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From The Shape To The Thing








SUCH are the satisfactions and dissatisfactions, impersonal and
unpractical, we can receive, or in reality, give ourselves, in the
contemplation of shape.

But life has little leisure for contemplation; it demands
recognition, inference and readiness for active adaptation. Or
rather life forces us to deal with shapes mainly inasmuch as they
indicate the actual or possible existence of other groups of qualities
which may help or hurt us. Life hurries us into recognising
Things.

Now the first peculiarity distinguishing things from shapes is
that they can occupy more or less cubic space: we can hit up
against them, displace them or be displaced by them, and in such
process of displacing or resisting displacement, we become aware of
two other peculiarities distinguishing things from shapes: they have
weight in varying degrees and texture of various sorts.
Otherwise expressed, things have body, they exist in three
dimensional space; while shapes although they are often aspects
of things (say statues or vases) having body and cubic existence,
shapes as shapes are two dimensional and bodiless.

So many of the critical applications of aesthetic, as well as of the
historical problems of art-evolution are connected with this fact or
rather the continued misunderstanding of it, that it is well to remind
the Reader of what general Psychology can teach us of the
perception of the Third Dimension. A very slight knowledge of
cubic existence, in the sense of relief, is undoubtedly furnished as
the stereoscope furnishes it, by the inevitable slight divergence
between the two eyes; an even more infinitesimal dose of such
knowledge is claimed for the surfaces of each eye separately. But
whatever notions of three-dimensional space might have been
developed from such rudiments, the perception of cubic existence
which we actually possess and employ, is undeniably based upon the
incomparably more important data afforded by locomotion, under
which term I include even the tiny pressure of a finger against a
surface, and the exploration of a hollow tooth by the tip of the
tongue. The muscular adjustments made in such locomotion become
associated by repetition with the two-dimensional arrangements of
colour and light revealed by the eye, the two-dimensional being thus
turned into the three-dimensional in our everyday experience. But
the mistakes we occasionally make, for instance taking a road seen
from above for a church-tower projecting out of the plain, or the
perspective of a mountain range for its cubic shape, occasionally
reveal that we do not really see three-dimensional objects, but
merely infer them by connecting visual data with the result of
locomotor experience. The truth of this commonplace of psychology
can be tested by the experiment of making now one, now the other,
colour of a floor pattern seem convex or concave according as we
think of it as a light flower on a dark ground, or as a white cavity
banked in by a dark ridge. And when the philistine (who may be you
or me!) exclaims against the "out of drawing" and false perspective
of unfamiliar styles of painting, he is, nine times out of ten, merely
expressing his inability to identify two-dimensional shapes as
"representing" three-dimensional things; so far proving that we do
not decipher the cubic relations of a picture until we have guessed
what that picture is supposed to stand for. And this is my reason for
saying that visible shapes, though they may be aspects of cubic
objects, have no body; and that the thought of their volume, their
weight and their texture, is due to an interruption of our
contemplation of shape by an excursion among the recollections of
qualities which shapes, as shapes, cannot possess.

And here I would forestall the Reader's objection that the feeling of
effort and resistance, essential to all our empathic dealings with
two-dimensional shapes, must, after all, be due to weight, which we
have just described as a quality shapes cannot possess. My answer is
that Empathy has extracted and schematised effort and resistance by
the elimination of the thought of weight, as by the elimination of the
awareness of our bodily tensions; and that it is just this elimination
of all incompatible qualities which allows us to attribute activities to
those two-dimensional shapes, and to feel these activities, with a
vividness undiminished by the thought of any other circumstances.

With cubic existence (and its correlative three-dimensional
space), with weight and texture we have therefore got from the
contemplated shape to a thought alien to that shape and its
contemplation. The thought, to which life and its needs and dangers
has given precedence over every other: What Thing is behind this
shape, what qualities must be inferred from this aspect? After the
possibility of occupying so much space, the most important quality
which things can have for our hopes and fears, is the possibility of
altering their occupation of space; not our locomotion, but theirs.
I call it locomotion rather than movement, because we have
direct experience only of our own movements, and infer similar
movement in other beings and objects because of their change of
place either across our motionless eye or across some other object
whose relation to our motionless eye remains unchanged. I call it
locomotion also to accentuate its difference from the movement
attributed to the shape of the Rising Mountain, movement felt by
us to be going on but not expected to result in any change of the
mountain's space relations, which are precisely what would be
altered by the mountain's locomotion.

The practical question about a shape is therefore: Does it warrant
the inference of a thing able to change its position in
three-dimensional space? to advance or recede from us? And if so in
what manner? Will it, like a loose stone, fall upon us? like flame, rise
towards us? like water, spread over us? Or will it change its place
only if we supply the necessary locomotion? Briefly: is the
thing of which we see the shape inert or active? And if this shape
belongs to a thing possessing activity of its own, is its locomotion of
that slow regular kind we call the growth and spreading of plants?
Or of the sudden, wilful kind we know in animals and men? What
does this shape tell us of such more formidable locomotion? Are
these details of curve and colour to be interpreted into jointed limbs,
can the thing fling out laterally, run after us, can it catch and
swallow us? Or is it such that we can do thus by it? Does this
shape suggest the thing's possession of desires and purposes which
we can deal with? And if so, why is it where it is? Whence does it
come? What is it going to do? What is it thinking of (if it can
think)? How will it feel towards us (if it can feel)? What would it
say (if it could speak)? What will be its future and what may have
been its past? To sum all up: What does the presence of this shape
lead us to think and do and feel?

Such are a few of the thoughts started by that shape and the
possibility of its belonging to a thing. And even when, as we shall
sometimes find, they continually return back to the shape and play
round and round it in centrifugal and centripetal alternations, yet all
these thoughts are excursions, however brief, from the world of
definite unchanging shapes into that of various and ever varying
things; interruptions, even if (as we shall later see) intensifying
interruptions, of that concentrated and coordinated contemplation of
shapes, with which we have hitherto dealt. And these excursions,
and a great many more, from the world of shapes into that of things,
are what we shall deal with, when we come to Art, under the
heading of representation and suggestion, or, as is usually said,
of subject and expression as opposed to form.





Next: From The Thing To The Shape

Previous: The Character Of Shapes



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