The Principles Of Aesthetics
by Dewitt H. Parker

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Chapter II - Definition of Art

Since it is our purpose to develop an adequate idea of art, it might seem as if a definition were rather our goal than our starting point; yet we must identify the field of our investigations and mark it off from other regions; and this we can do only by means of a preliminary definition, which the rest of our study may then enrich and complete.

We shall find it fruitful to begin with the definition recently revived by Croce: [Footnote: Benedetto Croce: Estetica, translated into English by Douglas Ainslie, under title Aesthetic, chap. i.] art is expression; and expression we may describe, for our own ends, as the putting forth of purpose, feeling, or thought into a sensuous medium, where they can be experienced again by the one who expresses himself and communicated to others. Thus, in this sense, a lyric poem is an expression–a bit of a poet’s intimate experience put into words; epic and dramatic poetry are expressions–visions of a larger life made manifest in the same medium. Pictures and statues are also expressions; for they are embodiments in color and space-forms of the artists’ ideas of visible nature and man. Works of architecture and the other industrial arts are embodiments of purpose and the well-being that comes from purpose fulfilled.

This definition, good so far as it goes, is, however, too inclusive; for plainly, although every work of art is an expression, not every expression is a work of art. Automatic expressions, instinctive overflowings of emotion into motor channels, like the cry of pain or the shout of joy, are not aesthetic. Practical expressions also, all such as are only means or instruments for the realization of ulterior purposes–the command of the officer, the conversation of the market place, a saw–are not aesthetic. Works of art–the Ninth Symphony, the Ode to the West Wind–are not of this character.

No matter what further purposes artistic expressions may serve, they are produced and valued for themselves; we linger in them; we neither merely execute them mechanically, as we do automatic expressions, nor hasten through them, our minds fixed upon some future end to be gained by them, as is the case with practical expressions. Both for the artist and the appreciator, they are ends in themselves. Compare, for example, a love poem with a declaration of love. [Footnote: Contrast Croce’s use of the same illustration: Esthetic, p. 22, English translation.] The poem is esteemed for the rhythmic emotional experience it gives the writer or reader; the declaration, even when enjoyed by the suitor, has its prime value in its consequences, and the quicker it is over and done with and its end attained the better. The one, since it has its purpose within itself, is returned to and repeated; the other, being chiefly a means to an end, would be senseless if repeated, once the end that called it forth is accomplished. The value of the love poem, although written to persuade a lady, cannot be measured in terms of its mere success; for if beautiful, it remains of worth after the lady has yielded, nay, even if it fails to win her. Any sort of practical purpose may be one motive in the creation of a work of art, but its significance is broader than the success or failure of that motive. The Russian novel is still significant, even now, alter the revolution. As beautiful, it is of perennial worth and stands out by itself. But practical expressions are only transient links in the endless chain of means, disappearing as the wheel of effort revolves. Art is indeed expression, but free or autonomous expression.

The freedom of aesthetic expression is, however, only an intensification of a quality that may belong to any expression. For, in its native character, expression is never merely practical; it brings its own reward in the pleasure of the activity itself. Ordinarily, when a man makes something embodying his need or fancy, or says something that expresses his meaning, he enjoys himself in his doing. There is naturally a generous superfluity in all human behavior. The economizing of it to what is necessary for self-preservation and dominion over the environment is secondary, not primary, imposed under the duress of competition and nature. Only when activities are difficult or their fruits hard to get are they disciplined for the sake of their results alone; then only does their performance become an imperative, and nature and society impose upon them the seriousness and constraint of necessity and law. But whenever nature and the social organization supply the needs of man ungrudgingly or grant him a respite from the urgency of business, the spontaneity of his activities returns. The doings of children, of the rich, and of all men on a holiday illustrate this. Compare, for example, the speech of trade, where one says the brief and needful thing only, with the talk of excursionists, where verbal expression, having no end beyond itself, develops at length and at leisure; where brevity is no virtue and abundant play takes the place of a narrow seriousness.

