An Essay Towards a Theory of Art/Part II

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Scope of Æsthetic[edit]

Æsthetic experience, then, is the experience which is presupposed by all art but does not necessarily—does, in fact, quite exceptionally—result in art: and this is the experience which, as a feature of life as a whole, and not of any specialised life, forms the field of the æsthetic science. (The taking in of a work of art is, of course, an æsthetic experience; but what is then taken in is different from all other æsthetic experience: and this term will, therefore, be most conveniently used as excluding artistic experience.) Now this æsthetic science is often held to be the study of that peculiar reaction in us to the events of inner and outer life which is called the sense of beauty. But we must decline to allow our terms of reference to be limited beforehand. Beauty occurs, of course, both in art and nature: both as the result of deliberate intention and of casual occurrence. And this is the most obvious link between art and æsthetic. But just now we are considering the æsthetic and inevitable experience of everybody as the necessary preliminary of the exceptional and deliberate activity of the artist. No doubt the most important thing about æsthetic experience is the fact that beauty can occur in it. But as soon as we begin to investigate beauty we come upon ugliness, and at once our enquiry widens. New questions arise: Is ugliness the mere absence of beauty? We must not assume that: any more than in ethics we ought to assume that a bad deed is simply one that is not good. Then is ugliness a sort of active opposite to beauty? It may be; but we cannot begin to decide until we are sure, first, what sort of experience it is in which both beauty and ugliness can occur? Second, how do they occur?

The Matter of Æsthetic[edit]

As to the kind of experience in which they occur, the shortest way round that question is by way of art. For however art may specialise, it derives its matter solely from æsthetic experience; and has the advantage of presenting that pure, and therefore in a peculiarly recognisable form. Let me for a moment attend to the art of literature. How could we—not define it—but just roughly describe it? We might call it, the art of expressing oneself in words. Well, that is what I am doing now. Am I, therefore, creating a work of art? Assuredly not. And note the ambiguity in the word "art." For in that phrase—"the art of expressing oneself in words"—the word "art" means no more than it does in "the art of household management." It means simply a definitely adjusted skill. But there is no ambiguity when we speak of a work of art. How then must we qualify that meaning of "a definitely adjested skill" in order to arrive at the sense of a work of art? At first it would seem to be in a merely negative fashion. Why am I not now creating a work of art, although I am expressing myself in words? I think everyone would agree, that it is because I am using expression for an ulterior purpose. The success I hope to achieve is more than the success of merely achieving expression. I am arguing: I am trying to convince you. Whether I succeed or fail does not depend solely on my power of expression; it depends also on the value of my theory. My expression is not now in the least for its own sake, but altogether for the sake of making my theory penetrate your minds and get to work there. And you are judging my power of expression not in itself, not for its own sake, but for the sake of something it conveys beyond itself, the operation of a train of reasoning: you judge it according as it effects a purpose outside itself, you judge it according as it enables you to judge my argument. That is the sole value of the expression I am now using: that it is the means by which you value something else.

So, to compare small things with great, if I say the "Origin of Species" is well written, I do not mean that I can enjoy the writing for its own sake: I mean that it is admirably fitted to convey the information and effect the persuasion Darwin intended. Expression here justifies itself by its ability to do more than exist as mere expression: as it does in the case of any book which aims at information or persuasion; and for just that reason any such book is not a work of art. We mean, that is to say, by a work of art, something that does not have to serve a purpose beyond mere expression in order to justify itself. Imagine that I am reading this to you; and now suppose that I break off to sing you a song or tell you a story; and suppose that I manage to please you. You would say the song was a good one, or the story was. But why? Should I have improved your minds? Not in the sense of adding to your information, or organising what you already possess; the goodness you recognise does not have to hitch itself on to any reason. A good story well told has no need to be anything more than just that; in fact, it is a work of art. I should have expressed myself—to what purpose?—in order to achieve an expression that could satisfactorily exist simply as a piece of expression: it had no other purpose—but there may be more in that purpose than at first appears. Expression for its own sake, then,—expression that carries its own justification—that does not need to go beyond itself in order to make good: that seems to be the condition under which a work of art can occur.

But—expression for its own sake?—is that quite satisfactory? After all—there must be expression of something. We can put it this way: a work of art is the expression of something which we feel justifies itself in expression by the mere fact of being expressed. So the next thing is to ask, what sort of a something is that? What sort of matter is it which, as soon as we apprehend it, we find wholly satisfactory in itself, without having to ask what use it is or what good it does or what it means—not even whether it is real?

