An Essay Towards a Theory of Art/Part VII

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Conception the Condition of Technique; Hence Technique has Two Aspects; Matter and Form[edit]

Technique, then, is the symbolic expression of conception; and the nature of conception supplies throughout the condition of technique. Now, the nature of conception, as we have seen, is the same for any art; and technique will therefore occur in any art under the same conditions. The conception of a work of art is an experience; whether as it at first occurred, occasioned by an event of inner or of outer life, or whether as it is prolonged in imagination by contintuance of attention on it, and there enriched by association and the development of all its implications, the nature of it is still that of an experience; and there must always be two capital aspects of an experience. There is, first, in the broadest sense, the matter of the experience: everything that enteres into the experience—including both its occasion and the exploitation of this. It can never be simple, and may be highly complex. Whatever initiates the experience will gather round it a mass of associations and reflexes—emotions, reflections, images, recollections, contrasts, and I know not what. But all this must be one experience. It must be singled out by attention as, however intricate, a whole uniquely existing by virtue of its parts: it must, in a word, be a unity. Otherwise it cannot be an experience at all. This twofold nature of experience—first as containing certain matter, second as containing it in a unity—is the condition of technique (the word being now used generally for all art). That is to say, what technique has to express is equally the matter of experience and the unity that makes this an experience. And technique is a symbolism. Hitherto we have considered the symbolic expressiveness of technique as regards the matter of the experience: it has been indicated how certain direct appeals (to sight, to hearing, to imagination) induce reverberations which can be ordered (this is the artist's skill) very exactly, so as to result in associated impressions similar to those which entered into the artist's original experience. But now we see that technique has further to express not only what entered into that experience, but how it could be an experience—i.e. a unity. The matter of the experience cannot but be expressed piecemeal; but while it is being so expressed, it must also be expressing its ability to result finally in a unity; and when all the matter is expressed, this must also be an expression of the fact that all the matter actually is a unity. Technique expresses this as Form: Form in technique is the symbol of Unity in conception.

Form the Symbol of Unity[edit]

Technique, then, working always under the condition imposed by the nature of the conception, will always, like conception itself, have these two capital aspects. There is no general term for the expression of the matter of the artist's inspiration; and, indeed, it is only in poetic theory that we find any name at all assigned to this aspect of technique—viz. Diction (which includes both the semantic and phonetic of language). But this aspect of technique has been sufficiently considered. Form, however, is recognised in every art as the term for the expression in technique of the unity of the artist's inspiration; and the fact that there is this generally recognised term is an acknowledgment of the paramount importance of this aspect of technique. It is by virtue of Form that art is enabled to perform its function. The end of art is expression; but why do we wish it to achieve its end? Because in achieving its end it performs a certain function; and what this is will be discovered by considering the most striking characteristic of its completed achievement—Form.

The two aspects of technique are only notionally separable; but it is as easy to separate them as to see that a billiard ball has a certain form and a certain material. An attempt is sometimes made to confuse the issue by saying that form and matter are ultimately one. That is true; but when they are one, both form and matter disappear; there is then merely the work of art (as technique). But when we see that this has form, then and thereby we see that it has matter: or the other way round. Form and matter are two aspects of one thing; but while we are regarding the aspects, it is futile to say they are identical. From this, however, it will be quite clear that whatever virtue form may have can only come from the fact that it is the form of something. There is no such thing as abstract form, though there is, of course, the abstract idea of form (which therefore is not form); and it is impossible to see what absolute form can mean except the right form for any particular substance, i.e. the form which completes the expression of the substance. There has been much talk lately of significant form, the phrase being used to mean, apparently, some kind of form which carries significance simply by being form; and it has even been urged that art should confine itself to the utterance of form as such. It is quite true that art has significance in so far as it has form; but the significance which form carries is the significance it gives to the matter it forms. The peculiar virtue of artistic form, indeed, is not to be itself significant (whatever that may mean), but to effect a specially significant presentation of whatever matter it submits. Any artistic form is significant which expresses the unity of its matter; form could only be insignificant if it did not express unity; but in that case it would not be form at all, in any sense of the word which can interpret the form of a work of art.

