Source: Old Encyclopedia Article
AESTHETICS, a branch of study variously defined as the philosophy or science of the beautiful, of taste or of the fine arts.
The name is something of an accident. In its original Greek form (aisthetikos) it means what has to do with sense-perception as a source of knowledge; and this is still its meaning in Kant’s philosophy (“Transcendental Aesthetic”). Its limitation to that function of sensuous perception which we know as the contemplative enjoyment of beauty is due to A. G. Baumgarten. Although the subject does not readily lend itself to precise definition at the outset, we may indicate its scope and aim, as understood by recent writers, by saying that it deals successively with one great department of human experience, viz. the pleasurable activities of pure contemplation. By pure contemplation is here understood that manner of regarding objects of sense-perception, and more particularly sights and sounds, which is entirely motived by the pleasure of the act itself. The term “object” means whatever can be perceived through one of the senses, e.g. a flower, a landscape, the flight of a bird, a sequence of tones. The contemplation may be immediate when (as mostly happens) the object is present to sense; or it may be mediate, when as in reading poetry we dwell on images of objects of sense. Whenever we become interested in an object merely as presented for our contemplation our whole state of mind may be described as an aesthetic attitude, and our experience as an aesthetic experience. Other expressions such as the pleasure of taste, the enjoyment and appreciation of beauty (in the larger sense of this term), will serve less precisely to mark off this department of experience.
Aesthetic experience is differentiated from other kinds of experience by a number of characteristics. We commonly speak of it as enjoyment, as an exercise and cultivation of feeling. The appreciation of beauty is pervaded and sustained by pleasurable feeling. In aesthetic enjoyment our capacities of feeling attain their fullest and most perfect development. Yet, as its dependence on a quiet attitude of contemplation might tell us, aesthetic experience is characterized by a certain degree of calmness and moderation of feeling. Even when we are moved by a tragedy our feeling is comparatively restrained. A rare exhibition of beauty may thrill the soul for a moment, yet in general the enjoyment of it is far removed from the excitement of passion. On the other hand, aesthetic pleasure is pure enjoyment. Even when a disagreeable element is present, as in a musical dissonance or in the suffering of a tragic hero, it contributes to a higher measure of enjoyment. It is, moreover, free from the painful elements of craving, fatigue, conflict, anxiety and disappointment, which are apt to accompany other kinds of enjoyment; such as the satisfaction of the appetites and other needs. To this purity of aesthetic pleasure must be added its refinement, which implies not merely a certain remoteness from the bodily needs, but the effect of a union of sense and mind in giving amplitude as well as delicacy to our enjoyment of beauty.
As the region of most pure and refined feeling, aesthetic experience is clearly marked off from practical life, with its urgent desires and the rest. In aesthetic contemplation desire and will as a whole are almost dormant.
This detachment from the daily life of practical needs and aims is brought out in Kant’s postulate that aesthetic enjoyment must be disinterested (“ohne Interesse”), that when we regard an object aesthetically we are not in the least concerned with its practical significance and value: one cannot, for example, at the same moment aesthetically enjoy looking at a painting and desire to be its possessor. In like manner, even if less apparently, aesthetic contemplation is marked off from the arduous mental work which enters into the pursuit of knowledge. In contemplating an aesthetic object we are mentally occupied with the concrete, whereas all the more serious intellectual work of science involves the difficulties of the abstract. The contemplation is, moreover, free from those restraints which are imposed on our mental activity by the desire to obtain knowledge.
While as the highest phase of feeling aesthetic experience appears to belong to our subjective life, the hidden region of the soul, it is connected just as clearly, through the act of sense-perception, with the world of objects which is our common possession. Being thus dependent on a contemplation of things in this common world it raises the question whether, like the perception of these objects, it is a uniform experience, the same for others as for myself. We touch here on the last characteristic of aesthetic experience which needs to he noted at this stage, its uniformity or subjection to law. It is a common idea that men’s judgments about matters of taste disagree to so large an extent that each individual is left very much to his subjective impressions. With regard to many of the subtler matters of aesthetic appreciation, at any rate, there is undoubtedly on a first view the appearance of a want of agreement.