What Æsthetic Experience is[edit]

Of course, the answer is, in fact, so obvious that the difficulty is to know where to begin. But we must have it out clear and recognisable. I will make a flank attack. I was staying a while ago with my family on the shores of Morecambe Bay. The news came one morning that a horse was in the quicksands: so we all set off to assist in digging it out. I may say—not to make the story too thrilling—that there was no danger to us. It was a temporary quicksand, due to rain. Only the head, back and tail of the horse were above ground, but it would not sink further: the sand had set firm all round—till we began to dig, and then it at once became a sort of porridge. It was a long business and horribly exciting. We could feel at our backs the menace of the tide; it was only a gleam as yet on the skyline—but everyone knows how the Morecambe tide comes in. Exciting, certainly; but the excitement was one of intense and practical anxiety. We were all the time calculating the possibility that the poor beast might be still embedded when the water was up to its nostrils; and we were trying not to notice the anguish of terror in its eyes and the quivering palsy to which exhaustion had reduced its pitiable struggles. But there was one member of the party who hopt about in pure candid untroubled enjoyment of the whole affair: this inexhaustibly interesting world had provided one more first-rate spectacle for his especial benefit. "Will the horse be drownded?" he kept eagerly asking. There was nothing callous in that: what the horse felt about it had simply never occurred to him: the only judgment to which the spectacle had been referred was the simple and immediate judgment, Was it a thrilling affair or not? Why, of course it was: the whole thing was most admirably arranged. And then came the final touch. The men were busily digging round; we were all hauling on a rope doubled endways round the horse's body; the owner was hauling on the horse's tail. But the tail and his hands were slippery with salt water; and just as we made a grand concerted effort,—the tail slipt through his hands and over he went, heels over head. Instantly there shrilled out a piercing keen peal of ecstatic delight; I have never heard laughter of a more unqualified rapture: and I have never, I think, been more shocked by the intrusion of the pure æsthetic view of things into the world of moral or practical values. Severe remonstration followed: the unseasonable nature of laughter was made clear. But the excuse was irresistible: "I thought he'd pulled the tail right out!" That would, indeed, have raised the affair to an exquisite perfection. It was not true; but the instantaneous impression of it was accepted without question and enjoyed to the utmost—simply as a thing given.

Now this was pure æsthetic experience: that is to say, it was experience that did not look outside itself for its value. That small boy had still the faculty (alas, he will lose it too soon) of taking everything as it comes along and finding it immediately good or bad: of instantly deciding its value simply as experience, without requiring any other interest. I suppose that is why children are sometimes said to be natural artists: they at any rate live naturally in the condition which alone makes art possible. And I dare say, too, it is their purely æsthetic life which makes children seem to come among us "trailing clouds of glory". If heaven means anything, it must mean a state in which everything is immediately good in itself: intellectual or moral judgments would never be tolerated there.

But Æsthetic Experience is not Itself Art[edit]

But children are not artists merely because they live æsthetically. It might seem an easy transition from my small boy's enjoyment of a tragic event (for the event which he enjoyed most—the extraction of the tail—was surely a tragical one, though it wasn't a real one)—it might seem a straightforward passage from this sort of æsthetic experience to a tragic work of art: to—shall we say—"Othello." And certainly, just as that incident of the horse's disaster was enjoyed, so also is it with the tragedy of Othello; it, too, tragedy as it is, is enjoyed. And much in the same way. It is an immediate and unhesitating enjoyment; we are, as we say, absorbed in the tragedy—the story becomes, for the time being, our own concern; it lives is us, as a profound disturbance of our natures: and we like being so disturbed. A least, if we don't like it, the tragedy has not come off. There ought not to be any great difficulty, either, in the fact that we obviously do take an interest in what Othello thinks about it—whereas the horse's point of view was simply non-existent for the fortunate small spectator of its anguish. But we only have to extend the scope of the enjoyment. Why may not Othello's torment be enjoyed in the same unquestioning immediate manner—simply as something given, judged purely as itself: is it good as torment? So stated, this may seem either barbarous or perverse: yet I believe it is true. But also it seems certain to me, that this mere parallelism of a piece of art with a piece of nature will never give a complete account of the former. We do not enjoy a tragedy simply as we enjoy a street accident: though the latter kind of enjoyment is contained in the former. I would rather say, that natural æsthetic enjoyment is present in artistic enjoyment as a means to an end.

But just now we are looking for the kind of matter that is capable of what we may call pure expression: and clearly we have found it. A thing which, when expressed, is justified by the mere fact of being expressed, must be something of this kind. It must be something that has an immediate unquestioned value of its own—a face-value—that does not call for reference outside itself. I may be interested in a thing because it is true, or good, or real, or useful; but also I may be interested in it simply because I like it as itself. Of course, I may like it for itself and also for whatever further satisfaction in may give me; but that is not necessary. I may like the shape of a mountain or the pattern of a carpet: but so far as that liking is concerned, I do not mind whether it is a real mountain or a real carpet. The question of its reality simply does not arise—unless as a further interest, which makes no difference to my mere liking of it.

