The Principles Of Aesthetics
by Dewitt H. Parker

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Chapter VII - The Standard of Taste

Our interest in art is seldom a matter of mere feeling or appreciation; usually it is a matter of judgment as well. Beginning in feeling, the sthetic experience passes over into comparison and estimation–into criticism, and there finds its normal completion. This, which is evidently true of the aesthetic life of artists and connoisseurs, is true also of average men. We all enjoy the beautiful in silence, but afterwards we want to talk about it to our friends. If conversation about art were suppressed, the interest in it would hardly survive. On this side, the enjoyment of art is intensely sociable, for to the civilized man sociability means discourse.

But, as Kant pointed out, it is characteristic of conversation about art that the participants try to reach agreement in their judgments without acknowledging common principles with reference to which disputes can be decided. And yet, since no man is content to hold an opinion all by himself, but each tries to persuade the others of the validity of his own judgment, it would seem as if there must be some axioms or postulates admitted by all. Hence what Kant called the antinomy of taste: Thesis–the judgment of taste is not based on principles, for otherwise we would determine it by proofs; antithesis–the judgment of taste is based on principles, for otherwise, despite our disagreements, we should not be quarreling about it.

In accordance with this situation, two opposed theories of criticism have always existed. On the one hand, in face of the apparent lawlessness of beauty, some thinkers have believed that there exist principles which can be applied to works of art to test their beauty with a certainty equal to that of the principles of logic in their application to inferences. Lessing, for example, in the Hamburgische Dramaturgic wrote that the laws laid down by Aristotle in the Poetics were as certain in their application to the drama as Euclid’s Elements in geometry. This comparison is a forcible statement of belief in the existence of aesthetic standards, held by the entire classical tradition, and still held by those who are spiritually akin to it, although of course no one to-day would claim–and when it came to details Lessing himself did not claim–that the judgment of Aristotle or of any one else is infallible. To-day those who believe in the possibility of rational aesthetic criticism think that reflection upon the purpose and methods of the arts results in the formulation of broad principles by means of which judgments of taste can be appraised and a community of taste achieved. These principles, they would admit, are more difficult of application than the simpler logical rules, owing to the greater subtlety and complexity of art, yet, when found, have an equal validity within their own field.

On the other hand, the view that “there is no disputing about tastes" has never lacked adherents. According to this view, criticism can be only a report of personal, enthusiastic appreciation or repugnance without claim to universality. Anatole France, surely a master of such criticism, has expressed this conviction as follows: “L’estetique ne repose sur rien de solide. C’est un chateau en Pair. On veut l’appuyer sur Pethique. Mais il n’y a pas d’ethique. Il n’y a pas de sociologie" ... And again, in the same preface to La Vie Litteraire: “Pour fonder la critique, on parle de tradition et de consentement universel. Il n’y en a pas. L’opinion presque general, il est vrai, favorise certains oeuvres. Mais c’est en vertu d’un prejuge, et nullement par choix et par effet d’une preference spontane. Les oeuvres que tout le monde admire sont celles que personne n’examine.” Although the classic view is, I think, nearer the truth, let us examine the arguments that may be advanced in favor of the impressionistic theory, as it has been called. What is there about aesthetic appreciation that makes it seemingly so recalcitrant to law?

First, every aesthetic experience is unique, and therefore, it is claimed, incomparable. Art is the expression of personality, and personality is always individual. But unique things are, in the end, incapable of classification, hence are not amenable to general laws or principles. Of course, works of art can be classified by following some abstract characteristic, arranged in a series according as this quality is realized in them to a greater or less degree; but, in so far as a work is beautiful, it contains at least one quality not possessed by other works, the quality that gives it its distinctive flavor,–which is, indeed, its beauty. The impressionist would admit, for example, that in intellectual power Keats’s Eve of St. Agnes is inferior to Wordsworth’s Intimations; also that it lacks the moral grandeur of the latter; but would claim, on the other hand, that in saying this, one is far from judging the beauty of Keats’s poem, because that is completely lacking in Wordsworth. So far as the poem is beautiful, it is unique; hence you get no farther with it through comparison with some other poem. You either appreciate it absolutely or you do not; if you do, well and good; you may then write a prose poem about it, if you desire, and so communicate some of your feeling for it to another person; if you do not appreciate it, no one can blame you or quarrel with you; all that any one can do is to invite you to read again, and, perhaps through his eloquence, seek to inspire you with–his own enthusiasm. Every work of art is superlative. Just as the lover thinks his sweetheart the most beautiful woman in the world, so he who appreciates a work of art finds it supreme. And among superlatives there is no comparison, no better or worse.