Contrasted with logical judgments or even with ethical ones, aesthetic judgments may no doubt look uncertain and “subjective.” The proposition “this tree is a birch” seems to lend itself much better to critical discussion and to general acceptance or rejection than the proposition “this tree is beautiful.” This circumstance, as Kant shrewdly suggests, helps to explain why we have come to employ the word “taste” in dealing with aesthetic matters; for the pronouncements of the sense of taste are recognized as among the most uncertain and “subjective” of our sense impressions. Yet viewed as a species of pleasurable feelings, aesthetic experiences will be found to exhibit a large amount of uniformity, of objective agreement as between different experiences of the same person and experiences of different persons. This general agreement appears to be clearly implied in the ordinary form of our aesthetic judgments. To say “this rose is beautiful” means more than to say “the sight of this rose affects me agreeably.” It means that the rose has a general power of so affecting me (at different times) and others as well.
The judgment is not the same as a logical one. It does not say simply that as a matter of fact it always does please---even if we add the limitation those who for, as we know, our varying mood and state of receptivity make a profound difference in the fullness of the aesthetic enjoyment. It is a “judgment of value” which claims for the rose aesthetic rank as an object properly qualified to please contemplative subjects. This value, it is plain, is relative to conscious subjects; yet since it is relative to all competent ones, it may be regarded as “objective”---that is to say, as belonging to the object.
This slight preliminary inspection of the subject will prepare one for the circumstance that the scientific treatment of it has begun late, and is even now far from being complete. This slowness of development is in part explained by the detachment of aesthetic experience from the urgent needs of life. In a comparatively early stage of human progress some thought had to be bestowed on such pressing problems as to how to cope with the forces of nature and to turn them to useful account; how to secure in human communities obedience to custom and law. But the problem of throwing light on our aesthetic pleasures had no such urgency.2 To this it must be added that aesthetic experience (in all but its simpler and cruder forms) has been, and still is confined to a small number of persons; so that the subject does not appeal to a wide popular interest; while, on the other hand, the subjects of this experience not infrequently have a strong sentimental dislike to the idea of introducing into the region of refined feeling the cold light of scientific investigation. Lastly, there are special difficulties inherent in the subject. One serious obstacle to a scientific theory of aesthetic experience is the illusive character of many of its finer elements---for example, the subtle differences of feeling-tone produced by the several colours as well as by their several tones and shades, by the several musical intervals, and so forth. Finally, there is the circumstance just touched on that much of this region of experience, instead of at once disclosing uniformity, seems to be rather the abode of caprice and uncertainty. The variations in taste at different levels of culture, among different races and nations and among the individual members of the same community are numerous and striking, and might at first seem to bar the way to a scientific treatment of the subject. These considerations suggest that an adequate theory of aesthetic experience could only be attempted after the requisite scientific skill had been developed in other and more pressing departments of inquiry.
If we glance at the modes of treating the subject up to a quite recent date we find that little of serious effort to apply to it a strictly scientific method of investigation. The whole extent of concrete experience has not been adequately recognized, still less adequately examined. For the greater part thinkers have been in haste to reach some simple formula of beauty which might seem to cover the more obvious facts. This has commonly been derived deductively from some more comprehensive idea of experience or human life as a whole. Thus in German treatises on aesthetics which have been largely thought out under the influence of philosophic idealism the beautiful is subsumed under the idea, of which it is regarded as one special manifestation, and its place in human experience has been determined by defining its logical relations to the other great co-ordinate concepts, the good and the true. These attempts to reach a general conception of beauty have often led to one-sidedness of view. And this one-sidedness has sometimes characterized the theories of those who, like Alison, have made a wider survey of aesthetic facts.
Aesthetics, like Ethics, is a Normative Science, that is to say, concerned with determining the nature of a species of the desirable or the good (in the large sense). It seeks one or more regulative principles which may help us to distinguish a real from an apparent aesthetic value, and to set the higher and more perfect illustrations of beauty above the lower and less perfect. As a science it will seek to realize its normative function by the aid of a patient, methodical investigation of facts, and by processes of observation, analysis and induction similar to those carried out in the natural sciences.
In speaking of aesthetics as a normative science we do not mean that it is a practical one in the sense that it supplies practical rules which may serve as definite guidance for the artist and the lover of beauty, in their particular problems of selecting and arranging elements of aesthetic value. It is no more a practical science than logic. The supposition that it is so is probably favoured by the idea that aesthetic theory has art for its special subject. But this is to confuse a general aesthetic theory—what the Germans call “General Aesthetics”---with a theory of art (Kunstwissenschaft). The former, with which we are here concerned, has to examine aesthetic experience as a whole; which, as we shall presently see, includes more than the enjoyment and appreciation of art.