But we have not yet so limited the field of expression that it becomes equivalent to the aesthetic; for not even all of free expression is art. The most important divergent type is science. Science also is expression,–an embodiment in words, diagrams, mathematical symbols, chemical formula, or other such media, of thoughts meant to portray the objects of human experience. Scientific expressions have, of course, a practical function; concepts are “plans of action” or servants of plans, the most perfect and delicate that man possesses. Yet scientific knowledge is an end in itself as well as a utility; for the mere construction and possession of concepts and laws is itself a source of joy; the man of science delights in making appropriate formulations of nature’s habits quite unconcerned about their possible uses.

In science, therefore, there is much free expression; but beauty not yet. No abstract expression such as Euclid’s Elements, Newton’s Principia, or Peano’s Formulaire, no matter how rigorous and complete, is a work of art. We admire the mathematician’s formula for its simplicity and adequacy; we take delight in its clarity and scope, in the ease with which it enables the mind to master a thousand more special truths, but we do not find it beautiful. Equally removed from the sphere of the beautiful are representations or descriptions of mere things, whether inaccurate or haphazard, as we make them in daily life, or accurate and careful as they are elaborated in the empirical sciences. No matter how exact and complete, the botanist’s or zoologist’s descriptions of plant and animal life are not works of art. They may be satisfactory as knowledge, but they are not beautiful. There is an important difference between a poet’s description of a flower and a botanist’s, or between an artistic sketch and a photograph, conferring beauty upon the former, and withholding it from the latter.

The central difference is this. The former are descriptions not of things only, but of the artist’s reactions to things, his mood or emotion in their presence. They are expressions of total, concrete experiences, which include the self of the observer as well as the things he observes. Scientific descriptions, on the other hand, render objects only; the feelings of the observer toward them are carefully excluded. Science is intentionally objective,–from the point of view of the artistic temperament, dry and cold. Even the realistic novel and play, while seeking to present a faithful picture of human life and to eliminate all private comment and emotion, cannot dispense with the elementary dramatic feelings of sympathy, suspense, and wonder. sthetic expression is always integral, embodying a total state of mind, the core of which is some feeling; scientific expression is fragmentary or abstract, limiting itself to thought. Art, no less than science, may contain truthful images of things and abstract ideas, but never these alone; it always includes their life, their feeling tones, or values. Because philosophy admits this element of personality, it is nearer to art than science is. Yet some men of science, like James and Huxley, have made literature out of science because they could not help putting into their writings something of their passionate interest in the things they discovered and described.

The, necessity in art for the expression of value is, I think, the principal difference between art and science, rather than, as Croce [Footnote: Estetica, quarta edizione, p.27; English translation. p.36.] supposes, the limitation of art to the expression of the individual and of Science to the expression of the concept. For, on the one hand, science may express the individual; and, on the other hand, art may express the concept. The geographer, for example, describes and makes maps of particular regions of the earth’s surface; the astronomer studies the individual sun and moon. Poets like Dante, Lucretius, Shakespeare, and Goethe express the most universal concepts of ethics or metaphysics. But what makes men poets rather than men of science is precisely that they never limit themselves to the mere clear statement of the concept, but always express its human significance as well. A theory of human destiny is expressed in Prospero’s lines–

  We are such stuff
  As dreams are made of, and our little life
  Is rounded with a sleep;

but with overtones of feeling at the core. Or consider the passion with which Lucretius argues for a naturalistic conception of the universe. And the reason why poets clothe their philosophical expressions in concrete images is not because of any shame of the concept, but just in order the more easily and vividly to attach and communicate their emotion. Their general preference for the concrete has the same motive; for there are only a few abstractions capable of arousing and fixing emotion.

