The Principles Of Aesthetics
by Dewitt H. Parker

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Chapter IV - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Elements of the Experience

Thus far we have sought to define art, to form a concrete idea of the experience of art, and to place it in its relations to other facts. We shall now pass from synthetic definition to psychological analysis. We want to pick out the elements of mind entering into the experience of art and exhibit their characteristic relations. In the present chapter we shall concern ourselves chiefly with the elements, leaving the study of most of the problems of structure to the following chapter.

Every experience of art [Footnote: Throughout this discussion, I use “experience of art,” “aesthetic experience,” and “beauty” with the same meaning.] contains, in the first place, the sensations which are the media of expression. In a painting, for example, there are colors; in a piece of music, tones; in a poem, word-sounds. To this material, secondly, are attached vague feelings. It is characteristic of aesthetic expressions, as we have observed, that their media, quite apart from anything that they may mean or represent, are expressive of moods–the colors of a painting have a stimmung, so have tones and words, when rhythmically composed. The simplest aesthetic experiences, like the beauty of single musical tones or colors, are of no greater complexity; yet almost all works of art contain further elements; for as a rule the sensations do not exist for their own sakes alone, but possess a function, to represent things. The colors of a landscape painting are not only interesting to us as beautiful colors, but as symbols of a landscape; the words of a ballad charm and stimulate us not only through their music, but because of actions or events which they bring before the mind. This involves, psychologically speaking, that certain ideas–of trees and clouds in the painting, of men and their deeds in the poem–are associated to the sense elements and constitute their meaning. Such ideas or meanings are the third class of elements in the aesthetic experience. But these ideas, in their turn, also arouse emotions, only not of the indefinite sort which belong to the sense elements, but definite, like the emotions aroused by things and events in real life. For example, Rembrandt’s “Man with the Gold Helmet” will not only move us in a vague way through the character and rhythm of its lines and colors, but will, in addition, stimulate sentiments of respect and veneration, similar to those that we should feel if the old warrior were himself before us. In such definite feelings we have, then, a fourth class of mental elements. A fifth class will make our list complete. It consists of images from the various sense departments–sight, hearing, taste, smell, temperature, movement–which arise in connection with the ideas or meanings, making them concrete and full. For example, some of the colors in a landscape painting will not only give us the idea that there is sunlight there, but will also arouse faint images of warmth, which will make the idea more vivid; other colors, representing the clouds, will produce faint sensations of softness; still others, representing flowers, may produce faint odors.

Let us study sensation as an element in beauty, first. Sensation is the door through which we enter into the experience of beauty; and, again, it is the foundation upon which the whole structure rests. Without feeling for the values of sensation, men may be sympathetic and intelligent, but they cannot be lovers of the beautiful. They may, for example, appreciate the profound or interesting ideas in poetry, but unless they can connect them with the rhythm-values of the sounds of the words, they have only an intellectual or emotional, not an aesthetic experience.

Yet, despite the omnipresence and supreme worth of sensation in beauty, not all kinds are equally fit for entrance into the experience. From the time of Plato, who writes of “fair sights and sounds” only, vision and hearing have been recognized as the preeminently aesthetic senses. These senses provide the basis for all the arts–music and poetry are arts of sound; painting, sculpture, and architecture are arts of vision. And there are good reasons for their special fitness. Most cogent of all is the fact that vision and hearing are the natural media of expression; sounds, be they words or musical tones, convey thoughts and feelings; so do visual sensations–the facial expression or gesture seen communicates the inner life of the speaker; and even abstract colors and space-forms, like red and the circle, have independent feeling-tones. A taste or a temperature sensation may be pleasant or unpleasant, but has no meaning, either by itself, as a color or a tone has, or through association, as a word has. It has no connection with the life of feeling or of thought. Its chief significance is practical–sweet invites to eating, cold impels to the seeking of a warm shelter, touch is a preliminary to grasping. All the so-called lower senses are bound up with instincts and actions. Of course sights and sounds have also a significance for instinct–the color and form and voice of the individual of the opposite sex, for example. But, before acting on the prompting of instinct, the lover may pause and enjoy the appealing color and form; he may connect his feelings with them and hold on to and delight in the resulting experience–an emotional appreciation of the object may intervene between the stimulus and the appropriate action, and even supplant it. In this way, vision and hearing may free themselves from the merely practical and become autonomous embodiments of feeling. The distance between the seen or heard object and the body is important. The objects of touch and taste, on the other hand, have to be brought into contact with the body; the practical reaction then follows; there is no time during which it may be suspended.

