An Essay Towards a Theory of Art/Part IV

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Art is the Expression of Aesthetic Experience[edit]

The difficult part of our business lies in these prolegomena. But if we can now asume as I have described it the nature of the æsthetic aspect of life, and can then agree on the relation of art to it, we shall find that a not very troublesome analysis of the latter will give us a comprehensive and workable theory of art. As to the relation of art to æsthetic experience, there seems no possibility of disagreement here. Art is the expression of æsthetic experience. The artist transfers his experience to the recipient; and we can therefore look on artistic expression either as getting something out (the artist's point of view), or as taking something in (the recipient's): the something in both cases being æsthetic experience—but specialized: specialised in the act of getting it out and in the act of taking it in. For art is always purposive; the experience in which it originates must be collected into one continuous act deliberately willed, the purpose of it being nothing but to transform the experience into expression. From this it will follow that every part of a work of art must be there in the interests of the whole. This is from the artist's point of view. But also the recipient accepts a work of art as being an act of deliberate will: the purpose of it being from his point of view to effect a transformation of expression into experience; and he will not, therefore, accept any part of the expression solely in its own immediate interest, but also in the interest of the complete impression he knows the artist designs to make on him. But it does not make much difference in the theory of art whether we look on it from the artist's side of the recipient's; I shall take it now from one and now from the other as convenience suggests.

Well, this is the first thing which is implied when we say that art is the expression of æsthetic experience; and you will see at once what an immense gulf it puts between art and the beauty of nature: the gulf is that unfathomable thing, an act of individual will. But let us look more closely at what "expression" in this connection means; and then we shall be ready to look into the way expression comes about.

Expression in Art is Communication[edit]

The word expression as it is strictly used in philosophy does not mean the same thing as communication. Several theorists, having assumed, as they must, that art is expression, go on to point out that expression is not communication; and conclude from that that communication is a mere accident in art, as though the artist in his work were just talking to himself, and we happen along and overhear what he is saying. This is mere confusion, and comes of theorising from some philosophical prejudice or other, instead of rom the fact of art. What happens when an artist makes a work of art? He makes his experience communicable: and in order to make it exactly and perfectly so he will spend the whole force of his spirit. And what happens when we receive a work of art? An experience is commnunicated to us: and we know that when that happens, we are completing the arch which the artist himself could only half build. The arch, however, is not merely the artist's appeal to his audience, but, as the result of that, the explicit attainment of a certain perfection, not yet definable; the desire of this may well be urgent in the artist's mind, but is wholly dependent on his ability to make his matter communicable. If æsthetic experience is the condition of art's activity, the essence of its activity is communication.

No Communication, No Art[edit]

A man is looking at a landskip and finding it beautiful. But he is not thereby creating a work of art; it would take an æsthetic philosopher to say that, and he could only say it in the poor sophism that the man is creating a private little work of art of his own and enjoying it all by himself. There is no such thing as a private work of art: all art is public property—that is the meaning of the word "art." Yet in the strict philosophical sense the man's experience has been expressed: it has been expressed by the mere fact of being distinctly and decisively known. Out of the flux of his existence this momentary arrangement of its factors has been seized hold of by his attention and held up for contemplation: it has been isolated and, as it were, crystallised into what we may call an image. This is internal expression: and every æsthetic experience is, in this sense, its own expression by the mere fact of distinctly occurring.

Now suppose this man is an artist. He desires, therefore, to achieve expression of his experience. But if it is expression in the strictly limited sense, he has got it; he need do nothing more. Yet we know that he will show himself specifically to be an artist by the precise fact that he will do something more. He does not begin to be an artist until he begins to publish his experience. The expression he desires to achieve is external expression. You may say he is merely recording his experience. But for whose inspection? For his own? Certainly: by only for his own? Ask any artist, if you can charm him into a moment of candour. Or ask yourself, What are picture exhibitions for, what are publishing firms for, what are concerts for? Art requires the public just as certainly as the public requires art. Take away his audience and you take away the artist's function. This is nothing exceptional. I suppose an engineer builds bridges for his own satisfaction; but would he build them if there were no one to go over them? And indeed we must either assume that art is fundamentally a publication of experience; or else we must assume that art has no function or has it only as an epiphenomenon. But a function that is an epiphenomenon is an absurity; and to conceive an activity as functionless is to be intellectually incoherent. If we suppose that art can be understood, we suppose that it has a function, and that this is necessary. But this can only mean, that art necessarily publishes itself: for how else could it function?

All this could, however, be put more simply, if more brusquely, thus: if the function of art be wholly private to the artist, why should he be at such pains to perfect an intelligible outward expression? And if it be said that he is under no obligation to do this, the answer is that unless he produce something in which others can share, he has not produced what is called art. An artist fails in so far as he keeps his matter to himself; and especially he thereby fails to achieve for his matter that perfection of its existence which we shall have to consider at the end of this enquiry.