Even as an element of spontaneity is native to all expression, so originally all expression is personal. This is easily observable in the child. His first uses of words as well as of things are touched with emotion. Every descriptive name conveys to him his emotional reaction to the object; disinterested knowledge does not exist for him; every tool, a knife or a fork, means to him not only something to be used, but the whole background of feelings which its use involves. Our first perceptions of things contain as much of feeling and attitude as of color and shape and sound and odor. Pure science and mere industry are abstractions from the original integrity of perception and expression; mutilations of their wholeness forced upon the mind through the stress of living. To be able to see things without feeling them, or to describe them without being moved by their image, is a disciplined and derivative accomplishment. Only as the result of training and of haste do the forms and colors of objects, once the stimuli to a wondering and lingering attention, become mere cues to their recognition and employment, or mere incitements to a cold and disinterested analysis and description. Knowledge may therefore enter into beauty when, keeping its liberality, it participates in an emotional experience; and every other type of expression may become aesthetic if, retaining its native spontaneity, it can acquire anew its old power to move the heart. To be an artist means to be, like the child, free and sensitive in envisaging the world.

Under these conditions, nature as well as art may be beautiful. In themselves, things are never beautiful. This is not apparent to common sense because it fails to think and analyze. But beauty may belong to our perceptions of things. For perception is itself a kind of expression, a process of mind through which meanings are embodied in sensations. Given are only sensations, but out of the mind come ideas through which they are interpreted as objects. When, for example, I perceive my friend, it may seem as if the man himself were a given object which I passively receive; but, as a matter of fact, all that is given are certain visual sensations; that these are my friend, is pure interpretation–I construct the object in embodying this thought in the color and shape I see. The elaboration of sensation in perception is usually so rapid that, apart from reflection, I do not realize the mental activity involved. But if it turns out that it was some other man that I saw, then I realize at once that my perception was a work of mind, an expression of my own thought. Of course, not all perceptions are beautiful. Only as felt to be mysterious or tender or majestic is a landscape beautiful; and women only as possessed of the charm we feel in their presence. That is, perceptions are beautiful only when they embody feelings. The sea, clouds and hills, men and women, as perceived, awaken reactions which, instead of being attributed to the mind from which they proceed, are experienced as belonging to the things evoking them, which therefore come to embody them. And this process of emotional and objectifying perception has clearly no other end than just perception itself. We do not gaze upon a landscape or a pretty child for any other purpose than to get the perceptual, emotional values that result. The aesthetic perception of nature is, as Kant called it, disinterested; that is, autonomous and free. The beauty of nature, therefore, is an illustration of our definition.

On the same terms, life as remembered or observed or lived, may have the quality of beauty. In reverie we turn our attention back over events in our own lives that have had for us a rare emotional significance; these events then come to embody the wonder, the interest, the charm that excited us to recollect them. Here the activity of remembering is not a mere habit set going by some train of accidental association; or merely practical, arising for the sake of solving some present problem by applying the lesson of the past to it; or finally, not unpleasantly insistent, like the images aroused by worry and sorrow, but spontaneous and self-rewarding, hence beautiful. There are also events in the lives of other people, and people themselves, whose lives read like a story, which, by absorbing our pity or joy or awe, claim from us a like fascinated regard. And there are actions we ourselves perform, magnificent or humble, like sweeping a room, which, if we put ourselves into them and enjoy them, have an equal charm. And they too have the quality of beauty.