Important also, especially for the beauty of art, is our greater power to control sensations of vision and hearing. Only colors and sounds can be woven into complex and stable wholes. Tastes and odors, when produced simultaneously or in succession, do not keep their distinctness as colors and sounds do, but blur and interfere with each other. No one, however ingenious, could construct a symphony of odors or a picture of tastes. Nevertheless, the possibility of controlling colors and sounds and of creating stable and public objects out of them, is only a secondary reason for their aesthetic fitness. Even if one could construct instruments for the orderly production of tastes and odors–and simple instruments of this kind have been devised–one could not make works of art out of them; for a succession of such sensations would express nothing; they would still be utterly without meaning. The fundamental reason for the superiority of sights and sounds is their expressiveness, their connection with the life of feeling and thought. They take root in the total self; whereas the other elements remain, for the most part, on the surface.

Under favorable conditions, however, all sensations may enter into the sthetic experience. Despite the close connection between the lower senses and the impulses serving practical life, there is a certain disinterestedness in all pleasant sensations. Fine wines and perfumes offer tastes and odors which are sought and enjoyed apart from the satisfaction of hunger; in dancing, movement sensations are enjoyed for their own sake; in the bath, heat and cold. But, as we have seen, it is not sufficient for a sensation to be free from practical ends in order to become aesthetic; it must be connected with the larger background of feeling; it must be expressive. Now, under certain circumstances and in particular cases, this may occur, even in the instance of the lower senses. The perfume of flowers, of roses and of violets, has a strong emotional appeal; it is their “soul” as the poets say. The odor of incense in a cathedral may be an important element in devotion, fusing with the music and the architecture. Or recall the odor of wet earth and reviving vegetation during a walk in the woods on a spring morning. Even sensations of taste may become aesthetic. An oft-cited example is the taste of wine on a Rhine steamer. Guyau, the French poet-philosopher, mentions the taste of milk after a hard climb in the Pyrenees. [Footnote: Les Problemes de l’esthetique contemporaine, 8me edition, p. 63.] A drink of water from a clear spring would serve equally well as an example familiar to all. The warmth of a fire, of sunlight, of a cozy room, or the cold of a star-lit winter night have an emotional significance almost, if not quite, equal to that of the visual sensations from these objects. Touch seems to be irretrievably bound up with grasping and using, but the touch of a well-loved person may be a free and glowing experience, sharing with sight in beauty. The movement sensations during a run in the open air or in dancing are not only free from all practical purpose, but are elements in the total animation. And other examples will come to the mind of every reader. [Footnote: Compare Volkelt: System der Aesthetik, Bd. I, Zweites Capitel, S. 92.]

As our illustrations show, the lower senses enter into the beauty of nature only; they do not enter into the beauty of art. Their beauty is therefore vague and accidental. It usually depends, moreover, upon some support from vision, with the beauty of which it fuses. Apart from the picturesque surroundings seen, the mountain milk and the Rhine wine would lose much of their beauty; the warmth of sunlight or of fire, without the brightness of these objects, the odor of flowers without their form and color, would be of small aesthetic worth. Through connection with vision the lower senses acquire something of its permanence and independence. People differ greatly in their capacity to render the lower senses aesthetic; it is essentially a matter of refinement, of power to free them from their natural root in the practical and instinctive, and lift them into the higher region of sentiment. But every kind of sensation, however low, may become beautiful; this is not to degrade beauty, but to ennoble sensation.

From a psychological standpoint, sensation is the datum of the aesthetic experience, the first thing there, while its power to express depends upon a further process which links it up with thoughts and feelings. We must inquire, therefore, how this linkage takes place–how, for example, it comes about that the colors of a painting are something more than mere colors, being, in addition, embodiments of trees and sky and foliage, and of liveliness and gayety and other feelings appropriate to a spring landscape. Let us consider the linkage with feeling first.

