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Chapter XVIII: Art and Aesthetics

Fine art like science derives its distinctive character from a specific independent interest, here to be designated ‘the aesthetic interest.’ It is this interest which motivates the “fine arts,” distinguishes these from the “useful,” “industrial,” or “practical” arts, and confers on objects those values which are summarily comprised under the name of ‘beauty.’

Men plant two kinds of gardens, vegetable gardens and flower gardens. The difference between them lies in the character of the interest which induces their planting. Vegetables are produced to be eaten; flowers, or gardens of flowers, to be looked at or smelled: in short for the gratification of sensibility. Both vegetables-to-eat and flowers-to-look-at grow wild; that is, both hunger and visual enjoyment can find ready-made occasions for their dealings. Or the occasions can be contrived, and made to fit the dealings; as when vegetable culture is generated by hunger, and floriculture by the interest of sensibility. The flower garden is a work of art in the sense that it is an object produced for the sake of consumption; it is a work of fine art because the consumption for which it is produced is the aesthetic interest of sensibility, as distinguished from the practical interest of food-taking.

This statement is a simplified first approximation. The interest of visual sensibility exemplifies the aesthetic interest but does not adequately represent its varied possibilities. The eye has its own bias and preference: there are certain objects which are agreeable to look at, and others which are disagreeable to look at. But the ear, too, has its bias and preferences; and so do the other senses. And other forms of apprehension — perception, meaning, and ideation — also have their own biases and preferences.

The analysis of the aesthetic interest must provide for this wide range of possibilities. It must also provide for the artist. Fine art is a dependent practical interest immediately induced by the aesthetic interest. If it is only indirectly so induced, the maker of it is a mechanic or a laborer. Thus the gardener, even if it be a flower garden, is not an artist if he works only for exercise or for hire. It is true that if it were not for the aesthetic enjoyment of his product at some point there would be no demand for it, and no inducement to employ him, but the hired gardener is not himself aesthetically motivated, and in this case it is the landscape architect who is the artist. Or, the gardener may be his own landscape architect, as well as the ultimate aesthetic consumer. One may contrive, plant, and cultivate a garden in order to enjoy it. Even then, his own enjoyment of it may be so postponed as not to preside immediately over its making. He is an artist insofar as his interest in the product is attended by its enjoyment; insofar as he aesthetically enjoys it in the making.

The manufacture of paint brushes and pigments is induced by the fact that somebody somewhere enjoys looking at pictures, but the manufacturer is not an artist (unless it happens that he takes an aesthetic interest in his own products, as, of course, he may) because his motivation is commercial. While this is obvious in the case of the specialized production of the painter's tools, it is also true of the activity of the painter himself, short of the actual painting. In the arranging of his studio, and the preparation of his canvas and palette, he is not the artist; he might conceivably have this “work” done for him by a studio assistant. But when he paints he becomes at one and the same time maker and enjoyer; his hand is guided by his aesthetic sensibility. Similarly, the musician listens to his own music and the poet to his own poetry, and each is governed in his composition by his own aesthetic likings and dislikings.

The dealer, the collector, the historian, the museum director or curator, the hanger or restorer, does not by these activities give objects the status of objects of fine art. Unless he enjoys the object in the distinctively aesthetic manner he is like the hired gardener. He is less vitally concerned with the fine arts than the most naïve visitor to the gallery who lingers there because he likes to look. It is the enjoyer of poetry, rather than the publisher, prosodist, or even the reader, who makes it poetry.

Here, then, is the substance of the matter, which must not be lost sight of amidst all the vast and intricate complexities of the aesthetic part of life: that there is a joy of apprehending — a delight in consciousness or awareness itself, which varies with its object. That which is good-to-behold, not good-to-do, or even good-to-believe, is ipso facto possessed of aesthetic value.

This analysis provides for the mutual reinforcement of fine art and useful art. A house built for shelter, so that were it not for this desire for shelter it would not be built as it is, or built at all, is a product of useful art. A house built for its appeal to sensibility, so that it would still be built as it is, were there no desire for shelter, is a product of fine art. But a house is ordinarily built to suit both interests — to provide shelter and to gratify the eye of its beholder. Or it may be that the usefulness for shelter is itself agreeable to the eye, as is maintained by the “functional” school of architects. This would mean not that its usefulness and its aesthetic appeal were the same thing, but that their requirements coincided, so that the product was doubly blessed; as when a shelter is monumental or one finds shelter in a monument. Similarly, an advertisement may serve both a commercial interest and the aesthetic interest, and may even serve the commercial interest better because of being aesthetically agreeable; but the two interests are nonetheless distinct, as appears in the fact that in the mixture one interest may be said to be “sacrificed” to the other.


That intimate interweaving of the aesthetic with practical and cognitive interests which makes it difficult to follow its thread, accounts for its peculiar universality and eminence. It does not suffice to say that the aesthetic interest is common to all men — there are many such interests; or that its works constitute a common heritage; or that, like all specialized interests, it has proliferated and expanded; or that it engages the organized collaboration of artistic experts; or that there has been a progressive refinement of aesthetic sensibility and connoisseurship, if such is the case. Indeed there is some ground for affirming that the effect of many of these developments may be to trivialize rather than to dignify art — to make it a mere hobby or avocation for man's idle moments. It is a common and not unjustified complaint that the aesthetic interest which was once associated with every form of utility and with the common experience of common men, has through the obsession of its devotees lost its proper place in life, at a loss both to itself and to the life from which it has been abstracted. Celibacy, here as elsewhere, may purchase concentration at the cost of barrenness.

The universality of the aesthetic interest is deep and basic. It is common not only to all men, of all ages, races, nations, and places: it is common, at least potentially, to all interests. Every interest, in its mediation, contains the occasion for, if not the actual presence of, the aesthetic interest. The visual sensation of the garden may be a springboard for action — the weed to be pulled, or the branch to be pruned; it may beget an expectation — the bud that will ripen tomorrow; or it may simply delight the eye. Given any scene or situation whatever, any content or assemblage of elements, sensible or intelligible, and it may be associated with any or all three attitudes: one may do something about it, as in practice; one may believe something of it, as in cognition; or one may dwell upon it aesthetically. The occasion of a serenade may be dealt with in any one or all of three ways; one may throw a boot at the serenader or yield to his appeal; one may seek to discover who it is, and let it go at that; or one may listen, gladly or reluctantly, to the music.

The third of these options is the aesthetic interest. There can be no practical or cognitive interest that does not either excite it or tempt it. There is no situation, practical or cognitive, which is not also an aesthetic situation. Nor is there any aesthetic situation which does not tend to knowledge or action. Whichever attitude dominates will carry the others on its back or in its train. Each attitude shifts quickly and perpetually into one of the others. This mobility and subtlety of interblending is an unquestionable fact, which, however, must not be allowed to blur the differences, and obscure the fact that the aesthetic interest has a distinct motivation of its own. Unless this is recognized it is not possible to understand either its intrinsic values or its interplay with other interests.


