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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