There are two characteristics of aesthetic feeling in its relation to sensations and ideas which must be taken into account in any explanation; its objectification in them and the universality of this connection. Expression is embodiment. We find gayety in the colors of the painting, joy in the musical tones, happiness in the pictured face, tenderness in the sculptured pose. We hear the feeling in the sounds and see it in the lines and colors. The happiness seems to belong to the face, the joy to the tones, in the same simple and direct fashion as the shape of the one or the pitch of the others. The feelings have become true attributes. It is only by analysis that we pick them out, separate them from the other elements of idea or sensation in the whole, and then, for the purpose of scientific explanation, inquire how they came to be connected. And this connection is not one that depends upon the accidents of personal experience. It is not, for example, like the emotional significance that the sound of the voice of the loved one has for the lover, which even he may some day cease to feel, and which other men do not feel at all. It is rather typified by the emotional value of a melody, which, through psychological processes common to all men, becomes a universal language of feeling. The work of art is a communicable, not a private expression.

As we have observed, the elements of feeling in the aesthetic experience are of two broad kinds–either vague, when directly linked with the sensuous medium, or else definite, when this linkage is mediated by ideas through which the medium is given content and meaning. The former kind, which I shall consider first, comprises all cases of the emotional expressiveness of the medium itself,–of tones and word-sounds and their rhythms and patterns, of colors and lines and space-forms and their designs. The detailed study of this expressiveness I shall leave to the chapters on the arts; here I wish merely to indicate the kind of psychological process involved.

In many cases the psychological principle of association operates. The tender expressiveness of certain curved lines, like those of the Greek amphora, for example, is due, partially at least, to association with lines of the human body, with which normally this feeling is associated. The associated object, together with its feeling tone, are sufficiently common to the experience of all men to account for the universality of the emotion, and the isolation of the stimulus–abstract line–from its usual context of color and bulk accounts for the vagueness. Sometimes, on the other hand, expressiveness seems to be due to a direct psychological relation between the sense-stimulus and the emotion. This is almost certainly the case with rhythms, and, as I shall argue in the chapters on painting and music, is at least partially true of colors and tones. The expressiveness is at once too immediate and too universal to depend upon association with definite things and events, or personal, emotional crises. A rhythm, for example, may be exciting the first time it is heard; one does not have to wait to hear it at a battle-charge; a melody may be sad even when one has never heard it sung by chance at parting. Of course the fact that associations are not remembered is no proof that they do not operate; but it is difficult to conceive of any which could operate in these cases. For this reason, I think, we must suppose that certain sense-stimuli and combinations of stimuli not only produce in the sensory areas of the brain the appropriate sensations, but that their effects are prolonged, overflowing into the motor channels and there causing a total reaction of the organism, the conscious aspect of which is a vague feeling. The organic resonance is too slight and diffuse to produce a true emotion; hence only a mood results.

In all the representative arts the vague expressiveness of the medium is reinforced through emotions aroused by ideas which interpret sensation as an element of a thing. The green in the painting is not only green, but green of the sea; the red is not only red, but red of the sky; the curved line is not a mere curve, it is the outline of a wave. The totality of colors and lines is not a mere color and line composition, but a marine landscape. The feeling tones of the elements of this complex and of the complex itself are not only those of the colors and lines as such, but of the interpretative ideas as well; which in turn are the same as those of the corresponding real things. The psychological process is here simple enough. The feeling tone of the sea is carried by the idea of the sea, which now fuses with the green color and wavy lines of the painting.

But in order fully to explain the phenomena of aesthetic expression, it is not sufficient to show how the connection between feeling and sensation and idea takes place; it is necessary, in addition, to explain the nature of this connection. The feeling is not experienced by us as what it is–our reaction to the sensations or represented objects–but rather as an objective quality of them. The sounds are sad, the curve tender, the sea placid and reposeful. Why is this?

