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The Storage And Transfer Of Emotion








IN dealing with familiarity as a multiplying factor of aesthetic
appreciation, I have laid stress on its effect in facilitating the
perception and the empathic interpretation of shapes. But repetition
directly affects the emotion which may result from these processes;
and when any emotion has become habitual, it tends to be stored in
what we call memory, and to be called forth not merely by the
processes in which it originated, but also independently of the whole
of them, or in answer to some common or equivalent factor. We are
so accustomed to this psychological fact that we do not usually seem
to recognise its existence. It is the explanation of the power of words,
which, apart from any images they awaken, are often irresistibly
evocative of emotion. And among other emotions words can evoke
the one due to the easy perception and to the life-corroborating
empathic interpretation of shapes. The word Beautiful, and its
various quasi synonyms, are among the most emotionally suggestive
in our vocabulary, carrying perhaps a vague but potent remembrance
of our own bodily reaction to the emotion of admiration; nay even
eliciting an incipient rehearsal of the half-parted lips and slightly
thrown-back head, the drawn-in breath and wide-opened eyes, with
which we are wont to meet opportunities of aesthetic satisfaction. Be
this last as it may, it is certain that the emotion connected with the
word Beautiful can be evoked by that word alone, and without an
accompanying act of visual or auditive perception. Indeed beautiful
shapes would lose much of their importance in our life, if they did
not leave behind them such emotional traces, capable of revival
under emotionally appropriate, though outwardly very dissimilar,
circumstances; and thereby enormously increasing some of our
safest, perhaps because our most purely subjective, happiness.
Instead therefore of despising the raptures which the presence of a
Venus of Milo or a Sixtine Madonna can inspire in people
manifestly incapable of appreciating a masterpiece, and sometimes
barely glancing at it, we critical persons ought to recognise in this
funny, but consoling, phenomenon an additional proof of the power
of Beauty, whose specific emotion can thus be evoked by a mere
name and so transferred from some past experience of aesthetic
admiration to a. present occasion which would otherwise be mere
void and disappointment.

Putting aside these kind of cases, the transfer (usually accomplished
by a word) of the aesthetic emotion, or at least of a willingness for
aesthetic emotion, is probably one of the explanations of the spread
of aesthetic interest from one art to another, as it is the explanation
of some phases of aesthetic development in the individual. The
present writer can vouch for the case of at least one real child in
whom the possibility of aesthetic emotion, and subsequently of
aesthetic appreciation, was extended from music and natural scenery
to pictures and statues, by the application of the word Beautiful to
each of these different categories. And something analogous
probably helped on the primaeval recognition that the empathic
pleasures hitherto attached to geometrical shapes might be got from
realistic shapes, say of bisons and reindeer, which had hitherto been
admired for their lifelikeness and skill, but not yet subjected to any
aesthetic discrimination (cf. p. 96). Similarly, in our own times,
the delight in natural scenery is being furthered by the development
of landscape painting, rather than furthering it. Nay I venture to
suggest that it was the habit of the aesthetic emotion such as
mediaeval men received from the proportions, directions, and
coordination of lines in their cathedrals of stone or brick which set
their musicians to build up, like Browning's Abt Vogler, the soul's
first balanced and coordinated dwellings made of sounds.

Be this last as it may, it is desirable that the Reader should accept,
and possibly verify for himself, the psychological fact of the
storage and transfer of aesthetic emotion. Besides, the points
already mentioned, it helps to explain several of the cruxes and
paradoxes of aesthetics. First and foremost that dictum De
Gustibus non est disputandum which some philosophers and even
aestheticians develop into an explicit denial of all intrinsic
shape-preferences, and an assertion that beautiful and ugly are merely
other names for fashionable and unfashionable, original and
unoriginal, or suitable and unsuitable. As I have already
pointed out, differences of taste are started by the perceptive and
empathic habits, schematically various, of given times and places,
and also by those, especially the empathic habits, connected with
individual nervous condition: people accustomed to the round arch
finding the Gothic one unstable and eccentric; and, on the other
hand, a person taking keen pleasure in the sudden and lurching lines
of Lotto finding those of Titian tame and humdrum. But such
intrinsically existing preferences and incompatibility are quite
enormously increased by an emotional bias for or against a
particular kind of art; by which I mean a bias not due to that art's
peculiarities, but preventing our coming in real contact with them.