Despite the community between beautiful nature and art, the differences are striking. Suppose, in order fix our ideas, we compare one of Monet’s pictures of a lily pond with the aesthetic appreciation of the real pond. The pond is undoubtedly beautiful every time it is seen; with its round outline, its sunlit, flower-covered surface, its background of foliage, it is perhaps the source and expression of an unfailing gladness and repose. Now the painting has very much the same value, but with these essential differences. First, the painting is something deliberately constructed and composed, the artist himself controlling and composing the colors and shapes, and hence their values also; while the natural beauty is an immediate reaction to given stimuli, each observer giving meaning to his sensations without intention or effort. Like the beauty of woman, it is almost a matter of instinct. In natural beauty, there is, to be sure, an element of conscious intention, in so far as we may purposely select our point of view and hold the object in our attention; hence this contrast with art, although real and important, is not absolute. Moreover, beauty in perception and memory is the basis of art; the artist, while he composes, nevertheless partly transcribes significant memories and observations. Yet, although relative, the difference remains; art always consists of works of art, natural beauty of more immediate experiences. And from this difference follows another–the greater purity and perfection of art. The control which the artist exerts over his material enables him to make it expressive all through; every element conspires toward the artistic end; there are no irrelevant or recalcitrant parts, such as exist in every perception of nature. Last, the beauty of the painting, because created in the beholder through a fixed and permaneat mechanism constructed by the artist, is communicable and abiding, whereas the immediate beauty of nature is incommunicable and transient. Since the sthetic perception of nature has its starting point in variable aspects that never recur, no other man could see or feel the lily pond as Monet saw and felt it. And, although in memory we may possess a silent gallery of beautiful images, into which we may enter privately as long as we live, in the end the flux has its way and at death shatters this treasure house irrevocably. Hence, only if the beauty of the lily pond is transferred to a canvas, can it be preserved and shared.

The work of art is the tool of the aesthetic life. Just as organic efficiency is tied to the nerve and muscle of the workman and cannot be transferred to another, but the tool, on the other hand, is exchangeable and transmissible (I cannot lend or bequeath my arm, but I can my boat); and just as efficiency is vastly increased by the use of tools (I can go further with my boat than I can swim); so, through works of art, aesthetic capacity and experience are enhanced and become common possessions, a part of the spiritual capital of the race. Moreover, even as each invention becomes the starting point for new ones that are better instruments for practical ends; so each work of art becomes the basis for new experiments through which the aesthetic expression of life attains to higher levels. Monet’s own art, despite its great originality, was dependent upon all the impressionists, and they, even when they broke away from, were indebted to, the traditions of French painting established by centuries. Through art, the aesthetic life, which otherwise would be a private affair, receives a social sanction and assistance.

That permanence and communication of expression are essential to a complete conception of art can be discerned by looking within the artistic impulse itself. However much the artist may affect indifference to the public, he creates expecting to be understood. Mere self- expression does not satisfy him; he needs in addition appreciation. Deprived of sympathy, the artistic impulse withers and dies or supports itself through the hope of eventually finding it. The heroism of the poet consists in working on in loneliness; but his crown of glory is won only when all men are singing his songs. And every genuine artist, as opposed to the mere improviser or dilettante, wishes his work to endure. [Footnote: See Anatole France: Le Lys Rouge. “Moi, dit Choulette, je pense si peu a l’avenir terrestre que j’ai ecrit mes plus beaux poemes sur les feuilles de papier a cigarettes. Elles se sont facilement evanuies, ne laissant a mes vers qu’une espece d’existence metaphysique.” C’etait un air de negligence qu’il se donnait. En fait, il n’avait jamais perdu une ligne de son ecriture.] Having put his substance into it, he desires its preservation as he does his own. His immortality through it is his boast.

  Exegi monumentum aere perennius
  Regalique situ pyramidum altius
       *       *       *       *       *
  Non omnis moriar.

Art is not mere inspiration, the transient expression of private moods, but a work of communication, meant to endure.