The explanation is, I think, as follows. Despite their usual subjectivity, feelings tend to be located in the objective world whenever they are in conflict with or not directly rooted in the personal life or character of the individual. In listening to music, for example, feelings of despair and terror may be aroused in me who am perhaps secure and happy; and even if the feelings are joyous, they are not occasioned by any piece of personal good fortune–my situation in life is the same now as before. Hence, finding no lodgment in the ego, and having to exist somewhere, they seek a domicile in the sounds evoking them. And, in general, works of art arouse but offer no personal occasions for feeling, and therefore absorb it into themselves.

The process of objectification may, however, go further. It often happens in the aesthetic experience that feelings are not objectified alone, but carry with them the idea of the self–I come to feel myself as joyous or despairing in the sounds. The extent to which the idea of the self thus follows the objectified feelings depends largely upon the amount of their reverberation throughout the organism. When this is small, and the feelings are vague and tenuous, as in color appreciation, there is little or no definite projection of the idea of the self; when, on the other hand, it is large and the emotions are strong, as oftentimes in music, where breathing, circulation, hand and foot are affected, then I myself seem to be there,–striving, pursuing, struggling, in the sounds. I am where my body is. The projection of the idea of the self is facilitated for the same reason when the body is actually employed in the creation of the work of art, as in singing and acting. It also occurs more readily when the life expressed in the work of art is akin to the spectator’s. Thus, an emotional and suggestible woman, in watching a fine performance of “Magda,” inevitably puts herself in the place of the heroine if she has herself lived through a similar experience. But when the life expressed is strikingly foreign to our own, the projection of the idea of self is more difficult; the duality between subject and object tends to remain.

These phenomena have excited special attention when, as in painting and sculpture and the drama, a human being is represented. Suppose, for example, I see a statue of a runner ready to start. I not only see the form and color of the marble and recognize them as a man’s; I also feel emotions of excitement, tension, and expectation such as I should myself feel were I too posed and waiting to run a race. And these emotions I experience as the man’s, and as his, not in a vague way, but as definitely present in his sculptured form, even in particular parts of it,–in the swelling chest and tightened limbs. Or consider another case. Suppose I see Franz Hals’ “Laughing Cavalier.” I feel jollity in the face, as the cavalier’s. Yet in both cases I may feel the emotions as also my own–as if I too were about to run or were laughing. And the projection of the idea of the self will occur most readily if I am myself a runner or a jolly person. In both instances, moreover, the process will be mediated by impulses to movements that are the normal accompaniments of the emotions in question. If I observe myself carefully, I may find that my own chest is tending to swell and my own limbs to tighten, in imitation of the runner’s, or my own pupils to dilate and the muscles of my face to wrinkle and to part, in imitation of the Dutchman’s. And these movement-impulses I objectify. I not only see jollity in the face, but laughter as well; in the statue, not only excitement, but running. And again–where my body is, there am I; so I am jolly with the cavalier and excited with the runner. The psychology of this process is simple enough. In my experience there is a plain connection between the sight of a movement and sensations attendant upon movement, and further, a connection between some of these movements, namely, the expressive movements, and the emotions which they express. In accordance with the law of association by contiguity, whenever any one of several mental elements usually connected together is present in the mind, the others tend to arise also. So here. Seeing the semblance of tight muscles and a smiling face, I feel the emotions which have these visual associates, experience the correlated movement-sensations, project them all into the object which initiated the process.

In recent years, a great deal has been made of these movement-sensations in explaining aesthetic feeling. [Footnote: See the discussions in Lee and Thompson: Beauty and Ugliness.] Yet in the case of all people who are not strongly of the motor type, people in whose mental make-up movement plays a minor part in comparison with vision and other sensations, they play a secondary role, or even hardly any role at all. Most spectators, indeed, instead of actually making slight movements imitative of the movements seen or represented, and experiencing the corresponding sensations, make no movements at all and simply experience movement images; this substitution of image for movement probably occurs in the minds of all except the most imitative. Most people, even of the motor type, do not smile when they see the “Laughing Cavalier” or start to run when they see the statue of the runner; careful observation of themselves would disclose only faint movement images which seem to play about their lips or limbs–mere images of movement have supplanted movements. And many visualists would not find any images at all. However, although the mistake has been committed by some investigators of supposing that everybody experiences movement because they themselves, being of the motor type, do, it cannot be denied, I think, that such people attain to a vividness of aesthetic living not reached by others. They appreciate beauty with their bodies as well as with their souls. And in their case too, as has been shown, aesthetic appreciation is more strongly histrionic–they not only put themselves into the work of art, but the idea of themselves as well.