Fine art is a creation induced by the aesthetic interest; and it owes its value to the aesthetic interest which is taken in it. The crux of the matter, then, is the aesthetic interest. Further discussion begins with an examination of its specific peculiarities. One may then understand what characteristics qualify its objects, and the ground of their appeal; after which one may explore art and the aesthetic interest in terms of their causes and conditions; and then define the standards by which they may properly be assessed.

The aesthetic interest is an interested activity — a mode of dealing of which its object provides the appropriate occasion. As the object of hunger is food-to-eat, or of avarice is money-to-possess, so the object of the aesthetic interest is something-to-enjoy in a specific manner. The first step toward understanding this manner is to insist that it is an activity. That it is an activity is evident even in those instances of absorption which appear superficially to be most passive. A man is sitting on a hillside in early summer, gratified by the sound of birds, the sight of green meadows, the contour of distant hills, the odor of flowers. He is not moved to alter the landscape, or bridge a brook, or build a house, or eliminate the insects which devour his trees. He is content to take things as they are. But his preoccupation is none the less dynamic. Disturb him, and one will see. His faculties are busily and intently engaged, and are on guard to protect him against interruption. “Holding the mirror up to nature” is a highly misleading description either of art or of aesthetic enjoyment itself unless one puts the emphasis on the “holding” rather than on the “mirror.”

The aesthetic interest is a contemplative activity — there is no better word, despite its suggestion of passivity. Indeed it might be said that the very essence of the aesthetic attitude lies in its being a kind of active passivity. Although the term ‘contemplation’ is, in some philosophies, used as a name for knowledge, it may without too great violation of usage be taken to mean being before the mind, whether presented or represented, but without exciting the cognitive interest, or any other interest save that in keeping it before the mind.1

The simple fact is that men possess a bias of apprehension. The mind prefers to entertain certain objects rather than others; it finds some entertainments more “entertaining” than others, regardless of their truth or proof, and regardless of what, if anything, is “to be done about it.” Consider Wordsworth's familiar testimony in his “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey”:

The sounding cataract

Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,

The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,

Their colours and their forms, were then to me

An appetite; a feeling and a love

That had no need or a remoter charm,

By thought supplied, nor any interest

Unborrowed from the eye.

There are flaws in this statement. Wordsworth's passion for the “sounding cataract” was borrowed from the ear and not from the eye, and borrows still more freely — even “remoter charms by thought supplied.” The aesthetic interest is not an appeal to any one sense to the exclusion of the rest, or to sense alone to the exclusion of the intellect. But the poet testifies unmistakably to the independent motivation of joys of apprehension — joys which are always possible, but which, owing to cognitive and practical preoccupations, are often untasted. Keats gives similar testimony in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds:

Now it is more noble to sit like Jove than to fly like Mercury — let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey, beelike buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be aimed at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive … sap will be given for meat and dew for drink. I was led into these thoughts, my dear Reynolds, by the beauty of the morning operating on a sense of idleness — I have not read any books — the morning said I was right — I had no idea but of the morning, and the thrush said I was right.2

This passage is cited for its contrast between the Mercurial “hurrying about,” the “knowledge of what is to be aimed at” and the Jove-like contemplation of the given pageant. But allowance must be made for the poet's carelessness in failing to see that the receptivity of which he speaks is activity. To “open our leaves like a flower” and to keep them open, is a focusing of attention. It is not a being possessed, but rather a taking possession.

The aesthetic interest is a prolonging interest. That which is prolonged is not a single instant, but a whole which endures in time, and which requires an internal advance in time. In elaborate compositions, whether musical, visual, or literary, the unity of the whole may be but faintly grasped, or grasped only by subjects having a trained capacity to deal with the particular artistic medium. It will depend on the capacity of the aesthetic subject to sustain sameness through change, or to embrace “all at once” a more or less widespread complexity.

A further feature of the aesthetic activity is its playfulness, that is, partial enactment of the responses of “real life.” It repeats forms of overt behavior, but stops short of commitment. The familiar example is that of the spectator at the play who, though he may fight for his seat or resent the man in front who obscures his view, will not intervene in behalf of the heroine attacked by the villain. He feels moved by hostility, but at a certain point he disconnects the engine, as when the clutch of an automobile is put in neutral. The difference between the competitive sport and the battle turns on the same point. There is something of the heat of combat in both players and spectators, but it is arrested at a certain point short of the injury of the opponent, and the activity is enjoyed in a manner analogous to that of a dance or pageant. The line is hard to draw and is frequently overstepped, but there is a difference of principle which distinguishes the playfully aesthetic from the “really” practical.

It is this detached or playful character of the aesthetic interest which accounts for the paradox of tragedy, and provides the true explanation of Aristotle's famous doctrine of “katharsis.” This doctrine has suffered through its suggestion that emotion is an impurity of which the system must somehow be purged, or the riddance of which affords relief. The essence of the matter is that an emotion partially or playfully felt can afford an enjoyment of apprehension which overrules its painfulness. The positive aesthetic value of tragedy depends on the difference between being “really” afraid and tasting the flavor of fearfulness. Grief and rage are negative interests, and in the “real” emotion the negative response is dominant. But if the emotion is checked the distress is not weighed by the contemplative enjoyment.3


The first step in the analysis of the aesthetic object is to recognize that the aesthetic interest has an object. Objectivity in the sense which is inherently and universally characteristic of the aesthetic interest does not imply existence, but means that there is (in the most abstract sense of ‘being’) a passive correlate of the aesthetic act — a something aesthetically enjoyed — which is describable and communicable. There are three distinguishable classes of aesthetic objects: sensory qualities, sensory relations and structures, and representations or ideas.

Bernard Berenson has testified to the intensity of his interest in sensory qualities. Referring to a majolica plate from Gubbio, by Maestro Giorgio, he spoke of its “dazzling sheen of ruby and mother-of-pearl tints”; and said, “I like to sit down where I can get the light aslant on one of his plates, and then to look at it for hours.”4

There is a sensuous relish of varying intensity and strength. Thus the psychologists have discovered certain general sensory preferences: red and blue are the most pleasant hues, yellow the least; sweet generally pleasant, bitter unpleasant; putrid and burnt odors unpleasant, fruity, spicy ones relatively pleasant.5 Sensory qualities may themselves be aesthetic objects, as when the blank wall is enjoyed for the sake of its green, or the sea or sky for the tint of its blue, or the tone of the flute for its liquidity. And sensory agreeableness may give superadded value to objects represented in a sensory medium.

The claim that only sensory qualities can serve as aesthetic objects is clearly inadmissible. There is an aesthetic enjoyment not only of tonal qualities but of relations of tones, as in the preference of the major third to the minor third in combinations within the musical octave. Each sensory medium, over and above its specific qualia, has also its own structures; interrelations among its own qualia — contrasts, blends, similarities, repetitions, gradations, intervals, orderly sequences; and embracing all the variations, such as intensity, saturation, or duration, of each quality. The permutations and combinations of sensory differences, even within the range of a single sensory medium such as the audible or the visible, are inexhaustible, and far exceed the number for which ordinary language provides. Beyond certain relatively narrow limits they are nameless and must constitute their own vocabulary.

