An Essay Towards a Theory of Art/Part III

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So we now have in its main outline the nature of æsthetic experience: it is experience simply as such, valued for its own sake without reference to any judgment as to its truth or reality or moral goodness. And anything at all can be an æsthetic experience: even matter which is on its way to intellectual or moral judgment can be that, so long as it is taken at its face-value, simply as pure experience—simply as something which is just happening in one's mind. It is the primary fact of conscious life that we are first of all interested in things happening simply because they do happen: this is the interest of experience in its æsthetic aspect, and it requires no justification except itself.

Beauty Occurs Only in Æsthetic Experience[edit]

This aspect of life, then—the value of experience simply as such, without regard to any ulterior value of what is experienced—is the subject of æsthetic science. With this our purpose has now little else to do: it was only necessary for us to find out in what aspect of life art has its origin. But I must go on to round off this part of our present business with the obvious assertion that it is in this aspect of life, and only here, that things are found to be beautiful. The beauty of things in general æsthetic experience is what we call the beauty of nature: it is the beauty that just happens to us, in contrast with the beauty that is deliberately induced in us by art. But the difference is only in the way beauty comes to us; the sense of beauty is the same in either case—either in nature or in art: it is a peculiar sense of the value of things in giving us pure and immediate experience. So far as beauty is concerned there is no difference between art and æsthetic, except that beauty must occur in art, but as for æsthetic all we can say is that beauty can occur in it. The fact that it can occur in æsthetic experience will always provide the study of that aspect of life with its most interesting questions: Under what conditions does beauty occur? What is its nature when it does occur? They are notoriously baffling questions; but with their general form—that is, as regards natural beauty—we are not concerned, except as they enter into the specific beauty of art; and what I shall say of beauty must not be taken as implying any proposal to reduce the immense variety of natural beauty to one standard form: all that would belong to æsthetic science. I may say that I do not think such an attempt would succeed, nor do I think it is required.

But Æsthetic Experience Need not be Beautiful; The Judgment of Beauty[edit]

But there are two observations on the general conditions and nature of beauty which are pertinent to our enquiry. In the first place, it must not be assumed that æsthetic experience merely has to be enjoyed in order to be beautiful. I can quite easily like a state of things wholly for its own immediate quality without finding beauty in it; and it seems clear to me that it is even possible to like ugliness without in the least pretending that it is beauty. It is, at any rate, clear that the scope of æsthetic interest is vastly larger than that covered by the sense of beauty. But in the second place, what is this sense of beauty? Is it the sense of some quality persisting through all the multitudinous forms which beauty can take? If so, no wonder æsthetic science has so far been puzzled to account for it. But—here brevity requires the airs of dogmatism—beauty is not a quality of things. The sense of beauty is the sense of ourselves passing the final æsthetic judgment on certain crucial forms of pure experience. By virtue of it we completely experience the complete judgment of experience. This may not greatly diminish the puzzle of beauty: but it at least shows us where to look for its elucidation—in ourselves. It absolves us from the difficulty of taking beauty as a thing perceived: the difficulty, namely, of showing what is the factor common to the infinite variety of "beautiful perceptions." But an infinite variety of things may come up before one judgment, so long as they are all in the condition which that judgment requires for its operation. And this condition we have already found—the condition of æsthetic experience: which is no more than the condition of being presented merely as an experience. I am only now concerned with the beauty that occurs specifically in art: and there, even more than in nature, beauty seems unintelligible except as a judgment which we pass on certain forms of experience. Moreover, the judgment of beauty is not, I believe, anything set apart from the rest of spiritual life. There is but one faculty of judgment; and according to the sphere in which it operates, its final verdicts are given as truth, morality or beauty. They are different verdicts, and must never be confused: but, as they all emanate from the same faculty, I do not believe they will ever irreducibly contradict one another.