Expression in Art is of Whole Experience; Compound Structure of Experience[edit]

External expression then—publication—there can be no art without that; and, of course, it supposes first the artist's internal expression. Now let this man of ours be so moved by the beauty of his experience that he exclaims something: How lovely! What colours! What lines and masses! That is external expression; but it is not art. He is not expressing his experience: he is only expressing his opinion of it—though, of course, his opinion is part of his experience. Or on the other hand, suppose he expressed himself simply and solely as an instrument of vision; suppose he could make himself a sort of camera and set down merely the object of his experience, whatever that may mean; that might be painting, but it would not be art. I don't think it could be done, though there are painters who get very near it; I don't think it possible to pick out of a visual experience that which is simply the brain's use of lens and retina. But if it could be done, it would not be art because, once more, it would only give part of the experience. When we say that art consists of the expression of experience, we mean the expression of whole experience: both of the substance which the world contributes by being experienced and simultaneously of the value which the mind contributes by experiencing. There must always be two parties to an experience; and we may broadly mark them out as that which makes the occasion and that which exploits the occasion. But, of course, the occasion and its exploitation become one in the experience: they both exist as the experience. Thus it would be misleading for our purpose to speak of what is experienced and what experiences; with the latter we are not concerned, and the former is equally occasion and exploitation—an occasion, indeed, that exists by being exploited.

It is clear that the mind itself can contribute the occasion of an experience. This happens, for example, when the experience is wholly of the kind we call thought. Thus Darwin in the "Origin of Species" gives us simply what we may variously call the object, substance or occasion of an experience: an argument, or process of intellection. And the book for just that reason is not art. It would have been art if the technique which expressed the substance had simultaneously been a technique which expressed the pains and fervours, the sense of laborious diligence and of flashing insight, the troublesomeness and the exultation, which accompanied this great argument. For then he would have been expressing experience as such and as a whole—Darwin's matter and Darwin's sense of it. Just this—thought enveloped in the whole experience of thinking—is what Lucretius did express, thereby supremely achieving art. De Rerum Naturâ is not an expression simply of a train of thought, but equally of Lucretius' flaming exultation in the belief that his thought explained the world. And we read the poem not to learn what Lucretius thought, but because he can communicate to us the sublime experience of being made by intellect equal to our destiny.

No Imitation of Objects in Art[edit]

Thus experience must first be single intuition before consciousness can discriminate object and subject in it: and art expresses experience before analysis has begun to work on it; or, once more, experience simply as such. We here abandon altogether the notion that art is an imitation of objects. Objects are extracted from experience, and art notoriously fails to imitate them. Imitation is then said to be modified; but how? and why? We dispense with all these vexatious difficulties. Untruth can never be modified into truth. Art does not imitate objects, but the experiences in which the objects occur, at a stage before they have become objects. But art can imitate experience in terms of its objects (as technique); and then we know how and why it fails to imitate the object.

So we have found that two things are implied when we say, art is the expression of experience. First, the expression must be public, or external; second, it must express experience as a whole—and that is neither what I give nor what the world gives, but both together.

Why the Arts may be Classed Together[edit]

But suppose now our man of the landskip does proceed to a work of art. He will then have recorded, we will assume, an experience of beauty. But he will have done much more than that; he will have added to the natural beauty—he will have wholly enveloped it in—a beauty that cannot occur in nature, a beauty that belongs peculiarly to art: the beauty that resides in the mere fact of expression. You would see that at once if the work of art we are supposing were music or a poem; but it would be no less certain if the natural beauty—the beauty of the experience which was equally composed of what his eyes saw and what his spirit valued—if this had been expressed by the skill of painting. And it is the mere fact that all the arts, whatever the medium of their technique, begin in the same kind of experience—namely, æsthetic,—and end in the same kind of specialisation of it—the beauty of its whole expression: it is this fact that enables us to do what otherwise would scarcely appear an obvious thing to do: that is, to bring music, poetry, painting, sculpture and architecture into one class.

Beautiful Experience not Necessarily the Source of Art; But Beauty Must Be the Result of Art; Origin of Art Is Impulsive Experience; Existence of Art is Expressive Experience; They Are Distinguishable; Impulsive Experience the End as Well as the Cause[edit]