And the Completion of Artistic Expression[edit]

If it were possible for experience to be directly communicated, there would be no need, of course, to provide distinctly for its unity. But since it can only be communicated indirectly in a symbolism, the first stage of its expression must be its disintegration; but all the time it is being expressed in this disintegrated state—while the right symbolism is being found for this feature and the right one for that—provision is continually being made for complete reintegration into a whole. And indeed, no distinct feature will have been completely expressed unless it is expressed as belonging to an ultimate whole. Thus form is not a final imposition on the matter of art, finishing it off and compelling it into a given mould; the eventual establishment of its form is inherent thoughout the whole process of a work of art's existence. And at the completion of its existence the final resultant and inclusive impression of all contributary impressions will be an impression of unity; and the particular quality of this will be the form of the work of art. Each art has its own means of providing for form and of finally achieving it; in this, as in all other respects, technique establishes itself empirically, in obedience to the general principle that the effective is the expressive. But in any work of art form gives unity exactly as visible shape makes as assemblage of parts be taken as one thing. In painting, sculpture and architecture it actually is shape; in music and poetry it is shape in an obvious metaphor. It may be asked here: why, if unity through form is peculiarly significant in art, is not unity through shape equally significant in visible objects? But it is a question not of unity of objects, but of unity of experience. Even in the arts which, like painting, effect their form through shape, the unity given by their form is not merely a unity of the thing seen, but a unity of the experience in which the thing seen is only a part. The shape of a thing seen must certainly be a visual experience; but the experience will contain more than the thing and its shape; these will make up the object of the experience, and so far we have only the unity of the object. If we can include this in the larger unity of the whole experience, then, and only then, we have a matter which, if expressed, would be a work of art. Moreover, the strict analogue, in visual experience, to a work of art, is the thing which not only has shape, but is shapely; and a thing is shapely when every part of it manifestly contributes to and is dominated by the shape of the whole. A butterfly is one existence precisely in the way a work of art is one existence; but a butterfly is not a work of art, though the experience of looking at it would be, if that were expressed: and a copy of the butterfly's shape and colour would not express that. It is plain, however, that a shapely object deliberately made by individual will to be judged as æsthetic experience would be a work of art: such an object as a vase. It would be art somewhat of the nature of architecture, in which impulsive experience is peculiarly liable to be inextricable from expressive experience.

Form Gives Art its Function[edit]

It remains now to derive from form the function of art [1]: to consider what is meant by artistic significance and what artistic unity has to do with it. The answer to all such questions is implied in the profoundest aphorism ever contributed to the theory of art—Bacon's assertion that in poetry we have "the shows of things submitted to the desire of the mind"; the exposition of this will make it applicable to any art.


What is the central, the inveterate desire of the mind, which all man's practical and spiritual activities imply? It is the desire for significant experience, the desire to be living in and a conscious part of a significant world. Not that we desire to know what the world means; in one sense we know that already, and in another sense we can never know it: the world can only mean itself, a proposition in which the most of us take but faint interest. But a significant world is a world in which nothing happens out of relation with the whole of things, in which everything must perfectly cohere with the rest and nothing can occur irrelevantly: a world in which each is for all and all is for each. That is the world we desire; and that is the world we never quite get—except in art. Whatever we experience in art, we experience in a perfectly coherent and orderly manner, in a necessary and intricate interrelationship with the rest of our experience there: in, that is to say, a significant manner. For what was said of a significant world will apply to things. What do we intend by the "significance" of a thing? Is it "what the thing means"? But "what the thing means" can only be what is implied by the thing in terms of other things. So that significance really is relationship, the degree in which experience involves and implies other experience. A thing is said to be significant when its reference to other things is unmistakable; and the richer the reference, the greater the significance. But in a work of art, everything refers to and implies everything else in it; all is interrelation and coherence; and every part is manifestly owned by the whole, and the whole is intended by every part. So that in art the impression of every fractional or momentary detail is an impression of the significance of things, and the impression of the whole work is an impression of a significant world. Chance or irrelevance can have no place in art; and chance is the enemy of significance, since it is an intrusion of irrelevance, a lapse from coherence. It is the incoherent, the irrelevant, which we are continually trying to eliminate from our practical or intellectual or other experience; but we are never quite certain whether we have eliminated it, we are never quite sure (outside art) of our world's continued significance.

To-morrow, suppose, I mean to catch a train. That expectation in itself shows a very remarkable degree of interrelationship in the world I experience; I can rely on its coherence. I get up in good time, punctually have my breakfast, methodically pack up, and arrive at the station with time in hand for a crush at the booking office, and—see the tail of the train just disappearing round the curve. I find my watch has unaccountably lost five minutes during the night. What is it that is so specially exasperating in an incident like that? It is the fact that the misfortune, as far as I can see, is wholly insignificant; it has no relevance to the life I know and trust in; it is a mere intrusion of meaningless incoherence, a pointless infliction of annoyance. But in art, one does not miss one's train; or one does not miss it in an insignificant manner. It may me that the significance of the incident must be taken on trust; but that is easy to do in art, for one knows that the significance will eventually appear. But most probably the significance is apparent in the way the incident happens. Not that it has this or that assignable meaning; but simply that it is perfectly coherent with and relevant to its surroundings; it is necessary to the presiding existence of the whole experience—i.e. the work of art. And so, in general, whatever art gives us is given as an instance of a world of unquestioned order, measure, government; a world in which experience occurs with perfect security, knowing that the firm interrelationship of its process can never be dislocated by chance—the world which is "the desire of the mind." And it is experience of this world which is so presented: "the shows of things"—æsthetic experience.

