Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/May 1880/The Pleasure of Visual Form II

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 17 May 1880  (1880) 
The Pleasure of Visual Form II
By James Sully
End of series


HAVING thus determined what means of appreciating formal elements and relations are at the command of the eye, our next inquiry will naturally be, What modes of æsthetic intuition—in other words, what intellectual perceptions of pleasing and beautiful relations of form—are possible by help of these means? Fortunately, this side of the subject has been pretty fully investigated already, and I shall be able to pass it over with a very few words.

I here assume, what is agreed on by most writers, that beauty of form—so far as it is independent of sensuous pleasure on the one hand, and pleasures of association and suggestion on the other, is resolvable into the presence of a certain order among manifold details, which order is commonly spoken of as unity in variety. With respect, first of all, to the way in which the element of variety and contrast presents itself in visible form, a word or two will suffice. Direction and magnitude of lines, degree of change of direction, whether appearing as an angle or as a curve, each offers a field for the perception of difference and contrast. And each figure formed by a single arrangement of lines may, in its turn, become an element of variety in a larger scheme. It is worth noting that these elements of variety may be indefinitely present to the mind, as in the perception of all relations of distance and direction between points which are not connected by lines. The appreciation of superficial and solid, as distinguished from linear form, clearly involves a countless number of such less definite elements of visual perception.

The study of the various modes of securing a pleasing unity in visual form is a little more intricate. Speaking roughly, one may say that there are three distinguishable moments or aspects in this unity— namely, continuity of parts one with another; then common correlation with some one dominant element, which is usually the central one; and, finally, similarity and equality of parts. A word or two must suffice in illustrating each of these aspects:

1. We have found a reason for introducing continuity of lines into pleasing form in the nature of ocular movement. Over and above the feeling of smooth transition thus given, a continuous as opposed to a broken arrangement is at once felt to be a unity. The movement of the eye around a contour, to the point from which it set out, yields a peculiar feeling of gratification which may be called a sense of completeness.[1] The special æsthetic value of contour is seen in the custom of accentuating it in decorative designs by means of ornamental appendages. It is evident that this feeling for the æsthetic value of continuity in form will be developed by experience, which leads us to look on continuity of parts and contour as an essential factor in the unity of objects.

2. Another mode of unity in form closely related to continuity is common connection with one principal element of form, and more particularly with a dominant central feature. For the resting eye, as for the moving, the arrangement of parts about a center has a special value as supplying the most natural mode of percipient activity. Owing, indeed, to the structure of the retina, the center of an object or group of objects is naturally raised to a place of honor.[2] The eye is instinctively disposed to connect all parts of a design with some central element, and the recognition of such a common connection with a center gives to a design the artistic charm of unity. The most natural central element is, of course, a point, and there are many pleasing forms both in nature and in art which owe a part of their aesthetic value to the presence of such a connecting point. The circular and stellar or radiating forms, the scroll or volute, clearly have this central dominating factor. In many cases, however, the central element is a line or even some simple figure. Thus, all arrangements about an axis, as the forms of trees, flowers, and stems, and all like patterns, are pleasing. In decorative art, again, a central feature is frequently supplied in the shape of some small circle or rectilinear figure.

3. The third aspect of unity, similarity of parts, includes likeness of direction, equality of magnitudes, proportion, etc. All pleasing forms present similarities of direction, simple and compound, and the characteristic beauty of many forms, both in nature and in art, is traceable in part to the prominence of some one element of direction. Thus the various charms of the forms of cedar and birch among trees, and of the Romanesque and Gothic among architectural styles, are partly due to the predominance of some characteristic feature of form, as the horizontal or drooping line, the rounded or pointed arch.

The sense of equality enters into geometry much more prominently than into visual art; yet it is is not excluded from the latter, it only appears in a more disguised way. All equalities of magnitude among lines, surfaces, etc., are, to speak with Fechner, above the threshold of enjoyment, and the study of art in all its branches shows how considerable this enjoyment is. Among the equalities to which the aesthetically cultivated eye is specially susceptible are those in change of direction, whether angular or curvilinear. In all regular rectilinear figures equality of angle is appreciated as well as that of linear magnitude. The beauty of uniform curves and of undulating lines rests in part on a feeling for this factor of regular and equal change.