Distribution of Æsthetic Experience[edit]

Now experience of this kind—that carries on the face of it its own instant value—that does not in order to be valued need to bring in any intellectual or moral or other interest; that is, in fact, judged instantaneously and as it seems automatically—experience of this kind is nothing exceptional. We may notice it clearly, perhaps, only when it has a striking occasion: my small boy and the foundered horse; nursemaids at a funeral, inspecting with all the airs of connoisseurs the grief of this mourner and of that; the thrilling summons we all feel, going soberly on our business, when the running crowds tell us there has been an accident. On such occasions we notice with a certain shock human nature's capacity for taking things at their face-value, for liking them as things good in themselves: is that one a good specimen of a mourner? and so on. I am told that doctors develop this capacity without any compunction—and of course, without in the least prejudicing their sympathy. Coleridge, that moral man—or rather that most moralistic man—made no scruple of rushing with glee to watch a pianoforte factory on fire—and then damning it for a failure, because all the pianos weren't burnt. For what is a fire, first of all? A blaze, good or bad: and then—whatever your intellectual, moral or financial judgment may make of it. In fact, the possibility of this kind of "face-value" experience is the basis of every kind of conscious life. Nay, it is rather the possibility of being consciously alive at all: for it is nothing but the intuition of whatever occurs to us or in us, and the instant appreciation of that intuition as such. All experience, in fact, is without exception æsthetic experience; but usually, I suppose, we are so concerned with its effect on our intellectual or moral or practical judgment that we allow the æsthetic judgment to be swampt. In the affair of digging out the horse, the experience of the whole party had an æsthetic aspect, but we ignored it as much as we could; we never allowed it to present itself pure, still less did we allow ourselves the primitive and childlike liberty of enjoying it. But consciousness can maintain itself and take account of itself wholly in intution; and there is a form of judgment which is valid there and only there. By æsthetic judgment I mean the valuation of experience as such; and we may, therefore, confine the term "æsthetic experience" to that which is recognisably assessed by the æsthetic judgment—distinctly valued as itself, in its own immediate interest, without submitting its matter to any further judgment. It is easy to see how this may be in sensuous or emotional or imaginative impressions: and they form no doubt the usual matter of æsthetic experience. But matter intended for intellectual or moral or practical valuation may also be valued æsthetically, if the mere intuition of it as it occurs has a face-value of its own: though this is not so common, since such experience must always have been specially prepared for the judgment to which it is proceeding, and therefore seems fitted to realise its interest only outside itself—i.e. in the judgment for which it is designed. [1] But even a train of rational thought, whether judged intellectually as true or false, is first of all an event in one's mental life, and can be judged simply as an event. And so it is that rational thought can occur not only in poetry, but as poetry: it is when its expression there gives us, surrounding the substantial thought, the living experience of thinking it rationally. What we value in so-called philosophical poetry—and music, too (as in Strauss's "Zarathustra")—is not a version of this or that philosophy, but an expression of what it feels like to be a philosopher of this or that kind.

And so, too, mathematicians, with two equally sound solutions before them, will find one elegant and one clumsy: clearly they are therein judging their mathematical experience æsthetically, simply as such without regard to its ultimate validity. The æsthetic judgment can even be at variance with the intellectual judgment. When Hobbes derives the mental fact of imagination from the material fact of inertia, the neat ingenuity of the argument, the way he makes it come in pat to his ruling purpose, nay, the very immensity of the gap he thus fantastically and impudently bridges—all this gives me an immediate and keen delight: judging it æsthetically, I applaud; but at the same time, judging it intellectually, I find it to be mere nonsense.

It is well known how Nietzsche took an entirely æsthetic delight in the idea, the intellectual experience, of Eternal Recurrence: and ferociously loving it for its own immediate value, quite apart from its truth, he inserted it into the midst of his system, and thereby completely deprived this of any intellectual coherence it might have had. And there are perhaps other instances of philosophy's reliance on an æsthetic judgment. When the essential congruence between the rational mind and a rational universe is asserted, the assertion seems to rest on an æsthetic judgment: the doctrine is not so much true as eminently satisfactory in itself. But what I wish to emphasise now is that this immediately interested, wholly self-reliant experience which we call æsthetic is not confined to a few special kinds of matter: it may occur anywhere—wherever intuition is vivid enough to provide its own valuation.

  1. This suggests another mark of æsthetic experience, defined as experience recognisably assessed by æsthetic judgment: vis. it does not have to be prepared for submission to the judgment, that is to say, it is judged immediately.