We may now indicate with more fullness the main problems of our science, seeking to give them as precise a form as possible.
At the outset we are confronted with an old and almost baffling question: “Is beauty a single quality inherent in objects of perception like form or colour?” Common language certainly suggests that it is. Aesthetics, too, began its inquiry at the same point of view, and its history shows how much pains men have taken in trying to determine the nature of this attribute, as well as that of the faculty of the soul by which it is perceived. Yet a little examination of the facts suffices to show that the theory is beset with serious difficulties. Whatever beauty may be it is certainly not a quality of an object in the same way in which the colour or the form of it is a quality. These are physical qualities, known to us by specific modifications of our sensations.
The beauty of a rose or of a peach is clearly not a physical quality. Nor do we in attributing beauty to some particular quality in an object, say colour, conceive of it as a phase of this quality, like depth or brilliance of colour, which, again, is known by a special modification of the sensations of colour. Hence we must say that beauty, though undoubtedly referred to a physical object, is extraneous to the group of qualities which makes it a physical object.
Beauty is frequently attributed to a concrete object as a whole---to a flower or shell, for example, as a visible whole. Our everydav aesthetic judgments are wont to leave the attributes thus vaguely referred to the concrete object. Yet it is equally certain that we not infrequently speak of the beauty of some definable aspect to, or quality of an object, as when we pronounce the contour of a mountain or of a vase to be beautiful. And it may be asked whether, in thus localizing beauty, so to speak, in one of the constituent qualities of an object, we always place it in the same quality. A mere glance at the facts will suffice to convince us that we do not. We call the facade of a Greek temple beautiful with special reference to its admirable form; whereas in predicating beauty of the ruin of a Norman castle we refer rather to what the ruin means---to the effect of an imagination of its past proud strength and slow vanquishment by the unrelenting strokes of time.
This fact that beauty appertains now more to one quality, now more to another, helps us to understand why certain theorists, known as formalists, regarded beauty as formal or residing in form, whereas others, the idealists or expressionalists, view it as residing in ideal content or expression. These theories. however, like other attempts to find an adequate single principle of beauty, are unsatisfactory. Form and ideal content are each a great source of aesthetic enjoyment, and either can be found in a degree of supremacy which practically renders the co-operation of the other unimportant. The two buildings cited above, two human faces, two musical compositions, may exhibit in an impressive and engrossing way the beauty of form and of expression respectively.
Nor is this all. Beauty refuses to be confined even to these two. There are the various beauties of colour, for example, as exhibited in such familiar phenomena of nature as sea and sky, autumn moors and woods. A slight analysis of the constituents of objects to which we attribute beauty shows that there are at least three distinct modes of this attribute, namely (1) sensuous beauty, (2) beauty of form and (3) beauty of meaning or expression, nor do these appear to be reducible to any higher or more comprehensive principle. It requires a certain boldness to attempt to effect a rapprochement between the formal and the expressional factor.3 An apparent unification of the three seems at present only possible by substituting for beauty another concept at least equally vague, such as perfection,4 which seems to imply the idea of purposiveness, and to apply clearly only to certain domains of beauty, e.g. organic form.
We may now take another step and say that beauty appears to be a quality in objects which is not sharply differentiated from other and allied qualities. If we look at the usages of speech we shall find that beauty has its kindred conceptions, such as gracefulness, prettiness and others. Writers on aesthetics have spent much time on these “Modifications of the Beautiful.” The point emphasized here is the difficulty of drawing the line between them. Even an expert may hesitate long before saying whether a human face, a flower or a cameo should be called beautiful or pretty. Must we postulate as many allied qualities as there are names for these pleasing aspects of objects? Or must we do violence to usage and so stretch the word “Beauty” as to make it cover all qualities or aspects of objects which have aesthetic value, including those “modifications of the beautiful” which we know as the sublime, the comic and the rest? But the wider we try in this way to make the denotation of the term the vaguer grows the connotation. We are thus left equally incapable of saying what the quality is, and in which aspect or attribute of the object it inheres.
