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Attention To Shapes








TO explain how art in general, and any art in particular, succeeds in
reconciling these contradictory demands, I must remind the Reader
of what I said (p. 93) about the satisfactory or unsatisfactory
possibilities of shapes having begun to be noticed in the moments of
slackened attention to the processes of manufacturing the objects
embodying those shapes, and in the intervals between practical
employment of these more or less shapely objects. And I must ask
him to connect with these remarks a previous passage (p. 44)
concerning the intermittent nature of normal acts of attention, and
their alternation as constituting on-and-off beats. The deduction
from these two converging statements is that, contrary to the a-priori
theories making aesthetic contemplation an exception, a kind of
bank holiday, to daily life, it is in reality one-half of daily life's
natural and healthy rythm. That the real state of affairs, as revealed
by psychological experiment and observation, should have escaped
the notice of so many aestheticians, is probably due to their theories
starting from artistic production rather than from aesthetic
appreciation, without which art would after all probably never have
come into existence.

The production of the simplest work of art cannot indeed be thought
of as one of the alternations of everyday attention, because it is a
long, complex and repeatedly resumed process, a whole piece of life,
including in itself hundreds and thousands of alternations of doing
and looking, of discursive thinking of aims and ways and means
and of contemplation of aesthetic results. For even the humblest
artist has to think of whatever objects or processes his work aims at
representing, conveying or facilitating; and to think also of the
objects, marble, wood, paints, voices, and of the processes, drawing,
cutting, harmonic combining, by which he attempts to compass one
of the above-mentioned results. The artist is not only an aesthetically
appreciative person; he is, in his own way, a man of science and a
man of practical devices, an expert, a craftsman and an engineer. To
produce a work of art is not an interlude in his life, but his life's
main business; and he therefore stands apart, as every busy specialist
must, from the business of other specialists, of those ministering to
mankind's scientific and practical interests.

But while it takes days, months, sometimes years to produce a work
of art, it may require (the process has been submitted to exact
measurement by the stop-watch) not minutes but seconds, to take
stock of that work of art in such manner as to carry away its every
detail of shape, and to continue dealing with it in memory. The
unsuspected part played by memory explains why aesthetic
contemplation can be and normally is, an intermittent function
alternating with practical doing and thinking. It is in memory,
though memory dealing with what we call the present, that we
gather up parts into wholes and turn consecutive measurements into
simultaneous relations; and it is probably in memory that we deal
empathically with shapes, investing their already perceived
directions and relations with the remembered qualities of our own
activities, aims and moods. And similarly it is thanks to memory that
the brief and intermittent acts of aesthetic appreciation are combined
into a network of contemplation which intermeshes with our other
thoughts and doings, and yet remains different from them, as the
restorative functions of life remain different from life's expenditure,
although interwoven with them. Every Reader with any habit of
self-observation knows how poignant an impression of beauty may be
got, as through the window of an express train, in the intermittence
of practical business or abstract thinking, nay even in what I have
called the off-beat of deepest personal emotion, the very stress of
the practical, intellectual or personal instant (for the great
happenings of life are measured in seconds!) apparently driving in
by contrast, or conveying on its excitement, that irrelevant aesthetic
contents of the off-beat of attention. And while the practical or
intellectual interest changes, while the personal emotion subsides,
that aesthetic impression remains; remains or recurs, united, through
every intermittence, by the feeling of identity, that identity which,
like the rising of the mountain, is due to the reiterative nature of
shape-contemplation: the fragments of melody may be interrupted in
our memory by all manner of other thoughts, but they will recur and
coalesce, and recurring and coalescing, bring with them the
particular mood which their rythms and intervals have awakened in
us and awaken once more.

That diagrammatic Man on the Hill in reality thought away from
the landscape quite as much as his practical and scientific
companions; what he did, and they did not, was to think back to it;
and think back to it always with the same references of lines and
angles, the same relations of directions and impacts, of parts and
wholes. And perhaps the restorative, the healing quality of aesthetic
contemplation is due, in large part, to the fact that, in the perpetual
flux of action and thought, it represents reiteration and therefore
stability.

Be that as it may, the intermittent but recurrent character of shape
contemplation, the fact that it is inconceivably brief and amazingly
repetitive, that it has the essential quality of identity because of
reiteration, all this explains also two chief points of our subject. First:
how an aesthetic impression, intentionally or accidentally conveyed
in the course of wholly different interests, can become a constant
accompaniment to the shifting preoccupations of existence, like the
remembered songs which sing themselves silently in our mind and
the remembered landscapes becoming an intangible background to
our ever-varying thoughts. And, secondly, it explains how art can
fulfil the behests of our changing and discursive interest in things
while satisfying the imperious unchanging demands of the
contemplated preference for beautiful aspects. And thus we return to
my starting-point in dealing with art: that art is conditioned by the
desire for beauty while pursuing entirely different aims, and
executing any one of a variety of wholly independent non-aesthetic
tasks.





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Previous: The Aims Of Art



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