From another point of view, moreover, the aesthetic experience seems unfavorable to comparison and classification. For a work of art demands a complete abandon of self, an entire absorption in it of attention and emotion. Every picture has a frame, and every other work of art an ideal boundary to keep you in its world. Beyond the frame you shall not go; beyond the stage you shall not pass; beyond the outline of the statue you shall not look. And if you do pass beyond, you have lost the full intensity and flower of the experience; and whatever comparisons you then make will not concern its original and genuine beauty. Every work of art is jealous; to appreciate it aright, you must for the moment appreciate it singly, without thought of another. Finally, the impressionist or skeptic would maintain that an alleged aesthetic principle would necessarily be abstracted from extant works of art; hence could not be applied to new art. A thing which does not belong within a class cannot be judged by principles governing that class. In so far, therefore, as a work of art is original, it must frustrate any attempt to judge it by traditional, historical standards–and what other standards are there?

Although the two facts of the aesthetic experience–its uniqueness and claim to complete sympathy–upon which the skeptical opinion can be based, are undoubted, the inferences deduced from them do not follow. If they did follow, the aesthetic experience would be fundamentally different from every other type; it would be totally atomic and discrete, instead of fluid and continuous like the rest. But its apparent discreteness is due to a failure to distinguish between the silent, unobtrusive working of comparison and the more obvious and self-conscious working. When rapt in the contemplation of a work of art, I may seemingly have no thought for other works; relative isolation and circle-like self-completeness are characteristic of the aesthetic experience; yet, as a matter of fact, the completeness of my reaction and the measure of my delight and absorption are partly determined by the accordance of the given work of art with a certain expectation or set of mind with reference to objects of its sort. I can consent fully to the will of the artist only if he has first consented to my will as expressed in other works which I have enjoyed and praised. The situation in aesthetics is no different from that which exists in any other field of values; through many experiences of good things I come to form a type or standard of what such things should be like; and, if any new thing of the kind is presented to me, I cannot be so well pleased with it if it does not conform. The type may never be formulated by me explicitly, yet it will operate none the less. The formation of what is called good taste occurs by exactly this process. The first work of art that I see, if it please me, becomes my first measure. If I see a second, in order to win my approval, it will either have to satisfy the expectation aroused by the first, or else surpass it. In the latter case, a standard somewhat different from the old is created through the new experience; and, when I have acquired a large acquaintance with works of art, there grows up a standard which is the resultant of all of them–a type or schema no longer associated with particular works. Sometimes, however, it happens that the standard continues to be embodied in some one or few works which, because of outstanding excellence, serve as explicit paradigms governing judgment; such works are classics in the true sense. And the impressionist is certainly wrong in his contention that the aesthetic appreciation of a work of art excludes the recall of other works and conscious comparison with them. It is only when appreciation is of the more naive sort that this is the case. The trained observer, on seeing one of Vermeer’s pictures, for example, cannot fail to think of other works of the same artist; and, if he is learned in the history of art, he may even recall the whole development of Dutch painting. For the moment, perhaps, at the beginning, the single work will completely absorb the attention; but, as we linger in appreciation and reflect upon it, our memory is sure to work. And the process of memory and comparison cannot be excluded on the ground that it is an external, irrelevant context to appreciation; for it actually functions to determine the degree of pleasure and absorption in a work of art. Moreover, this process of memory and comparison is not confined to the individual observer; it is social and historical as well. All art movements are inspired by the desire to improve on, or to create something different from, the conserved tradition. The process of creation itself involves comparison and the recognition of a standard. And for our civilization at any rate these movements are international. They are not the products of isolated discrete groups, impenetrable to each other, but of a relatively universal, continuous experience.

