An Essay Towards a Theory of Art/Part VI

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This brings us to the final stage. We have seen what is involved in the mere doctrine, that art is the expression of æsthetic experience. [1] We must now see how it is that æsthetic experience can be artistically expressed.

Nature of Artistic Expression[edit]

The essential thing involved in artistic expression is that the expression must also be communication. And experience as such is essentially incommunicable, Those are the two poles of artistic theory.

To avoid misconception of this part of our argument, it seems desirable here to summarise its main purpose. When an artist constructs his work of art, he is giving us something we can experience; but he is not communicating an experience, he is merely providing the occasion of it. He himself has been inspired by a certain experience; and this, if it succeeds in organising a work of art, is what I have called impulsive experience. But no one can communicate experience as such. What can be done, is to create certain objects which may be experienced; they make up the artist's medium. But in any experience, even, e.g., in looking at a landskip, there will be some features for which there is no direct medium possible; and some art (e.g. poetry) employs a medium which will be indirect for any experience except that of simply accepting it. The affair would be a simple one, if art were the communication of this or that part of experience, as everyday language is, or as a photograph is. But art is the communication of whole experience; and for any artist, therefore, the problem is the same: namely, to construct in his medium occasions of such expressive experience as will somehow associate itself in the recipient's mind with matter equivalent to the artist's incommunicable inspiration of impulsive experience. It is obvious, therefore, that what the artist makes is by no means the same thing as what he intends. This is clear even in such an apparently simple case of artistic expression as Michelangelo's "Dawn": what he made was the figure in that posture; anyone who has seen it has some notion of the tragic immensity of his intention. Our expressive experience of his sculpture has suggested such equivalent of his impulsive experience as we are capable of having. I now proceed to expose the argument more fully, and some repetition of the above must be endured for the sake of clarity.

It is Symbolic[edit]

Man has invented various ways of communicating what goes on inside him; and they work simply because that duty has been arbitrarily imposed on them. That is, they are symbolic. The experience itself is not in them; it is the meaning assigned to them. If I say a thing is red, you know what I mean; but only because the word was invented precisely for the purpose of meaning that and is always so used. It is the accepted symbol of my sensation. But when I experience something red, the sensation is only a part of my experience of the colour; and perhaps not the most important part. The rest of the experience is not meant by the word red at all, except as vaguely possible association. "Red" as an expression of a red experience is not only symbolic, but partial, incomplete.

Its Means are Empirical[edit]

Art, like any other communication of experience, can only be a symbolic communication; but it must, as we have seen, communicate whole experience. So far at least as this is possible in a symbolism, which can never really give the whole; the whole can only be given in the experience itself. But art must be a symbolism which, at any rate, gives all the important factors or representative aspects of an experience: my contribution and the world's contribution must equally be there. And this inclusive symbolism of art will consist not only of arbitrary symbols, such as words, but of empirical symbols also, such as rhythm and harmony, colour and line, which hvae been found to carry with them certain psychological effects. Art will use anything it can use, on the principle that whatever effects a thing will be expressive of that thing. If a triangle standing on its apex seem insecure, and a triangle standing on its base seem stable; if a modulation from major to minor seem plangent and from minor to major seem an access of courage; if iambic rhythm seem grave and trocaic gay: these are evidently symbols which may be of the greatest value to art in what we now more exactly see to be its duty of communicating indirectly what is directly incommunicable—viz. experience as such, in all its objective and subjective aspects.

Thus, to go back to our landskip painter: his art does not give us simply what he sees, but he feels as well. For what he sees is not the experience, but only part of it. Accordingly, in his picture we shall see what has never been seen before: that particular landskip shaped and manipulated into an expression of the particular mood which, on that occasion, and in that artist, the sight of the landskip provoked. No one ever saw Turner's sunsets and sunrises: not even Turner himself could see trees throwing shadows against the sun. Turner is not giving us a thing seen at all; he is giving us in visual imagery the symbol of a profound experience, in which sight was merely one element—it was, of course, the initiating element. In Turner's most characteristic work this is, no doubt, unmistakable: no one could pretend that his pictures copied nature, as they say, whatever that may mean. But it is just the same with Constable, with Richard Wilson, with Cézanne: with any landskip painter, great or small, who is an artist: and he is an artist precisely in so far as his work records not merely what his eyes saw but also what happened to his mind and spirit when he saw it: the whole experience of the man as sense, mood and intelligence.