It seems to follow that in constructing a scientific theory we do well to dispense with the assumption of an objective quality of beauty. Aesthetics will return to Kant and confine itself to the examination of objects called beautiful in their relation to, and in their manner of affecting our minds.6 The aesthetic value of such an object will be viewed as consisting in the possession of certain assignable characteristics by means of which it is fitted to affect us in a certain desirable way, to draw us into the enjoyable mood of aesthetic contemplation.
These characteristics may conveniently be called aesthetic qualities.7 Objects which are found to possess one or more of these qualities in the required degree of fullness claim a certain aesthetic value, even though they fall short of being “beautiful,” in the more exacting use of this word. They are in the direction---“im Sinne,” as Fechner says----of beauty, conceived as something fuller and richer, answering to a higher standard of aesthetic enjoyment and a severer demand on our part. The word “beauty” may still be used occasionally, where no ambiguity arises, as a convenient expression for aesthetic value in all its degrees. Yet it is better to keep the term applicable to the objects commonly denoted by it by making it represent the fuller aesthetic satisfactions which flow from a rare and commanding exhibition of one or more of these qualities, from what may be described as an appreciable excellence of aesthetic quality.
By thus dispensing with the concept of beauty as some occult indefinable quality, we get rid of much of the contradiction which appears to inhere in our aesthetic experience. For example, a bit of brilliant colour in a bonnet which pleases the wearer but offends her superior in aesthetic matters takes its place as something which per se has a certain degree of aesthetic value even though the particular relations into which it has now thrust itself, palpable to the trained eye, may practically rob it of its value. In thus substituting the relative idea of aesthetic value for the absolute idea of beauty we may no doubt seem to be destroying the reality of the object of aesthetic perception. This point may more conveniently be taken up later when we consider the whole question of aesthetic illusion.
This new way of envisaging aesthetic objects requires us to make the study of their effect a prominent part of our investigation. In all the valuable recent work on the subject, attention has been largely concentrated on this effect. More particularly we have to investigate and illumine scientifically the pleasurable side of the experience.
In doing this we shall make use of all the light we can obtain from a study of known laws of Pleasure. Thus we shall avail ourselves not only of the theory of the pleasure-tones of sensation but of that of the conditions of an agreeable exercise of the attention upon objects more particularly of the characteristics of objects which adequately stimulate the attention without confusing or burdening it.
Yet this does not require that we should treat the aesthetic problem as a part of the more general science of pleasure, as has been attempted by some, e.g. Grant Allen (Physiological Aesthetics) and Rutgers Marshall (Pain, Pleasure and Aesthetics, and Aesthetic Principles.) To do so would be to run the risk of considering only the more general aspects and conditions of aesthetic enjoyment, whereas what we need is a theory of it as a specific kind of pleasurable experience.
What is required at the present stage of development of the science is a deeper investigation of the aesthetic attitude of mind as a whole, of what we may call the aesthetic psychosis. We need to probe the act of contemplation itself, the mode of activity of attention involved in this calm, half-dreamlike gazing on the mere look of things unconcerned with their ordinary and weightier imports. We need further to determine the effect of this contemplative attitude upon the several mental processes involved, the act of perception itself, with its grasp of manifold relations, the flow of ideas, the partial resurgence and transformation of emotion. In examining these effects we must keep in view the double side of the contemplative attitude, the wide range of free movement which perception and imagination claim and enjoy, and the willing subjection of the contemplative mind to the spell of the object.
A deeper inspection of the contemplative mood may be expected to render clearer the difference between the mental activity employed in aesthetic perception and imagination and intellectual activity proper; between. say, the differencing of allied tints involved in the finer aesthetic enjoyment of colour and the sharper, clearer discrimination of tints required in scientific observation, and between such a grasp of relations as is required for a just appreciation of beautiful form and that severe analysis and measurement of formal elements and their relations which is insisted upon by science. As a result of a finer distinction here we may probably be in a better position to determine the point---touched on more than once in recent works on aesthetics---how far intellectual pleasure proper, e.g. that of recognizing and classifying objects, enters as a subordinate element into aesthetic enjoyment. Is aesthetic enjoyment essentially social?