That relations of proportion enter into beautiful form is allowed by all. A technically trained eye may recognize, and perhaps enjoy, simple numerical ratios among magnitudes in lines, etc., but this factor does not appear to enter, in a conscious way at least, into ordinary æsthetic appreciation of form. We hardly experience any addition of enjoyment in learning that the ratio of the axes of a pleasing oval is 2 : 1. So far as conscious reflection can tell us, our enjoyment of proportion rests on a vague estimation of one magnitude in relation to another. But, though this relation is not numerically appreciated, it is very exactly estimated. Our enjoyment of the subtile relations of linear magnitude which enter into the beauty of a refined face shows how delicate this quantitative appreciation really is.

It is to be observed, further, that this fine sense of proportion among the various parts of a visible form includes a recognition more or less distinct of an equality between relations of magnitude. And it is this fact which brings the sense of proportion under the head of a feeling for similarity and equality. This is plain enough in the case of all imitative forms. The recognition of a face by means of a miniature portrait is really an example of a very fine perception of equalities of relation, for it rests on a distinct appreciation of the relative linear magnitudes and distances of the several features, and on a perception of the identity of these relations with all changes in absolute magnitude.

It is hardly less certain that the sense of proportion in art, when not thus based on a knowledge of the relations of natural objects, really implies a like recognition of identity of quantitative relations. The enjoyment of a due proportion between the breadth and length of a column, or among the numerous details of a Gothic church, springs from a recognition of the correspondence of the perceived relations with some conceived relations, which supply an ideal standard of proportion. This mental standard may repose either on a sense of utility or fitness of parts to a ruling end, on custom, or finally (in the case of the freer forms) on a vague feeling for the relative æsthetic importance of the several features as parts of a pleasing and well-balanced whole. If the eye has this delicate sense for quantitative relation, there is nothing intrinsically unreasonable in the doctrine put forth by Zeising, and partially countenanced by Fechner, that a special aesthetic value belongs to the division of a line into two unequal parts, of which the lesser shall be to the greater as this to the sum of the two or the whole. There is no numerical calculation involved here, and the only question to be asked is whether the eye really does prefer this peculiar division of parts, which Zeising calls "the golden section," and, if so, whether this is due to a sense of the quality of the ratios just named.

That the fact is as Zeising contends seems probable from Fechner's own investigations, in which he compares the different proportions of a large number of commonly recurring forms in ornaments, etc., where there is no apparent need of resorting to one mode of division rather than another. But does it follow that this customary preference involves a conscious comparison of the ratios here specified? In the case of a cruciform ornament, for instance, does the eye, however vaguely, sum together the vertical and horizontal magnitudes in the way supposed? May there not be a reason for choosing this particular division of a whole into parts, besides this hypothetical perception of an equality of ratios? I think there may be. It is noteworthy that, according to Zeising, the dimensions of the human figure illustrate this mode of proportion; and the question naturally arises whether this most frequent and most impressive object of contemplation may not have supplied a norm or ideal standard of proportion, to which we are apt to resort when there is no reason for selecting any other.

These three aspects or moments represent the most abstract principles of unity of form. In practice, these principles commonly combine and blend one with another. This may be seen by a reference to what is known as symmetrical arrangement.

A symmetrical division of parts aims at presenting a number of continuous features under certain aspects of contrast and similarity in relation to some central element. Each element of the design is balanced against some other element opposed to it in direction (that is, from the center), but resembling it in respect of magnitude and distance from the center. It thus supplies a large amount of the element of unity, and is indeed the most regular of all forms.

The most perfectly symmetrical figure is that which is so in respect of each pair of opposite sides or directions, as the rectangle, the polygon with even number of sides, the circle, etc. But such arrangements are apt to be too stiffly regular for art, which, needing abundance of freedom and variety, usually contents itself with symmetry in one direction, namely, bilateral symmetry. Why symmetry in an horizontal direction should please rather than in a vertical or any other direction will be explained further on.

