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.