But sensuous structures need not be confined to a single sensory medium. The dance, for example, combines audible with visible qualities. When sensory images are added to sensations a new range of possibilities is added. Poetry commands the greatest range of possibilities because to a verbal nucleus having qualities and forms of its own it annexes images drawn from all the senses. To say that the possibilities of sensory structure are infinite is only to state a fact, since all the dimensions of qualities are infinitely divisible continua. The only aesthetic limits are those which are imposed by the act of contemplation.

It is possible that an aesthetic interest should have no other objects save sense qualities and their structures. The expression ‘absolute music’ is used to designate the limitation of aesthetic objects to the qualities and structures of tones. Painting which as no other object save the qualities and structures of color or of line might similarly be referred to as “absolute painting.” The same possibility exists in the case of each of the sensory media. Imagism and Gertrude-Steinism in poetry suggest a similar restriction in literature.

Beyond the range of sensuously exhibited objects there lies the equally inexhaustible range of represented or ideal objects. Anything whatsoever of which it is possible to form an idea may be aesthetically represented. The aesthetic interest is not subject to any imperative which regulates its choice of subject matter except its own demand that it shall be contemplatively enjoyable. It may find its objects in nature, or in human life, but there is no obligation that it shall do either. Its objects may or may not coincide with the familiar, ready-made objects of practical common sense.

The “tiger, tiger burning bright” is not a purely sensuous object, but an object of perception, having its cognitive and practical meanings. It may also be an aesthetic object. A striped apparition crosses my path. Obeying the interest of knowledge I judge it to be a tiger, that is, I expect a certain future train of appearances and prepare myself for them, so that if there should be an apparition of tail-wagging amiability I would be surprised. Obeying the interest of self-preservation I shoot my rifle in its direction, and if it should then continue to advance in my direction I would be dismayed. Or, following the aesthetic interest, I may find it agreeable to contemplate the tiger; provided I am behind a rampart, up a tree, or, better still, provided it is only a poetical or pictorial tiger. But the tiger as an object of contemplation embraces in some measure both its judged characteristics and what is to be done about it; that is, incipient expectations and trains of response — something-that-will-eat-me, something-to-be-shot. These trains of expectation and response are only partial or playful; I execute none of them, but turn from one to another, and so savor and relish the essence of tigerishness.

The object of the aesthetic interest need not be an individual of a recognized species, such as the tiger, but may be an abstract idea, such as lithesomeness, agility, stealthiness, power, movement, or carnivorousness. One or more of these ideas may be portrayed through the representation of a tiger, by subordinating the tiger's other characteristics and accentuating the “smile on the face of the tiger.” But there is always the danger that the other characteristics will assert themselves and obscure the limiting intention. Doubt may arise as to whether the abstract characteristic is portrayed by the tiger, or the tiger by the abstract characteristic. So-called “abstract art” is designed to escape this ambiguity by eliminating the tiger altogether and representing the abstract characteristics directly by free combinations of line and color. This is not easily achieved since the visual structures employed will tend at the same time to suggest the familiar object in which they are embodied. The structure designed to portray the tiger-like characteristic tends to “look like” a tiger, and thus to be perceived as a tiger.

This difficulty can be generalized. Every language employed to represent an object, not only language in the strict sense, but every sensuous medium, will have its ready-made, habitual, perceptual meanings of which it is almost impossible to divest it. The difficulty is to be found at its maximum in literature, where the words employed can never be purged of their ready-made meanings; if they were they would cease to be words. Belles-lettres, and especially poetry, may be said to be engaged in an all-out struggle to free words from their habitual meanings by using words which have habitual meanings. Music lies at the other extreme, since tonal structures are not closely identified with the things and events of everyday life; though, even so, they “sound like” locomotives, cries of animals, or rumblings of thunder.

The question in the mind of the unsophisticated layman who asks of any work of art “What does it mean?” is usually “What familiar object of everyday life does it mean — is it a tiger or an elephant, a man, or a mountain?” If he is unable to identify the meaning in such ready-made terms, he complains that he cannot “understand” it. The proper answer, in many cases, is that it means some abstract characteristic, or some newly created thing for which the artistic medium itself provides the only designation. The exponents of abstract art have not clarified the situation by the use of the expression ‘non-objective.’ All art, no matter how abstract, no matter how far it departs from the range of existing verbal meanings, has some object.

This is the reason why it is a mistake to suppose that art should be easily understood, or understood by the masses. The line of least resistance is always the line of habit — the recognition of the familiar. The aesthetic object will always differ in some degree from the familiar object — otherwise the aesthetic object would never be as good as the original. Granting this, the aesthetic interest may legitimately require any degree of effort, always provided that after effort there is an object which is clear and unmistakable. The objection to “vulgar appeal” is not on the score of the number of those who respond to it, but on the score of its limitation by existing habits. There is a “learning to like” what has not been liked before — an annexing of fresh territory to the domain of the aesthetic. A new aesthetic object, like a new theory in science, may eventually be understood by all, although at first only by the innovators. A contemporary poet has spoken of the preference of “a difficult simplicity to an easy obscurity”; which is suggestive of mathematics — “simple when you understand it,” but not simple to understand.6

In art and nature, however, the ideal object is viewed through a sensory medium. There will then be some discrepancy between the ideal object and its sensory embodiment. The act of aesthetic contemplation will find it, but it will never be wholly purged of the conditions under which it is found. Like the existent physical event, it will be approximately logical, mathematical, or conceptual. In some degree its edges will be ragged, its outlines blurred, its regularities broken. After the familiar Platonic analogy, its total aesthetic object will be the illuminated rather than the light, the reflection rather than the sun itself. The ideal object is embodied in a sensuous structure, which, in turn, is embodied in sensory qualia, and finally in the act of enjoyment. Or, the act of enjoyment reaches forward through an unfolding series of vistas — through sensory qualities to sensory structures, and through sensory structures to the ideal object, which is thus triply blest.

The aesthetic object is that which is aesthetically enjoyed; and it is the aesthetic enjoyment which confers on the object its aesthetic value. But at the moment of enjoyment the feeling of enjoyment and the object of enjoyment tend to coalesce, and to be distinguishable only by analysis. The object is so commingled with the feeling that the feeling appears as a “tertiary” quality of the object: the delight taken in the object becomes the object's “delightfulness.” The exteroceptive sensory elements and the interoceptive affective elements become “fused.” This mode of description is unobjectionable provided it is not forgotten that the fusion implies the elements fused. It must not be allowed to obliterate the distinction between the interested response and that which occasions the response. It is the latter which, when so responded to, becomes the logical subject of judgments in which aesthetic value is assigned as the predicate. Unless the distinction is preserved it is impossible to avoid the circular statement that it is the aesthetic enjoyment which is aesthetically enjoyed.