It may still be objected that I am confounding art and science, and giving to unity and regularity an exaggerated æsthetic importance. This objection will, I think, be largely obviated by the observation, which I have hitherto postponed, that the uniting element is often present in an ideal manner only, suggested to the mind rather than directly presented. Thus the continuity of a form has sometimes to be appreciated by help of an ideal completion. For example, a crescent may please the eye because it is so easily expanded by the imagination into a whole circle. Much more frequently does the central element of a design need to be supplied by the mind of the spectator. The beauty of an undulating and of a spiral curve rests' in part on a vague representation of the central axis, about which its seemingly free movements arrange themselves in so simple an order. In many symmetrical arrangements, too, as those of the human figure, the central element to which all relations are more or less consciously referred has to be put into the figure by the mind.

The value of such subjectively restored elements of unity is seen in a striking way in the fact that the feeling for order and unity may be satisfied when there is only an approximation to a regular arrangement. The eye, like the ear, can easily bear departures from rigid regularity, if only it is able in a rough and general way to group the details under relations of equality and symmetry. This it does in those freer forms of sculpture and painting which mark a high development of art. Provided this departure of form does not appear to the eye as an error, as a failure to reach perfect exactness—that is to say, provided it is seen to be intended and is felt to be justified—the fact of approximation yields an appreciable enjoyment. The visual imagination here supplements the visual sense, and sees a rightness where the latter alone would see but error.

It is easy to see, by help of this principle, that all the visual arts seek in some degree to satisfy the eye's feeling for form. In some arts, as painting, the element of form is no doubt a good deal subordinated to the exigencies of imitation, and of a wide picturesque variety of detail. Even in sculpture, perfect regularity of form is in the higher stages of art development sacrificed in favor of variety of treatment and natural ease. In truth, the progress of art is largely a progress in freedom of treatment, as we may see by comparing the rigid symmetry of Cimabue with the graceful ease of Raphael, or the stiff regularity of early Greek sculpture with the freedom of the later and better work. Yet, while the principles of form become less conspicuous, they are not wholly abandoned. A Madonna of Raphael may suggest the pyramidical form which an earlier altar-piece so naïvely forces on our attention. In other words, in the best periods of art, form only disguises itself, becomes more a matter of imaginative reconstruction, and appeals to a finer kind of æsthetic perception. One may add that every now and again the artist will distinctly aim at satisfying the eye's feeling for form by what may almost seem a childish device. Even a Turner does not disdain to please the eye by introducing into his pictures accidental repetitions of form in different objects.[3]

All good art thus does homage to the principle of form. One may even go further, and say that the characteristic effect of asymmetry, illustrated in many Japanese designs, is really due to a just feeling for form. Like discords and occasional suspensions of tone interval and equal time in music, such irregularities owe their piquancy to the very sense of a law that is broken, though not violently, but, so to speak, in childish freakishness.

In this brief analysis of the direct factor in pleasing visual form, I have regarded the immediate activity of the eye as something ultimate, only referring now and again to the effects of habit in facilitating certain kinds of motor activity. But modern psychological ideas will enable us to explain to some extent how the eye has come to be so constituted as to take pleasure in the kinds of activity just described. There is no room here for more than a brief elucidation of this aspect of the subject.

The doctrine of evolution leads us to view an organ of perception, together with its customary modes of action, as slowly determined by the action of the environment and the needs of practical life. A part of this operation goes on in the individual life, having as its result the selection of the habitual actions as the most easy and most agreeable. A part requires the life of the race for its carrying out, and has for its product a certain innate structure and disposition. The modes of agreeable visual perception illustrate these processes of adaptation to the conditions of practical life. Thus, as I have already hinted in passing, the eye's preference for the horizontal direction, for symmetrical movements of convergence, and so on, may possibly be explained as the result of habits determined by the greater utility of these particular movements. And it is probable, as Wundt suggests, that the innate peculiarities of the eye's mechanism which favor certain kinds of movement, as horizontal, and those from the center of the field, are themselves the result of long processes of racial adaptation.

