System of the Fine Arts/Foreword
All researches, in the order of the aesthetic, are dominated by the analyses of The Critique of Judgment of Kant, today classics, but too little known in their penetrating details. I ought to remark that after a sufficient study of this venerable work, I have not found anything there that to me has seemed of overtowering importance and nowhere else available in this difficult subject. However, as the summation of a great idea is nearly impossible to give and always more harmful than useful, I return the reader once and for all to the same work in yet remarking that such a study is not in any way necessary for what I expose in this present work to be satisfactorily understood. Similarly, and for the same reasons, there is no inconvenience in taking what follows as a collection of short articles on the Fine Arts, and looking there for occasion to reflect, without constricting oneself to the systematic order. Also the title ought not to deceive. The ideas here proposed do not depend at all on some superior idea first posed and does not even lead at all to some common notion which could define all of the arts in a few words. On the contrary, I have adhered myself to marking the differences, the separations, the oppositions, adjusting myself in this way, so much as can make the critique, on the works themselves, as much as each one manifests itself clearly and does not manifest but that much. But it has occured, it seems to me, by a good fortune of this subject, solid throughout, that, by the distinctions and oppositions, the connecting link would clearly manifest itself out of itself so much the more held together by the differences—what the word system, in its true sense, expresses well enough.
On the subject of the doctrine of Kant it suffices to remark that I am in accord with it always in what follows, without ever having invoked it. I have been obligated to proceed otherwise regarding a directing idea no less important, that I have found in Descartes, but that the Prince of Extension has in no way approached regarding the present subject. I speak of imagination as a human function or power, but essentially defined by the mechanism and the affections of the human body. This important idea has certainly not been followed enough by those who have attempted to appropriately describe human nature without the spirit of system; and by a natural consequence it is ignored by those who reflect by a natural tendency on the Fine Arts. This is why it has not appeared useless to analyze it in what follows. But it is not necessary to wait until then that some rule of the arts be drawn from that idea; for this are the works that give the rule; in the way that the study of the different arts would be here as the verification of a doctrine of the imagination first proposed. And as this method, which consists of exposing and explaining as much as one can, without ever attempting to prove anything, risks stunning the young spirits, commonly formed by argumentation and polemics, it is necessary that I add here a third remark.
One proves all that one wants, and the true difficulty is to know what one wants to prove. In these days of passions and of parties borrowed, this human fact has been clarified by a lively enough light, and all proof is to my eyes clearly enough dishonored such that I abstain henceforth from all eloquence. Or this other method, which recalls all doctrine to analytic exposure, suits all subjects, but I had noticed for a long time that, as soon as one wants to treat with aesthetics, the one doesn't present itself to the other, for here the choice is already made, and immovable, and what one would like to prove, to know that the work is beautiful, is affirmed without any doubt by the same work. If one would like to define beauty, it would be necessary to define it by these judgments immediate, assured, irrevocable; I understand by this choice that the clear reflection after it is made without ever clouding it or changing. This is what always searches after all men who go thinking; but whatever desire that one has of it, the truth never reduces itself entirely to beauty. Also beauty is as a recompense, in other words the sole fact of the spirit possible. Having therefore found within my nature, as I suppose that it happens to many, some judgments of taste without doubt narrow, but completely immutable, of the sort that some objects, novels, musical pieces, edifices, statues, drawings obtains, after so many encounters, the same full approbation, whereas so many of others, however vaunted, do not obtain anything at all which would resemble it, I have finally formed the idea to work on the small terrain, extended but solid, in so far that this redoubtable facility to explain all, of which it is always necessary to defy, finds itself by that recalled to some strongly circumscribed problems. And this is here the only case where the observation can be free and without any precaution. For one knows well enough that the observer of the objects of nature like celestial movements or the fall of a body wanders from the question soon if he is not rigidly prepared. To say all, beauty has this privilege to exist. And when there would not be, to form this robust world, but one object in each genre, a beautiful edifice, a beautiful piece of furniture, a beautiful musical piece, a beautiful poem, a beautiful drawing, a beautiful statue, a beautiful portrait, it is not necessary for more of them that one be able to expose, by the universal relations that they suppose, these judgments without name. In the same manner one does not need but a few propositions among the more simple to found Logic. But as there the object is absent, the first thinker who paid attention to it had soon enumerated these forms without content. Here, on the contrary, the object is the judge of the forms, and the spirit ascertains by it all its thoughts according to a true system, and without any doubt; from there comes this repose and this assurance that gives the perception of the work and of which this book is not but a further description voluntarily limited to the necessary. Always is it that by these solitary ways that I have retrieved the common thought, it seems to me, and thus thought with all men without being concerned to please them, and still less to persuade them. This encounter is ordinary in all writing. But the evidence is as a politeness which wants to prepare this universal accord by some general ideas; happily one such artifice was not possible in this subject, for beauty does not prove itself at all.