Following the German school of einfuehlung, I have insisted throughout this discussion on the importance of feeling in the aesthetic experience; yet I do not think the voice of those people can be neglected who claim that their experience with works of art is of slight or no emotional intensity. There are people who would report that they feel no jollity when they see the “Laughing Cavalier,” or anguish when they read the Ugolino Canto in the Inferno; yet such people often have a highly developed aesthetic taste. How can this difference be accounted for?

Starting with the emotional appreciation of art as primary, we can account for it in this wise. It is a familiar phenomenon in the mental life for a concept or idea of an emotional experience to take the place of that experience. What man has not rejoiced when the simple and cold judgment, “I suffered then,” has come to supplant a recurring torment? Or who that has lived constantly with a sick person has not observed how, looking on the face of pain, inevitably the mere comment, “he is in distress,” comes to supplant the liveliest sympathetic thrill? There are many reasons for this. The idea or judgment is a less taxing thing than an emotion, and so is substituted for it in the mind, which everywhere seeks economy of effort. The idea is also more efficient from a practical point of view, because it leads directly to action and does not divert and waste energy in diffused and useless movements. The physician simply recognizes the states of mind of his patients, he does not sympathize with them. Finally our own reactions to an objectified emotion may interfere with the emotion. If, for example, we see an angry man, our own fear of him may entirely supplant our sympathetic feeling of his anger. In general, in our dealings with our fellow men, we are too busy with our attitudes and plans with reference to them, and too much concerned with economizing our emotional energy, to get a sympathetic intuition of their inner life, and so are content with an intellectual recognition of it. Now this habit of substituting the more rapid and economical process of judgment for the longer and more taxing one of sympathy, is carried over into the world of art.

Nevertheless, the world of art is a region especially fitted for einfuehlung. For there the need for quick action, which in life tends to syncopate emotion, does not exist. The characteristic attitude of art is leisurely absorption in an object, giving time for all the possibilities of feeling or other experience to develop. Moreover, in art there is not the same saving need for the substitution of idea for feeling as in real life. For in art, feeling is not so strong as in life; even when the artist expresses his own personal experience, he lightens its emotional burden through expression, and we, when we make his experience ours, find a similar relief. The emotion is genuine, only weakened in intensity. In other cases, where the artist constructs a world of fictitious characters and events, our knowledge that they are not real suffices to diminish the intensity of the emotions aroused. For emotions have the practical function of inciting to action, and when action is impossible, as in the purely ideal world of the artist, they cannot keep their natural intensity. We cannot feel so strongly over the mere idea of an event as over a real event. Were it otherwise, who could stand the strain of Hamlet or Othello?

Throughout this discussion of the elements of the experience of art, I have used the terms emotion and feeling with an inclusive meaning, to cover impulses as well as feelings in the narrower sense. For in the aesthetic experience, there are impulses–impulses to move when action is represented in picture and statue, impulses to act, as when, in watching a play, we put ourselves in the place of the persons. But such impulses are always checked through the realization that they come from sources unrelated to our purposes, and fail to get the reenforcement or consent of the total self necessary to action. In reading or singing the “Marseillaise,” to cite an example from poetry, I experience all kinds of impulses–to shoulder a musket, to march, to kill–but no one of them is carried out. Now an inhibited impulse is scarcely distinguishable from an emotion. With few exceptions, the impulses in art do not issue in resolves, decisions, determinations to act; or, if they do, the determinations refer to acts to be executed in the future, in an experience distinct and remote from the sthetic–the “Marseillaise” has doubtless produced such resolutions in the minds of Frenchmen; and there is much art that is productive in that way, providing the “birth in beauty” of which Plato wrote. [Footnote: In the Symposium.] In art, impulses result in immediate action only when action is itself the medium of expression, as in the dance, where impulses to movement pass over into motion. Of course such actions still remain aesthetic since they serve no practical end and are valued for themselves.

