An Essay Towards a Theory of Art/Part V

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Specific Beauty of Art is given by Expression; Fragmentary Beauty; Whole Beauty; It is Given by Evident Adaptation[edit]

We are assuming that the expression in perfect, or as perfect as it can be. It would seem strange, if beauty were a perceptible quality, to make it reside in such a thing as expression; but quite what we should expect, I think, if beauty is a judgment—the sense of a finality of judgment on æsthetic experience. For what in the expressive experience of art is the crucial thing? Of course it is the fact that this experience is the experience of an expression: expression as such is the essential thing we have to judge, so long as it is a work of art we are judging, and not the destruction of it in criticism. If during expressive experience the emergence of its purpose—its impulsive experience—suddenly and strikingly extends its scope or sharpens its definition, in just the way required for establishing and individualising it, then surely, this being æsthetically appreciated, we have precisely the experience we should expext to be judged beautiful. Take any line of poetry notably beautiful, and analyse as far as you can what is occurring when you appreciate its beauty; and however keenly you analyse, you will find that that which is occurring is nothing but the acceptance for its own sake of some trenchant decision or exquisite delicacy of complex expression. We know more and feel more about that which the poet is comnmunicating to us: something perhaps which would never have occurred to us as possible to be known or felt about it; but it is the accomplishment of this that we judge beautiful. The same analysis will give the same result in any art. What is the beauty of a graphic design or a musical melody? Or rather, not what is the beauty, but what is the design or melody effecting in us when, and whereby, its beauty occurs? Surely it is effecting nothing else but the broadly or subtly decisive establishment of itself. And that is its expression. But in a fragmentary analysis of a work of art, we must remember that beauty is only one (the final) kind of æsthetic judgment. Thus the phrase which opens Beethoven's 5th Symphony seems to me grandly impressive, but not beautiful; my judgment is seized—and at once suspended; this is something, I feel, which is warning me; what this phrase means is, that it is to be followed up. And it instantly is followed up—by a repetition of itself at harmonic intervals which forms an inclusive period of melody: and this is decisive in itself, this is beautiful. The second subject, however, as soon as it is enounced, is beautiful; it completely establishes itself. But it is one of the chief vices of criticism to take a work of art fragmentarily. Every part of it, and every judgment of its parts, must be accounted for in the completed whole. And herein, in the work as a whole, artistic expression provides us with æsthetic experience in a form which we have already recognised as remarkably conducive to the judgment of beauty. The experience which is the motive of art (its impulsive experience) may, as we have seen, be very complex: it may have an object of most intricate structure and promote in me a most intricate system of associations. In any case, there is the complexity of object and subject. All this will be one experience, and as such must be expressed. To draw the expression of these intricacies together into a single resultant expression must conspicuously give a form of end as such mastering and presiding over means; and nothing is more likely than this, when æsthetically experienced, to yield a sense of beauty. It is clear, moreover, that end presiding over means is nothing but another aspect of expression. It would be improper, although it may sometimes be convenient, to say that artistic beauty is expression. Beauty is superadded to expression. In the experience of expression, the sense of beauty may occur as the sense of radiant finality in æsthetically judging it as such.

Art not Created for the Sake of Beauty[edit]

A corollary of this view, that the specific beauty of art is the sense of just expression, would be that no genuine artist would trouble to ask himself, while he is at work, whether his art is going to be considered beautiful or not. And as this is certainly the case it confirms this view very strongly. It is the amateur artist who worries himself with anxiety to create beauty. Now if he has his mind on beauty, the only beauty he can think of is the beauty that has already been created: there is no other. There is the general condition under which beauty can occur in art, but there is no general beauty of art: there is only an individual beauty here and another there: and each is, of course, peculiar to its occasion—in our view, the particular expression of particular matter. Hence all he can do, if his mind is set on beauty, is to adapt the beauty that has already been created and try to fit it into his own purpose. And hence, the amateur artist. The genuine artist does not bother about beauty; he does not need to. He has something to express; to get it expressed is the sole business of his art; and all he is anxious about is to achieve expression complete and just and unequivocal. He knows that if he can do so his work cannot fail to be beautiful; for such expression, experienced and judged as such, becomes beauty by being so judged. This is the artist's sincerity; to attend faithfully and laboriously to the utterance which will say exactly what is in him, neither more nor less; to attend to this without allowing the reward of it—beauty—to divide his mind, and perhaps prejudice him in his selection of means. A work of art, in fact, is not created in order to be beautiful; beauty is the sign that it has succeeded in being a work of art.

Beauty not Specific to Art may Occur in Art[edit]

Evidently, we are now rid of the notion that artistic beauty can be ornament; that is a beauty somehow existing in its own right but fastened on from without to the theme of art. Yet it is not impossible for ornament to occur in art, but not as belonging to the beauty which is specifically artistic. There are three possible ways in which beauty may be present in a work of art, but only one of them is a necessary characteristic of art. First, the original inspiration may have been an experience judged beautiful. Equally it may not have been that; but if it was beautiful, then it would have so maintained itself through the expressive experience. Clearly, however, this is not properly artistic, but natural beauty. Secondly, there may be natural beauty incidental to the medium as such, e.g. quality of colour, quality of tone, quality of vowel sequence. It is exceedingly unlikely that this will be independent of expressive intention; and if it is not independent, it will belong to the third mode of beauty. But if it is, then as an accidental beauty needlessly attached to the specific fact of art it will be, in the strict sense, ornament: i.e. a natural beauty clinging to artistic beauty. Thirdly, there is the beauty of expression. This there must be in art, and this is the beauty peculiar to art; and we have seen what form of experience it seems necessarily to imply.