Now, by a good fortune which is ordinary enough as soon as one does not lay claim to anything, I encounter in reflecting, as one will read later, on the differences between oratory and prose, an idea which strengthens me in the design of not writing but for myself, this is that proof, or argument, or deduction in starting from a principle supposed invincible, in short all the means of logic, are, as this last word expresses it well enough, properly from the means of eloquence, I mean from public speech, for written oratory is a species of monster. As it is clear that the art of governing, of pleading,—and in a word of persuading is one of the more ancient ones, since the human order was the first familiarized with, and is still the first known for all, the most pressing, the most near, and the most flexible; this is not a miracle if the orator was the first master of thought, and if the prose studied was first a sort of harangue, what gave a sense rather strange and rather instructive to the formula "to have reason" [French for "to be right"]. From where this mania of proving, which tyrannizes still in mathematics, where however it is clear that one knows all what one can know as soon as one is distinctly familiar with what it is about. It is thus that our first familiarizations concerning the exterior order took the form of the speech for the defence and of the proof, suitable only for doubtful and flexible things of the human order where the law precedes the natures and where the necessity to judge prohibits the postponing at all favorable occasions the principles in question; without accounting that oratory, which expands in time, demands also by that alone the progress of the principle to the consquence. Against which true prose, which gives only to thought, is a strong enough notification as soon as one pays attention to it.
The youngest spirit thinks with neither arguments nor proofs. This is not but the form of oratory which separates it from the others. In it and for it all idea is universal. And the common error is without doubt to not want to believe at all in the spirit, as the priests have caught a glimpse of it. For the universal does not prove itself at all; the one who wants to prove supposes always, and never attempts to prove, that his proof is univerally valid. What is general is the sole object of proof, and does not lead but to a practical agreement, meaning political by connection to the human order, and industrial by connection to the exterior order. It turns out that by equality of rights one can make a settling of fortune, and that with a plan and some iron one can fabricate many times the same machine. But such successes do not content the spirit at all. As this is such tree that I want to perceive, and as a real thing, that is to say universally, thus I claim to form some singular ideas, alone and with all. Of such testifies the works of art, always singular and universal but bounded by these languages sung, designed, mimed, modelled or painted, of which the language articulated is so profoundly separated; the cry varied, the old signal, goes always to suspend the thought and to coordinate the efforts. This is why aesthetic, reduced to the instruments of eloquence, says so badly what the work of art says so well in its proper language. And eloquence does not even know but to speak of eloquence.
Thus is accomplished the divorce between the fine arts and thought. But this is not but appearance, as the word sentiment, so rich in sense, makes it enough understood. If one was reflecting on this, that the solitary thought does not take form but in the common expression, one would understand better the virtue of signs, of which any thought is never separable, and, by that last proposition, that a thought which is not common is not in any sense a thought. Of which testifies these antique manners of saying, which are dance, mimicry, music, where it is clear enough that expression and agreement [translation of assentiment] make but one. And these forceful scriptures, which are temples, statues, designs, have kept this power to convert without proofs, in terminating the wanderings, as the harp of David would do for the mad king. Models for the written language which is not as yet fully object. It was being necessary therefore to bring back the articulated language to the conditions which effect a work to be universal and durable. And one can remark that the lightning flashes of beauty of true prose offers a truth without proofs, in the sense where beautiful music is without proofs and the Venus de Milo without proofs. But these beauties also are of the exhortations rather than of the models; it is thus that the inimitable only instructs.
What is going to follow is on this way, and oriented by that, but intermediate, since it determines some species and not some individuals; and its middle is not but analoguous to beauty, whatever it leads there, for the end here pursued is to make to perceive this grand object in its systematic unity, not at all logical but real, by the force of the oppositions and of the singular characters of each species of work. The critic can not do more, and I warn you, reader, that this essay does still well less. If therefore a mute genius pushes you, take rather the plume or the paint-brush. But if your genius prattles, then read.