One point in the characterization of aesthetic experience has been reserved, namely, the question whether it is essentially a form of social enjoyment. No one doubts that a man often enjoys beauty, e.g. that of a landscape, when alone; yet at such a moment he not only recognizes that his pleasure is a possible one for others, but is probably aware of a sub-conscious wish that others were present to share his enjoyment. Kant went so far as to say that on a desert island a man would adorn neither his hut nor his person. However this be, it seems certain that as a rule we tend to indulge our aesthetic tastes in company with others. This habit of making aesthetic enjoyment a social experience would in itself tend to develop the sympathies and the sympathetic intelligence and thus to promote exchanges of aesthetic experience. The content, too, of our aesthetic experiences would be favourable to such conjoint acts of aesthetic contemplation, and to the mutual sharing of aesthetic experiences; for, as disinterested and universal modes of enjoyment detached from personal interests, they are clearly free from the egoistic exclusiveness which characterizes our private enjoyments which at best can only be participated in by one or two closely attached friends. Our aesthetic enjoyments are thus eminently fitted to be social ones; and as such they become greatly amplified by sympathetic resonance.
We are now in a position to consider a point much discussed of late, namely, the special connection of aesthetic enjoyment with the two senses, sight and hearing. Two questions arise here: (1) Do the other and “lower” senses take any part in aesthetic experience? (2) What are the “higher” ones? With regard to the first it is coming to be recognized that aesthetic pleasure is not strictly confined to the two senses in question. Common language suggests that we find in certain odours and even in certain flavours a value analogous to that implied in calling an object beautiful.
Hegel excluded the other senses—even touch----on the ground that aesthetics had to do only with art, in which there was no place for perceptions of touch. A closer examination has shown that this important sense plays a considerable part in art-effects. And even if this were not so, Hegel’s exclusion of touch from the rank of aesthetic senses would be a striking illustration of the narrowing effect on scientific theory of the identification of aesthetic objects with productions of art. To say that the experience of exploring with the fingers a velvety petal or the smooth surface of a sea-rounded pebble has no aesthetic element savours of a perverse arbitrariness. Touch is no doubt wanting in a prerogative of hearing and sight which we shall presently see to be important, namely, that being acted on by objects at a distance they admit of a simultaneous perception by a number of persons—as indeed even the sense of smell does in a measure. This is probably the chief reason why, according to certain testimony, the blind receive but little aesthetic enjoyment from tactual experience. Yet this drawback is compensated to some extent by the fact that agreeable tactual experience may be taken up as suggested meaning into our visual perceptions.
The two privileged senses, sight and hearing, owe their superiority to a number of considerations. They are the farthest removed from the necessary life functions, with the pressing needs and disturbing cravings which belong to these. Even touch, though important as a source of knowledge, has for its primary function to examine the things which approach our organisms in their relation to this as injurious or harmless. The two higher senses present to us material objects in their least aggressive and menacing manner: visible forms and colours, tones and their combinations, appear when compared with objects felt to be in contact with our body, to be rather semblances or distant signs of material realities than these realities themselves; and this circumstance fits these senses to be in a special way the organs of aesthetic perception with its calm, dreamlike detachment and its enjoyable freedom of movement. They are, moreover, the two senses by the use of which a number of persons may join most perfectly in a common act of aesthetic contemplation. This distinction strengthens their claims to be in a special manner the aesthetic senses, and this for a double reason. (1) It makes them sense-avenues by which each of us obtains the most immediate and most impressive conviction that aesthetic experience is a common possession of the many, and is largely similar in the case of different individuals. (2) It marks them off as the senses by the exercise of which perceptual enjoyment may most readily and certainly be increased through the resonant effects of sympathy. The experiences of the theatre and of the concert-hall sufficiently illustrate these distinguishing functions of the two senses. Other distinguishing prerogatives of sight and hearing flow from the characteristics of their sensations and perceptions, a point to be touched on later.
Our determination of the characteristics of the aesthetic attitude has now been carried far enough to enable us to consider another point much discussed in recent aesthetic literature, viz. the relation of this attitude to that of play. The affinities of the two are striking and are disclosed in everyday language, as when we speak of the “play” of imagination or of “playing” on a musical instrument. Both play and aesthetic contemplation are activities which are controlled by no extraneous end, which run on freely directed only by the intrinsic delight of the activity. Hence they both contrast with the serious work imposed on us and controlled by what we mark off as the necessities of life, such as providing for bodily wants, or rearing a family. They each add a sort of luxurious fringe to life. In aesthetic enjoyment our senses, our intelligence and our emotions are alike released from the constraint of these necessary ends, and may be said to refresh themselves in a kind of play. Finally, they are both characterized by a strong infusion of make-believe, a disposition to substitute productions of the imagination for everyday realities. In this respect, again, they form a contrast to that serious concern with fact and practical truth which the necessary aims of life impose on us. Little wonder, then, that Plato recognized in the contrast between the representative and the useful arts an analogy between play and earnest,10 and that since the time of Schiller so much use has been made of the analogy in aesthetic works.