What applies to the most natural and agreeable modes of ocular movement, applies also to the more pleasurable modes of the higher intellectual appreciation of form. The very feeling for unity of form in any shape is probably related to those deep wants of our existence which have determined the structure of our intellectual organ to be what it is. And, in the case of the æsthetic value of the several modes of this unity, the action of the environment becomes apparent. Thus, for example, the natural instinct of the cultivated eye to look for a well-marked contour, as well as for a central element of repose, in a design, may be regarded as the result of ingrained habits, determined by the conditions of a distinct visual grasp and recognition of objects in every-day life. So the desire of the eye for proportion seems to be an outgrowth of a habit of attending to relative magnitude, a habit that is clearly connected with the paramount importance of identifying objects at different distances from the eye;[4] and, as I have already had occasion to observe, the popular preference for certain ratios of magnitude may be due to a habit of making the proportions of the human figure, that most impressive and carefully observed form, a special standard of measurement.

The æsthetic value of symmetry, and more especially bilateral symmetry, illustrates in a striking way this action of the environment and of habit in determining our most pleasurable modes of activity. Mr. Grant Allen has recently remarked on this fact ("Mind," Number XV.), but without any special reference to bilateral symmetry. Not only do most organic forms present such a bilateral symmetry, but the forms of inanimate nature, as mountain and valley, show this same relation. The very action of the physical forces determining the configuration of the earth's surface tends to produce a bilaterally symmetrical arrangement, as we may see by the simple experiment of throwing down a heap of pebbles or sand on the ground. Over and above this the ends of support, and the utilities of life in general, serve to give bilateral symmetry a high practical value. Most of the products of the useful arts, from architecture down to the art of constructing common utensils, possess this bilateral symmetry. This prevalence of the relation, in objects of daily perception, would serve to fix a habit of looking for symmetry as the normal form of things. In other words, bilateral symmetry would tend to become, to speak after Kant, a sort of a priori form of æsthetic intuition.

But this direct factor is, after all, only one feature of visual form, which, in concrete aesthetic perception, combines with other indirect or associated elements. Over and above the direct action of the environment, and of customary experience in producing an instinctive preference of the eye for some kinds of activity, there is an indirect action of experience in attaching to certain elements and arrangements of form an æsthetic value by reason of associated feelings and ideas. This second great factor in visual form has received a fair amount of attention, and it does not call for more than a hasty reference here.

C. Associated Factor.—So far as forms are strictly non-imitative, and not determined by any needs of fitness to some recognized practical end, the associated factor must reside in certain comparatively abstract qualities. These are in the main resolvable into two classes— those æsthetic aspects which depend on association with touch and movement, and those which involve an idea of human skill.[5]

If tactual and muscular experiences (other than those of the ocular muscles) are organically embodied into our customary visual perceptions, we shall be prepared to find that the pleasurable side of visual form embraces elements drawn from this region. In truth, all the valued features of form may be said to involve such extraneous experiences. The superior importance of the vertical and horizontal directions, the specially restful character of the horizontal, and the aspiring aspect of the vertical, the voluptuous nature of the curve as opposed to the severity of the straight line, point to the deeper and fuller experiences of movement, muscular exertion, and repose, which we obtain apart from the eye. Even the value of bilateral symmetry for the eye may owe something to that well-marked rhythmic contrast of right and left, which the movements of the tactual organ yield to us. Again, it is easy to see that the various charm of distance, the wooing character of the remote and retiring, and the stimulating aspect of the near and prominent (reflected in a degree in the different effects of convex and concave surface), and the sublime suggestions of great height, all draw their material from experiences of the greater motor organs. So, too, our larger muscular experiences, with their new feeling of resistance and distinct sense of force, furnish elements to our appreciation of fragile grace appearing to ask for support, and of all stability of form. Lastly, the residue of tactile experience (alone or in combination with muscular sense) are traceable plainly enough in the charm of smooth and rounded surface, of that characteristic quality of sculpture which Mr. Ruskin has well called its "bossiness."[6]

The second class of æsthetically valuable suggestions in the visual perception of form are those of human skill. Man is a constructive animal, and his habits of construction lead him, as Mr. Grant Allen has observed, in the essay already spoken of, to view all forms in nature, as well as in art, in relation to the degree of skill needed to produce them.[7] Thus a perfectly straight line, even in nature, irresistibly calls up a vague consciousness of artistic finish. The peculiar charm of all smaller and more delicate forms rests in part on this vague feeling of fine workmanship. So, too, all perfect regularity and symmetry satisfies this feeling for perfection of handicraft. And, on the other side, departures from regularity, when they suggest the idea of bad workmanship, are, as I have already remarked, distinctly unpleasant.