If the question were raised, which is more fundamental in the aesthetic experience, idea or emotion? the answer would have to be, emotion. For there exists at least one great art where no explicit ideas are present, music, whereas art without emotion does not exist. Take away the emotional content from expression and you get either a mere play of sensations, like fireworks, or else pseudo-science, like the modern naturalistic play. However, the supreme importance of the idea in art cannot be denied. Every complex work of art, save music, is an expression of ideas as well as of feelings, and even in music there exists the tendency for feeling to seek definition in ideas–do we not say a musical idea? And do we not find the masters of so abstract an art as ornament employing their materials to represent symbolic conceptions? I wish to call the attention of the reader to certain very general considerations touching the nature and function of ideas in the aesthetic experience, leaving the study of the concrete problems to the more special chapters.

First, the relation of the idea to the sense medium of the expression. Here, I think, we find something comparable to the process of einfuehlung. For in art, ideas, like feelings, are objectified in sensation. Only sensations are given; out of the mind come ideas through which the former are interpreted and made into the semblance of things. Consider, for example, Rembrandt’s “Night-Watch.” A festal mood is there in the golds and reds, and gloom in the blacks; but there also are the men and drums and arms. If we wished to push the analogy with einfuehlung, we might coin a corresponding term–einmeinung, “inmeaning.” In all the representative arts, this is a process of equal importance with infeeling; for the artist strives just as much to realize his ideas of objects in the sense material of his art as to put his moods there.

When, moreover, we consider that the expression of the more complex and definite emotions is dependent upon the expression of ideas of nature and human life, we see that the process is really a single one. Feeling is a function of ideas; if, then, we demand sincerity in the one, we must equally demand conviction in the other. The poet could not convey to us his pleasure at the sight of nature or his awe of death unless he could somehow bring us into their presence. The painter could not express the moods of sunlight or of shadow until he had invented a technique for their representation. Clear and confident seeing is a condition of feeling. Hence every advance in the imitation of nature is an advance in the power of expression. The demand for fidelity of representation, for “truth to nature,” so insistently made by the common man in his criticism of art, is justified even from the point of view of expressionism.

Yet this fidelity of representation does not involve exact reproduction of nature. The limitations of the media of the arts definitely exclude this. No painter can reproduce on a canvas the infinite detail of any object or exactly imitate its colors and lines. In the single matter of brightness, for example, his medium is hopelessly inadequate; even the light of the moon is beyond his power, not to speak of the light of the sun; he has to substitute a relative for an absolute scale of values. The sculptor cannot reproduce the color or hair of the human body. However, this failure exactly to imitate nature does not prevent the artist from suggesting to us ideas of the objects in which he is interested. If the outline of the marble be that of a man, we get the idea of a man; if the color and shape be that of a tree, we get the idea of a tree. Our acceptance of these ideas is, of course, only partial; for we are equally susceptible to the negative suggestions of the whiteness of the marble and the smallness of the outline of the tree. Every work of art represents a sort of compromise between reality and unreality, belief and disbelief.

Nevertheless, despite this compromise, the purpose of art is uncompromisingly attained. For art does not seek to give us nature over again, but to express its feeling tones, and these are conveyed when we get an idea of the corresponding object, even if that idea is inadequate from a strictly scientific point of view. We do not react emotionally to the infinite detail of any object, but only to its presence as a whole and to certain salient features. The artist succeeds when he constructs a humanized image of the object–one which arouses and becomes a center for feeling. This image, when made of a few elements, may be far more telling than a much more accurate copy; for there is no diffusion of interest to irrelevant aspects. How effective a medium for expression are the few and simple lines of Beardsley’s draftsmanship! The amount of detail necessary to convey an emotionally effective idea is relative to the technique of the different arts and varies also with the suggestibility and discrimination of the observer. Here no a priori principles can be laid down for what only the experimental practice of the artist can determine.

