auch ein Mensch von feinen Sitten kann zuweilen, ohne einen verderbten Geschmack zu verrathen, an dem rohen, aber wahren Ausdruck der Natur und an dem Contrast zwischen den Sitten der feinen Welt und des Pöbels sich belustigen. Die Betrunkenheit eines Menschen von Stande würde, wo sie auch vorkäme, Mißfallen erregen; aber ein betrunkener Postillon, Matrose und Karrenschieber macht uns lachen. Scherze, die uns an einem Menschen von Erziehung unerträglich sein würden, belustigen uns im Munde des Pöbels. Von dieser Art sind viele Scenen des Aristophanes, die aber zuweilen auch diese Grenze überschreiten und schlechterdings verwerflich sind. Deßwegen ergötzen wir uns an Parodieen, wo Gesinnungen, Redensarten und Verrichtungen des gemeinen Pöbels denselben vornehmen Personen untergeschoben werden, die der Dichter mit aller Würde und Anstand behandelt hat. Sobald es der Dichter bloß auf ein Lachstück anlegt und weiter nichts will, als uns belustigen, so können wir ihm auch das Niedrige hingehen lassen, nur muß er nie Unwillen oder Ekel erregen.

Unwillen erregt er, wenn er das Niedrige da anbringt, wo wir es schlechterdings nicht verzeihen können, bei Menschen nämlich, von denen wir berechtigt sind feinere Sitten zu fordern. Handelt er dagegen, so beleidigt er entweder die Wahrheit, weil wir ihn lieber für einen Lügner halten, als glauben wollen, daß Menschen von Erziehung wirklich so niedrig handeln können; oder feine Menschen beleidigen unser Sittengefühl und erregen, welches noch schlimmer ist, unsere Indignation. Ganz anders ist es in der Farce, wo zwischen dem Dichter und dem Zuschauer ein stillschweigender Contrakt ist, daß man keine Wahrheit zu erwarten habe. In der Farce dispensieren wir den Dichter von aller Treue der Schilderung, und er erhält gleichsam ein Privilegium, uns zu belügen. Denn hier gründet sich das Komische gerade auf seinen Contrast mit der Wahrheit; es kann aber unmöglich zugleich wahr sein und mit der Wahrheit contrastieren.

Es gibt aber auch im Ernsthaften und Tragischen einige seltene Fälle, wo das Niedrige angewandt werden kann. Alsdann muß es aber ins Furchtbare übergehen, und die augenblickliche Beleidigung des Geschmacks muß durch eine starke Beschäftigung des Affekts ausgelöscht und also von einer höhern tragischen Wirkung gleichsam verschlungen werden. Stehlen z. B. ist etwas Absolut-Niedriges, und was auch unser Herz zur Entschuldigung eines Diebs vorbringen kann, wie sehr er auch durch den Drang der Umstände mag verleitet worden sein, so ist ihm ein unauslöschliches Brandmal aufgedrückt, und ästhetisch bleibt er immer ein niedriger Gegenstand. Der Geschmack verzeiht hier noch weniger, als die Moral, und sein Richterstuhl ist strenger, weil ein ästhetischer Gegenwand auch für alle Nebenideen verantwortlich ist, die auf seine Veranlassung in uns rege gemacht werden, da hingegen die moralische Beurtheilung von allem Zufälligen abstrahiert. Ein Mensch, der stiehlt, würde demnach für jede poetische Darstellung von ernsthaftem Inhalt ein höchst verwerfliches Objekt sein. Wird aber dieser Mensch zugleich Mörder, so ist er zwarmoralisch noch viel verwerflicher, aber ästhetischwird er dadurch wieder um einen Grad brauchbarer. Derjenige, der sich (ich rede hier immer nur von der ästhetischen Beurtheilungsweise) durch eine Infamieerniedrigt, kann durch ein Verbrechen wieder in etwas erhöht und in unsreästhetische Achtung restituiert werden. Diese Abweichung des moralischen Urtheils von dem ästhetischen ist merkwürdig und verdient Aufmerksamkeit. Man kann mehrere Ursachen davon anführen. Erstlich habe ich schon gesagt, daß, weil das ästhetische Urtheil von der Phantasie abhängt, auch alle Nebenvorstellungen, welche durch einen Gegenstand in uns erregt werden und mit demselben in einer natürlichen Verbindung stehen, auf dieses Urtheil einfließen. Sind nun diese Nebenvorstellungen von einer niedrigen Art, so erniedrigen sie den Hauptgegenstand unvermeidlich.

Zweitens sehen wir in der ästhetischen Beurtheilung auf die Kraft, bei einer moralischen auf dieGesetzmäßigkeit. Kraftmangel ist etwas Verächtliches, und jede Handlung, die uns darauf schließen läßt, ist es gleichfalls. Jede feige und kriechende That ist uns widrig durch den Kraftmangel, den sie verräth; umgekehrt kann uns eine teufelische That, sobald sie nur Kraft verräth, ästhetisch gefallen. Ein Diebstahl aber zeigt eine kriechende, feige Gesinnung an; eine Mordthat hat wenigstens den Schein von Kraft, wenigstens richtet sich der Grad unsers Interesse, das wir ästhetisch daran nehmen, nach dem Grad der Kraft, der dabei geäußert worden ist.