Aesthetic perception and especially aesthetic empathy, like other
intellectual and emotional activities, are at the mercy of a hostile
mental attitude, just as bodily activity is at the mercy of rigidity of
the limbs. I do not hesitate to say that we are perpetually refusing to
look at certain kinds of art because, for one reason or another, we
are emotionally prepossessed against them. On the other hand, once
the favourable emotional condition is supplied to us, often by means
of words, our perceptive and empathic activities follow with twice
the ease they would if the business had begun with them. It is quite
probable that a good deal of the enhancement of aesthetic
appreciation by fashion or sympathy should be put to the account,
not merely of gregarious imitativeness, but of the knowledge that a
favourable or unfavourable feeling is "in the air." The emotion
precedes the appreciation, and both are genuine.

A more personally humiliating aesthetic experience may be
similarly explained. Unless we are very unobservant or very
self-deluded, we are all familiar with the sudden checking (often almost
physically painful) of our aesthetic emotion by the hostile criticism
of a neighbour or the superciliousness of an expert: "Dreadfully
old-fashioned," "Archi-connu,""second-rate school work,"
"completely painted over," "utterly hashed in the performance" (of a
piece of music), "mere prettiness"--etc. etc. How often has not a
sentence like these turned the tide of honest incipient enjoyment;
and transformed us, from enjoyers of some really enjoyable quality
(even of such old-as-the-hills elements as clearness, symmetry,
euphony or pleasant colour!) into shrivelled cavillers at everything
save brand-new formulae and tip-top genius! Indeed, while teaching
a few privileged persons to taste the special "quality" which
Botticelli has and Botticelli's pupils have not, and thus occasionally
intensifying aesthetic enjoyment by distinguishing whatever
differentiates the finer artistic products from the commoner, modern
art-criticism has probably wasted much honest but shamefaced
capacity for appreciating the qualities common, because
indispensable, to, all good art. It is therefore not without a certain
retributive malignity that I end these examples of the storage and
transfer of aesthetic emotion, and of the consequent bias to artistic
appreciation, with that of the Nemesis dogging the steps of the
connoisseur. We have all heard of some purchase, or all-but-purchase,
of a wonderful masterpiece on the authority of some famous
expert; and of the masterpiece proving to be a mere school
imitation, and occasionally even a certified modern forgery. The
foregoing remarks on the storage and transfer of aesthetic emotion,
joined with what we have learned about shape-perception and
empathy, will enable the Reader to reduce this paradoxical enormity
to a natural phenomenon discreditable only when not honestly
owned up to. For a school imitation, or a forgery, must possess
enough elements in common with a masterpiece, otherwise it could
never suggest any connexion with it. Given a favourable emotional
attitude and the absence of obvious extrinsic (technical or
historical) reasons for scepticism, these elements of resemblance
must awaken the vague idea, especially the empathic scheme, of the
particular master's work, and his name--shall we say Leonardo's?--will
rise to the lips. But Leonardo is a name to conjure with, and
in this case to destroy the conjurer himself: the word Leonardo
implies an emotion, distilled from a number of highly prized and
purposely repeated experiences, kept to gather strength in respectful
isolation, and further heightened by a thrill of initiate veneration
whenever it is mentioned. This Leonardo-emotion, once set on
foot, checks all unworthy doubts, sweeps out of consciousness all
thoughts of inferior work (inferiority and Leonardo being
emotionally incompatible!), respectfully holds the candle while the
elements common to the imitation and the masterpiece are gone over
and over, and the differentiating elements exclusively belonging to
Leonardo evoked in the expert's memory, until at last the objective
work of art comes to be embedded in recollected masterpieces
which impart to it their emotionally communicable virtue. And
when the poor expert is finally overwhelmed with ridicule, the
Philistine shrewdly decides that a sham Leonardo is just as good as a
genuine one, that these are all matters of fashion, and that there is
really no disputing of tastes!





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Previous: Aesthetic Responsiveness



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