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The Aims Of Art

WE have thus at last got to Art, which the Reader may have
expected to be dealt with at the outset of a primer on the Beautiful.

Why this could not be the case, will be more and more apparent in
my remaining chapters. And, in order to make those coming
chapters easier to grasp, I may as well forestall and tabulate the
views they embody upon the relation between the Beautiful and Art.
These generalisations are as follows:

Although it is historically probable that the habit of avoiding
ugliness and seeking beauty of shape may have been originally
established by utilitarian attention to the non-imitative
("geometrical") shapes of weaving, pottery and implement-making,
and transferred from these crafts to the shapes intended to represent
or imitate natural objects, yet the distinction between Beautiful
and Ugly does not belong either solely or necessarily to what we
call Art. Therefore the satisfaction of the shape-perceptive or
aesthetic preferences must not be confused with any of the many and
various other aims and activities to which art is due and by which it
is carried on. Conversely: although in its more developed phases,
and after the attainment of technical facility, art has been
differentiated from other human employment by its foreseeing the
possibility of shape-contemplation and therefore submitting itself to
what I have elsewhere called the aesthetic imperative, yet art has
invariably started from some desire other than that of affording
satisfactory shape-contemplation, with the one exception of cases
where it has been used to keep or reproduce opportunities of such
shape contemplation already accidentally afforded by natural shapes,
say, those of flowers or animals or landscapes, or even occasionally
of human beings, which had already been enjoyed as beautiful. All
art therefore, except that of children, savages, ignoramuses and
extreme innovators, invariably avoids ugly shapes and seeks for
beautiful ones; but art does this while pursuing all manner of
different aims. These non-aesthetic aims of art may be roughly
divided into (A) the making of useful objects ranging from clothes
to weapons and from a pitcher to a temple; (B) the registering or
transmitting of facts and their visualising, as in portraits, historical
pictures or literature, and book illustration; and (C) the awakening,
intensifying or maintaining of definite emotional states, as especially
by music and literature, but also by painting and architecture when
employed as "aids to devotion." And these large classes may again
be subdivided and connected, if the Reader has a mind to, into
utilitarian, social, ritual, sentimental, scientific and other aims, some
of them not countenanced or not avowed by contemporary morality.

How the aesthetic imperative, i.e. the necessities of satisfactory
shape-contemplation, qualifies and deflects the pursuit of such
non-aesthetic aims of art can be shown by comparing, for instance, the
mere audible devices for conveying conventional meaning and
producing and keeping up emotional conditions, viz. the hootings
and screechings of modern industrialism no less than the ritual
noises of savages, with the arrangements of well constituted pitch,
rythm, tonality and harmony in which military, religious or dance
music has disguised its non-aesthetic functions of conveying signals
or acting on the nerves. Whatever is unnecessary for either of these
motives (or any others) for making a noise, can be put to the account
of the desire to avoid ugliness and enjoy beauty. But the workings of
the aesthetic imperative can best be studied in the Art of the
visual-representative group, and especially in painting, which allows us to
follow the interplay of the desire to be told (or tell) facts about
things with the desire to contemplate shapes, and to contemplate
them (otherwise we should not contemplate!) with sensuous,
intellectual and empathic satisfaction.

This brings us back to the Third Dimension, of which the possession
is, as have we seen, the chief difference between Things, which
can alter their aspect in the course of their own and our actions, and
Shapes, which can only be contemplated by our bodily and mental
eye, and neither altered nor thought of as altered without more or
less jeopardising their identity.

I daresay the Reader may not have been satisfied with the reference
to the locomotor nature of cubic perception as sufficient justification
of my thus connecting cubic existence with Things rather than with
Shapes, and my implying that aesthetic preference, due to the
sensory, intellectual and empathic factors of perception, is
applicable only to the two other dimensions. And the Reader's
incredulity and surprise will have been all the greater, because
recent art-criticism has sedulously inculcated that the suggestion of
cubic existence is the chief function of pictorial genius, and the
realisation of such cubic existence the highest delight which pictures
can afford to their worthy beholder. This particular notion, entirely
opposed to the facts of visual perception and visual empathy, will
repay discussion, inasmuch as it accidentally affords an easy
entrance into a subject which has hitherto presented inextricable
confusion, namely the relations of Form and Subject, or, as I
have accustomed the Reader to consider them, the contemplated
Shape and the thought-of Thing.