Illustrated in a Locomotive[edit]

Let me briefly illustrate, in two instances, this view that beauty is a form of judgment, before I pass to the specific problem of art. Both these instances will be found to have their bearing on that problem, although they belong to what, in contrast with art, I have called nature: in fact, one belongs to engineering, and the other to metaphysics. My engineering instance is a locomotive. If an engineer alluded to some locomotive as a beautiful design, he might, for all I know, have things like boiler pressure and coal consumption and indicated horsepower in his mind: in that case he would be experiencing his professional knowledge and judging it æsthetically, just as a surgeon does when he speaks of a beautiful operation. But I am rather thinking of what the ordinary man means when he calls a locomotive a beautiful design: and, at any rate, he means the mere look of the thing, as when he calls a face or a hill beautiful; surgery does not seem to provide a parallel here. Does he find some common quality in a locomotive, a face, and a hill? He may: but if we are to make his sense of beauty depend, in these three things, on perception of a common quality, we must, in all three, ignore certain other qualities which clearly enter into that sense. And what is the quality common to these three things, and also to the song of a lark and an act of self-sacrifice? Those also I find beautiful. Not one of the five was meant to give me beauty. But I find that I can contemplate each one of them as an experience immediately satisfactory in itself, without requiring me to justify it by my knowledge of the thing's purpose. I do not have to know how many tons a locomotive can pull at how many miles an hour in order to find its design beautiful. But I do not only find that I can appreciate a locomotive, a face, a hill, a lark's song, and an act of self-sacrifice as providing me with experience which can be judged pure and as itself, without needing a judgment of its purpose. I find also that this æsthetic judgment can, in each of these cases, assume a finality, beyond which I cannot conceive that judgment of this kind can go. The sense that I am passing this finality of æsthetic judgment on these things, and that they not only can bear it but require it, is my sense of their beauty.

Evident Adaptation May be Judged Beautiful[edit]

Now I said, a while ago, that in art æsthetic experience is consciously directed to a foreordained end; but it will be clear by this that it is to an end which still resides within æsthetic experience: the end is, in fact, nothing but the expression of this as such. When a locomotive is designed, however, there is not the least intention of submitting it to æsthetic judgment; it is wholly designed to a practical end, and its existence is to be justified by its achievement of that end. A locomotive is therefore not a work of art. Yet it may be beautiful. And for the very reason that it does evidently exhibit its ability to achieve its end. I do not have to test that; and I may be deceived: a locomotive may much more look the embodiment of powerful speed than it actally is. But so long as it does look that, I want no more for its æsthetic judgment. I do not even have to formulate to myself what the object of a locomotive is. The eminently satisfactory thing about its appearance is that one single purpose presides over the concerted assemblage of its parts: and if its wholeness is such that the appearance of every noticeable part clearly contributes to the complete appearance of one supreme and inclusive function, then it obviously reaches that self-contained perfection of æsthetic experience which requires finality of æsthetic judgment: it is beautiful. On the other hand, locomotives which do perfectly achieve their practical end may not be beautiful: simply because their ability to justify their existence practically is not apparent—or rather their singleness of function is not evidently and unmistakably presiding over their whole structure. But the ugliness of the early locomotives is merely apparent inefficiency. Compare them with the superb beauty of a L.N.W. six-coupled express engine or a G.N. "Atlantic."

I am far from suggesting that adaptation to an end is always beautiful: and very far from suggesting that beauty is always an adaptation to an end. But when it is paramount in appearance—when, in fact, this supremacy of end as such over means forms the staple of an æsthetic experience which calls for finality of æsthetic judgment. It will soon appear that the beauty peculiar to art is due to the fact that æsthetic experience is there presented for judgment in an exactly similar form. Observe that I do not say that the harmony of parts in a purposeful whole is beauty, but that by reason of this the experience of conteplating such an object occurs in a condition which makes it possible for æsthetic judgment to attain to beauty. There may be—there almost certainly are—other conditions which also make that possible. But that is for æsthetic science to investigate. I have not, indeed, attempted to explain the sense of beauty. If it really is a sense of passing final judgment it will most likely prove inexplicable: for the judgment being the faculty to which even intellection must report if it is to get a decision, it does not seem possible to make out how the nature of judgment is to be exhibited—i.e. how intellection, which can only refer to judgment, is to present judgment for judgment.