As for the uniqueness of aesthetic value, that, to be sure, is a fact; yet uniqueness is never the whole of any object. Those aspects which ally it with other things are just as genuinely its own as those which differentiate it from them; they equally are a part of its beauty. The attempt to separate any part of a work of art from the rest as “the real part” is an unwarranted and arbitrary dismemberment. The work is whole, and beauty belongs to it as whole. Hence, when, through comparison, you attend to the qualities that are shared with other works, you are still judging the reality and beauty of the object, quite as much as when you seek to taste its unique flavor. A competent judgment can neglect no aspect. The judgment that a work of art is better or worse than another in some general aspect touches it just as surely as the feeling for its distinctiveness. And if it be true that so far as things are unique they are all on a level, it is equally true that so far as they are not unique they are capable of being serialized, and our total judgment upon them must follow the lines of comparison.

It is impossible, therefore, not to compare works of art one with another. We will concede to the impressionist that anything which anybody finds beautiful is beautiful momentarily; but we must insist on the everyday fact that, because of the operation of the standard as a result of growing experience in art, what once seemed beautiful often ceases to seem so. And we must also insist that among the things surviving as beautiful we inevitably set up a hierarchy, a scale. A plurality of values, each unique and in its own way indispensable to a complete world of values, is not inconsistent with relations of higher and lower among them. The impressionist has taught us to love variety and to renounce the bigotry of the old refusal to accept anything short of the highest. But in aesthetics–and in ethics too, I believe–the standpoint of Spinoza rules: “God is revealed in the mouse as well as in the angel, although less in the mouse than in the angel;” and, I should add, the revelation through the humbler mouse is necessary to a complete revelation of God, that is, of the Good. Or, as Nietzsche said, “Vieler Edlern naemlich bedarf es, dass es Adel gebe!” Our appreciation of Midsummer Night’s Dream does not prevent us from appreciating Alice in Wonderland, just as our esteem for the man does not hinder our feeling for the peculiar charm of the child.

What takes place through the process of comparison is this: we come increasingly to realize what we want of art. Every artist seeks to express something in terms of the material with which he works. But it is only by experimenting with his medium that he learns what he can and what he cannot do; and it is only by constant hospitable, yet discriminating appreciation by us spectators that we, in our turn, discover what to demand of him and commend. Consider, for example, the history of painting. That we want of a picture, sometimes the delineation of emotion and action, yes; but above all and always, the representation of visible nature, with space and atmosphere and light–this purpose has been developed slowly and as the result of many experiments and comparisons. But having won it, we are secure in it. We shall still appreciate the beauty of the primitives and academics, but we shall not be able again to prefer them to the plein-airistes. Or recall the development of English poetry. We still admit the contribution of Dryden and Pope, but we shall never have to fight over again the battle won by Wordsworth and his contemporaries for imagination and emotion. Our conception of the purpose of poetry has been enriched by an insight that we cannot permanently lose. There are, to be sure, retrograde movements in the arts–like the Pre-Raphaelite movement in painting–but they are soon recognized as such.

Now with reference to the purpose of art to express in a given material, there are, I think, a few general principles of judgment applying to all the arts, implicitly or explicitly recognized in criticism, and capable of formulation. First, the complete use of the medium. We prefer, other things being equal, the work of art that has fully exploited the expressive possibilities of its medium to one that has failed to do so. As an illustration, I would cite the almost universal condemnation, at the present time, of neo-classical sculpture, in which the touch values of the surfaces of statues were destroyed. Of course some compensating gain may be claimed–a greater visual purity; yet, as we shall see, from the point of view of expression, the gain was negligible compared with the loss. So likewise, unless the vers-libristes can show some positive gain in expression,–a power to do something that normal verse cannot do, their work must rank lower than normal verse, which makes fuller use of the rhythmic possibilities of language.

Second, the unique use of the material. What we want of art depends, not only on comparison between works of art belonging to the same genre, but on comparison of the purposes of different genres, indeed of the different arts themselves. What we want of painting depends upon what we want of sculpture; what we want of poetry depends upon what we want of painting and music. We compare picture with picture; but equally we compare picture with statue and poem. We do not want the sculptor to try to do what the painter can do better, and vice-versa; or the poet to encroach on the domains proper to the musician and painter. We do not want poetry to be merely imagistic or merely musical when we have another art that can give us much better pictures and still another that can give us much better music than any word-painting or word-music. When we read a poem, we do not want to be made to think how much better the same thing could be done in a different medium. There is nothing so salutary in keeping an art to its proper task as a flourishing condition of the other arts. Here the great example is France, where the limitations of the different arts have been best recognized all the while the highest level of perfection has been reached in many arts contemporaneously.

