Aesthetic Responsiveness

OUR examination has thus proceeded from aesthetic contemplation

to the work of Art, which seeks to secure and satisfy it while

furthering some of life's various other claims. We must now go back

to aesthetic contemplation and find out how the beholder meets

these efforts made to secure and satisfy his contemplative attention.

For the Reader will by this time have grasped that art can do nothing

without the collaboration of the beholder or listener; and that this

collaboration, so far from consisting in the passive "being impressed

by beauty" which unscientific aestheticians imagined as analogous

to "being impressed by sensuous qualities," by hot or cold or sweet

or sour, is in reality a combination of higher activities, second in

complexity and intensity only to that of the artist himself.

We have seen in the immediately preceding chapter that the most

deliberate, though not the essential, part of the artist's business is to

provide against any possible disturbance of the beholder's

responsive activity, and of course also to increase by every means

that output of responsive activity. But the sources of it are in the

beholder, and beyond the control of the most ingenious artistic

devices and the most violent artistic appeals. There is indeed no

better proof of the active nature of aesthetic appreciation than the

fact that such appreciation is so often not forthcoming. Even mere

sensations, those impressions of single qualities to which we are

most unresistingly passive, are not pleasurable without a favourable

reaction of the body's chemistry: the same taste or smell will be

attractive or repulsive according as we have recently eaten. And

however indomitably colour- and sound-sensations force themselves

upon us, our submission to them will not be accompanied by even

the most "passive" pleasure if we are bodily or mentally out of sorts.

How much more frequent must be lack of receptiveness when,

instead of dealing with sensations whose intensity depends after

all two thirds upon the strength of the outer stimulation, we deal

with perceptions which include the bodily and mental activities of

exploring a shape and establishing among its constituent sensations

relationships both to each other and to ourselves; activities without

which there would be for the beholder no shape at all, but

mere ragbag chaos!--And in calculating the likelihood of a

perceptive empathic response we must remember that such active

shape-perception, however instantaneous as compared with the cumbrous

processes of locomotion, nevertheless requires a perfectly

measurable time, and requires therefore that its constituent processes

be held in memory for comparison and coordination, quite as much

as the similar processes by which we take stock of the relations of

sequence of sounds. All this mental activity, less explicit but not less

intense or complex than that of logically "following" an argument, is

therefore such that we are by no means always able or willing to

furnish it. Not able, because the need for practical decisions hurries

us into that rapid inference from a minimum of perception to a

minimum of associated experience which we call "recognising

things," and thus out of the presence of the perfunctorily dealt with

shapes. Not willing, because our nervous condition may be unable

for the strain of shape perception; and our emotional bias (what we

call our interest) may be favourable to some incompatible kind of

activity. Until quite recently (and despite Fechner's famous

introductory experiments) aesthetics have been little more than a

branch of metaphysical speculation, and it is only nowadays that the

bare fact of aesthetic responsiveness is beginning to be studied. So

far as I have myself succeeded in doing so, I think I can assure the

Reader that if he will note down, day by day, the amount of pleasure

he has been able to take in works of art, he will soon recognise the

existence of aesthetic responsiveness and its highly variable nature.