In proportion as the enjoyment is emotional it will involve organic reverberations, often corresponding in their structures to those of the sensible object. To stretch the point, one may say that there is in aesthetic enjoyment always some element of the dance, however subtle and refined. The beating of time to music is only a palpable and external sign of the intimate relation of the response to the object. The organism in some degree enacts in itself — in its breathing, circulation, or muscular tensions and coördinations — that which appears visibly or audibly. There is a parellelism, a harmony, a being “in tune,” between the subject and the object owing to their common structure.7

In this review of aesthetic objects there has thus far been no mention of those physical things which hang on walls or stand on pediments, which furnish museums and houses, which men buy and collect, and which men take such pains to save from destruction. The fact is that it is only in the realm of visual art and in the enjoyment of nature that any single physical embodiment is indispensable. Needless to say the physical painting or sculpture is not an aesthetic object owing to its scarcity, or in respect of its weight, dimensions, chemical composition, or other purely physical characteristics. It is an aesthetic object because it exhibits sensory qualia and structures, and whatever ideal objects these represent: an individual painting, statue, or building is distinguishable from reproductions or replicas so far as it alone can provide such content.

We are thus brought back, after many turnings, to the fundamental fact that the aesthetic object is that which is enjoyed in contemplation, however presented or represented. He who apprehends it possesses all that the aesthetic interest requires.


There has of late been a tendency of aesthetic critics to prove their sophistication, if not their enlightenment, by denying that there is any such thing as “beauty.” This is an unhelpful, not to say fantastic, opinion. The noun ‘beauty’ and the adjective ‘beautiful’ exist in all languages because there is a need for the words; because there is something for which, if the word ‘beauty’ were rejected, some other word would have to be found.

The denial of beauty owes its force mainly to the vogue of a certain doctrine: the doctrine that beauty is a simple, unanalyzable, indefinable, characteristic: just beauty, beauty per se. But this doctrine is not consistently adhered to even by writers who are now assigned to the “classical” tradition. In his famous Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth wrote:

I shall proceed to consider the fundamental principles, which are generally allowed to give elegance and beauty, when duly blended together, to compositions of all kinds whatever; and point out to my readers, the particular force of each, in those compositions in nature and art, which seem most to please and entertain the eye, and give that grace and beauty, which is the subject of this enquiry. The principles I mean, are FITNESS, VARIETY, UNIFORMITY, SIMPLICITY, INTRICACY, and QUANTITY.8

Allowing for a certain lack of precision, pardonable in an artist, and for the restricted application to the visual arts, this writer says, in effect, that beauty embraces several characteristics the possession of which qualifies an object “to please and entertain” man's sensibility. His list does not differ radically from the lists compiled by others who have asked themselves the same question, and have spoken of “proportion,” “unity-in-multiplicity,” “organization,” “balance,” “symmetry,” “the golden section”; in modern criticism the words ‘form’ and ‘composition’ have acquired vogue as summarizing these and other characteristics. It will be noted that Hogarth justifies his list empirically, that is, by discovering what characteristics “seem” as a matter of fact to satisfy the condition of being contemplatively pleasing and entertaining. It is not claimed that they have anything else in common, or that they are the only characteristics which satisfy that condition. The list is multiple and provisional.

When it is recognized that there are as many aesthetic characteristics as make their objects aesthetically enjoyable, beauty does not cease to be, but it is definable as the class of the qualifying attributes by virtue of the possession of which any object commends itself to the aesthetic interest. Beauty is both multiple and one, in that while the characteristics are several, they all provide occasions for the same mode of positive response. It would be better to speak of “beauties” rather than of beauty. Certainly the list would have to be longer than Hogarth's.

It would include a balance of novelty and familiarity, and some idiom, idiosyncrasy, or “signature” to convey the impression of personal creation rather than of manufacture. It would include the purely qualitative characteristics peculiar to each of the senses; and the inexhaustible variety of sensible structures. The connoisseur of each art may properly come forward with his own adjectives, and who shall say him nay? Thus the man of refined musical taste who construes music as tonal mosaics, finds Brahms enjoyable for his “stateliness,” Mendelssohn for his “sprightliness,” Mozart for his “wistfulness,” and Tschaikovsky for his “vigor.”9 The list would include all the nameless characteristics for which there is no language save in their own sensory medium. The nameless characteristics must be recognized, if it be only to account for the straining by metaphor or circumlocution to name them. The list of beauties is long, and there can never be any defensible ground for closing it. For with the development of aesthetic taste it is always possible to enjoy objects for characteristics for which objects have never been enjoyed before.

The error of “formalism” consists in supposing that the characteristics which make up beauty are already finally known, having been drawn from “reason.” Formalism in this sense is to forget that the proof of beauty lies in the enjoyment, and that this, even when there is reason to expect it, always “remains to be seen.”10

For every positive interest there is a negative counterpart, and the object of negative aesthetic interest is commonly known as the “ugly.” This does not signify the absence of aesthetic enjoyment merely, or the negative interest towards that which prevents or destroys beauty. The ugly is the object of contemplative repugnance. This repugnance may be as strong as positive enjoyment; indeed there are persons whose aesthetic life consists almost wholly of distress, or of pronouncing things “ugly.” How strong aesthetic repugnance can be is illustrated by a statement made by Sir Osbert Sitwell about Edith Sitwell, the poet:

My sister invariably represents the United States of America, a country towards which her innate love of liberty and hatred of oppression made her feel a tremendous attachment — and one, indeed, which never wavered until it came into conflict with her aesthetic sense some years later when, at the age of fourteen, she was taken to hear Sousa conduct his own band, and, after a march of his composition had been played, was violently sick and had to be led out of the Albert Hall.11

The range of the ugly is coextensive with that of the beautiful. There are simple qualities which are disagreeable or disgusting. There are sensory structures, such as musical discords, clashing colors, unbalanced shapes and forms, ideal objects, which are intolerable to contemplate.

There is no abstract character of ugliness, but many characteristics having nothing in common save that there are conscious subjects which cannot bear to sense, perceive, imagine, or conceive them.


The aesthetic interest, together with its products, occurs in human life under certain conditions; and it is the task of the explanatory method in aesthetics to bring these conditions to light. The aesthetic has its physiology, its psychology, its history, and its sociology; in the materials which it employs, its physics, and its chemistry; and in the perceptions of nature which it reflects, its geography and climatology.

The question of the universality of the aesthetic interest has already been explored. It is a potential ingredient of every human interest, requiring only a turning from practice and knowledge to contemplation.

There is a chapter of explanatory aesthetics which has yet to be fully written,12 namely, the explanation of aesthetic preference, or of those structural characteristics which in their sum constitute so great a part of beauty. Pending further exploration of this topic, it seems evident that what is enjoyed in contemplation reflects certain fundamental characteristics of the human organism and of its natural environment. The processes of the organism, such as breathing, circulation, and locomotion, are rhythmic. A rhythm which is interrupted awakens a disagreeable sense of suspense, like that of having an advancing foot poised in midair. Even the ape, the psychologists tell us, is impelled to complete a broken visual pattern by filling in the empty space. The structure of the organism is bilateral and symmetrical, and the upright human organism is equipped with reflexes which restore balance and equilibrium.