Yet though similar. the two kinds of activity are distinguishable in important respects. For one thing, aesthetic contemplation pure and simple is a comparatively tranquil and passive attitude, whereas play means doing something and commonly involves some amount of strenuous exertion, either of body or of mind. A closer analogy might be drawn between play and artistic production. Yet even when the parallel is thus narrowed, pretty obvious differences disclose themselves. It is only in their more primitive phases that the two attitudes exhibit a close similarity. As they develop, striking divergences begin to appear. The play mood, instead of approaching the calm contemplative mood of the lover of beauty, involves feelings and impulses which lie at the roots of our practical interests, viz. ambition, rivalry and struggle. It has, moreover, in all its stages a palpable utility---even though this is not realized by the player---serving for the exercise and development of body, intelligence and character. Beauty and art rise high above play in purity of the disinterested attitude, in placid detachment from the serviceable and the necessary, and, still more, in range and variety of refined interest, comprehended in “the love of beauty.” Finally, aesthetic activities are directed by ideal conceptions and standards to which hardly anything corresponds in play save where games of skill take on something of the dignity of a fine art.
So far as to the preliminary delimiting work in aesthetic science. Only a bare indication can be made as to the methods of research by which its advance can be furthered, and as to the several directions of inquiry which it will have to follow. With regard to the former the method of investigation will consist in a careful inquiry into two orders of fact: (1) Objects which common testimony or the history of art show to be widely recognized objects of aesthetic value; (2) records of the aesthetic experience of individuals, whether artists or amateurs.
Since aesthetic experience is brought about and its modes determined by objects possessing certain qualities, it seems evident that scientific aesthetics must make an examination and comparison of these a fundamental part of its problem. These objects will, as already hinted, include both natural ones in the inorganic and organic worlds, and works of art which can be shown to be objects of general or widely recognized aesthetic value.
Without attempting here to discuss adequately the relation of natural beauty to that of art we may note one or two points. Some contemplation and appreciation of the beautiful aspects of nature is not only prior in time to art, but is a condition of its genesis. The enjoyment of the pleasing aspects of land and sea, of mountain and dale, of the innumerable organic forms, has steadily grown with the development of culture; and this growth, though undoubtedly aided by that of the feeling for art---especially painting and poetry---is to a large extent independent of it.12 Some of the finest insight into the secrets of beauty has been gained by those who had only a limited acquaintance with art. What is still more important in the present connection is that the aesthetic experience gained by the direct contemplation of nature includes varieties which art cannot reproduce. It is enough to recall what Helmholtz and others have told us about the limitations of the powers of pictorial art to represent the more brilliant degrees of light; the admissions of painters themselves as to the limits of their art when it seeks to render the finer gradations of light and colour in such common objects as a tree-trunk or a bit of old wall. Nature, moreover, in spreading out her spaces of earth, sea and sky, and in exhibiting the action of her forces, does so on a scale which seems to make sublimity her prerogative in which art vainly endeavors to participate.
On the other hand, it is coming to be seen that the construction of a theory of aesthetic values must be assisted by a much more precise examination than aestheticists are commonly content to make, of works of art. The importance of including these is that they are well-defined objective expressions of what the aesthetic consciousness approves and prefers. In inquiring, for example, into the pleasing relations of colour we might have to wait long for a theory if we were dependent on what even so gifted a writer as Ruskin can tell us about nature’s juxtapositions: whereas if it can be shown that throughout the history of chromatic art or during its better period there has been a tendency to prefer certain combinations, this fact becomes a piece of convincing evidence as to their aesthetic value.
Even here, however, there are sources of uncertainty. It is not true to say that a work of art is a pure outcome of the aesthetic feeling of the artist. even if we take this in a comprehensive sense. It is subject to the influence of all the temporary feelings and tendencies of the time which produced it. The aesthetic motive which is supposed to originate it is apt to be complicated and disguised by other motives, e.g. utility in architecture, an impulse to instruct if not to reform in modern fiction.