We go on then to enquire more exactly into two questions which apply to all art: what kind of experience art requires, and what kind of beauty it specifically achieves as art. The first question might seem to have been already sufficiently answered: art, we say, is the expression of æsthetic experience. If nothing more than this is required to account for art as regards its matter, we have no right to add to it—that is, to limit it. The only limitation of it we need consider is one which is flagrantly contradicted by art itself, but is nevertheless so commonly assumed that it should be disposed of. Most writers on these topics assume that in art an experience is first judged to be beautiful and then expressed. The most cursory survey of any art will show the falsity of this. There is no necessity that the experience which is expressed must have been beautiful; there is solely the necessity that whatever art expresses must become beautiful in the expression. Instances jump to one's mind of nobly beautiful works of art expressing something which we can still feel in the art—through the beauty of it—as not beautiful. It has not then become beautiful? Yes, it has; so long as it remains simply the thing in expression. But when he have the feeling I have just mentioned, we have been performing a feat which is often supposed impossibly difficult, but which is in fact the easiest thing in the world. We have been considering the matter of art apart from its technique: criticism of the most elementary kind. We have allowed the work of art to occur in us—i.e. to communicate its motive; and then we are taking the experience of this as finally communicated and valuing it by itself—of course, æsthetically. This could only be held impossible if the originating experience and its communication were held to be the same thing; and that, we shall soon see, is far from the truth. But note that while our minds rest in criticism, we are temporarily destroying the work of art; for art is not only the expression of æsthetic experience; its existence is the æsthetic experience of that expression, this latter experience having expression only in the strict sense—i.e. internal expression. Where I have to deal precisely with these two layers of æsthetic experience in art, I shall distinguish them thus: the experience which art exists to express, its motive or origin or inspiration, I shall call impulsive experience; this is what happened to the artist, and moved him to design its communication in a work of art. But the experience of taking in a work of art, of accepting it as communication, the experience which gives it existence as art, I shall call expressive experience. For most theoretical purposes, the artist's experience is impulsive, the recipient's is expressive; but evidently the artist not only experiences his inspiration, but his own activity in expressing it. Obviously impulsive experience is throughout implied by expressive experience, and as something ultimately distinguishable; for the whole business of art rests on the supposition that an impulsive experience can be recognised as the result of its communication, though to recognise it is not necessarily to formulate it in words: indeed, no accurate formulation of it will be possible except to repeat that which yielded the expressive experience—i.e. the work of art itself. It will be clear, too, that the specific beauty of art resides in expressive experience; and the statement given above about things becoming beautiful in art may be put more concisely and accurately thus: whatever impulsive experience may be, expressive experience must be beautiful. Now in the kind of criticism we have been considering, what has happened is this: the expressive experience having completed itself, the impulsive experience has thereby been completely exhibited as the purpose of this; and being thus known has been distinguished from its vehicle and valued apart from it. This has destroyed its existence as art. We can, however, easily restore it to that condition; and then the impulsive experience and its means of communication, though not the same thing, are once more completely compounded into a work of art which exists as expressive experience: and to a result which must be beautiful. But now perhaps not simply beautiful. We go back from our criticism to our expressive experience of the work of art (which is, for us as recipients, only the object of this experience) with a richer contribution to the experience from ourselves. We have now the sense of having valued the impulsive experience as itself, apart from the expressive experience of its communication: and this sense now cannot but enter into the renewal of expressive experience, which therefore becomes much more complex. And thus it may be that we can sharply feel the impulsive experience as unbeautiful even within the inclusive and conspicuously beautiful expressive experience. It is by no means uncommon in art to feel beauty triumphing over unbeautiful things, nay, compelling them to contibute to it; and yet even while they are doing that they do not cease to be unbeautiful.

So far then from art having to originate in beautiful experience it can actually give us the paradoxical impression of beauty conveying a sense of unbeautiful things. Is agony beautiful? We have Michelangelo's "Dawn." Is a corpse beautiful, and the grimaces of weeping? We have Mantegna's "Dead Christ." Is eternal damnation beautiful? We have Dante's "Inferno." Is drunken lechery beautiful? We have Burns's "Jolly Beggars." And I see not how nine-tenths of the drama is to be accounted for as art, if art is always to proceed from an original judgment of beauty. But in truth it is under no such necessity. All art has to do is express æsthetic experience; and this may or may not be beautiful: that is wholly indifferent to art. We merely require it to communicate that kind of experience in which things carry an immediate and spontaneous face-value. It does not, of course, follow, that if an æsthetic experience is unbeautiful, it is therefore disliked; for as we see from everyday life, even ugly things can be actually enjoyed. But there are plenty of cases in which the beauty of art does include repulsive experience. And in these cases it is simply a question which will win—our detestation of the artist's matter or our delight in his art. With those who think it illegitimate to dislike the matter of art (its impulsive experience) I do not stop to argue; I am concerned with the facts of art, not human nature. It must, however, be remarked that when the matter of art is found repulsive, this is perhaps always due to some contamination of æsthetic experience with ulterior judgment, especially moral. But the main fact of art in this present stage of my argument is that æsthetic experience of any kind whatever is valid for art; and if this be not beautiful experience, it is no part of the business of art to bamboozle us into believing it beautiful; art merely has to make the presentation of it beautiful: that is, to envelop it completely in the beauty which comes of its perfect expression.