Third, the perfect use of the medium in the effort to fulfill the artistic purpose of sympathetic representation–the power to delight the senses and create sympathy for the object expressed, on the one hand, and the range of the vision of the object, on the other; the depth and the breadth of the aesthetic experience. With reference to the former we ask: how vividly does the work of art force us to see; how completely does it make us enter into the world it has created; and, in doing this, how poignantly has it charmed us, how close has it united us to itself? The measure of this is partly subjective and irreducible to rules; yet experience in the arts establishes a norm or schema of appreciation through the process of comparison, largely unconscious, by which what we call good taste is acquired. There are certain works of art that seem to have fulfilled this requirement in the highest possible degree, thus attaining to perfection within their compass. Such, for example, are some of Sappho’s or Goethe’s lyrics, or the Fifth Canto of the Inferno. Nothing more perfect, more beautiful of their kind can be conceived. And to see how works of art may differ in degree of perfection of sympathetic vision, one has only to recall lesser works expressing the same themes. Yet we recognize greater works even than those cited–works in which, although the sympathetic vision is no more penetrating and compelling, it is broader, more inclusive. Goethe’s Faust is greater than any of his lyrics because the range of experience which it expresses is vaster. A Velasquez is greater than a Peter De Hooch because, in addition to an equal beauty of expression through color and line and composition, an equal dominion over light and space, it contains a marvelous revelation of the inner life, which is absent from the latter. According to Berenson, no one has yet painted the perfect landscape because thus far only a certain few aspects have been expressed, but not all.

There are, I think, certain qualities which are generally recognized as necessary to the perfect fulfillment of the artistic purpose of a work; which follow, indeed, from the very meaning of art. Thus, without uniqueness and freshness there can be no perfection in artistic expression. A well-worn or even an identical expression may have value in the solution of a practical problem, or in bringing men into good-natured relationships with one another in social life; as when, for example, the officer cries “Halt!” repeatedly, or we say “Good morning” at breakfast; because, in such cases, the expression gets its significance from the context in which it belongs. But in art, where expression is freed from the particular setting within which it arises, thus attaining universality, the repetitious and imitative, having no environment from which they may derive new meaning, are purposeless. They are, indeed, worse than negligible, because having grown into the habit of expecting originality, we are disappointed and bored when we fail to find it. Originality is, of course, relative; it is not incompatible with the reminiscence of old works–what works of art are not reminiscent?–but it does prohibit saying the old things over again in the same medium; the artist must have a new message to put into the medium; or else, if the old themes are still near to his heart, he must invent a new form in which to express them, from which they will derive a new music. Closely allied to freshness are spontaneity and inner necessity, the signs of a genuine, as opposed to a factitious, expression. If we get the impression from a work of art that no part could be otherwise–not a single line or note or stroke of the brush–then we have the same sort of feeling towards it that we have towards the living thing that was not made by hands capriciously, but grew in its inevitable way in accordance with the laws of its own nature. Of course, works of art are products of thought, of plan, and conscious purpose; they are seldom composed all at one flash, but grow tentatively into their final form; nevertheless, in the words of Kant, “A work of art must look like nature, albeit we know that it is art." Sense charm and order are also necessary; for they are the conditions of a perfect sympathy and vision. We are indulgent towards the vigorous, impatient passion that bubbles over into rough and careless music or poetry, but are not satisfied with it. For art’s task is not merely to express, but to dominate through expression, to create out of expression, beauty; and without order and charm of sense, there is no beauty. Compose your passion, we say to the musician; pattern it forth, we say to the poet; it will not lose its vigor; rather it will acquire a new power; for thus it will achieve restraint, the sign of art’s dominion.

The recognition of the principles indicated presupposes, of course, that art really has a purpose with reference to which it can be judged as successful or unsuccessful. But I do not see how this can very well be denied. Art is one of the oldest of human activities, one might almost say institutions, and it is inconceivable that it should not have been directed by some intention, conscious or unconscious. To be sure, men have expressed this intention in varying, often in inconsistent ways, but the same is true of all other human activities and institutions. Few would deny, I suppose, that science and the state have purposes; yet how various have been the definitions of them. These variations have corresponded, without doubt, to adaptations to new conditions, yet throughout some unique purpose in human life has been subserved. So with art. Art has been identified now with one interest and now with another; what people want of art differs from one age to another, and each must define that for itself; yet throughout there has been a core of identity in the purposes it has served. In our own age we witness the attempt to distinguish the purpose of art from the purposes of other elements of civilization, with which it has often been fused and confused,–science, religion, morality. Correspondingly we witness the effort to limit the functions of political control; to take from its jurisdiction religion, culture, love. And this effort is for the sake of a fuller and freer realization of values.

Furthermore, not only has art a general function, but this function is differentiated among the different art forms and genres. No work of art can be judged without reference to its function. Its beauty consists in the fulfillment of this function. Now this function is, of course, largely unique for each art form and for each particular work of art, and every work has to be judged with reference to its individual purpose, yet a knowledge of other works of the same artist and the same genre, and of the general history of art, helps to divine this purpose and to judge of its relative success. There is a large measure of continuity in the intentions of a given artist and school of art. The development of painting in the last century is a striking illustration of such continuity. The painters sought to develop a definite tradition, thinking of themselves as carrying further the work of their predecessors. Of course these developments were largely technical in character, but beauty itself is the fruition of technique.

The people who base a skeptical opinion upon the historical changes in taste forget that taste is necessarily a growth; that it is developed by trial and error, through and despite the following of many false paths. Only if the standard were something delivered to men by divine revelation–as indeed the old dogmatists came very close to believing– would it be strange and inconsistent for changes to occur. But if, as is the fact, the standard is experimental and representative of actual artistic purposes, then change is normal. Moreover, the standard is not single and absolute, but plural and relative. Growth in taste means not only development along a given line, within a given form, but enlargement through the origination of new forms and beauties. It is not like the straight line growth of an animal, but rather radial, like the growth of a plant, sending out branches in every direction. An art may attain to perfection in a certain genre, and then continue only through the creation of new types. Thus sculpture and architecture reached a kind of perfection in the classic, beyond which it was impossible to go–the only possible development lay in the creation of new types.

If it is true, then, that the existence of standards has a sound basis in the aesthetic experience, how can their apparent failure to work and secure unanimity of judgment be explained? How account for the actual chaos of judgment? Partly, at least, because many judgments passed on works of art are not aesthetic judgments at all. These must be eliminated if any consensus is to be won. We may call these judgments “pseudo- sthetic” judgments. They fall naturally into several classes, which it will be worth while to describe.

First, there is the very large class of partisan judgments–judgments based, not upon a free appreciation, but upon some personal predilection or transient appeal. To this class belong the special preferences of boyhood and youth–the liking for Cooper and Jules Verne, for example– and those due to nationality, like the Englishman’s choice of Thackeray and the Frenchman’s of Balzac, or, what is a more flagrant case, the long resistance of the French public to the beauty of Wagner’s music. The former type of judgment is corrected by the simple process of maturing, when the beauties appreciated in youth are not lost, but only given their due place in the hierarchy of aesthetic values; the latter type, on the other hand, being more deeply based, is more difficult to remedy. But that even this prejudice can be largely overcome is shown by the example of critics who, through prolonged sympathetic study, come to prefer the art of a foreign land. A notable example of this is Meier-Graeffe, who condemns almost all of modern German painting and exalts the French. [Footnote: See his Modern Art, and his special studies of Manet, Renoir, and Degas.] Patriotic preferences are so difficult to overcome because they spring from limitations of sympathy. Sympathy depends upon acquaintance, and few of us can acquire the same expertness in an alien language or artistic form that we possess in our own. Yet, understanding the reason for these deficiencies of judgment, we can go to work to improve them, through increasing our knowledge of foreign art.

No less inevitable psychologically is the preference for works of art that treat of the problems and conditions of contemporary life. Part of this, to be sure, is expressive merely of some transient mood of the popular mind. The enthusiasm, happily passing, for the plays of Brieux or the craze for Algerian landscapes in France after the acquirement of the colony, are examples. Such preferences, being superficially motivated, correct themselves with ease, giving way to some new fashion in taste. The preference for works of art that reflect the more serious and permanent problems of contemporary society is more firmly rooted. Men inevitably seek the artistic expression of the things that deeply concern them. The problems of the reconstruction of the family, of the working classes, and of government must continue to inspire art and to determine our interest in it, until new difficulties occupy our minds. The mere passage of time, however, brings a remedy for critical injustices flowing from this source; for, when present problems are solved, the difference between living art, which expresses them, and historical art, vanishes. Then, only those works which reflect the eternal enigmas have any advantage over the others. The same process tends to eliminate the prejudice, rooted in temperament, in favor of the old and familiar in art; or, following a different bent, in favor of the new and startling. In such cases, a just estimate can be made only when the new becomes the old, and both are reduced to a common level.

Another type of pseudo-aesthetic judgment is the imitative. By this I mean the judgment which is made because somebody else has made it, particularly somebody in authority. The imitative judgment is the expression, in the field of aesthetics, of what Trotter has called “herd instinct,” [Footnote: See his The Herd Instinct in Peace and War, first part.] the tendency on the part of the gregarious animal to make his acts and habits conform to those of another member of the same group, particularly if that member is a leader or represents the majority. The dislike of loneliness and the love of companionship operate, as we have already had occasion to notice, even in the sphere of the spirit. Differences here separate people just as other differences do. In art, herd instinct tends to make the judgment of the authoritative or fashionable critic take the place of spontaneous and sincere judgment. I do not mean that such judgments are usually consciously insincere; although they often are so, since men seek to ingratiate themselves by flattering even the aesthetic opinions of those whose love or protection they desire. I do mean, however, that they tend to suppress opinions which would reflect an autonomous appreciation. Moreover, whatever may be said for herd-instinct in the realm of politics and morals, where the need for common action makes necessary some sort of consensus among the members of a group, very little can be said for it in aesthetics, where no practical issues are directly involved. There, herd instinct simply substitutes sham appreciation for a vital and healthy reaction. Of course, imitative judgments must be distinguished from those that agree because they are based on a genuine contagion or community of feeling. This distinction may be a difficult one for the outsider to make; but is not so for the individual concerned. I do not deny the value of authority in aesthetics; what I am inveighing against is the substitution of authority for sincerity. In art, the suasion of the norm should be absolutely free, with no penalty except isolation from the best. The only value of authority is to counteract laziness and superficiality of appreciation; to stimulate those who would rest content with first impressions to a more studious and attentive examination. Yet, however great be our natural desire to convince others of beauty, we want their conviction to be as sincere as our own: we do not want it to be factitious,–suggested or dragooned. It is often too easy, rather than too hard, to win agreement.

The question of the place of authority in aesthetics is raised again by a consideration of another class of pseudo-aesthetic judgments, which I shall call ignorant judgments. These judgments are perfectly sincere, but express an aesthetic experience that is imperfect, owing to defective understanding of art. So many people judge works of art as if they could assimilate them immediately, without any knowledge of their purpose and technique. They fail to recognize that a work of art has a language, with a vocabulary and grammar, which has to be mastered through study. A work of art is a possibility of a certain complex of values, not a given actuality that can be grasped by merely stretching out the hand. Very little of any work of art is given–just a few sense stimuli; the rest is an emotional and meaningful reaction, which has to be completed in a determinate fashion. A work of art is a question to which the right answer has to be found. And in order to find the answer, it is necessary to know both what to look for and what not to look for. For example, in judging Japanese prints, one must realize, from the limitation of the medium, that one cannot look for all the fullness of expression of shadow and atmosphere possible in an oil painting; or in judging decorative or post-impressionistic painting, one must realize that the purpose of the artist is chiefly to obtain musical effects from color and line, not to represent nature realistically.

Because works of art are ideals, possibilities of experience, and not given things which everybody can appreciate without knowledge and effort, I am skeptical of all results obtained in laboratories of experimental aesthetics, where college students are asked to judge works of painting, music, and sculpture. An uninstructed majority vote cannot decide any question in aesthetics. Such experiments, with the exception of those that concern the most elementary reactions, yield interesting statistical results about the groups employed as subjects, but are of no value in aesthetics. And what wonder that we should find people disagreeing in their judgments when, because of ignorance, they are not reporting about the same objects!

Finally, an aesthetic consensus is possible only if non-aesthetic standards and all judgments based on false conceptions of the purpose of art are eliminated. Some of these judgments I have already discussed–the scientific and the moralistic. The purpose of art is sympathetic vision, not scientific truth or edification. It is often necessary, in order to win a vision of actual life, for the artist to possess scientific knowledge; but only as a means, not as an end. And again, insight into the more enduring preferences of men and the conditions of their happiness, upon which rational moral standards are founded, is indispensable to a complete interpretation of life; but there is much of life that can be envisaged sympathetically, that is, artistically and beautifully, with small hold on ethical wisdom. No one, I suppose, would regard de Maupassant as a wise man in the Greek sense of possessing a philosophical grasp of the norms which make up the conscience of men, yet few would deny him the supreme gift of delineating the pathos and comedy of passion. I do not doubt that men will always judge works of art from abstract standpoints; that to-day they will judge them from the points of view of science and morals, since we are so dominated by their sway; but I do claim that these standards are not aesthetic, and that so long as they control our estimates of art, there can never be anything except chaos in taste; for they will always come into conflict with the genuinely aesthetic point of view. And, I ask, why not grant to art its autonomy? If art has a unique purpose, different from that of science or morals, why should we not judge it in terms of that purpose?

Of course, since man’s nature is one, not many, it will always be impossible entirely to get rid of the non-aesthetic bases of judgment. Personal predilection for a certain kind of subject-matter, patriotic preference for one’s own language and style, the influence of authority and the lure of the crowd, the intrusion of the moralistic and the scientific bias,–all these must, to a greater or less degree, divide and dispute the hegemony of taste. Nevertheless, although it is impossible to reach a pure aesthetic judgment, we ought to strive to approach it, and, by dint of training and clear thinking about art, we can approach it. We ought to do this, not because of any formalism or purism, but for the sake of preserving the unique value of art, which is covered up or destroyed by the intrusion of non-aesthetic standards of judgment. For judgment does influence feeling, especially such a delicate and subtle thing as aesthetic feeling. The patriotic and the partisan judgments narrow appreciation, the imitative substitute a judgment for a feeling, the moralistic and scientific prejudices often inhibit the possibility of the aesthetic reaction at the start, or, if they allow it to begin, prevent the full sympathy and abandon which are required for its consummation. We can get scientific truth from science, why then seek it in art? We can obtain moral wisdom from the philosopher and priest, why require it of the artist? Reformers and statesmen will enlighten us concerning reconstruction, why not turn to them? I do not mean, of course, that art may not express the mystery and the wonder of science, the voice of conscience, the cry of distress; but even this is not science, or sociology, or morals; and art must and should also express dark passion, hot hate or love, and joy–in the sea, in sunlight, in the shadow of leaves on the grass, in the bodies of men and women–and the other myriad forms of human life and nature that are neither right nor true, but simply are. And furthermore: the tyranny of the scientific and the moral is the death of art. Art can live only when free. So long as men are subject to the exclusive habit of condemning and praising and analyzing and classifying, they are incapable of a free envisagement and expression. Between sociology and Puritanism, the artistic novel and the drama have become all but impossible in this country. During the nineteenth century, the predilection, among the Pre-Raphaelites, for the scientific and moral nearly killed landscape painting in England, its birthplace. And only in France, where alone of modern nations the moral and hygienic attitude towards the human body has not completely driven out the artistic, has there been a vital and enduring sculpture.