And the richer the experience conveyed by his handling of natural forms and colours, the greater the work of art. The painter who knows his trade knows just what graduations of colour, what interrelation of masses and line—in brief, what design in detail and in whole—will, in their complex conjunction, rouse in those who receive them such feelings as he himself felt when he not only saw but spiritually exploited the landskip: and into that design he modulates what he saw. And the picture will therefore yield sensation impregnated by emotional and spiritual significance: sensation which is simulataneously itself and its own interpretation—and that not by uncertain suggestion, but by definite evocation. But the picture has not directly communicated the artist's experience; it has done so indirectly, by a symbolism which employs certain empirical facts of human nature—recognisable and reliable facts of the psychological reverberations of sensation.

All this is equally true, and more obvious, in the other kinds of painting. And so with sculpture. Sculpture has continually claimed—as with the Egyptians, the medieval sculptors, the mysterious and superb artists of Easter Island, and to-day Epstein, Gill and Mestrovič—the right to do what it likes with the human figure; a right also claimed for drawing and painting by, e.g., the Byzantines, the Sienese, El Greco and William Blake. It is no more than a claim to make the human figure conspicuously symbolic of whatever supersensuous significances can be transmitted though its semblance, modulated into their expression. Yet when that semblance is modulated into the same kind of symbolism without any loss as semblance—as it is in Greek sculputre, in Donatello, Verrocchio, della Quercia, even in Michelangelo and Rodin—it seems to me that the art is, I will not say better, but greater: and not because it is more "true to nature," but because the experience it conveys is richer, since in it the sensuous and emotional value of the human figure itself is not truncated, and yet it may be symbolic of the world of spiritual significance.

There have recently stirred in the art of painting and drawing several movements—Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Vorticism-which are all alike in this: they tend to rely wholly on the psychological effects of design, of composition. Now experience consists of its occasion and its exploitation. In Cubism and the rest, it may either be that the emphasis is on the exploitation, or, what is more likely, that the occasion is provided far more by the artist's inner than his outer life. More exactly we may say that the tendency in such art is to keep only the expressive experience sensuous communicating thereby a supersensuous impulsive experience. Such art, relying on inner life for its impulsive experience, is of the same kind with that usually called Romantic. Its opposite is Realistic, in which the experience belonging to outer life predominates and is but scantily supplied from inner life. Not necessarily better, but greater than either of these, is Classical art, in which inner and outer life meet as equals in the impulsive experience conveying it, and not only meet, but interpenetrate and interpret one another; such art is greater than Realistic and Romantic, simply because it is richer.

I have preferred to exemplify the symbolic nature of artistic expression in the arts of painting and sculpture because these are usually called Representative arts, as though they had the special duty of portraying the objects of sensuous experience. We can only allow them to be Representative in the sense that they fasion their symbolic imagery entirely out of the preceptions which originated their whole content—i.e. the complete and complex experience which began in a visual perception; and even this is by no means invariably true of them. But what has been argued of the symbolic efficacy of Representative art is obvious when we turn to poetry, music and architecture. In fact, all the arts have the same problem of expression to solve. All must find a technique of symbolism, whether arbitrary or empirical, which the recipient can take in with pleasure, and which can be relied on to translate itself in his mind into an ultimate æsthetic experience equivalent to that which inspired the artist.

Artistic Conception[edit]

It can now be seen that the genesis of a work of art has two stages. There is first and experience, æsthetically valued. It may be of any nature, actual or imaginative, sensuous or emotional, intellectual or moral, or all or any of these combined, so long as it is valued simply as experience. It need not be beautiful. And this, establishing and defining itself, as it is held isolated, and necessarily a unity, in attention, realising all its internal potentialities, and having most probably drawn in and assimilated many outlying associations—this experience, in any case of twofold origin as matter and value, occasion and exploitation, and in the end probably on both sides highly complex; this becomes, in the mere fact of being vividly and completely apprehended, its own expression—what we have called internal expression. This stage is the conception of a work of art; and it results in what we may call an image, or establisht security of intuition, which is to be the inspiration of the work of art. It is the image, then, that is the impulsive experience of a work of art. We may note, as matters of psychological rather than of æsthetic interest, first, that the prolonged attention and the elucidation and elaboration of associated suggestion, which result in the completed image, take place in the imagination; secondly, that the force of the image is motor: it tends to discharge itself out of the mind, i.e. by external expression; and the idea of complete externalisation is the same as the idea of communication.