I was, perhaps, over-hasty in assuming that the engineer was indifferent to æsthetic judgment in his designing of locomotives: it is probably there as a sort of instinct, deciding his choice of several possible modes of structure: just as the mathematician, of two equally valid proofs, will instinctively choose the more elegant—that, namely, in which the means more evidently betray the supremacy of the end. I don't know how it may be with mathematicians; but with locomotive engineers it is remarkable how readily the English allow their designs to yield an æsthetic justification. I can well imagine future millionaires of taste collecting English locomotives as nowadays they collect Greek vases.

Absolute Beauty[edit]

And now for my metaphysical instance. Since Plato, and the discovery (or rather the intelligible exposition) of "universals," man has been haunted by the notion of Absolute Beauty: not the abstract idea of beauty (which universalises beauty by impoverishing it); but a reality independent of temporal experience, by virtue of which all our fleeting occasions of beauty are made possible, as it imparts itself downward through the scale of being; and this, since it includes every conceivable occurrence of beauty, universalises beauty by a limitless enrichment. Of the philosophical value of universlas I am not now to speak; but the æsthetic value of this philosophical conception of a universal and absolute beauty is immense, and has often been celebrated. One is loth to give it up. Yet if beauty is not a quality of things, but a judgment of the experience of things, what is to come of absolute beauty? It seems to me that beauty as judgment not only leaves absolute beauty still conceivable, but rescues it from that suspicion of fantaxy and futility which is apt to cling to the Platonic Idea. Where, how, in what existence, does the Idea of Beauty eternalise its perfection? The question must leave us gaping, if the Idea is a universal quality. But take it as judgment. Why, then, absolute beauty is nothing but the whole universe and sum of things experiencing itself and judging its self-experience to be beautiful. It would be in this way.

If beauty is the subject's own judgment, then no subject, no beauty. We must accept that for individual subjects. But how if there be a universal subject? If we assume totality of things, I see not why we should not also assume that totality is an experience. An experience of what? Clearly, of itself, and as totality. In that case, it must be a purely æsthetic experience; for the self-experience of totality can only be valid in itself and as itself. But if there can be intuitional experience in totality, it can be judged, and there will be the sense of judging it; for this belongs to intuition. And the judgment of this experience can only be a finality of all possible judgment; which may bear the same relation to any possible judgment that infinity bears to number. And the self-experience of the universal subject judging its own experience with eternal finality will be absolute beauty. Note, too, that experience in totality can only be presented for judgment in perfection of the form which we have already taken as the typical condition of the judgment of beauty. The universal subject can only experience itself as the perfect coherence of parts in the whole, as the complete manifestation of an inclusive function (i.e. whole existence) dominating, yet requiring and maintained by, every fraction of its appearance (and here appearance is one with reality).

How it is the Type of a Work of Art[edit]

Now if this be absolute beauty, it is the type of every work of art, in a much more recognisable manner than the idea of beauty as universal quality can be. For in the first place, a work of art cannot be other than, as far as its scope extends, a world of coherent parts harmonised into self-contained unity. And in the second place, it is a world which experiences itself; for no work of art exists until it has occurred, by transference from the artist's mind, in the mind of some reader, hearer or beholder (whom, for convenience, we shall call recipient): it is a world, therefore, made out of the recipient's consciousness of experience; and in fact is, for the time being, the same thing as his self-conscious experience; and is therefore, conversely, a world experiencing itself. And this is a world of coherent parts manifesting throughout an ultimate unity. It is nothing but a model, in the experience of an individual subject, of the absolute beauty in the experience of the universal subject.