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Aesthetic Responsiveness

OUR examination has thus proceeded from aesthetic contemplation
to the work of Art, which seeks to secure and satisfy it while
furthering some of life's various other claims. We must now go back
to aesthetic contemplation and find out how the beholder meets
these efforts made to secure and satisfy his contemplative attention.
For the Reader will by this time have grasped that art can do nothing
without the collaboration of the beholder or listener; and that this
collaboration, so far from consisting in the passive "being impressed
by beauty" which unscientific aestheticians imagined as analogous
to "being impressed by sensuous qualities," by hot or cold or sweet
or sour, is in reality a combination of higher activities, second in
complexity and intensity only to that of the artist himself.

We have seen in the immediately preceding chapter that the most
deliberate, though not the essential, part of the artist's business is to
provide against any possible disturbance of the beholder's
responsive activity, and of course also to increase by every means
that output of responsive activity. But the sources of it are in the
beholder, and beyond the control of the most ingenious artistic
devices and the most violent artistic appeals. There is indeed no
better proof of the active nature of aesthetic appreciation than the
fact that such appreciation is so often not forthcoming. Even mere
sensations, those impressions of single qualities to which we are
most unresistingly passive, are not pleasurable without a favourable
reaction of the body's chemistry: the same taste or smell will be
attractive or repulsive according as we have recently eaten. And
however indomitably colour- and sound-sensations force themselves
upon us, our submission to them will not be accompanied by even
the most "passive" pleasure if we are bodily or mentally out of sorts.
How much more frequent must be lack of receptiveness when,
instead of dealing with sensations whose intensity depends after
all two thirds upon the strength of the outer stimulation, we deal
with perceptions which include the bodily and mental activities of
exploring a shape and establishing among its constituent sensations
relationships both to each other and to ourselves; activities without
which there would be for the beholder no shape at all, but
mere ragbag chaos!--And in calculating the likelihood of a
perceptive empathic response we must remember that such active
shape-perception, however instantaneous as compared with the cumbrous
processes of locomotion, nevertheless requires a perfectly
measurable time, and requires therefore that its constituent processes
be held in memory for comparison and coordination, quite as much
as the similar processes by which we take stock of the relations of
sequence of sounds. All this mental activity, less explicit but not less
intense or complex than that of logically "following" an argument, is
therefore such that we are by no means always able or willing to
furnish it. Not able, because the need for practical decisions hurries
us into that rapid inference from a minimum of perception to a
minimum of associated experience which we call "recognising
things," and thus out of the presence of the perfunctorily dealt with
shapes. Not willing, because our nervous condition may be unable
for the strain of shape perception; and our emotional bias (what we
call our interest) may be favourable to some incompatible kind of
activity. Until quite recently (and despite Fechner's famous
introductory experiments) aesthetics have been little more than a
branch of metaphysical speculation, and it is only nowadays that the
bare fact of aesthetic responsiveness is beginning to be studied. So
far as I have myself succeeded in doing so, I think I can assure the
Reader that if he will note down, day by day, the amount of pleasure
he has been able to take in works of art, he will soon recognise the
existence of aesthetic responsiveness and its highly variable nature.
Should the same Reader develop an interest in such (often
humiliating) examination into his own aesthetic experience, he will
discover varieties of it which will illustrate some of the chief
principles contained in this little book. His diary will report days
when aesthetic appreciation has begun with the instant of entering a
collection of pictures or statues, indeed sometimes pre-existed as he
went through the streets noticing the unwonted charm of familiar
objects; other days when enjoyment has come only after an effort of
attention; others when, to paraphrase Coleridge, he saw, not felt,
how beautiful things are; and finally, through other varieties of
aesthetic experience, days upon which only shortcomings and
absurdities have laid hold of his attention. In the course of such
aesthetical self-examination and confession, the Reader might also
become acquainted with days whose experience confirmed my never
sufficiently repeated distinction between contemplating Shapes and
thinking about Things; or, in ordinary aesthetic terminology
between form and subject. For there are days when pictures or
statues will indeed afford pleasurable interest, but interest in the
things represented, not in the shapes; a picture appealing even
forcibly to our dramatic or religious or romantic side; or