Moreover, the negative suggestions of a work of art, although they are effective in preventing entire belief in the reality of the idea expressed, do not hinder the communication and appreciation of the attached feelings. Just so long as the belief attitude is not wholly extinguished, this is the case; and the skillful artist takes care of that. Of course, an attitude of self-surrender, of willingness to accept suggestions, has to be present and we cooperate with the artist in creating it. Aesthetic belief implies sufficient abandon that we may react emotionally to a suggestion, but not enough that we may react practically. We let the idea tell upon our feelings; we do not let it incite us to action. The aesthetic plausibility of an idea depends largely upon its initial plausibility with the artist. There is nothing more contagious than belief. To utter things with an accent of conviction is half the battle in getting oneself believed. If the artist pretends to believe something and expresses himself with an air of assurance, we accept it, no matter how preposterous it may be from the practical or scientific point of view. Think of Rabelais!

A work of art is a logical system. It presupposes certain assumptions, postulates, conventions, which we must accept if we are to live in its world. Now, in order that we may accept them, the artist must first have vividly accepted them himself. Only if they have become a very part of him, can they become at all valid for us. The failure of classicistic art in a non-classical age, of “Pre-Raphaelitism” after Raphael, is a failure in this–the artist has never lived even imaginatively in the world he depicts. His belief is an artifice and a sham, and he cannot impose upon us with his pretense. But once we have accepted the artist’s postulates, then we are prepared to follow him in his conclusions. In the Homeric world, we shall not balk at the intercourse between gods and men; in mediaeval painting and drama, we shall accept miracle; in Alice in Wonderland, we shall accept any dream-like enchantment. But we demand that the conclusions shall follow from the premises, that the whole be consistent. We cannot tolerate miracle in a realistic novel or drama, or glaring inaccuracy of fact in a historical novel, because they are in contradiction to the laws of reality tacitly assumed. The final demand which we make of any work, of art is that it live. What can be made to live for us may be beautiful to us. But nothing can draw our life into itself which has not drawn the artist’s, or which is untrue to its own inner logic.

One of the most life-creating elements of a work of art is imagery. Everywhere in art the tendency exists for ideas to be filled out, rendered concrete and vivid, through images. In looking at a painting of a summer landscape, for example, we not only recognize the colors as meaning sunlight, but actually experience them as warm; in looking at a statue we not only recognize its surface as that of the body of a woman, but we feel its softness and smoothness; which involves that the ideas of sunlight and a human body, employed in interpreting the sensations received from these works of art, are developed back into the original mass of images from which they were derived. However, although ideas are formed from images, they are not images,–as our ordinary employment of them in recognizing objects attests. We may and usually do, for example, recognize a mirror as smooth without experiencing it as smooth–the image equivalent of the idea remains latent. Our ordinary experience with objects is too hasty and too intent on practical ends for images to develop. On the other hand, the leisurely attitude characteristic of the aesthetic experience is favorable to the recall of images; hence, just as in the aesthetic perception of objects we put our feelings into them, so equally we import into them the relevant images. The aesthetic reaction tends to be total. Our demand for feeling in art also requires the image; for feelings are more vividly attached to images than to abstract ideas. It is a fact familiar in the experience of everybody that the strength of the emotional tone of an object is a function of the clearness of the image which we form of it on recall. We can preserve the feeling tone of a past event or an absent object only if we can keep a vivid image of it; as our image of it becomes vague, our interest in it dissipates. Everywhere in our experience the image mediates between feeling and idea. So in art. Images have no more an independent and self-sufficient status in art than sensations have; like the latter they are a means for the expression of feeling. In the painting of sunlight, for example, the images of warmth carry joyousness and a sense of ease; in the statue, the tactile images convey the emotional response to the represented object. In literature the expressiveness of images is perhaps even more impressive. Consider how longing is aroused by the tactile, gustatory, and thermal images in the oft-quoted lines of Keats:–

  O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
  Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth.

Examples might be multiplied indefinitely.