Should the same Reader develop an interest in such (often

humiliating) examination into his own aesthetic experience, he will

discover varieties of it which will illustrate some of the chief

principles contained in this little book. His diary will report days

when aesthetic appreciation has begun with the instant of entering a

collection of pictures or statues, indeed sometimes pre-existed as he

went through the streets noticing the unwonted charm of familiar

objects; other days when enjoyment has come only after an effort of

attention; others when, to paraphrase Coleridge, he saw, not felt,

how beautiful things are; and finally, through other varieties of

aesthetic experience, days upon which only shortcomings and

absurdities have laid hold of his attention. In the course of such

aesthetical self-examination and confession, the Reader might also

become acquainted with days whose experience confirmed my never

sufficiently repeated distinction between contemplating Shapes and

thinking about Things; or, in ordinary aesthetic terminology

between form and subject. For there are days when pictures or

statues will indeed afford pleasurable interest, but interest in the

things represented, not in the shapes; a picture appealing even

forcibly to our dramatic or religious or romantic side; or

contrariwise, to our scientific one. There are days when he may be

deeply moved by a Guido Reni martyrdom, or absorbed in the

"Marriage a la Mode"; days when even Giorgione's Pastoral may (as

in Rossetti's sonnet) mean nothing beyond the languid pleasure of

sitting on the grass after a burning day and listening to the plash of

water and the tuning of instruments; the same thought and emotion,

the same interest and pleasure, being equally obtainable from an

inn-parlour oleograph. Then, as regards scientific interest and pleasure,

there may be days when the diarist will be quite delighted with a

hideous picture, because it affords some chronological clue, or new

point of comparison. "This dates such or such a style"--"Plein

Air already attempted by a Giottesque! Degas forestalled by a Cave

Dweller!" etc. etc. And finally days when the Diarist is haunted by

the thought of what the represented person will do next: "Would

Michelangelo's Jeremiah knock his head if he got up?"--"How will

the Discobolus recover when he has let go the quoit?"--or haunted

by thoughts even more frivolous (though not any less aesthetically

irrelevant!) like "How wonderfully like Mrs So and So!" "The living

image of Major Blank!"--"How I detest auburn people with

sealing-wax lips!" ad lib.

Such different thinkings away from the shapes are often traceable

to previous orientation of the thoughts or to special states of body

and feelings. But explicable or not in the particular case, these

varieties of one's own aesthetic responsiveness will persuade the

Reader who has verified their existence, that contemplative

satisfaction in shapes and its specific emotion cannot be given by the

greatest artist or the finest tradition, unless the beholder meets their

efforts more than half way.

The spontaneous collaboration of the beholder is especially

indispensable for Aesthetic Empathy. As we have seen, empathic

modes of movement and energy and intention are attributed to

shapes and to shape elements, in consequence of the modes of

movement and energy involved in mere shape perception; but shape

perception does not necessarily call forth empathic imagination. And

the larger or smaller dynamic dramas of effort, resistance,

reconciliation, cooperation which constitute the most poignant

interest of a pictorial or plastic composition, are inhibited by bodily

or mental states of a contrary character. We cease to feel

(although we may continue, like Coleridge, to see) that the lines

of a mountain or a statue are rising, if we ourselves happen to feel

as if our feet were of lead and our joints turning to water. The

coordinated interplay of empathic movement which makes certain

mediaeval floor patterns, and also Leonardo's compositions, into

whirling harmonies as of a planetary system, cannot take place in

our imagination on days of restlessness and lack of concentration.

Nay it may happen that arrangements of lines which would flutter

and flurry us on days of quiet appreciativeness, will become in every

sense "sympathetic" on days when we ourselves feel fluttered and

flurried. But lack of responsiveness may be due to other causes. As

there are combinations of lines which take longer to perceive

because their elements or their coordinating principles are

unfamiliar, so, and even more so, are there empathic schemes (or

dramas) which baffle dynamic imagination when accustomed to

something else and when it therefore meets the new demand with an

unsuitable empathic response. Empathy is, even more than mere

perception, a question of our activities and therefore of our habits;

and the aesthetic sensitiveness of a time and country (say the

Florentine fourteenth century) with a habit of round arch and

horizontals like that of Pisan architecture, could never take with

enthusiasm to the pointed ogeeval ellipse, the oblique directions and

unstable equilibrium, the drama of touch and go strain and resistance,

of French Gothic; whence a constant readmission of the round

arched shapes into the imported style, and a speedy return to the

familiar empathic schemes in the architecture of the early

Renaissance. On the other hand the persistence of Gothic detail in

Northern architecture of the sixteenth and occasionally the

seventeenth century, shows how insipid the round arch and straight

entablature must have felt to people accustomed to the empathy of

Gothic shapes. Nothing is so routinist as imagination and emotion;

and empathy, which partakes of both, is therefore more dependent

on familiarity than is the perception by which it is started: Spohr,

and the other professional contemporaries of Beethoven, probably

heard and technically understood all the peculiarities of his last

quartets; but they liked them none the better.