contrariwise, to our scientific one. There are days when he may be
deeply moved by a Guido Reni martyrdom, or absorbed in the
"Marriage a la Mode"; days when even Giorgione's Pastoral may (as
in Rossetti's sonnet) mean nothing beyond the languid pleasure of
sitting on the grass after a burning day and listening to the plash of
water and the tuning of instruments; the same thought and emotion,
the same interest and pleasure, being equally obtainable from an
inn-parlour oleograph. Then, as regards scientific interest and pleasure,
there may be days when the diarist will be quite delighted with a
hideous picture, because it affords some chronological clue, or new
point of comparison. "This dates such or such a style"--"Plein
Air already attempted by a Giottesque! Degas forestalled by a Cave
Dweller!" etc. etc. And finally days when the Diarist is haunted by
the thought of what the represented person will do next: "Would
Michelangelo's Jeremiah knock his head if he got up?"--"How will
the Discobolus recover when he has let go the quoit?"--or haunted
by thoughts even more frivolous (though not any less aesthetically
irrelevant!) like "How wonderfully like Mrs So and So!" "The living
image of Major Blank!"--"How I detest auburn people with
sealing-wax lips!" ad lib.

Such different thinkings away from the shapes are often traceable
to previous orientation of the thoughts or to special states of body
and feelings. But explicable or not in the particular case, these
varieties of one's own aesthetic responsiveness will persuade the
Reader who has verified their existence, that contemplative
satisfaction in shapes and its specific emotion cannot be given by the
greatest artist or the finest tradition, unless the beholder meets their
efforts more than half way.

The spontaneous collaboration of the beholder is especially
indispensable for Aesthetic Empathy. As we have seen, empathic
modes of movement and energy and intention are attributed to
shapes and to shape elements, in consequence of the modes of
movement and energy involved in mere shape perception; but shape
perception does not necessarily call forth empathic imagination. And
the larger or smaller dynamic dramas of effort, resistance,
reconciliation, cooperation which constitute the most poignant
interest of a pictorial or plastic composition, are inhibited by bodily
or mental states of a contrary character. We cease to feel
(although we may continue, like Coleridge, to see) that the lines
of a mountain or a statue are rising, if we ourselves happen to feel
as if our feet were of lead and our joints turning to water. The
coordinated interplay of empathic movement which makes certain
mediaeval floor patterns, and also Leonardo's compositions, into
whirling harmonies as of a planetary system, cannot take place in
our imagination on days of restlessness and lack of concentration.
Nay it may happen that arrangements of lines which would flutter
and flurry us on days of quiet appreciativeness, will become in every
sense "sympathetic" on days when we ourselves feel fluttered and
flurried. But lack of responsiveness may be due to other causes. As
there are combinations of lines which take longer to perceive
because their elements or their coordinating principles are
unfamiliar, so, and even more so, are there empathic schemes (or
dramas) which baffle dynamic imagination when accustomed to
something else and when it therefore meets the new demand with an
unsuitable empathic response. Empathy is, even more than mere
perception, a question of our activities and therefore of our habits;
and the aesthetic sensitiveness of a time and country (say the
Florentine fourteenth century) with a habit of round arch and
horizontals like that of Pisan architecture, could never take with
enthusiasm to the pointed ogeeval ellipse, the oblique directions and
unstable equilibrium, the drama of touch and go strain and resistance,
of French Gothic; whence a constant readmission of the round
arched shapes into the imported style, and a speedy return to the
familiar empathic schemes in the architecture of the early
Renaissance. On the other hand the persistence of Gothic detail in
Northern architecture of the sixteenth and occasionally the
seventeenth century, shows how insipid the round arch and straight
entablature must have felt to people accustomed to the empathy of
Gothic shapes. Nothing is so routinist as imagination and emotion;
and empathy, which partakes of both, is therefore more dependent
on familiarity than is the perception by which it is started: Spohr,
and the other professional contemporaries of Beethoven, probably
heard and technically understood all the peculiarities of his last
quartets; but they liked them none the better.