It has become increasingly evident that the mind has a bias for structure so deep and original as to have its roots in the physical organism. Perception makes wholes out of elements, and brings order out of chaos, even when the whole and the order are not there. This bias of the mind is, indeed, a common source of illusion. The most striking feature of dreams is their construction of scenes and dramatic passages out of the broken images of memory. The mind which thus instinctively creates structures, welcomes them when found and enjoys their contemplation.

The physical environment, too, has its rhythms: in the alternation of day and night and of the seasons of the year. Nature exhibits geometrical forms — the discs of sun and moon, the circumference of the horizon, the dome of the sky, the straight line, which is the shortest distance between two points. The shapes of shells and plant life provide motives of decorative design. Nature provides not only the elementary colors and their composition, but invests them with meaning, as signals of danger, safety, or utility.13 The sounds of nature, including the calls of fellow-creatures, friend or foe, the melodic songs of birds, the confused uproar of sea and storm, are familiar experiences which reach far back in the line of evolutionary development. The centripetal pull of gravity is felt before the beginnings of architectural design. There is, in short, no sensible aspect of nature that does not contribute to the content of aesthetic objects, and attract, in some degree, favorable or unfavorable attention. It is only necessary to assume that what is interesting in practice is also enjoyable in contemplation; and that once the artistic impulse is aroused and directed, the invention of the artist operates to satisfy a growing demand.

The present emphasis in explanatory aesthetics is not on the sources of the aesthetic interest itself, but on the social conditions which determine the artistic product. It is easy to disprove the extreme claims of nationalistic relativism.14 Of all the parts of culture, save science, art has proved itself most cosmopolitan and most susceptible of influence from abroad. It is only necessary to mention the spread of Greek art throughout the Mediterranean basin, the revival of ancient art in the Italian Renaissance, and the spread of Italian art to all parts of Western Europe. Nevertheless, art, like every branch of human culture, does reflect in some manner and degree the peculiarities of its social environment.

Beyond a certain point art is a luxury, and its great periods have coincided with accumulations of wealth, and with the large scale expenditures of rulers or private patrons. This correlation is clear in the case of great artistic monuments which are costly to produce, but otherwise it is subject to certain exceptions. The painter who starves in the garret suggests only that art does not pay its way, and that unless its costs are provided from an economic surplus, the artist does starve, and would presumably in the long run become extinct. But the starving painter also suggests that art depends on the existence of persons who are willing to starve for it. The riches of ancient Carthage appear to have produced no art — there is a widespread suspicion that the art of the United States is not proportional to its material prosperity. So much for the highly dubious generalization that wealth provides the best fertilizer for the aesthetic soil.

There appears to be a correlation between national, or possibly ethnic, characteristics, and superiority in a particular form of art. The Germans and Russians have excelled in music, the Chinese in painting, the Italians in painting and sculpture, the English in poetry. The evidence is slender. It does not account for the eminence of the French in all the arts. Such historical generalizations are vitiated by the accidents of physical preservation; and the correlation, if such there be, has never been satisfactorily explained. That the instruments of art shall reflect the available physical materials — marble, metal, wood, pigments — and the development of technology, is self-evident but scarcely important.

That which is important is the relation between the ideal objects of art and the experience and ideology of the society or the class. The imagination, despite its freedom, derives its materials and its accent from life. What the artist represents in sensible media, and what the enjoyer of art looks for and recognizes, reflect the ideas that are most widely prevalent and the emotions that are most poignantly felt in the community to which they belong. It is no accident that the Sicilian sings of sulphur mines, or the slave of his serfdom and his dreams of release, or the troubadour of love. It is no accident that the European medieval culture embodied Christianity in all of its art forms; or that the present Western world should render into art the prevailing ideas and emotions of a machine age. By the same token it should occasion no surprise that the art of Soviet Russia should deal with the proletarian revolution or echo the past heroisms of Russian nationalism.

It is also evident that the artistic product will reflect the interests of the class from which the artists, their patrons and their enjoyers, belong. But the application to Western art is by no means clear. Its appeal has been not to the capitalist alone, but to the aggrieved and the exploited; to the artistically unsophisticated, as well as to the artistically sophisticated; to the cosmopolite, as well as to the nationalist. So-called “bourgeois” art appears to be distinguished, if by anything, by the absence of exclusive appeal to any social, economic, or cultural class. Western societies have freed art, as they have freed science, from allegiance to any motive beyond its own, allowing it to follow its own bent. Is this not, indeed, the complaint of the Marxist?

The explanatory method is also applicable to the personal life of the artist, a topic which has acquired increased vogue from the influence of Freud and the psychology of personality. There can be no doubt that whatever makes the man makes the artist and that what makes the artist makes his art: his heredity, his natural environment, his childhood experiences, his love life, his inner tensions and conflicts, his frustrations and triumphs. Art is intensely personal and, of all forms of art, poetry and fiction are most intensely personal. Thus it is impossible to understand the artistic creations of D. H. Lawrence without a knowledge of his relations to his parents, the setting of the countryside of Derbyshire, his passionate and intemperate nature, his revolt against the creed of Christianity, the grievances and bitterness that sprang from the intolerance of his critics. These explanations must not, however, be allowed to obscure the fact that he was governed by the motive of the artist, and it is only insofar as his personal life is seen to determine the object which he sought to express in the medium of literature that it is relevant to aesthetics.

How does the artist arrive at his ideal objects? Here is, indeed, a mystery. It is not surprising that many should adopt the view that the artist is “inspired” — in other words, that he derives his objects from some metaphysical source: from God, or from some Absolute Spirit. It is not surprising that the “subconscious” should be invoked, as it is invoked to explain so many things. But until “inspiration” is spelled out and clarified, is it anything more than another name for mystery, namely for that which is not explained?

It is well to bear in mind, furthermore, that this mystery is not peculiar to the aesthetic part of life. In spite of the Freudians, the visions of dreams remain a mystery. Daydreams, as well as sleeping dreams, remain a mystery. The vision of the great scientist, in which hitherto unrelated facts and discoveries resolve themselves into a unity — this, too, is a mystery. But there are little mysteries in everyday life — the sudden recollection of that which was forgotten; the happy phrases and original fancies of lively conversation; the process of thinking itself, in which, as one says, “it occurs to me.” The most that can be said is that past experiences and stored memories suddenly crystallize into organized unities which constitute something new in the universe of consciousness. Imagination, in short, is not merely a store of fragments, but an activity of invention which appears to be spontaneous.

However complete the account of the conditions under which an aesthetic interest has come to pass, however exhaustive its personal and social history, this does not in itself constitute the normative part of aesthetics.