Let us therefore examine why art-criticism should lay so great a
stress on the suggestion and the acceptance of that suggestion, of
three-dimensional existence in paintings. In paintings. For this
alleged aesthetic desideratum ceases to be a criterion of merit when
we come to sculpture, about which critics are more and more
persistently teaching (and with a degree of reason) that one of the
greatest merits of the artist, and of the greatest desiderata of the
beholder, is precisely the reduction of real cubic existence by
avoiding all projection beyond a unified level, that is to say by
making a solid block of stone look as if it were a representation on a
flat surface. This contradiction explains the origin of the theory
giving supreme pictorial importance to the Third Dimension. For art
criticism though at length (thanks especially to the sculptor
Hildebrand) busying itself also with plastic art, has grown up mainly
in connexion with painting. Now in painting the greatest scientific
problem, and technical difficulty, has been the suggestion of
three-dimensional existences by pigments applied to a two-dimensional
surface; and this problem has naturally been most successfully
handled by the artists possessing most energy and imagination, and
equally naturally shirked or bungled or treated parrot-wise by the
artists of less energy and imagination. And, as energy and
imagination also show themselves in finer perception, more vivid
empathy and more complex dealings with shapes which are only
two-dimensional, it has come about that the efficient and original
solutions of the cubic problem have coincided, ceteris paribus,
with the production of pictures whose two-dimensional qualities
have called forth the adjective beautiful, and beautiful in the
most intense and complicated manner. Hence successful treatment
of cubic suggestion has become an habitual (and threatens to
become a rule-of-thumb) criterion of pictorial merit; the more so
that qualities of two-dimensional shape, being intrinsic and specific,
are difficult to run to ground and describe; whereas the quality of
three-dimensional suggestion is ascertainable by mere comparison
between the shapes in the picture and the shapes afforded by real
things when seen in the same perspective and lighting. Most people
can judge whether an apple in a picture "looks as if" it were solid,
round, heavy and likely to roll off a sideboard in the same picture;
and some people may even, when the picture has no other claims on
their interest, experience incipient muscular contractions such as
would eventually interfere with a real apple rolling off a real
sideboard. Apples and sideboards offer themselves to the meanest
experience and can be dealt with adequately in everyday language,
whereas the precise curves and angles, the precise relations of
directions and impacts, of parts to whole, which together make up
the identity of a two-dimensional shape, are indeed perceived and
felt by the attentive beholder, but not habitually analysed or set forth
in words. Moreover the creation of two-dimensional shapes
satisfying to contemplation depends upon two very different factors:
on traditional experience with regard to the more general
arrangements of lines, and on individual energy and sensitiveness,
i.e. on genius in carrying out, and ringing changes on, such
traditional arrangements. And the possession of tradition or genius,
although no doubt the most important advantage of an artist,
happens not to be one to which he can apply himself as to a problem.
On the other hand a problem to be solved is eternally being pressed
upon every artist; pressed on him by his clients, by the fashion of his
time and also by his own self inasmuch as he is a man interested not
only in shapes but in things. And thus we are back at the fact
that the problem given to the painter to solve by means of lines and
colours on a flat surface, is the problem of telling us something new
or something important about things: what things are made of,
how they will react to our doings, how they move, what they feel
and think; and above all, I repeat it, what amount of space they
occupy with reference to the space similarly occupied, in present or
future, by other things including ourselves.

Our enquiry into the excessive importance attributed by critics to
pictorial suggestion of cubic existence has thus led us back to the
conclusion contained in previous chapters, namely that beauty
depending negatively on ease of visual perception, and positively
upon emphatic corroboration of our dynamic habits, is a quality of
aspects, independent of cubic existence and every other possible
quality of things; except in so far as the thought of
three-dimensional, and other, qualities of things may interfere with the
freedom and readiness of mind requisite for such highly active and
sensitive processes as those of empathic form interpretation. But the
following chapter will, I trust, make it clear that such interference of
the Thought about Things with the Contemplation of Shapes is
essential to the rythm of our mental life, and therefore a chief factor
in all artistic production and appreciation.

Next: Attention To Shapes

Previous: From The Thing To The Shape

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