Artistic Technique[edit]

But this image is incommunicable. And the specific activity of the artist is not involved in this stage; though, when that activity successfully occurs this stage of conception must evidently be considered as belonging to it, since it is necessarily presupposed. The artist is the man who can find the symbolism which will indirectly, but as accurately as symbolism can, convey the whole intricacy of the experience acquired in conception; devising for that end complex occasions of sensuous experience, which will reliably provoke in the recipient such mental and emotional reactions as will combine into a whole intricacy of experience similar to that which inspired the artist. I use the phrase "mental and emotional reactions" to mean, quite generally, contributions to the whole resultant experience from every region of life—intellect, moral feeling, mood, passion, sensuous and other memory, and that which, incapable of classification, we call spirit—brought in in every degree of association. This stage is the Technique of a work of art.

Technique gives Expressive Experience[edit]

No art can begin to exist until Conception and Technique are complete; and strictly speaking its existence occurs in, and during, the acceptance of Technique, or expressive experience. Thus, supposing it to be possible (as it certainly often is) to detach and hold in attention, after complete acceptance of Technique, the impulsive experience which it symbolically conveys—though this can never be outwardly expressed except in the symbolism which carried it—it would be incorrect to refer to this abstraction as a sort of summing-up or compendium of the work of art; and if it is referred to as the "matter" or "substance" or "gist" it ought to be clear that in so referring to it the work of art has ceased to exist. It is this impulsive experience as conveyed in the expressive experience of technique which constitutes art's existence; and when a work of art has been completely accepted, this does not mean that the final impression of impulsive experience is the sum of expressive experience, but that in the sum of expressive experience the whole impulsive experience is contained. Thus, in the art itself, the sensuous appeal of technique is as much the matter of art as any of the "meaning" (or psychological effect) for the sake of which the appeal may have been made. The term "matter" will be used in this theory in a sense very different from that of abstracted final "meaning."

This is Variable[edit]

Again, suppose a work of art (e.g. a poem) is received by an artist who uses another medium (e.g. a musician); and he wishes to translate the effect of the poem on him into his own kind of expression—music. That is to say, he takes from the expressive experience of reading the poem (a compound of idea, imagery and verbal sound) the impulsive experience or inspiration of the poem; and this he makes the impulsive experience of a piece of musical expression. The question is, would a third person receive from hearing the music the same impression of impulsive experience as he would from reading the poem? It would no doubt be recognisably similar, though that is not certain; but it could not be the same. In the first place, art exists by being experienced, and no two persons can have the same experience. Since the conveyance of impulsive experience is effected by expressive experience, if two people (here the musician and the third person) differ in their expressive experience of a poem—and they must differ—they cannot both receive from the poem quite the same impression of impulsive experience. In the second place, artistic expression is symbolic, and therefore can never be more than approximate. Even if a poet and a musician were to start from an identical experience, it would not remain identical after it had passed through their several techniques into a recipient's mind, for each artist would be bound to insist on those qualities and aspects of the experience with which his symbolism is able to deal, and leave out those to which his technique cannot respond. Indeed, the artist's knowledge of the practical scope of his symbolism, when it has become an instinct, will no doubt actaully enter as a sort of corrective (and possibly even as a stimulus) into the conception of a work of art.