The internal critique of art judges art not by its authorship, as in “attribution,” but by its own generating purpose of affording aesthetic enjoyment. This standard may be veiled by focusing attention on the qualifying attribute, which then itself becomes a criterion, which can be “objectively” applied without reference to the aesthetic interest. When the qualifying attribute is assumed it may be said that the object possessing it ought or deserves to be enjoyed, or that the object possessing the opposite characteristic ought not to be enjoyed. Assuming, for example, that a certain proportionality called ‘the golden section’ is a condition of the aesthetic enjoyment of visual linear structure, criticism may take the form of applying a ruler. Assuming certain conventions of versification the criticism of poetry may take the form of counting the feet or rhymes. Each of the arts — music, the dance, architecture — has its own set of established rules which constitute its discipline, and which define an area of criticism which consists simply in their application.

But these criteria are themselves justified only by appeal to the aesthetic interest itself, and it is therefore a major function of criticism to keep this interest alive. If the object is to be judged according as it does or does not meet the demands of the aesthetic interest, it must be the aesthetic interest, and not some other interest, whose demands are consulted. The value of an aesthetic object cannot be dismissed on the testimony of one who simply says, “I like it” or “I do not like it.” The taste of the critic is authoritative only when it is both pure and developed. This is the legitimate sense of the term “connoisseurship.” “I do not see it” is not evidence that “it is not there,” unless “I have an eye for it,” and am looking intently and alertly in the right direction. Hence the absurdity of determining aesthetic values by the questionnaire or the statistical method. The liking and preference of a single man of cultivated taste in the moments when his taste is alive and dominant, is more authoritative than a consensus of aesthetic judgments gathered at random; as the testimony of one careful and acute observer is better evidence of the occurrence of an event than that of a cloud of blind or careless witnesses.

It is a part of the task of aesthetic criticism, then, to distinguish the aesthetic interest itself from extraneous interests with which it may be mingled or by which it may be more or less unconsciously superseded: and likewise the work of art may be criticized on the ground of the purity or impurity of the creative motive. The aesthetic activity is subject to judgment by the standard of fidelity, or, as it is sometimes called, “integrity.”

The aesthetic interest, like all interests, has ways of defeating itself. The interest may be deflected from its purpose by its own means; techniques may intervene between the activity and its goal, or lead to a sort of technical exhibitionism or “virtuosity.” In the course of its intensive cultivation it develops intermediaries which obscure its goal, or precipitates by-products which stand in its way. Its arteries may become hardened. The so-called “degeneration” of art consists largely of the clogging of the grit produced by its own grinding. Repetition has the similar effect of a sedimentary deposit which blocks the circulation. “Staleness of language gums up transmission” says a musical critic. “Some freshness is ever required to dissolve the greases that collect in the machinery of meaning.”15

“Modern” or “modernistic” movements of art, in whatever period of history they occur, have no aesthetic justification if motivated by a desire to shock or to arrest attention by sensationalism, or if they rest on the assumption that what is new is ipso facto better than what is old. They owe their serious justification to a desire to recover the original artistic impulse when this has become overlaid by foreign matter — as when art has become merely an imitation of other art. In this, artistic reform resembles religious reform which seeks to return to the essential religious experience which has been obscured by ecclesiasticism or dogma.

If art is to fulfill the aesthetic interest it must be “interesting.” An objection which does not awaken the aesthetic interest at all, or “leaves it cold,” is no aesthetic object, and has no aesthetic value. Since the aesthetic interest, like all interests, is subject to fatigue and satiety there is a requirement of variety and novelty. A simple color may be agreeable to the eye or a simple tone to the ear, but the eye and ear would soon have enough, and the color or tone would lose its power to charm. Hence the superiority of the painting and musical composition which permit the eye and ear to rove. Similarly there is a requirement of freshness and invention. There is no aesthetic object so high in the scale that it does not pall, but there are differences of degree in the extent to which they reveal a new richness on each successive occasion. In art, as in science, there is a zest of discovery, and a credit to those whose originality annexes new territory to the domain of the enjoyable. On the other hand, familiarity not only breeds contempt or indifference; it also endears. The old aesthetic object is recognized; its aesthetic possibilities are more readily revealed, since the path to their discrimination is already broken. Hence the requirement of a balance between the strange and the familiar.

The value of the art object is proportional to whatever measure is applicable to the aesthetic interest. The aesthetic interest has its scale of preference, which makes it possible to rank works of art wherever the interests of two or more subjects are the same. The difficulty in applying this standard arises from doubt as to the sameness. Tasters of tea and tobacco, or experts in perfume, may agree; expert critics of a given artist or of a highly specialized branch of art are somewhat less likely to agree; the judgments of aesthetic subjects in general concerning objects of art in general, notoriously disagree. There is nevertheless some agreement among connoisseurs in the same field, even if it be only in the distinction between that which appeals to connoisseurs and that which appeals only to the taste of the vulgar.

Judged by the standard of inclusion, that which appeals to all aesthetic interests of a group has greater value than art which appeals to one or some of the group. This does not mean that number outweighs other standards: the standard of inclusion must include all standards. Whether there is any aesthetic object that suits all tastes, that suits them best in every respect, and that is repugnant to none, is questionable. The most that can be claimed is that if there were such an object it would be entitled to the claim of artistic supremacy.


The aesthetic life of man is embedded in his total life, and its internal standard is only one among many standards by which it may be judged. The critique of art by external standards of education has played an important role in controversy over the place of art in civilization. The critique of art by religious standards played a considerable part in the rise of protestantism, and in disputes among protestant sects. The omission of these topics here is practically compensated by the fact that these critiques are largely concerned with the relation of art to morality. The examination of the moral and cognitive critiques of art is more fundamental and calls for special consideration.

In the appraisal of man's major institutions of conscience, polity, law, and economy, the moral standard is internal. These forms of human life are essentially moral institutions, that is, their very being lies in their more or less successful solution of the problem created by the conflict of interests. The aesthetic activities and enjoyments, on the other hand, are only accidentally moral; they become so because the aesthetic interest is one among many interests with which it will conflict or harmonize, and because morality itself may be an object of the aesthetic interest.

It may be argued that these relations of the moral and the aesthetic are necessary and not accidental. Thus it may be argued that there is a positive correlation between the value of art and the moral character of the artist. But this is notoriously contrary to fact. Indeed the aesthetic interest seems peculiarly capable of flourishing in the absence of morality; indulgence of moral laxity is considered a price to pay for the contributions of artistic genius. It is by no means clear that an excess of passion beyond the bounds of virtue, and even extended to vices highly offensive to the conscience of the community, may not positively enhance artistic creativity. A distinguished musical critic has described Wagner's looseness of living, his sponging on his friends, his cruelty to his opponents, his infidelities, childish tantrums, ingratitude, egotism, insolence, and dishonesty. He was, in short, a moral monstrosity — a social parasite. It is clear that a society of Wagners could not exist. The writer goes on to say:

And the curious thing about this record is that it doesn't matter in the least…. When you consider what he wrote — thirteen operas and music dramas, eleven of them still holding the stage, eight of them unquestionably worth ranking among the world's great musico-dramatic masterpieces — when you listen to what he wrote, the debts and heartaches that people had to endure from him don't seem much of a price…. The miracle is that what he did in the little space of seventy years could have been done at all, even by a great genius. Is it any wonder that he had no time to be a man?16

It is often argued that art must choose a moral object; or that if it deals with human life at all, it must point a moral. William Dean Howells was a comparatively moderate exponent of this view:

If a novel flatters the passions, and exalts them above the principles, it is poisonous; it may not kill, but it will certainly injure; and this test will alone exclude an entire class of fiction, of which eminent examples will occur to all. Then the whole spawn of so-called unmoral romances, which imagine a world where the sins of sense are unvisited by the penalties following, swift or slow, but inexorably sure, in the real world, are deadly poison: these do kill.17

This argument would seem to contradict the same writer's contention that fiction should be true to life. But are “sins of sense” invariably visited by penalties? Is the critic not representing what would happen in a just world? And if so, on what artistic ground can he demand that a writer omit the tragic fact that vice is sometimes rewarded and virtue penalized?