Possible Limitations of Art and Beauty[edit]

If the beauty of art is the judgment of an æsthetic experience (i.e. expressive experience) which manifestly presents itself as adaptation of means to end, it is nothing exceptional (the specific thing being what means to what end). We have seen just this in the beauty of a locomotive; and it is the same with the much celebrated beauty of shipping. [1] Anchors, lines of prow and stern, rigging, masts, funnels and the rest—they are all beautiful simply because, in the æsthetic experience of them, nothing can be clearer than their complete manifestation of functional design: in each of them, a single end harmonises and controls the means. So all the means of art are manifestly designed to achieve an end; and beauty is the sign of success. An interesting enquiry suggests itself here. Can a simple experience be judged beautiful? If so, would its expression be art? We must first be sure what simple experience is. A colour has been suggested. It is questionable whether I can have an experience that is merely red, though as a wholly imaginary affair it is not inconceivable. But supposing I can have it, there will be in the experience not only the red, but how red affects me. I do not see what technique painting could find to express such an experience; but obviously the technique of poetry could express it, and, if successful, the expression would be art, and beautiful. An abstract idea seems the only thing that could give a simple experience. And it happens that an abstract idea is the only thing for which language has a really adequate expression. Not that the idea of beauty is the same thing as the word "Beauty"; but divest the idea of all concretion and emotional or other association, and thus abstracted there is no more in the idea than is given by the word. "Beauty," then, is the perfect expression of the idea of beauty. But the word "beauty" is not therefore a work of art, and it is not beautiful. So that if the thing expressed is really simple, its expression will yield neither art nor beauty. From which we may perhaps conclude, that art is the expression of some degree of complexity; and that the beauty which comes of expression will not occur unless there is the manifest appearance of means adapted to an end. "Beauty" being the mere label of the idea gives no sense of adaptation. It may be remarked here that, although the word "Beauty" as the expression of abstract beauty is not beautiful, yet, since an intellectual process can be æsthetically experienced, a definition of beauty might be beautiful; for in the experience of defining beauty there would necessarily unite the idea of beauty and its definition, and the definition would be adaptation of means to an end. The conditions of expressive beauty would, therefore, be satisfied: complex unity and adaptation. The notion of a definition of beauty which is itself beautiful would perhaps be shocking to logicians, since it is an indefinite regress. The proper inference would seem to be that beauty is not logically defined; or, more completely, that the idea of beauty is an indefinite idea, i.e. not strictly an idea at all, but rather a sense of the possibility of a certain judgment.

How Art is Disinterested[edit]

We may notice one more implication in the doctrine that art is the expression of æsthetic experience. Art is said to be disinterested. There is no doubt of this as regards its motive, the impulsive experience. Since this is æsthetic, and bears its own value, it is obviously both morally and intellectually disinterested—it is not to be valued as either good or true. What is even more important, it is not to be valued as real. Look, for instance, at that old and vexatious problem of dramatic illusion. Once grasp what æsthetic experience is, and the problem vanishes. We are in a world which is neither reality nor illusion: such a valuation simply does not arise. We do not ask whether the man on the stage is really Hamlet; we do not ask if we are really at Elsinore. We know he is an actor; we know we are in a theatre, with a female hat in front and a man behind who doesn't know what to do with his legs. Yet we accept the acting as the fortunes of Hamlet, and the play takes place at Elsinore. Shall we call this, with Coleridge, "willing suspension of disbelief"? We do not have to suspend what does not occur. We neither believe nor disbelieve in the staging; Mr. So-and-so does not become the Prince of Denmark by his well-trained gestures and celebrated voice. A story is being told us, in a peculiarly effective technique. Is it a good story? Is it being well told? Those, and variations on them, are the only questions that arise. If we can say Yes to them, we are satisfied. Did the actor look Hamlet, speak Hamlet, act Hamlet—and in sum appear Hamlet? If so, that is all we want. There is no illusion about it. We never think of also asking, Is he Hamlet? We have been living in that sphere of experience in which there is no reality because there is no unreality: the sphere which is prior to the troublesome distinction between seeming and being, the sphere in which the only relevant valuation is immediate face-value.

How it is Interested[edit]

The specialisation of natural æsthetic experience into the experience communicated by art makes, then, no difference as regards its characteristic quality—its disinterestedness. But as it is taken in, during the experience of its artistic communication (while it is expressive experience, that is) it is not completely disinterested; it has a value beyond that of its immediate impression. Yet this is still an æsthetic value; the interest does not refer beyond æsthetic judgment. It is simply that every part of a work of art exists both in its own immediate interest and in the mediate interest of the whole. This is clear in poetry and music, where attention has to move through time; but attention has to move also in painting, sculpture and architecture: it has to move through space. In any work of art, the whole cannot be known until we know the parts. But while we are knowing the parts, we also know that a whole is to be made out of them; even though we have not the faintest notion what that whole is to be. For an experience, however complex, must be one thing, in order to be an experience at all. A thing is experienced when we attend to it, and we can only attend to it as a whole. If there are several things, there are several acts of attention; and therefore several experiences. But this singleness of experience, given by singleness of attention, must be disintegrated into its components in order to be expressed. Our experience of this disintegrated expression, however, is always interested in its final reintegration; when we are to experience the summation of all the previous experiences into a whole, which will yield our equivalent to the artist's original inspiration: expressive experience will have completely signified its impulsive experience.

  1. See the admirable account of this in Castiglione's "Il Cortegiano." Castiglione is, of course, not justified in making out that all beauty assumes this form.