In literature alone of the arts, images from all departments of sense can be aroused. Visual images play a greater role there than in painting and sculpture, for the reason that, in the latter, visual sensations take their place–we do not image what we can see. In sculpture, the greater part of the imagery is of touch and motion–in the imagination, we feel the surfaces and move with the represented motions; the whiteness or blackness of the materials prevents the arousal of the image of the color of the body. In painting, besides the temperature images already mentioned, there are touch images–in still-life, for example, when silks and furs are represented; images of odors, in flower pieces; of motion, in pictures which depict motion, as in the racing horses of Degas; of taste, in pictures of wine and fruit. Of course the kind and amount of imagery depend upon the imaginal type to which the spectator belongs and the wealth of the imaginal furnishing of his mind. In any art, moreover, the chief and requisite thing is expression through the sense medium, which should never be obscured by expression through associated images. It is not the primary business of a flower painter to arouse images of perfume, but to compose colors and lines; nor the function of the musician to arouse the visual images which accompany the musical experience of many people, but to compose sounds. In sculpture, on the other hand, images of touch and movement play an almost necessary part, for they are constituent elements in the representation of form and motion; yet it is not indispensable to the appreciation of sculpture that images of the sweet odor of the human body be awakened. The image is seldom the basis of aesthetic appreciation; it is more often its completion. But we shall go into these matters more in detail in our special chapters.

In the representative arts, particularly painting and sculpture, the associated images are fused with the visual sensations which constitute the medium. I see the softness and sweet-odorousness of the painted rose petal, just as I see the real rose soft and sweet; I see the surface of the statue firm and shapely, just as I see the human body so. This is because the ideas of the things represented in painting and sculpture seem to be actually present in the visual sensations which they interpret; the flower and the man seem to be there before me. In these arts, aesthetic perception is a fusion of image with sensation in much the way that normal perception is. In literature and music, on the other hand, the connection between the sense medium of the art and the associated images is less close; and for the reason that the sounds are no part of the things which they bring before the mind. In looking at a picture of a rose, I see the red as an element of the rose represented; whereas, in reading about a rose, I only seem to hear a voice describing it. In the latter case, therefore, the olfactory and visual images have a certain remoteness and independence of the word-sounds; I do not actually see and smell them in the sounds. However, in the case of familiar words with a strong emotional significance, the fusion of image with sound may be almost complete. Who, for example, does not see a sweet and red image of a rose into the word-sounds when he reads:–

  Oh, my love’s like a red, red rose
  That’s newly sprung in June.

Or, when Dante describes the selva oscura, who does not see the darkness in the word oscura? In all such cases a strong feeling tone binds together the word-sound with the image. This fusion is most striking in poetry because of the highly emotional material with which it works.

The ideas and images associated with a work of art depend very largely on the education, experience, and idiosyncrasy of the spectator. The scholar, for example, will put tenfold more meaning into his reading of the Divine Comedy than the untrained person. Or compare Pater’s interpretation of the “Mona Lisa” with Muther’s. Can we say that certain ideas and images belong properly to the work of art, while others do not? With regard to this, we can, I think, set up two criteria. First, the intention of the artist–whatever the artist meant his work to express: that it expresses. Yet, since this can never be certainly and completely discovered, there must always remain a large region of undetermined interpretation. Now for judging the relevancy of this penumbra of meaning and association the following test applies–does it bring us back to the sensuous medium of the work of art or lead us away? Anything is legitimate which we actually put into the form of the work of art and keep there, while whatever merely hangs loose around it is illegitimate. For example, if while listening to music we give ourselves up to personal memories and fancies, we are almost sure to neglect the sounds and their structure; we cannot objectify the former in the latter; with the result that the composition is largely lost to us. Naturally, no hard and fast lines can be drawn, especially in the case of works of vague import like music; yet we can use this criterion as a principle for regulating and inhibiting our associations. It demands of us a wide-awake and receptive appreciation. The genuine meanings and associations of a work of art are those which are the irresistible and necessary results of the sense stimuli working upon an attentive percipient; the rest are not only arbitrary, but injurious.

To this, some people would doubtless object on the ground that art was made for man and not man for art. The work of art, they would claim, should interpret the personal experience of the spectator; hence whatever he puts into it belongs there of right. There are, however, two considerations limiting the validity of this assertion. First, the work of art is primarily an expression of the artist’s personality and, second, its purpose is to provide a common medium of expression for the experience of all men. If interpretation remains a purely individual affair, both its relation to the artist and the possibility of a common aesthetic experience through it are destroyed. For this reason we should, I believe, deliberately seek to make our appreciations historically sound and definite. And in the social and historical appreciation resulting, we shall find our own lives–not so different from the artist’s and our fellows’–abundantly and sufficiently expressed.


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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The Principles Of Aesthetics
By Dewitt H. Parker
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