There is a persistent strain of European thought which identifies the aesthetic and the moral through the principle of harmony:

Harmony, which might be called an aesthetic principle, is also the principle of health, of justice, and of happiness. Every impulse, not the aesthetic mood alone, is innocent and irresponsible in its origin and precious in its own eyes; but every impulse or indulgence, including the aesthetic, is evil in its effect, when it renders harmony impossible in the general tenor of life, or produces in the soul division and ruin.18

But the aesthetic value of harmony and the moral value of harmony are not the same value. The aesthetic value of harmony is the enjoyment of the whole in contemplation; the moral value of harmony is benefit to the parts from non-conflict and coöperation.

The distinction between the aesthetic and moral standards paves the way to the understanding of their relations. Insofar as harmony is one of the constituents of beauty a moral society is beautiful, that is, good to contemplate. But many, indeed most, harmonies fail to meet the requirements of morality; and are under no aesthetic obligation to do so. The moral standard is one of many external standards which are applicable to art.19

Assuming the aesthetic interest to have a peculiar and independent bias of its own, it may be asked how far this bias happily coincides with morality, and how far it diverges and resists. The aesthetic interest, like the cognitive interest, is amenable to morality because it is non-preëemptive, that is, does not appropriate its object exclusively. In the act of enjoying its object it does not deprive other subjects of its enjoyment. On the contrary, its enjoyment is enhanced by participation. Not only does it possess this original innocence, but it disposes men to friendly association. Because it does not need to take away from other interests it is unlikely to be associated with combativeness — with an impulse to weaken or destroy competitors.

Because the aesthetic interest operates in the realm of the imagination, it enjoys a peculiar freedom to multiply and entertain ideal possibilities. It tends to emancipate men's minds from habit, authority, and the status quo, and thus readily allies itself with the forces of progress and liberalization. It can dream utopias without hindrance, and through giving them vividness and permanence can provide direction to the moral life and to all aspiration. It can add to the attractiveness of any goal, including the goal of harmonious happiness; and can thus provide an additional motivation for ends which would otherwise suffer from their remoteness or abstractness. Art provides symbols for the moral cause. In its symbolic role the aesthetic object helps to preserve the identity of the goal amidst the vicissitudes of fortune, and to make it clearly manifest. Like the flag it can be hauled up where it can be seen; like the flag it can rally armies, regiments, and companies, and their successive replacements, to the same standard. And finally, the aesthetic interest can fortify moral courage by compensating life's practical and theoretical failures, and enable men to face the grimmer aspects of reality by presenting them in their tragic beauty. It thus contributes to that general auspiciousness of outlook which constitutes happiness.

The same traits of the aesthetic interest which render it morally propitious account for its moral dangers. Its detachment from the competitive struggle does, it is true, render art comparatively innocent, but there is a selfishness of innocence which consists in a withdrawal from affairs. The aesthetic interest does, it is true, tend to non-aggression, but it may tend to a passive complacency, a narrow absorption, and an irresponsibility toward that very social organization on which the aesthetic life itself depends. In his Olympian detachment the artist or man of contemplation is likely to forget that Olympus rises from the plain of organized society and that he owes his privileges to those who guard its approaches.

Aesthetic rapture does not escape the danger which attends all raptures. It tends to be so obsessive as to make men indifferent to its evil effects — of commission or omission — on the lives of other men. Nero would not have been less morally blameworthy if he had been Jascha Heifetz.

The aesthetic interest evades the problems of knowledge and action, instead of solving them; for their real solution it substitutes that pseudo-solution which is called “aestheticism” or “escapism.” The aesthetic interest may render the ideal so vivid and reassuring that it is mistaken for the real: and men may perish from aesthetic illusion, as they die of thirst in the desert through the allurement of the mirage. Because the aesthetic interest renders the evil of life palatable it weakens the will to remove it.

Aesthetic enjoyment can add to the appeal of the good and strengthen the moral passion; but it can also strengthen evil passion. It has a promiscuity similar to that of science. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast”; but it has other charms, and may debase the civilized man to savagery. There are “Dorian and Phrygian harmonies” which incite men to courage and temperance, but there are also Lydian, Ionian, and other harmonies which incite men to voluptuousness, to idleness, or to sexual excesses.20 The fine arts can be used to give force to any propaganda, whether totalitarian or democratic; the actor can play any part and give it dramatic value; the poet can make Satan more appealing than God.

The fact that art can be put to bad as well as to good uses, and that the aesthetic motive cannot be trusted, when left to itself, to take the side of the angels, raises the question of its social control. It cannot be controlled as effectively as science, nor is its control so deadly. Under the present regime of Soviet Russia art is explicitly subjected to the state and to Communist ideology, but we are told that “there are thinkers and artists, living perfectly respectable lives, but forever struggling to introduce into their official epics of stereotyped verbosity disguised glimpses of an inner vision personal to themselves.”21 And in art, at least, this struggle is more or less successful. Science is more readily controlled, because it depends on access to evidence, and on the facilities of organized experimentation. The “inner vision” escapes external control, and its disguise is not easily penetrated by the grosser eye of the censor. What ever restrictions are placed on men's overt conduct, there is always food for aesthetic contemplation, and some room for the play of the imagination.

But in principle the objection to social control is the same in art as in science. The artist renders his particular form of service through being free to follow his particular vocation. Art appraised by rulers and police is no longer judged by its own standard. Art harnessed to ideology becomes a dependent interest, deriving its motive from an ulterior end. In proportion as it is thus enslaved, art is destroyed at its source; it can no longer give other interests that very enhancement for the sake of which it was controlled. The effect of control is likely to be wholly negative. It can destroy and prevent better than it can create. Art will flourish best when it is allowed to germinate, grow, and proliferate in obedience to its own nature.22


The aesthetic interest in beauty is distinct from the cognitive interest in truth and it is not subject to the same requirements. There remains, however, the question of their relation. Is there any preëstablished harmony between these two interests, any inner complicity, whereby that which is true and demonstrable tends to be beautiful, and that which is beautiful tends to be true? Opinion in this matter has varied, all the way from the Platonic-Keatsian view that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” to the modern scientist's contempt for the poet as one who lives in a world of dreams.