Again, if it is said that a certain degree of permanence assures us of the aesthetic value of a feature of art, we are met by the difficulty that custom plays an important part in art, the result of convention fixed by tradition often simulating the aspect of a deep-seated aesthetic preference. In this connection it is to be remarked that even so permanent an element as symmetry may owe its quasiaesthetic value to custom, by which is understood its wide and impressive display in the organic and even the inorganic world.14 Yet the influence of custom taken in this larger sense need not greatly disturb us. In aesthetics, as in ethics, the question of validity has to be kept distinct from that of origin. If symmetry (in general) is appreciated as aesthetically pleasing, the question of its genesis becomes immaterial. Another difficulty, not peculiar to aesthetic investigation, is that of reconstructing the modes of aesthetic consciousness represented by forms of art which differ widely from those of our own age and type of culture.
In utilizing art material for aesthetic theory the theorist will need to note the work recently done by English and German writers on primitive art. And this not merely because of the value of the early forms of art for a theory of the evolution of the aesthetic consciousness; but because the embryonic stages of art are likely to have a peculiar interest as illustrating in a comparatively isolated form some of the simpler modes of aesthetic appreciation, e.g. in the grouping of colours, in the mode of covering a surface with linear ornament. Yet it is not necessary to give primitive art a considerable place in a general aesthetics. As a normative science, it is to be remembered, this is much more immediately concerned with the higher stages of aesthetic culture. In seeking to establish norms or regulative principles, we must, it is evident, make a special study of objects of art which belong to our own level of culture. For these reasons it would appear necessary to include in a general aesthetic theory some reference to the evolution of art and of the aesthetic consciousness.
A further reason for including it is that the evolution of art supplies a most valuable auxiliary criterion of degree or height of aesthetic value. Provided that we distinguish what is a real process of evolution from one of mere change of fashion in taste, and that we confine ourselves to the larger features of the process, we may make the principle of evolution a serviceable one by regarding those forms and features of art as higher in respect of aesthetic value which grow distinct and relatively fixed in the later and better stages of the evolution of art.
This part of aesthetic investigation should be made as exact as possible. Thus in dealing with the triads of colour said to be most frequently employed in the best period of Italian painting the observer should note and record as far as this is possible not only the precise tints, but also the precise degrees of their several luminosities. With regard to elements of form in art, the judicious use of photography and careful measurement would probably help us to understand the practices of art in its better periods. This examination of art material by the aesthetic theorist should be supplemented by a study of what artists have written about their methods, of the rules laid down for students of art, and lastly of the generalizations reached by the more scientific kind of writer upon art.
A proper methodical inquiry into aesthetic objects aided by a knowledge of the practices of art would lead to inductions of such characteristics are aesthetically valuable.”
This preliminary work of aesthetic science in collecting and analysing facts may be extended in two directions: by an examination (a) of the earlier and simpler forms of aesthetic experience, and (b) of the fuller and more complex experiences of those specially trained in the perception and enjoyment of beauty. (a) The former would be illustrated by a more methodical investigation into the rudimentary aesthetic likings of children and of the lower races. Such inquiries may be expected to add to our knowledge of the simpler and more universal forms of aesthetic enjoyment. Some attention has been paid by Darwin and others to germs of taste in birds and other animals. Yet this line of inquiry, though of some value for a theory of the evolution of taste, seems to throw but little light on aesthetic preferences as found in man.
An important feature in this new investigation into simpler modes of aesthetic preference is that it proceeds by way of experiment, that is to say, a methodical testing of the aesthetic preferences of a number of individuals. Fechner introduced the method of experiment into aesthetics in his researches on the preferability (according to Zeising) of the proportion known as the “golden section.” Since his time other experimental inquiries have been made, both as to what forms (e.g. what variety of rectangle) and what combinations of colours are most pleasing. The results of these experiments are distinctly promising, though they have not yet been carried far enough to be made the basis of perfectly trustworthy generalizations.