In addition to these widespread abstract associations with form, there are more circumscribed and concrete associations depending on a vague resemblance to some agreeable natural form. Of these associations the suggestions of human form constitute the most valuable aesthetic element. The supreme interest of the human presence makes us ever ready to see analogies to the human attitude and mode of movement in inanimate nature, and so we fall into the habit of attributing a quasi-human interest to the drooping plant, the stalwart tree rejoicing in its battles with the wind, and the venerable mountain looking down on our lower earth with an expression of Jovian calm. Art, when not distinctly imitative, owes something to these vague suggestions. Thus, we are disposed to transform supporting columns into caryatides before art itself transforms them for us. Next to the human figure, other of the more beautiful organic forms may furnish such associations to the eye. Thus, the Corinthian capital, and forms frequently found in ornamental design, please the eye in part through a vague feeling of their plant-like character.

The reader may perhaps expect us to assign the relative values to these various factors in agreeable form. But psychology is not yet a quantitative science; and, this being so, aesthetics must be content with enumerating the elements, without seeking to measure exactly their relative values. I have insisted on the presence of a direct sensuous element in visual form apart from the pleasures of light and shade. In daily experience we may not be aware of the pleasure which ocular movement in its real or ideal form is fitted to yield, just because our eye usually attends to these movements only as signs of important objective facts. But, when this significance is withdrawn, as in a decorative arabesque design, we may easily become aware of the pleasurable character of such movement. And it must be supposed that this element enters as a very appreciable factor into the whole delight which sculpture and architecture afford us. Even though not a considerable pleasure in isolation from other modes of enjoyment, it may contribute a valuable factor to such a compound aesthetic impression.[8]

But, though emphasizing these elementary motor experiences of the eye as a factor in agreeable form, I would not exaggerate their importance. It must be remembered that the experiences of touch and extra-ocular movement are inseparably embodied with ocular feelings of movement in the eye's perception even of form elements, and the former are at least equally valuable with the latter. For the rest, I attach much value to the intellectual factor in the appreciation of form—that is, the coördination of numbers of these slightly pleasurable elements under agreeable relations of unity and proportion. Taking the factors just named as the direct factor, and contrasting them with the less directly associated elements as the indirect factor, I should say that the former decidedly outweighs the latter in what we call beauty of form. Every beautiful form will, I think, be found to owe its charm in the main either to the specially pleasurable character of its elements (ocular or tactual), or to the presence of a large number of distinct aspects of variety and unity. The former is the beauty of simple forms, the latter that of intricate forms.

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  1. This is strictly analogous to the satisfaction which the ear derives from melodic movement, setting out from a given note (the tonic) and returning to the same.
  2. It is a distinguishing peculiarity of movements of the eye from the primary position outward, that they are attended by no rolling of the eye about the axis of vision. As a consequence of this, the eye, in tracing lines which radiate from the center of the field (exactly opposite to it), continues to receive the image of the line on the same retinal meridian or series of retinal points, so that at any two successive movements the images partly overlap. This fact speaks for the supreme importance of estimating direction and distance in relation to the center.
  3. Mr. Ruskin lays great stress on this effect, which he brings under his "Law of Repetition."
  4. I know a child that, when three years old, at once recognized the faces of several relatives by means of a photograph taken eight years before. The photograph was a carte-de-visite group, in which there were just a dozen full-length figures, as well as a good piece of background space. Such a power of appreciating form, shown at so early an age, suggests that there may be an innate disposition to recognize identity by means of equality of relative magnitude.
  5. A third class of such general and abstract associations might be constituted by the symbolic aspects or the moral and religious suggestions of form (as that of moral rectitude, infinity, etc.), but these are too vague and uncertain to require notice here.
  6. Herder calls sculpture the art of touch in contradistinction to painting, the art of sight.
  7. This idea of skill will, in the case of the useful arts, take the form of an intuition of a nice adjustment of means to ends, and so become a component element in the sense of fitness.
  8. According to Fechner's principle of æsthetic support, "Vorschule der Æsthetik," p. 50, et seq.