An Essay Towards a Theory of Art/Part I

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The Theory Largely Eclectic[edit]

AN essay on such a subject as this may well begin with apologies. It took Hegel 1600 pages of exasperated cerebration to put forth his theory of art; Kant's theory is notoriously difficult to follow through the labyrinthine "Kritik of Judgment"; and Croce, effecting a remarkable simplification of these studies, felt bound to effect it in a way so subtle and technical that his meaning is, to say the least, elusive on a first reading. A mere essay, however useful as a kind of site-plan for future building, cannot avoid dogmatism; and nothing can need more apology than that. Brevity also requires that I omit to point out where the theory I outline agrees, and where it disagrees, with the classical theories. I mentioned Croce just now. Anyone who has read him will see how much I owe to him, and will also see that a good half of my theory (and I think the most important half) must be abomination to the devout Crocean. In the same way I could support my views here and there with many great names—Aristotle, Bacon, Kant, for example, as well as Croce: but the same names would, elsewhere, make excellent missiles to pelt me with. I leave the reader to find that out. I have sufficiently done my duty in admitting quite frankly that a good deal of my theory is eclectic.

Artistic Theory Yields Only Intellectual Satisfaction[edit]

But for the purpose of the essay I have no apology. Those who dislike the idea of theorising at all about art will not read me; and no one who has come even this far with me will be likely to mistake my intention. Hegel said that you must not think to understand what art means until you can first understand what philosophy says it means. That was like Hegel: it was, indeed, rather like philosophy. But if art has anything to say to you, it will say it as art or not at all. Still less will a theory of art tell anyone how to be an artist. The thing simply is, that some people have an itch to be thinking. They see a scatter of miscellaneous things up and down the world all called art. They cannot help asking, What is the specific nature of this stuff? Why do I call this thing art and not that thing? Do we lump this great variety of things together because they all have a peculiar function or because they all have a peculiar way of effecting a function? These are specimen questions; and those who feel inclined to ask them, look for nothing but an intellectual satisfaction in the answers. Just so those who study ethics look for a purely intellectual satisfaction as to what is meant by "good"; and may get it, and yet remain as cheerfully wicked as before.

Æsthetic and Art to Be Distinguished; Their First Distinction[edit]

It is legitimate for me to begin by assuming, very broadly, that we know pretty well the sort of thing we mean by a work of art, in spite of a certain ambiguity in the word "art" (which is in fact easily cleared up). It is legitimate, because my object is to find out what are the qualities we are referring to when we call so-and-so a work of art: we must be able to call it that before we can ask why we call it that. On the contrary, it would be wrong to begin by defining art, as though man had first invented a class, and then lookt about for things to put in it.

I have not used the term æsthetic yet: though this is often taken as equivalent to the theory of art. But we cannot move with any security in this region unless we keep these two terms separate, and make them refer to different, though related, studies. You can study æsthetic without bringing in art; but you cannot study art without bringing in æsthetic. There is a certain kind of experience, or way of experiencing things, out of which the activity called art arises. We see a sunset, and we enjoy it. We just happen on it: it fades, and the experience finishes. You may remember it; but a remembered experience is very different from the experience itself. Suppose, however, someone has, as we say, painted it. Why, then it is captured and establisht: it is made permanent: the experience of that sunset can be induced in our minds as often as we are capable of it and at any moment. Moreover, it has been disentangled from any other experiences which may (and some certainly would) have been jostling round it when it occurred in actual life: it is not only establisht, but purified. And more than that: as I shall hope to show, it has been specialised into something that does not occur elsewhere at all.

But Art Supposes Æsthetic[edit]

So far, however, we may not seem to have very much to go on; but the difference between the actual experience and the experience recorded in art will, I think, soon appear so great that we may properly regard it as specific. Nevertheless, it is true that before we can understand what art is doing we must first understand what prompted it to do anything at all: and this will always have been an actual and casual experience of a certain kind: actual in the psychological sense, which of course includes imaginary events; and casual in the sense that it is something inexplicably given to us, part of the uncalculated fact of living. Something turned up in life and was taken in a peculiar way. This is the matter of æsthetic: and this, when taken up and informed by an individual will for a foreordained purpose, forms the activity which results in the matter of art. We have then, at any rate, this to go on: art records a deliberate and consciously directed activity, which is also very exceptional; but it arises out of experiences of actual life which just happen to us—to which as they occur we merely respond—and which, far from being exceptional, we shall find are a universal aspect of all mental action. This is what I shall hereafter call æsthetic experience; it is the most primitive and fundamental thing in conscious life.