Artistic theory must be prepared for variations in expressive experience, not only between persons, but between different moods of the same person. I notice, we will suppose, an old picture in my friend's collection. I glance at it with some pleasure: a Luini, perhaps; and turn away. My friend, who is a great authority, then assures me that really is a hitherto unknown Leonardo; and, to set the matter beyond a doubt, informs me that he has just sold it as a Leonardo to an American millionaire. At any rate, he convinces me; and I turn back to the picture. I may look at it now with the same eyes, but I cannot look at it with the same mind. It cannot give me the same experience; for now I contribute to the experience everything that the name of Leonardo means to me. This may or may not have a decided effect on my estimate of the picture's inspiration; but I should certainly mistrust the man who denied that it had any effect at all. We cannot, at any rate, exclude from the theory of art the fact that the appeal of art is variable, since it can only appeal by providing the occasion of an experience which we ourselves must exploit. It must often have been noticed, by anyone who looks nicely into his own mind, how largely the pleasure of a familiar work of art is provided by its familiarity. This means that the pleasure is not simply in the "goodness" of the art; and probably it means, that private associations have been allowed to exploit the occasion. It is easy to say that such merely personal contributions to artistic experience should be discounted; that, indeed, they do not strictly contribute at all to an artistic experience. But some personal associations must be contributed by the recipient to any work of art; and it is by no means easy to say precisely which are to be ignored. Neither does it seem necessary. The ultimate facts in the theory of art are experiences; and the theory must accept whatever is implied by experience. Nothing has been more injurious to these studies than the attempts to give them a false security by making them deal with objects—objects as the matter of art (by imitation), and works of art themselves as invariable objects. For art—and for æsthetics generally—objects do not exist, but only experiences: at least, objects only exist as occasions of experience. It is no answer, that objects in any case can only exist in experiences; for in, e.g., physics, the ultimate fact is the possibility of discussing objects apart from personal experience.

Expressive Reveals Impulsive Experience[edit]

In the account just given of technique, its medium was said to be primarily an appeal to sensuous experience. In the case of one art—poetry—this requires modification; for words are, of course, as much meaning as they are sound. The originally symbolic nature of language as meaning is remote from this enquiry. Language is not now strictly the symbol of thought: it is thought; but in poetry it is, just as valuably, sound. In poetic technique, however, the thought, the meaning of the words, is as much a part of the symbolism as their sound. Keeping this modification in view, the general nature of artistic technique may easily be understood from the instance of poetry. The poet is rightly considered to be the man who can get the most value out of words; for he is combining into simultaneous expression all the posers of language which can be expressively used. He is not expressing this or that ostensible thought, feeling or image; he is making his words contain the progress of a whole experience (i.e. impulsive, his inspiration). The syntax of his language gives the forthright meaning which organises the experience of the whole poem; and this syntactic meaning is continually immersed in the vivid emotional expressiveness, at once massive and subtle, of metrical rhythm. And constantly radiating out of the syntax are, in equal importance, the unmistakable but sometimes hardly analysable linkages with associated meaning all round, given not merely by metaphor and simile, but also by definite liberation of verbal suggestion in the compound meaning of phrases; and in the same way the import of the rhythm is constantly enriched by the disposal of consonants and vowels in the syllables. An infinite range of variety in total effect is therefore possible; and the skill is to make all these detailed stimulations of intellect, imagination and emotion combine reliably into the required completion of experience. Thus everything in poetry is symbolic in the interests of the whole result; and this exists as poetry by and during its symbolism in every faculty of language. The taking in and appreciation of the symbolism as such is expressive experience; and when this is complete, the impulsive experience will be known in it as its purpose. Both can be distinctly recognised without having to be separated; and the artistic virtue of either is that it supposes the other. Read, for example, Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal." Our expressive experience is of the verbal art of the poem—the whole complex appeal of the technique as it has just been described. We find, when this is complete, that there has been organised in our minds the impression of a profound spiritual experience; and we recognise that this was Wordsworth's inspiration: this moved him to compose the poem, this was the impulsive experience; and we recognise, too, that this has throughout been the purpose of our expressive experience. But though these two experiences coexist in the fact of the poem, they are not the same thing. Our expressive experience has been of words and the effects of words; but its purpose, the impulsive experience of Wordsworth's inspiration in which we now share, is something which cannot occur in words at all. It has, indeed, been indirectly symbolised by everything the words have said as sound and meaning; and if it was the nature of the poet to have such an inspiration, it was the art of the poet deliberately to construct a technique, and so provoke an expressive experience in us, which could not fail to be thus symbolic. The value of the poem is not merely in its inspiration, but in its art: it is the beauty given by an expressive experience perfectly ordained to signify its purpose. We may take this as the typical analysis of a work of art; though our account of technique is still incomplete.

  1. The full statement of the doctrine should, after our last discussion, now run: Art is expressive experience, æsthetically judged, of a complete communication of impulsive experience, also æsthetically judged. This is offensively clumsy, and the more elementary statement will as a rule be more useful.