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The Co-operation Of Things And Shapes

DURING the Middle Ages and up to recent times the chief task of
painting has been, ostensibly, the telling and re-telling of the same
Scripture stories; and, incidentally, the telling them with the addition
of constantly new items of information about things: their volume,
position, structure, locomotion, light and shade and interactions of
texture and atmosphere; to which items must be added others of
psychological or (pseudo)-historical kind, how it all came about, in
what surroundings and dresses, and accompanied by what feelings.
This task, official and unofficial, is in no way different from those
fulfilled by the man of science and the practical man, both of whom
are perpetually dealing with additional items of information. But
mark the difference in the artist's way of accomplishing this task: a
scientific fact is embodied in the progressive mass of knowledge,
assimilated, corrected; a practical fact is taken in consideration, built
upon; but the treatise, the newspaper or letter, once it has conveyed
these facts, is forgotten or discarded. The work of art on the contrary
is remembered and cherished; or at all events it is made with the
intention of being remembered and cherished. In other words and as
I shall never tire of repeating, the differentiating characteristic of art
is that it makes you think back to the shape once that shape has
conveyed its message or done its business of calling your attention
or exciting your emotions. And the first and foremost problem, for
instance of painting, is that of preventing the beholder's eye from
being carried, by lines of perspective, outside the frame and even
persistently out of the centre of the picture; the sculptor (and this is
the real reason of the sculptor Hildebrand's rules for plastic
composition) obeying a similar necessity of keeping the beholder's
eye upon the main masses of his statue, instead of diverting it, by
projections at different distances, like the sticking out arms and
hands of Roman figures. So much for the eye of the body: the
beholder's curiosity must similarly not be carried outside the work of
art by, for instance, an incomplete figure (legs without a body!) or
an unfinished gesture, this being, it seems to roe, the only real
reason against the representation of extremely rapid action and
transitory positions. But when the task of conveying information
implies that the beholder's thoughts be deliberately led from what is
represented to what is not, then this centrifugal action is dealt with
so as to produce a centripetal one back to the work of art: the painter
suggests questions of how and why which get their answers in
some item obliging you to take fresh stock of the picture. What Is
the meaning of the angels and evidently supernatural horseman in
the foreground of Raphael's Heliodorus? Your mind flies to the
praying High Priest in the central recess of the temple, and in going
backwards and forwards between him, the main group and the
scattered astonished bystanders, you are effectually enclosed within
the arches of that marvellous composition, and induced to explore
every detail of its lovely and noble constituent shapes.

The methods employed thus to keep the beholder's attention inside
the work of art while suggesting things beyond it, naturally vary
with the exact nature of the non-aesthetic task which has been set to
the artist; and with the artist's individual endowment and even more
with the traditional artistic formulae of his country and time:
Raphael's devices in Heliodorus could not have been compassed
by Giotto; and, on the other hand, would have been rejected as
"academic" by Manet. But whatever the methods employed, and
however obviously they reveal that satisfactory form-contemplation
is the one and invariable condition as distinguished from the
innumerable varying aims, of all works of art, the Reader will find
them discussed not as methods for securing attention to the shape,
but as methods of employing that shape for some non-aesthetic
purpose; whether that purpose be inducing you to drink out of a cup
by making its shape convenient or suggestive; or inducing you to
buy a particular commodity by branding its name and virtues on
your mind; or fixing your thoughts on the Madonna's sorrows; or
awaking your sympathy for Isolde's love tragedy. And yet it is
evident that the artist who shaped the cup or designed the poster
would be horribly disappointed if you thought only of drinking or of
shopping and never gave another look to the cup or the poster; and
that Perugino or Wagner would have died of despair if his
suggestion of the Madonna's sorrows or of Isolde's love-agonies had
been so efficacious as to prevent anybody from looking twice at the
fresco or listening to the end of the opera. This inversion of the
question is worth inquiring into, because, like the analogous paradox
about the pictorial "realisation" of cubic existence, it affords an
illustration of some of the psychological intricacies of the relation
between Art and the Beautiful. This is how I propose to explain it.

The task to which an artist is set varies from one work to another,
while the shapes employed for the purpose are, as already said,
limited by his powers and especially by the precise moment in
artistic evolution. The artist therefore thinks of his available shapes
as something given, as means, and the subject he is ordered to
represent (or the emotion he is commissioned to elicit) as the
all-important aim. Thus he thinks of himself (and makes the critic
think of him) not as preventing the represented subject or expressed
emotion from withdrawing the beholder from the artistic shapes, but,
on the contrary, as employing these artistic shapes for the sole
purpose of that representation or emotional expression. And this
most explicable inversion of the real state of affairs ends by making
the beholder believe that what he cares for in a masterpiece is not
the beauty of shape which only a masterpiece could have, but the
efficacy of bringing home a subject or expressing an emotion which
could be just as efficaciously represented or elicited by the vilest
daub or the wretchedest barrel organ! This inevitable, and I believe,
salutary illusion of the artist, is further in creased by the fact that
while the artist's ingenuity must be bent on avoiding irrelevance and
diminishing opportunities for ugliness, the actual beauty of the
shapes he is creating arises from the depths of his unreasoned,
traditional and organised consciousness, from activities which might
be called automatic if they were not accompanied by a critical
feeling that what is produced thus spontaneously and inevitably is
either turning out as it must and should, or, contrariwise, insists
upon turning out exactly as it should not. The particular system of
curves and angles, of directions and impacts of lines, the particular
"whole-and-part" scheme of, let us say, Michelangelo, is due to his
modes of aesthetic perceiving, feeling, living, added to those of all
the other artists whose peculiarities have been averaged in what we
call the school whence Michelangelo issued. He can no more depart
from these shapes than he can paint Rembrandt's Pilgrims of
Emmaus without Rembrandt's science of light and shade and
Rembrandt's oil-and-canvas technique. There is no alternative, hence
no choice, hence no feeling of a problem to resolve, in this question
of shapes to employ. But there are dozens of alternatives and of acts
of choice, there is a whole series of problems when Michelangelo
sets to employing these inevitable shapes to telling the Parting of the
Light from the Darkness, or the Creation of Adam on the Vault of
the Sixtine, and to surrounding the stories from Genesis with
Prophets and Sibyls and Ancestors of Christ. Is the ceiling to remain
a unity, or be broken up into irrelevant compositions? Here comes in,
alongside of his almost automatic genius for shapes, the man's
superhuman constructive ingenuity. See how he divides that ceiling
in such a way that the frames of the separate compositions combine
into a huge structure of painted rafters and brackets, nay the
Prophets and Sibyls, the Ancestors and Ancestresses themselves,
and the naked antique genii, turn into architectural members,
holding that imaginary roof together, securing its seeming stability,
increasing, by their gesture its upspring and its weightiness, and at
the same time determining the tracks along which the eye is forced
to travel. Backwards and forwards the eye is driven by that living
architecture, round and round in its search now for completion of
visible pattern, now for symbolic and narrative meaning. And ever
back to the tale of the Creation, so that the remote historic incidents
of the Ancestors, the tremendous and tremendously present lyric
excitement and despair of the prophetic men and women, the pagan
suggestion of the athletic genii, all unite like the simultaneous and
consecutive harmonies of a titanic symphony, round the recurrent
and dominant phrases of those central stories of how the universe
and man were made, so that the beholder has the emotion of hearing
not one part of the Old Testament, but the whole of it. But
meanwhile, and similarly interchanging and multiplying their
imaginative and emotional appeal, the thought of those most
memorable of all written stories unites with the perception and
empathy of those marvellous systems of living lines and curves and
angles, throbbing with their immortal impacts and speeds and
directions in a great coordinated movement that always begins and
never ends, until it seems to the beholder as if those painted shapes
were themselves the crowning work of some eighth day of Creation,
gathering up in reposeful visible synthesis the whole of Creation's
ineffable energy and harmony and splendour.