Form gives Significance to Expressive Experience[edit]

Now we see why Form is the chief excellence of art. It is because art presents its matter as Form that it effects this profoundly desirable impression of coherence, of interrelation, and so of significance both of parts and of whole. For it is by Form that the matter, whatever it be, is accepted as a unity; and form is not, as we have seen, a boundary imposed on the matter from without, not even a final fastening together of matter already tolerably shaped, as a tyre binds the felloes of a wheel; form as the expression of ultimate unity is inherent through all the matter of a work of art, and is constantly working through every detail of expression toward its completion: artistic expression, indeed, merely has to complete itself in order to achieve its most important aspect, Form. It can only be, then, that the impression of unity in a work of art is an impression of thoroughly organic unity; it is nothing but the total impression of matter which has been throughout presented as necessarily interrelated, whether the process of arriving at this total impression has worked in space (as with painting and architecture) or in time (as with poetry and music). It is by virtue of its Form, therefore, that a work of art gives us that perfectly coherent and mutually dependent experience which has the quality we call significance. And by virtue of its Form, the presentation of even tragical matter, which would elsewhere be unendurably distressing, can in art be supremely satisfying and severely exhilarating: as in "Othello" or "Antigone," Mantegna's "Dead Christ" or Michelangelo's "Dawn." Nay, those are right who regard tragical art as yielding the noblest delight of any; because in such art we see matter, that would in actual occurrence afflict us with mere irrelevant and incoherent injury, expressed without any blunting of its force or glossing of its horror—expressed, indeed, with its grievous nature specially emphasised and intensified—and yet made acceptable and profoundly enjoyable; because in art even sorrowful matter is presented as belonging to a region of experience where nothing can be incoherent or irrelevant, where everything that happens is known to be ncessary for the completion of existence. Even that which horrifies in actual life becomes in art an instance of the significance we desire of things.

It is clear, then, that the effect of "Othello" is not altogether parallel with the primitive æsthetic interest in things as good of their kind; this is certainly present in our experience of the tragedy, and as it is provoked in purity, without contamination of ulterior judgment (e.g. we do not think of asking whether Othello acts rightly as a moral person: we simply accept his behaviour as his), it is the interest which very largely ensures our intense watch of the incidents as they terribly occur. But this is only a means to an end; and, moreover, we can always feel the gradual evolution of an ultimate coherence, an orderly and presiding necessity. And when this has finally emerged, when the tragedy is finished and its form is completed, our satisfaction in Othello's torments as good of their kind is altogether enveloped in our satisfaction at seeing the whole event as a realisation of "the desire of the mind"—at seeing the stuff of the world we know too well becoming an establisht image of the world of profound and inevitable significance: in a word, of the ideal world.

As Unity Does to Impulsive Experience[edit]

Now we know why artistic form has this organic nature, by reason of which it effects the paramount impression of art, the impression of an ideal significance, whatever be the matter it exhibits. It is because in Form art completes the expression of æsthetic experience; and the æsthetic experience which inspires a work of art must be a unity. Whatever has been said of the art should apply therefore to its inspiration; and we should properly say that it is as an experience of the ideal world—or rather an ideally significant experience of this world—that æsthetic experience inspires art. We certainly must, not only should, say this; but only when æsthetic experience does indeed successfully inspire art, that is, when it has become a work of art. The ideal experience is obviously the artist's, and he communicates it to us; but it is an artist's experience which has been communicated; an experience, namely, which has demanded and obtained complete external expression. This, however, directly raises a question which the last paragraph indirectly suggested. Does æsthetic experience by being expressed gain something (both for the artist and for the recipient) which idealises the æsthetic experience primitive in all conscious life? Or we may put it thus: Why is not all æsthetic experience significant and ideal?—The answer is, that it is all significant, and is all, at any rate, the presage and implication of ideal experience.

The Significant World is Æsthetic Experience[edit]

The experience of actual things at their face-value must be significant, in the sense we have used, so long as it is genuinely an experience—i.e. a unity within this value. The significant world is fundamentally the world of actual æsthetic experience. And it is because this is so that our whole life is dominated by the sense of it, by our conviction of its possibility, and our wish for its realisation elsewhere. The significant world is not a world to which we can only vaguely aspire out of this world, as to a region beyond all mortal possibility; the significant world is a world we have destroyed. It was the world given to us in the first instance; we remember it, and long to re-establish it outside æsthetic experience. Life as activity has shouted down the æsthetic judgment, and broken up the natural coherence of experience by bringing into it intellectual, moral and practical valuation. But all these are forever being impelled—as philosophies, as ethical codes, as civilisations—to bring their empires of experience back into the significance and coherence they were ordered to ruin, yet cannot forget. But art can perfectly achieve what these can but imperfectly endeavour, because art goes for its inspiration to the source of these and expresses it undisturbed by them; art passes serenely by the struggles of philosophy, ethics and civilisation, and arrives at the safety they vainly reach for, because art directly expresses the original of our sense of the significance of things—that which indeed is by its very nature significance—æsthetic experience.

The Ideal World is Artistic Experience[edit]

Yet why the need of art, if æsthetic experience is anyhow significant?—Because, though it is so, it is yet not ideal experience; it is only the presage of that. Natural æsthetic experience is unideal in so far a it is transient. Ideal experience must be permanent; and expression in art makes it so. Further, natural æsthetic experience is unideal in so far as its occurrence cannot be relied on; for it is at the mercy of the evehnts of our uncontrollable materialised existence. But expression in art makes it available whenever desirable. Furthermore, natural æsthetic experience is unideal because it is subjective; expression in art makes it objective in the sense of being no longer private property: instead of being a single incommunicable experience, it becomes a community of similar experiences. It comes to us, moreover, in a work of art, not as a natural æsthetic experience which must discover its implicit richness and at the same time establish itself into unity; but with all its reverberations about the mind explicit and unmistakable, and with its unity already establisht in its Form. The singleness of the form itself (in our expressive experience) and the wholeness of the expression it effects (in the completion of impulsive experience) combine into a remarkable emphasis of unity and so of coherence and significance. There is nothing in natural experience comparable with the impression produced in art by the necessarily disintegrated matter throughout providing for its decisive reintegration and the final achievement of this in Form. The demand for ultimate unity and its satisfaction are thereby inescapably enforced. And underneath all this there is, in any case, the quality of an æsthetic experience capable of effectively inspiring a work of art through the whole difficult and exacting business of elaborating in complete and just symbolism the right technique for it: such an experience cannot but have been unusually vivid, and therefore exceptionally a unity, exceptionally held by attention in the isolation of self-contained organism. There is not warrant for supposing that only an artist can have such experience: it may well occur independent of any intention to express it. But it is quite certain that æsthetic experience must be more than ordinarily intense, and more than ordinarily significant, to make art possible: and however intense and significant, it requires artistic expression in order to become ideal. On the other hand, more goes to the making of an artist than the delicate sensorium, the power of far-reaching imaginative association, and the exacting, scrupulous and close attention which conspire to effect intense and rich experience. There must also be the faculty of symbolic expression (wherein genius more than elsewhere resides); and there must be education in the use of that faculty. For, technique being empirical, no artist can hope to succeed in his expression unless he knows the whole range of devices which have proved themselves appropriately serviceable. When he knows that, he knows hat is available for his own purpose. If he does not know that (since technique is empirical and not a priori) he does not know how his mind is to communicate with other minds.

It is now evident what function we must assign to art. It is not properly the creation of beauty; beauty is rather the sign that it has accomplisht its function. What we have latterly seen to be implied by a work of art—the presentation of matter as not only immediately valuable, but as existing in a unity of significant coherence—substance dominated by form—is the typical condition of the judgment of beauty: and the type of this is absolute beauty as we have understood it—totality experiencing itself. But the existence which judges itself absolutely beautiful is also the type of ideally significant existence; that in which whatever occurs is known and felt as necessary to the being of the whole. Every work of art is a particular instance of this kind of existence. And this is the existence which every other activity is for ever trying to establish. What therefore life is elsewhere trying for, in art we have. In art we know what it is to experience this world of ours satisfactorily and significantly, with nothing out of relation with the rest, everything cohering in measure and order: we know what it is to experience our world as the manifest ideal. It is, indeed, only in consciousness; but we cannot have it both ways. Whenever we enter into art, we recollect the ideal towards which we must forever strive; we perfectly know what it is at which our lives are aimed; and we forget that our hopes must be, except in artistic consciousness of them, eternally frustrated.

  1. By the function of art I mean its peculiar relation with the rest of life. Our instinctive belief, that art must have a function, is due to that sovereign idea of the coherence of things which finds its most unequivocal assertion in art itself, as we are now to see. But though we can derive from form the nature of the function of art, the possibility of a function at all (i.e. of having an effective relation with life in general) is clearly given by the fact that art is communication.