On the other hand continued repetition notoriously begets
indifference. We cease to look at a shape which we "know by heart"
and we cease to interpret in terms of our own activities and
intentions when curiosity and expectation no longer let loose our
dynamic imagination. Hence while utter unfamiliarity baffles
aesthetic responsiveness, excessive familiarity prevents its starting
at all. Indeed both perceptive clearness and empathic intensity reach
their climax in the case of shapes which afford the excitement of
tracking familiarity in novelty, the stimulation of acute comparison,
the emotional ups and downs of expectation and partial recognition,
or of recognition when unexpected, the latter having, as we know
when we notice that a stranger has the trick of speech or gesture of
an acquaintance, a very penetrating emotional warmth. Such
discovery of the novel in the familiar, and of the familiar in the new,
will he frequent in proportion to the definiteness and complexity of
the shapes, and in proportion also to the sensitiveness and steadiness
of the beholder's attention; while on the contrary "obvious" qualities
of shape and superficial attention both tend to exhaust interest and
demand change. This exhaustion of interest and consequent demand
for change unites with the changing non-aesthetic aims imposed on
art, together producing innovation. And the more superficial the
aesthetic attention given by the beholders, the quicker will style
succeed style, and shapes and shape-schemes be done to death by
exaggeration or left in the lurch before their maturity; a state of
affairs especially noticeable in our own day.

The above is a series of illustrations of the fact that aesthetic
pleasure depends as much on the activities of the beholder as on
those of the artist. Unfamiliarity or over-familiarity explain a large
part of the aesthetic non-responsiveness summed up in the saying
that there is no disputing of tastes. And even within the circle of
habitual responsiveness to some particular style, or master, there are,
as we have just seen, days and hours when an individual beholder's
perception and empathic imagination do not act in such manner as to
afford the usual pleasure. But these occasional, even frequent, lapses
must not diminish our belief either in the power of art or in the
deeply organised and inevitable nature of aesthetic preference as a
whole. What the knowledge of such fluctuations ought to bring
home is that beauty of shape is most spontaneously and completely
appreciated when the attention, instead of being called upon, as in
galleries and concerts, for the mere purpose of aesthetic enjoyment,
is on the contrary, directed to the artistic or "natural" beauty of
shapes, in consequence of some other already existing interest. No
one except an art-critic sees a new picture or statue without first
asking "What does it represent?"; shape-perception and aesthetic
empathy arising incidentally in the examination which this question
leads to. The truth is that even the art-critic is oftenest brought into
enforced contemplation of the artistic shape by some other question
which arises from his particular bias: By whom? of what precise
date? Even such technical questions as "where and when restored or
repainted?" will elicit the necessary output of attention. It is possible
and legitimate to be interested in a work of art for a dozen reasons
besides aesthetic appreciation; each of these interests has its own
sentimental, scientific, dramatic or even moneymaking emotion; and
there is no loss for art, but rather a gain, if we fall back upon one of
them when the specific aesthetic response is slow or not
forthcoming. Art has other aims besides aesthetic satisfaction; and
aesthetic satisfaction will not come any the quicker for turning our
backs upon these non-aesthetic aims. The very worst attitude
towards art is that of the holiday-maker who comes into its presence
with no ulterior interest or business, and nothing but the hope of an
aesthetic emotion which is most often denied him. Indeed such
seeking of aesthetic pleasure for its own sake would lead to even
more of the blank despondency characteristic of so many gallery
goers, were it not for another peculiarity of aesthetic responsiveness,
which is responsible for very puzzling effects. This saving grace of
the tourist, and (as we shall see) this pitfall of the art-expert, is what
I propose to call the Transferability of Aesthetic Emotion.

Next: The Storage And Transfer Of Emotion

Previous: The Co-operation Of Things And Shapes

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