There are certain distinguishing characteristics of aesthetic expression all of which are in harmony with the description we have given of it. In the first place, in art the sensuous medium of the expression receives an attention and possesses a significance not to be found in other types of expression. Although every one hears, no one attends to the sound of the voice in ordinary conversation; one looks through it, as through a glass, to the thought or emotion behind. In our routine perceptions of nature, we are not interested in colors and shapes on their own account, but only in order that we may recognize the objects possessing them; in a scientific woodcut also, they are indifferent to us, except in so far as they impart correct information about the objects portrayed. Outside of art, sensation is a mere transparent means to the end of communication and recognition. Compare the poem, the piece of music, the artistic drawing or painting. There the words or tones must be not only heard but listened to; the colors and lines not only seen but held in the eye; of themselves, apart from anything they may further mean, they have the power to awaken feeling and pleasure. And this is no accident. For the aesthetic expression is meant to possess worth in itself and is deliberately fashioned to hold us to itself, and this purpose will be more certainly and effectively accomplished if the medium of the expression has the power to move and please. We enter the aesthetic expression through the sensuous medium; hence the artist tries to charm us at the start and on the outside; having found favor there, he wins us the more easily to the content lying within.

If the medium, moreover, instead of being a transparent embodiment of the artist’s feelings, can express them in some direct fashion as well, the power of the whole expression will gain. This is exactly what the sound of the words of a poem or the colors and lines of a painting or statue can do. As mere sound and as mere color and line, they convey something of the feeling tone of the subject which, as symbols, they are used to represent. For example, the soft flowing lines of Correggio, quite apart from the objects they represent, express the voluptuous happiness of his “Venus and Mars"; the slow rhythm of the repeated word sounds and the quality of the vowels in the opening lines of Tithonus are expressive in themselves, apart from their meaning, of the weariness in the thoughts of the hero, and so serve to re-express and enforce the mood of those thoughts. When we come to study the particular arts, we shall find this phenomenon of re-expression through the medium everywhere.

A second characteristic distinguishing aesthetic expressions from other expressions is their superior unity. In the latter, the unity lies in the purpose to be attained or in the content of the thought expressed; it is teleological or logical. The unity of a chair is its purpose, which demands just such parts and in just such a mechanical arrangement; the unity of a business conversation is governed by the bargain to be closed, requiring such words and such only, and in the appropriate logical and grammatical order. The unity of an argument is the thesis to be proved; the unity of a diagram is the principle to be illustrated or the information to be imparted. Compare the unity of a sonnet or a painting. In a sonnet, there is a unity of thought and sentiment creating a fitting grammatical unity in language, but in addition a highly elaborate pattern in the words themselves that is neither grammatical nor logical. In a painting, besides the dramatic unity of the action portrayed, as in a battle scene; or of the spatial and mechanical togetherness of things, as in a landscape; there is a harmony of the colors, a composition of the lines and masses themselves, not to be found in nature. And, although the general shape and arrangement of the parts of a useful object is dominated by its purpose, if it is also beautiful–a Louis Seize chair, for example–there is, besides, a design that cannot be explained by use. In artistic expressions, therefore, there exists a unity in the material, superposed upon the unity required by the purpose or thought expressed. And this property follows from the preceding. For, since the medium is valuable in itself, the mind, which craves unity everywhere, craves it there also, and lingers longer and more happily on finding it; and, since the medium can be expressive, the unity of the fundamental mood of the thought expressed will overflow into and pervade it. Hence there occurs an autonomous development of unity in the material, raising the total unity of the expression to a higher power.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Introduction: Purpose and Method  •  Chapter II - Definition of Art  •  Chapter III - The Intrinsic Value of Art  •  Chapter IV - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Elements of the Experience  •  Chapter V - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Structure of the Experience  •  Chapter VI - The Problem of Evil in Aesthetics, and Its Solution Through the Tragic, Pathetic, and Comic  •  Chapter VII - The Standard of Taste  •  Chapter VIII - The Aesthetics of Music  •  Chapter IX - The Aesthetics of Poetry  •  Chapter X - Prose Literature  •  Chapter XI - The Dominion of Art Over Nature: Painting  •  Chapter XII - Sculpture  •  Chapter XIII - Beauty in the Industrial Arts: Architecture  •  Chapter XIV - The Function of Art: Art and Morality  •  Chapter XV - The Function of Art: Art and Religion  •  Bibliography

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