A valuable portion of the data for a science of aesthetics lies in the recorded experiences of artists, art critics, and others who have specially developed their tastes; This source of information has certainly never been made use of in a complete and methodical manner by theorists, a quotation now and again from writers like Goethe and Ruskin having been deemed sufficient. Yet it is safe to say that an adequate understanding of the finer effects of beauty, both in nature and in art, presupposes the assimilation of what is best in these records. And this not only because they commonly supply us with new and valuable varieties of experience of the more refined kind, but because the aesthetic judgments on nature and art of men in whom the feeling of beauty has been specially cultivated have a greater value than those of others. It may be added that these records are wont to contain reflections which, though wanting in scientific precision, can be utilized by science.
(a) with intellectual interests. Aesthetics is wont to treat of a certain kind of experience as if it were a closed compartment. Yet there is in reality no such perfect seclusion. Our enjoyment of beauty, though to be distinguished from our intellectual and our practical interests, touches and interacts with these. With regard to intellectual interests it is clear that much of the mental activity which enters into our aesthetic enjoyment is intellectual—e.g. in the perception of the relations of form. even though it stood short of the abstract analysis of scientific observation. Again, in appreciating beauty of type which involves according to Taine a recognition of the most important characters of the species, we are, it is evident, close to the scientific point of view. Similarly, when scientific knowledge enables us in the mood of aesthetic contemplation to retrace imaginatively the mode of formation of a cloud or a mountain form, or the mode in which a climbing plant finds its way upwards. It is for aesthetics to recognize the fact, and to discriminate a legitimate aesthetic function of scientific ideas when they enlarge the scope of a pleasurable play of the imagination, and are freed from the control of a serious purpose of explaining what is seen.
(b) with practical interests. A similar remark applies to the contacts of our aesthetic with our practical interests. While as dominant factors the latter influence our feeling for beauty in an indirect and subordinate way. This is recognized by those (e.g. Home) who insist on a particular kind of aesthetic value under the name of relative beauty, or the pleasing aspect of fitness for a purpose. If a drinking-vessel please in part because of its perfect adaptation to its purpose, the aesthetic value ascribed to it seems to derive something from a feeling of respect for utility itself. In another way beauty reasserts in modern aesthetics that kinship with utility on which it insisted in the days of Socrates. The idea that typical beauty coincides with what is vigorous and conducive to the conservation of the species is as old as Hobbes.
Darwin and his followers have developed the biological conception that sexual selection tends to develop aesthetic preferences along lines which correspond to what subserves the maintenance of the species or tribe. Recent writers have shown how the rude germs of aesthetic activity in primitive types of community would subserve necessary tribal ends—e.g. musical rhythm by exercising members of the tribe in concerted war-like action. Yet these interesting speculations have to do rather with the earlier stages of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty than with its functions in the higher stages.
An idea of a social utility in aesthetic experience which does demand the attention of the theorist is that the culture of beauty and art has a socializing influence, helping to give to our emotional experience new forms of expression whereby our sympathies are deepened and enlarged.37 The further elucidation of this element of humanizing influence in aesthetic enjoyment may be expected to throw new light on the question, much discussed throughout the history of aesthetics, of the relation of the science to ethics, by showing that they have a common root in our sympathetic nature and interest in humanity.
In order to complete the outline of aesthetic theory we need to glance at the relation of general aesthetics to the special problems of Fine Art. It is evident that the definition of the aims and methods of art, both as a whole and in its several forms, involving as it does special technical knowledge, may with advantage be treated apart from a general theory. At the same time the study of art raises larger problems which require to be dealt with to some extent by this theory. We may instance the group of problems which have to do with the relation of art to “beauty” in its narrower sense, such as the function of the painful and of the ugly in art, the meaning of artistic imitation and truth to nature, of idealization, and the nature of artistic illusion; also the question of the didactic and of the moral function of art. Even more special problems of art, such as the effect of the tragic, the nature of musical expression, can only be adequately treated in the light of a general aesthetic theory.
In conclusion, it may be pointed out that the psychological theorist has of late been busy in an outlying region of art-lore, inquiring into the nature of the artistic impulse and temperament, and into the processes of imaginative creation.
These inquiries have been carried out to some extent in connection with studies of the origin of art, and of the relation of art to the social environment. Their importance for aesthetics lies in the circumstance that they are fitted to throw light upon the aesthetic consciousness as it is developed in those who are not only in a special sense cultivators of it, but represent in a peculiar manner the ideas and the aims of art.
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