Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/April 1874/On the Aesthetic Sense in Animals
|←Evolution and the Origin of Life||Popular Science Monthly Volume 4 April 1874 (1874)
On the Aesthetic Sense in Animals
By Louis Viardot
|A Year of Geographical Work→|
THE mind of animals is a very old subject of discussion. Descartes and his school regarded an animal as a mere piece of machinery, like a clock or a turnspit. For man alone they reserved intelligence, meaning by that, memory, feeling, will, and reason. The story of Malebranche is well known: As he was going into his convent at the Oratory with a friend, a little bitch ran up and fawned on him; he gave her a kick which sent the poor beast yelping off, and when his friend expressed surprise that so gentle, kindly, and Christian a person returned kicks for caresses, he exclaimed, "What! do you really suppose that that animal had any feeling?" Thus Malebranche not merely believed he had not wounded or grieved her; he even thought he had caused her no physical pain. This was denying clear proof, and pushing faith in his master's doctrine to absurdity.
On the other hand, Montaigne, Leibnitz, La Fontaine, Bayle, Condillac, Madame de Sévigné, agreeing with all antiquity, from Pythagoras to Galen, assert that animals have all the organs of sensation and of feeling; that they possess will, desires, memory, ideas, combinations of ideas, and even the power of performing some moral acts, such as entertaining attachment like that a dog feels for his master, or a hen for her chicks; or, like "that very just equality which they practise in dividing food or other good things among their young," as Montaigne says; and that therefore the intelligence of animals, if not equal to man's, is at least like it, and that the differences between the oyster anchored to its rock and the homo sapiens of Linnæus are merely differences between more and less, degrees of succession that make up what is called the scale of being. It is the latter opinion that has been declared triumphant by the researches of natural history and those of comparative anatomy alike. On this point science has reached certainty, and every one, reading the story of "the two Rats, the Fox and the Egg," says now with La Fontaine:
"After that tale, where's the pretense
That animals are lacking sense?"
But another dispute has just been opened on this question: "Have animals the sense of beauty, the æsthetic sense?" The famous Charles Darwin, and his numerous followers agreeing with him, displaying even greater generosity than Montaigne, Leibnitz, and La Fontaine, answer unhesitatingly in the affirmative. In their view, just as animals are endowed with intelligence as well as man, though in a lower degree, so in the same way and in the same proportion they are endowed with the sense of beauty. They find the proof of this rather bold assertion, not in natural selection, which is a result of that struggle for life in which the weakest individuals among species, and the weakest species among genera, must disappear, but in sexual selection, which is a result of the struggle for reproduction, leading straight to the same consequences, namely, to the improvement of species and genera, which reaches, by slow elaboration through ages, even to their transformation. Among all animals, they say, among insects, fish, birds, mammals, the male chooses his female, and the female chooses her mate. If strength often determines the choice, so beauty often does too. The charm of graceful shapes, pleasing colors, fine notes, has great weight in settling the preference. Now, this charm which the male possesses habitually in a far higher degree than the female, he could have no occasion for whatever in the struggle for existence; he can benefit by it only in the struggle for reproduction. Hence all those displays of genuine coquetry which may easily be observed, in pairing-time, among all animals; hence those attractions prevailing through vigor of form, brilliant hues, and impassioned song. This general fact, well established under differences of appearance among all species and all genera, gives the Darwinian school ground for asserting that animals, having the perception of beauty, have consequently the æsthetic sense.
The opposing school, including of course all who prefer metaphysics to physiology, is by no means wanting in excellent answers. It says, by the pen of Charles Lévêque (in the Revue des Deux Mondes of September 1st), "the doctrine of Darwin rests, in its last analysis, on the capital fact that the animal, the male sometimes, the female sometimes, often both at once, is susceptible to the beauty of its kind. That the animal is struck with it, we admit; but does it feel really this beauty of color, form, and song, in so far as it is beauty, or is it not rather the fact that those brilliant tints, that vigor, that sweetness of voice, form for the animal an indication, very expressive, yet merely brute-like, of a physiological condition which its instinct expects, which itself stimulates and answers to?" And this question, which must involve in its solution that of the former one too, the anti-Darwinians answer in the affirmative, which is the negative of the first question. They point out that this process of choice, in which beauty wins the prize, takes place only at the season of pairing, and ceases through all the rest of the year; that if we concede to the animal a sense of the beautiful, within those limits, still the sense has but one special object, finds its range within the species merely, never reaches to a less concrete conception, does not widen, does not perfect itself by tradition and culture, remains unchangeably set on the same object, the same time, the same point; that admiration which grows from the expansion of this sense of beauty can only spring from very varied and delicate comparisons; in one word, that the animal, being unable to attain general and abstract ideas, cannot rise to the æsthetic sense. To conclude: that sense is the exclusive endowment of man.
This is a concise statement—for neither our subject nor our powers allow us to take a side in this discussion of the interesting controversy raised by Mr. Darwin's last book. We only say that, notwithstanding the deep respect and the frank support that we give to his general doctrine, we here adopt the opinion of his opponents. We, too, believe that the æsthetic sense, in the high and perfect acceptation of the phrase, belongs to man alone. But we must here suggest a correction of the highest importance, which will at once define our opinion, and lead us to a fundamental reflection upon the arts.
"Complete the experiment," M. Charles Lévêque says. "Place your animal before a work of art representing its male or its female with a precision that deceives the eye; some of these works that seemed to live existed in the studios of ancient painters; they are more frequent in modern museums and exhibition-rooms. It was said that mares would neigh when going before horses painted by Apelles. A dog would perhaps stop a moment in front of Oudry's hunting-pieces, if their frames were put on the floor, within reach of his look. He would come up, examine them, ask the canvas a single question with his infallible scent—and that would be all. And yet, what is there in the picture? There is exactly the element worthy of admiration, that is to say, the expression of life by means of the most attractive colors and the most perfect forms. What does the quadruped care for these as he looks at this wonder? It is not the expression of life in general that he wants; it is life itself, individual life, life which speaks to his senses, and to that of smell much more strongly than to his eyes and ears. He has no concern with the general, the ideal, the admirable; he understands nothing about them."
This is all strictly and absolutely true. We have never put much faith in the stories invented by the Greeks and collected by Pliny; we have never remarked, in our long experience as a sportsman, that the most intelligent of man's companions ever gave the least attention to any object represented by painting or sculpture, even to his master's portrait, or that he looked with any feeling of satisfaction at one of those charming landscapes set before us at every step by Nature, enchanting as their view is to us. That seems to us one settled fact. But is M. Lévêque quite certain that all men have any greater faculty for that notice and that knowledge which are wanting in the dog? Have savages got above the level of animals in this respect? A traveler, who has studied Australia thoroughly, relates that at a gathering of some native inhabitants of that country he brought out portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, to see what they would think of them. Almost all kept silence, seeing nothing in the pictures at all within their range, or that touched their memory. But two of them, and the most intelligent ones among the tribe, such as can count as far as four, ventured on a remark. One said, "It is a boat "—the other, "It is a kangaroo."
All savages would answer in the same way, yet they are men. But, although they too love beauty after their fashion, though they have a strong liking for ornament, a great disposition for coquetry, savages do not go further than the special and individual object; they do not rise to a general, abstract idea; they know no more than the dog knows about seeing life in the representation of a living being. Therefore we need to correct the formula of Darwin's opponents, and may possibly thus succeed in bringing friends and enemies into agreement; their phrase must read, "The æsthetic sense belongs to civilized man alone.
In truth, it is not an innate faculty; it is a faculty acquired by tradition, by personal study, by the development of all the other faculties. The Australians must first learn to count as far as the number of fingers on the hand, and something more than that, before they can be able afterward to understand that pictures of a man and a woman, even if disfigured with a cap or crown, are neither boats nor kangaroos.
This assertion, that the æsthetic sense belongs only to civilized man, may be proved by both philosophic methods and by arguments which I take the liberty of stating concisely, as I have set them out at length in a treatise on the question "How should art be encouraged?" The subject is worth the risk of incurring ridicule for copying one's self. We may call it, if you choose, a second edition.
A priori, were we to assert that equality before the law means equality in intelligences, and that every man who has the right to be a citizen has the power to be an artist, we should commit a fundamental mistake. This would be confounding the feeling of the good in our nature with the feeling of the beautiful. The former is the instinctive knowledge of good and evil, of the just and the unjust; it is born with us, it is conscience itself, and, as such, it is necessary for all. The latter is a certain delicacy of sensation and of judgment which is formed very gradually in the course of life; it is called taste, and is useful only to a few. The feeling of the good, which marks the grand superiority of man over the animals, and forms the common basis of all societies, is an essential element in our nature, a gift we are forced to accept from the creative power. Without it, man would not be man. On the contrary, the feeling of the beautiful, which is less necessary, and may well be rare because it is superfluous, is an acquisition won by intelligence, slowly, painfully, uncertainly, and is often denied to the most honest efforts. One, like rank, costs nothing but the trouble of being born: the other demands, as all acquired knowledge does, a previous fitness, a kind of revelation, in which chance must often lend Nature its aid, besides time, reflection, mental labor in bodily leisure.
A posteriori: it is plain that a man's first movement, as regards the good, is almost always right; as regards the beautiful, almost always wrong. Listen to the crowd, judging by its moral estimate of an event that has taken place under its eyes, when no interest nor passion misleads it: what good sense, what fairness, what insight, what right intentions, what generous sympathies! Then hear it discoursing on the merit of works of art: what wretched taste, what glaring mistakes, what ridiculous enthusiasm, what sad and utter going astray! "The people," writes Diderot to Grimm, "looks at every thing, and gets at the meaning of nothing." But do you ask for still more decisive and clear practical proofs of the immense distance that separates knowledge of the good from that of the beautiful in the human mind? A petit jury, though it decides on the liberty, life, and honor of an accused person, is drawn merely by lot, because each citizen can judge as well as every other, upon evidence and discussion, of the truth and morality of an alleged fact. But do we choose the jury which has to award the prize of a competition from the same list and in the same way? No! in that case we must choose among the most skilled and the best qualified specialists.
But what need of demonstrating what his own experience tells every one? Among these skilled and special jurors where is the one who will not confess that he at first was, and long continued to be, the dupe of his ignorance? Which of them is not aware that taste for the arts, and, still more, taste in the arts, came to him only after a long time, after lucky and often casual experiences, after protracted studies, repeated comparisons, a constant exertion of the powers of seeing, understanding, feeling, judging? And who does not know, by having learned it in himself, that in the arts—except perhaps in music, which filters in unconsciously to those who hear it—emotions come in the train of reasonings, and that the first condition of positive admiration is knowledge? "I am fully persuaded," says Sir Joshua Reynolds, in one of his "Fifteen Discourses," "that the pleasure yielded us by the perfections of art is a taste which we acquire only by long study and with much labor."
Those who choose to attribute too liberally to all men the sense of the beautiful as well as that of the good, attempt to support their opinion by a fact. They cite the instance of Athens, where, they say, competition in the arts was open to all in the public arena, where the whole people formed the tribunal. The instance is misleading, and I take it the other way, to sustain my proposition. Without insisting on the special genius of ancient Greece among the other nations of the world, and that of the Athenian people among the other peoples of Greece, I will merely point out that this people of Athens, so small in its territory and population, so great in its deeds and renown, consisted of about forty thousand free citizens, served by four hundred thousand slaves. Now, the slaves, charged with all manual tasks, and practising all the trades, relieved their masters from bodily labor, made them men of leisure, and consecrated them to the exclusive cultivation of the intellect, like the head of a body of which they were themselves the acting and subject limbs. That Athenian democracy, how jealous soever it might be of equality between citizens, was thus a real aristocracy; and we can very well understand how the decision on matters of art might be trusted to the multitude, when that multitude consisted entirely of men so enlightened, by education and experience, that all public functions and all magistracies might be distributed among them by lot, without any great danger to the state. The empire of the arts, though it refuses to accept any boundaries as haughtily as that of science does, though speaking as well a universal language it spreads over the whole world, can be ruled only by a strict oligarchy. Indeed, as has been justly said, good taste is the quintessence of good sense. Therefore, whatever may be our devotion to equality before the law, we can never admit equality before genius, or even before that talent which the cultivation of art requires.
Among mankind art has been, and always will be, the exclusive share of a small minority; in fact, a very choice and very limited aristocracy. It is assuredly not that of birth, for there is nothing more personal than genius or talent. It is aristocracy in its true and genuine sense—the privilege of the best. Art belongs only to certain exceptional natures, very rare because they are highly endowed, whose possessors must combine with the choicest moral faculties, imagination with judgment, feeling with taste, other precious physical faculties, clearness of view, and precision of touch. All men may be artisans; only the best, the aristoi, can be artists.
To conclude, and still taking the phrase "æsthetic sense" in its highest and perfect meaning, we first deny it to animals; and next, holding this delicate sense to be one of the noblest attributes of mankind, we restrict it to civilized man; then last, even among nations whom continued and general cultivation places in the front rank of humanity, we allow this aesthetic sense only to some groups of select men, on whom the nature of their minds and their taste formed by long study confers this rare and precious privilege. Has not Stendhal declared that all literary reputations are made by a choice circle of five hundred readers? And it is a certain truth that the number of bachelors of arts is still smaller than the number of bachelors of letters.
However, not to overstep the very modest part suited to mere writers and professional critics, let us hasten to add that, if in art the public voice is that of a very small number, but acute, practised, and disinterestedly enthusiastic; if this voice alone decrees to the living the rewards of celebrity, to the dead the immortality of fame; if, moreover, this choice circle of connoisseurs has the sole right of criticism, it by no means follows thence that every one of its members has the gift of infallibility. Far from that; it is like that aristocratic democracy of Athens, in which each citizen had his personal vote only, and could prevail only on condition of convincing. As in the domain of the good there is but one authority conscience, so there is but one authority—in the domain of the beautiful—taste. Only, conscience speaks the same language to all the men of one community; while taste, on the contrary, even acquired and formed taste, is as manifold as temperaments, ideas, and passions are. It varies from country to country in every age, and from age to age in every country. Still further, it varies between man and man, and in each man, at different periods of life. The bear in the fable very sensibly says:
"Who tells you this shape's awkward, that one fine?
Has yours the right to judge or censure mine?"
Therefore it is in vain, as if in strict pursuance of a duty, to read all books, listen to all counsels, ask advice from people supposed to be cleverer than one's self, and prop up one's judgment by more sure and authoritative judgments. In the criticism of art, where positive canons are wanting, no one is suffered to deem himself an authority; no one is any thing more than an opinion.—Gazette des Beaux Arts.