This example of Michelangelo's ceiling shows how, thanks to the
rythmical nature of perception, art fulfils the mission of making us
think from Shapes to Things and from Things back to Shapes. And it
allows us to see the workings of that psychological law, already
manifest in the elementary relations of line to line and dot to dot, by
which whatever can be thought and felt in continuous alternation
tends to be turned into a whole by such reiteration of common
activities. And this means that Art adds to its processes of selection
and exclusion a process of inclusion, safeguarding aesthetic
contemplation by drawing whatever is not wholly refractory into
that contemplation's orbit. This turning of non-aesthetic interests
from possible competitors and invaders into co-operating allies is an
incomparable multiplying factor of aesthetic satisfaction, enlarging
the sphere of aesthetic emotion and increasing that emotion's volume
and stability by inclusion of just those elements which would have
competed to diminish them. The typical instance of such a possible
competitor turned into an ally, is that of the cubic element, which I
have described (p. 85) as the first and most constant intruder from
the thought of Things into the contemplation of Shapes. For the
introduction into a picture of a suggested third dimension is what
prevents our thinking away from a merely two-dimensional aspect
by supplying subsidiary imaginary aspects susceptible of being
co-ordinated to it. So perspective and modelling in light and shade
satisfy our habit of locomotion by allowing us, as the phrase is, to
go into a picture; and going into, we remain there and establish
on its imaginary planes schemes of horizontals and verticals besides
those already existing on the real two-dimensional surface. This
addition of shapes due to perspective increases the already existing
dramas of empathy, instead of interrupting them by our looking
away from the picture, which we should infallibly do if our
exploring and so to speak cubic-locomotor tendencies were not
thus employed inside the picture's limits.

This alliance of aesthetic contemplation with our interest in cubic
existence and our constant thought of locomotion, does more
however than merely safeguard and multiply our chances of
empathic activity. It also increases the sensory discrimination, and
hence pleasureableness, of colour, inasmuch as colour becomes,
considered as light and shade and values, a suggestion of
three-dimensional Things instead of merely a constituent of
two-dimensional Shapes. Moreover, one easily tires of "following"
verticals and horizontals and their intermediate directions; while
empathic imagination, with its dynamic feelings and frequent
semi-mimetic accompaniments, requires sufficient intervals of repose;
and such repose, such alternation of different mental functions,
isprecisely afforded by thinking in terms of cubic existence.
Art-critics have often pointed out what may be called the thinness, the
lack of staying power, of pictures deficient in the cubic element;
they ought also to have drawn attention to the fatiguing, the almost
hallucinatory excitement, resulting from uninterrupted attention to
two-dimensional pattern and architectural outlines, which were,
indeed, intended to be incidentally looked at in the course of taking
stock of the cubic qualities of furniture and buildings.

And since the limits of this volume have restricted me to painting as
a type of aesthetic contemplation, I must ask the Reader to accept on
my authority and if possible verify for himself, the fact that what I
have been saying applies, mutatis mutandis, to the other arts. As
we have already noticed, something analogous to a third dimension
exists also in music; and even, as I have elsewhere shown,[*] in
literature. The harmonies accompanying a melody satisfy our
tendency to think of other notes and particularly of other allied
tonalities; while as to literature, the whole handling of words, indeed
the whole of logical thinking, is but a cubic working backwards and
forwards between what and how, a co-ordinating of items and
themes, keeping the mind enclosed in one scheme of ideas by
forestalling answers to the questions which would otherwise divert
the attention. And if the realisation of the third dimension has come
to be mistaken for the chief factor of aesthetic satisfaction, this error
is due not merely to the already noticed coincidence between cubic
imagination and artistic genius, but even more to the fact that cubic
imagination is the type of the various multiplying factors by which
the empathic, that is to say the essentially aesthetic, activity, can
increase its sphere of operations, its staying power and its intensity.

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