On the other hand continued repetition notoriously begets

indifference. We cease to look at a shape which we "know by heart"

and we cease to interpret in terms of our own activities and

intentions when curiosity and expectation no longer let loose our

dynamic imagination. Hence while utter unfamiliarity baffles

aesthetic responsiveness, excessive familiarity prevents its starting

at all. Indeed both perceptive clearness and empathic intensity reach

their climax in the case of shapes which afford the excitement of

tracking familiarity in novelty, the stimulation of acute comparison,

the emotional ups and downs of expectation and partial recognition,

or of recognition when unexpected, the latter having, as we know

when we notice that a stranger has the trick of speech or gesture of

an acquaintance, a very penetrating emotional warmth. Such

discovery of the novel in the familiar, and of the familiar in the new,

will he frequent in proportion to the definiteness and complexity of

the shapes, and in proportion also to the sensitiveness and steadiness

of the beholder's attention; while on the contrary "obvious" qualities

of shape and superficial attention both tend to exhaust interest and

demand change. This exhaustion of interest and consequent demand

for change unites with the changing non-aesthetic aims imposed on

art, together producing innovation. And the more superficial the

aesthetic attention given by the beholders, the quicker will style

succeed style, and shapes and shape-schemes be done to death by

exaggeration or left in the lurch before their maturity; a state of

affairs especially noticeable in our own day.

The above is a series of illustrations of the fact that aesthetic

pleasure depends as much on the activities of the beholder as on

those of the artist. Unfamiliarity or over-familiarity explain a large

part of the aesthetic non-responsiveness summed up in the saying

that there is no disputing of tastes. And even within the circle of

habitual responsiveness to some particular style, or master, there are,

as we have just seen, days and hours when an individual beholder's

perception and empathic imagination do not act in such manner as to

afford the usual pleasure. But these occasional, even frequent, lapses

must not diminish our belief either in the power of art or in the

deeply organised and inevitable nature of aesthetic preference as a

whole. What the knowledge of such fluctuations ought to bring

home is that beauty of shape is most spontaneously and completely

appreciated when the attention, instead of being called upon, as in

galleries and concerts, for the mere purpose of aesthetic enjoyment,

is on the contrary, directed to the artistic or "natural" beauty of

shapes, in consequence of some other already existing interest. No

one except an art-critic sees a new picture or statue without first

asking "What does it represent?"; shape-perception and aesthetic

empathy arising incidentally in the examination which this question

leads to. The truth is that even the art-critic is oftenest brought into

enforced contemplation of the artistic shape by some other question

which arises from his particular bias: By whom? of what precise

date? Even such technical questions as "where and when restored or

repainted?" will elicit the necessary output of attention. It is possible

and legitimate to be interested in a work of art for a dozen reasons

besides aesthetic appreciation; each of these interests has its own

sentimental, scientific, dramatic or even moneymaking emotion; and

there is no loss for art, but rather a gain, if we fall back upon one of

them when the specific aesthetic response is slow or not

forthcoming. Art has other aims besides aesthetic satisfaction; and

aesthetic satisfaction will not come any the quicker for turning our

backs upon these non-aesthetic aims. The very worst attitude

towards art is that of the holiday-maker who comes into its presence

with no ulterior interest or business, and nothing but the hope of an

aesthetic emotion which is most often denied him. Indeed such

seeking of aesthetic pleasure for its own sake would lead to even

more of the blank despondency characteristic of so many gallery

goers, were it not for another peculiarity of aesthetic responsiveness,

which is responsible for very puzzling effects. This saving grace of

the tourist, and (as we shall see) this pitfall of the art-expert, is what

I propose to call the Transferability of Aesthetic Emotion.

Aesthetic Irradiation And Purification Aspects Versus Things facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail