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From The Thing To The Shape








THE necessities of analysis and exposition have led us from the
Shape to the Thing, from aesthetic contemplation to discursive and
practical thinking. But, as the foregoing chapter itself suggests, the
real order of precedence, both for the individual and the race, is
inevitably the reverse, since without a primary and dominant interest
in things no creatures would have survived to develop an interest in
shapes.

Indeed, considering the imperative need for an ever abbreviated and
often automatic system of human reactions to sense data, it is by no
means easy to understand (and the problem has therefore been
utterly neglected) how mankind ever came to evolve any process as
lengthy and complicated as that form-contemplation upon which all
aesthetic preference depends. I will hazard the suggestion that
familiarity with shapes took its original evolutional utility, as well as
its origin, from the dangers of over rapid and uncritical inference
concerning the qualities of things and man's proper reactions
towards them. It was necessary, no doubt, that the roughest
suggestion of a bear's growl and a bear's outline should send our
earliest ancestors into their sheltering caves. But the occasional
discovery that the bear was not a bear but some more harmless
and edible animal must have brought about a comparison, a
discrimination between the visible aspects of the two beasts, and a
mental storage of their difference in shape, gait and colour.
Similarly the deluding resemblance between poisonous and
nutritious fruits and roots, would result, as the resemblance between
the nurse's finger and nipple results with the infant, in attention to
visible details, until the acquisition of vivid mental images became
the chief item of the savage man's education, as it still is of the
self-education of the modern child. This evolution of interest in visible
aspects would of course increase tenfold as soon as mankind took to
making things whose usefulness (i.e. their still non-existent
qualities) might be jeopardised by a mistake concerning their shape.
For long after over and under, straight and oblique, right and
left, had become habitual perceptions in dealing with food and
fuel, the effective aim of a stone, the satisfactory flight of an arrow,
would be discovered to depend upon more or less of what we call
horizontals and perpendiculars, curves and angles; and the stability
of a fibrous tissue upon the intervals of crossing and recrossing, the
rythmical or symmetrical arrangements revealed by the hand or eye.
In short, making, being inevitably shaping, would have
developed a more and more accurate perception and recollection of
every detail of shape. And not only would there arise a comparison
between one shape and another shape, but between the shape
actually under one's eyes and the shape no longer present, between
the shape as it really was and the shape as it ought to be. Thus in the
very course of practical making of things there would come to be
little interludes, recognised as useful, first of more and more
careful looking and comparing, and then of real contemplation:
contemplation of the arrow-head you were chipping, of the mat
you were weaving, of the pot you were rubbing into shape;
contemplation also of the other arrow-head or mat or pot existing
only in your wishes; of the shape you were trying to obtain with a
premonitory emotion of the effect which its peculiarities would
produce when once made visible to your eye! For the man cutting
the arrow-head, the woman plaiting the mat, becoming familiar with
the appropriate shapes of each and thinking of the various individual
arrow-heads or mats of the same type, would become aware of the
different effect which such shapes had on the person who looked at
them. Some of these shapes would be so dull, increasing the
tediousness of chipping and filing or of laying strand over strand;
others so alert, entertaining and likeable, as if they were helping in
the work; others, although equally compatible with utility, fussing or
distressing one, never doing what one expected their lines and
curves to do. To these suppositions I would add a few more
suggestions regarding the evolution of shape-contemplation out of
man's perfunctory and semi-automatic seeing of "Things." The
handicraftsman, armourer, weaver, or potter, benefits by his own
and his forerunners' practical experience of which shape is the more
adapted for use and wear, and which way to set about producing it;
his technical skill becomes half automatic, so that his eye and mind,
acting as mere overseers to his muscles, have plenty of time for
contemplation so long as everything goes right and no new moves
have to be made. And once the handicraftsman contemplates the
shape as it issues from his fingers, his mind will be gripped by that
liking or disliking expressed by the words "beautiful" and "ugly."
Neither is this all. The owner of a weapon or a vessel or piece of
tissue, is not always intent upon employing it; in proportion to its
usefulness and durability and to the amount of time, good luck, skill
or strength required to make or to obtain it, this chattel will turn
from a slave into a comrade. It is furbished or mended, displayed to
others, boasted over, perhaps sung over as Alan Breck sang over his
sword. The owner's eye (and not less that of the man envious of the
owner!) caresses its shape; and its shape, all its well-known
ins-and-outs and ups-and-downs, haunts the memory, ready to start into
vividness whenever similar objects come under comparison. Now
what holds good of primaeval and savage man holds good also of
civilized, perhaps even of ourselves among our machine made and
easily replaced properties. The shape of the things we make and use
offers itself for contemplation in those interludes of inattention
which are half of the rythm of all healthful work. And it is this
normal rythm of attention swinging from effort to ease, which
explains how art has come to be a part of life, how mere aspects
have acquired for our feelings an importance rivalling that of things.

I therefore commend to the Reader the now somewhat unfashionable
hypothesis of Semper and his school, according to which the first
preference for beauty of shape must be sought for in those arts
like stone and metal work, pottery and weaving, which give
opportunities for repetition, reduplication, hence rythm and
symmetry, and whose material and technique produce what are
called geometric patterns, meaning such as exist in two dimensions
and do not imitate the shapes of real objects. This theory has been
discredited by the discovery that very primitive and savage mankind
possessed a kind of art of totally different nature, and which analogy
with that of children suggests as earlier than that of pattern: the art
which the ingenious hypothesis of Mr Henry Balfour derives from
recognition of accidental resemblances between the shapes and
stains of wood or stone and such creatures and objects as happen to
be uppermost in the mind of the observer, who cuts or paints
whatever may be needed to complete the likeness and enable others
to perceive the suggestion. Whether or not this was its origin, there
seems to have existed in earliest times such an art of a strictly
representative kind, serving (like the spontaneous art of children) to
evoke the idea of whatever was interesting to the craftsman and his
clients, and doubtless practically to have some desirable magic
effect upon the realities of things. But (to return to the hypothesis of
the aesthetic primacy of geometric and non-representative art) it is
certain that although such early representations occasionally attain
marvellous life-likeness and anatomical correctness, yet they do not
at first show any corresponding care for symmetrical and rythmical
arrangement. The bisons and wild boars, for instance, of the
Altamira cave frescoes, do indeed display vigour and beauty in the
lines constituting them, proving that successful dealing with shape,
even if appealing only to practical interest, inevitably calls forth the
empathic imagination of the more gifted artists; but these
marvellously drawn figures are all huddled together or scattered as
out of a rag-bag; and, what is still more significant, they lack that
insistence on the feet which not only suggests ground beneath them
but, in so doing, furnishes a horizontal by which to start, measure
and take the bearings of all other lines. These astonishing
palaeolithic artists (and indeed the very earliest Egyptian and Greek
ones) seem to have thought only of the living models and their
present and future movements, and to have cared as little for lines
and angles as the modern children whose drawings have been
instructively compared with theirs by Levinstein and others. I
therefore venture to suggest that such aesthetically essential
attention to direction and composition must have been applied to
representative art when its realistic figures were gradually
incorporated into the patterns of the weaver and the potter. Such
"stylisation" is still described by art historians as a "degeneration"
due to unintelligent repetition; but it was on the contrary the
integrating process by which the representative element was
subjected to such aesthetic preferences as had been established in
the manufacture of objects whose usefulness or whose production
involved accurate measurement and equilibrium as in the case of
pottery or weapons, or rythmical reduplication as in that of textiles.

Be this question as it may (and the increasing study of the origin and
evolution of human faculties will some day settle it!) we already
know enough to affirm that while in the very earliest art the
shape-element and the element of representation are usually separate, the
two get gradually combined as civilisation advances, and the shapes
originally interesting only inasmuch as suggestions (hence as
magical equivalents) or things, and employed for religious,
recording, or self-expressive purposes, become subjected to
selection and rearrangement by the habit of avoiding disagreeable
perceptive and empathic activities and the desire of giving scope to
agreeable ones. Nay the whole subsequent history of painting and
sculpture could be formulated as the perpetual starting up of new
representative interests, new interests in things, their spatial
existence, locomotion, anatomy, their reaction to light, and also their
psychological and dramatic possibilities; and the subordination of
these ever-changing interests in things to the unchanging habit of
arranging visible shapes so as to diminish opportunities for the
contemplative dissatisfaction and increase opportunities for the
contemplative satisfaction to which we attach the respective names
of "ugly" and "beautiful."





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