If the aesthetic judgment is given autonomy, a sure foundation for aesthetic norms can be established, because then art will be judged with reference to a perfectly definite purpose. Feeling will always tell us whether a thing is beautiful or not; but feeling itself will depend upon whether the implicit purpose of art has been realized; and, when we reflectively consider a work in relation to other works, we shall have a solid basis for comparison. Judgment will have a foundation in reason as well as in feeling. We shall ask of the artist, not whether he has instructed us or edified us, but solely whether he has given us a new and sympathetic vision of some part of our experience. The kind of vision that he gives us will depend, of course, upon the materials of his art–it will be one thing in sound, another in color or line or patterned words. Even as we demand of art in general a unique value, as fulfilling a unique function, so we shall demand of the different arts that each provide us with the unique beauty which its materials can create. We shall therefore commend the separation of the arts and view with suspicion any attempt to fuse them. Whatever be his materials, we shall demand of the artist always the same result: that he make us see, and command our sympathy and delight for his vision. Any judgment that we make, or any standard that we set up, must proceed upon a knowledge of this master purpose and of the materials and technique of the particular art through which it is to be realized. And such standards, experimental and tentative, but nevertheless potent and directive, are capable of discovery and formulation. Some of the larger and more important of these we shall try to set forth in our chapters on the special arts. An artist who works within these standards is sure to produce something beautiful; one who breaks them will fail or, rarely, find some hitherto undiscovered, surprising beauty in the medium.

There still remains for consideration the fear lest the recognition of standards may discourage new experiments and so interfere with the creative impulse. It is true that tragedies have occurred when criticism has been unsympathetic and malicious–remember Keats and the struggles of the early French impressionistic painters–but even then I doubt if any real harm to art has resulted. For the situation in aesthetics differs from the situation in ethics and politics where the retarding effect of convention is undeniable. In art there can never be the same closeness of alliance between convention and vested interests that is so repressive a force in the “world.” It is probably true indeed that, as Plato said, “when the modes of music change, so do constitutions change"; for example, there is doubtless to-day some connection between imagist poetry, post-impressionistic painting, Russian music, and revolutionary sentiment–witness, in our own country, The Masses and The Seven Arts–but the link is too delicate to alarm the powers that be. The upholding of a standard must be allied with material interests if it is to be repressive of creation and novelty. But, as a free force, operating solely by influence, the standard has the effect only of keeping alive the love of excellence, and, by providing some stability in the old, creating that contrast between the new and the old, so stimulating to the new itself. For the impulse to originate operates best alongside of and in opposition to the desire to conserve. France has been the great originator in the plastic arts during recent times; but it has also been the only country where a genuine traditional standard has existed. When tradition is based on experiments, as in art, it cannot be in essence hostile to them. And all valid aesthetic principles are sufficiently broad and abstract not to interfere with novelty and creation.

When such principles as we have tried to formulate are admitted, the world of aesthetic judgments can be organized and some consensus about the beautiful achieved. Without an approach to a consensus, the aesthetic impulse can never be content; for it is indefeasibly sociable. Agreement in judgments depends upon a common experience, and this also art can provide. For beauty is constituted of elementary reactions to sense stimuli which are well-nigh universal among men, and of symbols and meanings which can be learned like any language. The delight in harmony and balance, order and symmetry and rhythm, and again, the pleasure in the unique and well finished, are felt by every one. The entire form side of art, its structure or design, is based on fundamental and enduring elements of human nature. The symbolism of sensation, its musical expressiveness, as we have called it, is rooted likewise in reactions and interpretations that either are, or may become, through suggestion and training, common property. There are, of course, the people who have no feeling for tones, and through defective memory for tones, no appreciation of musical design; there are also those who are insensitive to color and line. In many cases, through the training of the attention, these defects can be overcome; yet, in others, they are permanent and incurable. This fact limits the universality of art; oftentimes, when two people are discussing a work, they are not talking about the same object; for a large part of its potentialities are lost to one of them. Nevertheless, the validity of empirical standards among those who are capable of appreciating the whole of a work of art is not touched by this fact. Those who can agree, ultimately will agree. As for art as representation, that is a language readily acquired. It is an easier and more natural language than ordinary speech. What is meant by the colors and lines of a painting or statue, or by the mimic of the drama, is immediately grasped by any intelligent person; for to make use of images of things in order to represent them is a universal habit among men. The painting and sculpture of the Chinese are intelligible to us; not so their speech. Of course, to some extent, the language of painting and sculpture is conventional; the limits of accuracy of imitation are not set by nature, except at the extremes, but by the tradition or practice of painters. Yet the convention is a simple one, easily understood and accepted.


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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