Drittens werden wir bei einem schweren und schrecklichen Verbrechen von der Qualität desselben abgezogen und auf seine furchtbaren Folgen aufmerksam gemacht. Die stärkere Gemütsbewegung unterdrückt alsdann die schwächere. Wir sehen nicht rückwärts in die Seele des Thäters, sondern vorwärts in sein Schicksal, auf die Wirkungen seiner That. Sobald wir aber anfangen zu zittern, so schweigt jede Zärtlichkeit des Geschmacks. Der Haupteindruck erfüllt unsre Seele ganz, und die zufälligen Nebenideen, an denen eigentlich das Niedrige hängt, erlöschen. Daher ist der Diebstahl des jungen Ruhberg, in Verbrechen aus Ehrsucht, auf der Schaubühne nicht widrig, sondern wahrhaft tragisch. – Der Dichter hat mit vieler Geschicklichkeit die Umstände so geleitet, daß wir fortgerissen werden und nicht zu Athem kommen. Das schreckliche Elend seiner Familie und besonders der Jammer seines Vaters sind Gegenstände, die unsre ganze Aufmerksamkeit von dem Thäter hinweg und auf die Folgen seiner That leiten. Wir sind viel zu sehr im Affekt, um uns auf die Vorstellungen der Schande einzulassen, womit der Diebstahl gebrandmarkt wird. Kurz: das Niedrige wird durch das Schreckliche versteckt. Es ist sonderbar, daß dieser wirklich begangene Diebstahl des jungen Ruhberg nicht so viel Widriges hat, als der bloße ungegründete Verdacht eines Diebstahls in einem andern Schauspiel. Hier wird ein junger Officier unverdienter Weise beschuldigt, einen silbernen Löffel eingesteckt zu haben, der sich nachher findet. Das Niedrige ist also hier bloß eingebildet, bloßer Verdacht, und doch thut es dem unschuldigen Helden des Stücks, in unsrer ästhetischen Vorstellung, unwiederbringlich Schaden. Die Ursache ist, weil die Voraussetzung, daß ein Mensch niedrig handeln könne, keine feste Meinung von seinen Sitten beweist, da die Gesetze der Convenienz es mit sich bringen, daß man einen so lange für einen Mann von Ehre hält. als er nicht das Gegentheil zeigt. Traut man ihm also etwas Verächtliches zu, so sieht es aus, als ob er doch irgend einmal zur Möglichkeit eines solchen Argwohns Anlaß gegeben hätte, obgleich das Niedrige eines unverdienten Verdachts eigentlich auf Seiten des Beschuldigers ist. Dem Helden des angeführten Stücks thut es noch mehr Schaden, daß er Officier und Liebhaber einer Dame von Erziehung und Stande ist. Mit diesen beiden Prädicaten macht das Prädicat des Stehlens einen ganz erschrecklichen Contrast, und es ist uns unmöglich, uns nicht augenblicklich daran zu erinnern, wenn er bei seiner Dame ist, daß er den silbernen Löffel in der Tasche haben könnte. Das größte Unglück dabei ist, daß derselbe den auf ihm ruhenden Verdacht gar nicht ahnet; denn wäre dieses, so würde er als Officier eine blutige Genugthuung fordern; die Folgen würden dann ins Fürchterliche gehen und das Niedrige verschwinden.

Noch muß man das Niedrige der Gesinnung von dem Niedrigen der Handlung und des Zustandes wohl unterscheiden. Das erste ist unter aller ästhetischen Würde, das letzte kann öfters sehr gut damit bestehen. Sklaverei ist niedrig, aber eine sklavische Gesinnung in der Freiheit ist verächtlich: eine sklavische Beschäftigung hingegen ohne eine solche Gesinnung ist es nicht; vielmehr kann das Niedrige des Zustandes, mit Hoheit der Gesinnung verbunden, ins Erhabene übergehen. Der Herr des Epiktet, der ihn schlug, handelte niedrig, und der geschlagene Sklave zeigte eine erhabene Seele. Wahre Größe schimmert aus einem niedrigen Schicksal nur desto herrlicher hervor, und der Künstler darf sich nicht fürchten, seinen Helden auch in einer verächtlichen Hülle aufzuführen, sobald er nur versichert ist, daß ihm der Ausdruck des innern Werths zu Gebote steht.

Aber was dem Dichter erlaubt sein kann, ist dem Maler nicht immer gestattet. Jener bringt seine Objekte bloß vor die Phantasie, dieser hingegen unmittelbar vor die Sinne. Also ist nicht nur der Eindruck des Gemäldes lebhafter als der des Gedichtes, sondern der Maler kann auch durch seine natürlichen Zeichen das Innre nicht so sichtbar machen, als der Dichter durch seine willkürlichen Zeichen, und doch kann uns nur das Innere mit dem Aeußern versöhnen. Wenn uns Homer seinen Ulyß in Bettlerlumpen aufführt, so kömmt es auf uns an, wie weit wir uns dieses Bild ausmalen und wie lang wir dabei verweilen wollen. In keinem Fall aber hat es Lebhaftigkeit genug, daß es uns unangenehm oder ekelhaft sein könnte. Wenn aber der Maler oder gar noch der Schauspieler den Ulyß dem Homer getreu nachbilden wollte, so würden wir uns mit Widerwillen davon hinwegwenden. Hier haben wir die Stärke des Eindrucks nicht in unserer Gewalt: wir müssen sehen, was uns der Maler zeigt, und können die widrigen Nebenideen, die uns dabei in Erinnerung gebracht werden, nicht so leicht abweisen.

Schiller, Friedrich. "Reflections on the Use of the Vulgar and Low Elements in Works of Art." Available online at:


Schiller, Friedrich. "Gedanken über den Gebrauch des Gemeinen und Niedrigen in der Kunst." Available online at:


Homer. Odyssey. based on:

The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919. OCLC: 22584673. ISBN: 0674995619, 0674995627


Sharpe, Lesley. "Schiller and the Mannheim National Theatre." The Modern Language Review, Vol. 100, No. 1 (Jan., 2005), pp. 121-137.

Possibly available at:


Iffland, Wilhelm Augustus. "Crimes from Ambition." Transl. Maria Geisweiler. London: G. Sidney, 1800.

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