The question has been, and still is, obscured by the tendency to melt the edges of all terms of eulogy in a glow of sentimentality. To offset this tendency it is well to recognize that knowledge and aesthetic enjoyment may be, and often are, opposed. Not only is the truth often unpalatable, but the love of truth requires that the mind shall subordinate the aesthetically agreeable to a respect for what are aesthetically described as the “harsh” or “ugly” facts. Error, as well as truth, can be embellished, and this may conduce to its perpetuation. The aesthetic interest may cause men to close their eyes to the more unsavory aspects of life. The historical, realistic, psychological, sociological, or pedagogical novel, which purports to be a mixture of art and knowledge, reveals the rivalry of these two interests. Its proved truth does not give it aesthetic appeal, nor does its aesthetic appeal prove it true. It can be criticized by either standard, or condemned by both standards, on the ground that the novelist has confused the two and allowed the one to compromise the other.

Insofar as the aesthetic interest claims truth it subjects itself to the standard of truth. There is no aesthetic commandment which prohibits an artist from painting or modeling a “likeness,” whether of nature or of a human subject. He does so at his aesthetic peril, for this purpose may defeat the artistic purpose. If there is an interest that the portrait or statue should serve, like a passport photograph, to identify the original, or like a memorial to remind one of the original, then the work of art becomes a hypothesis, and the original becomes evidence of its truth or error. Similarly, if the interest of the artist is to “give” a true idea of a mountain or a ruin, or of death or justice, or any object that he selects, then it submits itself to judgments of truth or error in the light of that object — judgments which the artist himself is in a privileged position to pronounce since he is often the only person in a position to examine the evidence. But the object represented may be an imaginary object, in which case the work of art is true, not of existence, but of its own fictitious creation; as the novelist may truly or erroneously portray the character whom he has conceived.

The artist may also be said to be sincere or insincere according as he does or does not himself contemplate an object. He is not “honest” or “authentic” when he uses the language of art without himself grasping the meaning which it conveys. All art which merely imitates other art — as when the poet adopts a traditional poetic vocabulary, or the visual artist adopts a traditional style without making it his own — is a kind of parroting which communicates nothing, since the parrot does not mean what he says.

Acknowledgment of the independence or even opposition of the aesthetic and cognitive interests paves the way to the understanding of their alliance. First, truth as well as error can be embodied in works of art. While appeal to aesthetic enjoyment itself affords no proof of truth it may add beauty to truth. Scientific views of nature, man, and history will find their way into the content of poetry or the plastic arts, and thus be doubly blessed.

The aesthetic interest serves knowledge through its very license to rove beyond the limits of knowledge. The realm of the imagination is the field of man's infinite inventiveness. It extends the range of possibilities, it tends to fertility of ideas, to the enrichment of sensory experience, and to the multiplication of the permutations and combinations from which knowledge, as well as practice, make their choices.

Finally, the aesthetic interest contributes to knowledge through the concreteness of its object. The aesthetic interest, at any rate in its sensory objects, contemplates not bare relations, arrangements, organizations, variables — but terms in relation, subject matter arranged and organized, values of variables. The object so contemplated escapes both the schematic thinness of concepts, and the chaotic plethora of sense-perception.

The aesthetic object is neither the warp nor the woof, but the warp and the woof together with the nap and the dye — in short, the carpet. If knowledge is both rational and empirical, and if reality is what it is known to be, then the aesthetic object can be said to reveal a feature of reality that is likely otherwise to escape knowledge, namely its union of structure and content, or quantity and quality.


There are two opposed attitudes to the aesthetic part of human life — the belittling and the eulogistic. The belittling judgments are uttered from the standpoint of science, which condemns the aesthetic as irrational and illusory, and from the standpoint of practice which condemns it as evasive and ineffectual. These judgments are valid judgments in terms of the standards which they apply, but they are limited judgments. The praise of beauty, however extravagant, is deserving of respect; if it cannot be wholly justified, it must at least be accounted for. The justification of its extravagance is to be found in the role of the imagination in human life, which the belittlers are disposed to ignore.

The imagination is, of all human faculties, that which contributes most to man's escape from his sense of finitude. It breaks through the barriers of common sense, familiarity, and relevance, and voyages abroad on the limitless expanse of possibility. The imagination is the enlarging faculty by which the natural man, while still remaining man, seems to surmount the restrictions imposed by place and time and by his animal-bound inheritance. Whether he does or does not actually surmount these restrictions, he seems to himself to do so, and no account of the place of the aesthetic in human life can be complete which does not take this seeming into account. In any case, aesthetic enjoyment enlarges consciousness, both internally through increased sensitivity and discrimination, and externally through making tolerable and even palatable, the harsh accidents of life and the rude thrusts of circumstance. It enables men to “face” life with their eyes open.

Aesthetic enjoyment is characterized by a heightened sense of activity, which has led an eminent critic of art to speak of “life-enhancement” as the crucial test of beauty. Cognitive and practical interests follow a determined route from problem to expectation to verification or disproof, from task to trial to success or failure. Because they are impelled to follow through, they must be confined within a comparatively narrow area of relevance. The aesthetic interest, on the other hand, can engage in many activities because it need not complete any. The imagination has wings and can soar; cognition and practice are pedestrian. A person impelled by the aesthetic interest can imagine the movements of bodies whose actual movements he cannot share — imaginatively he can move with them. He can enter into the inner life of objects other than himself.

Hence he feels an augmented richness and fullness of kinaesthetic experience, which is in part at least accountable for that exhilaration which commonly attends the aesthetic life in both its creative and its appreciative moments.

Aesthetic enjoyment is associated with a sense of mastery. It scores victories. The aesthetic interest, even in its mature development, is like the play of a child who can live the life of a king or a robber, or whatever his fancy may hit upon, unconfined by circumstance. But this imaginative triumph may take a much subtler form. What one enjoys in contemplation is as though it were designed for one's contemplation. Antoine de St.-Exupéry has thus described the feeling of a group of friends who were lunching together on the banks of the Saône the day before the war:

We savoured a sort of state of perfection, in which, every wish vouchsafed, nothing remained to reveal to each other. We felt we were pure, upright, lambent, indulgent … The dominant feeling was certainly that of assurance. Of an assurance almost proud.

Thus the universe, through us, showed its kindness. The nebulae condensed, the planets hardened, the first amoeba came into being, and life's gigantic labour pains led the amoeba to man in order that all should converge harmoniously, through us, in this quality of pleasure!23

The aesthetic life, in certain moments, yields not only this exhilaration and sense of mastery, but that feeling of being “pure, upright, lambent, indulgent” to which St.-Exupéry refers. Selfish and sordid considerations are forgotten. Because the aesthetic interest is not competitive, and does not arouse the self-preservative and combative impulses or prompt men to fear and suspicion, it opens the floodgates to the impulses of sympathy and kindness. The love of beauty has something of the tenderness which characterizes the love of persons and the love of God. It is not envious, but worships its object in a mood of self-surrender.

The aesthetic interest tends not only to subordination of self, but because of its freedom from ulterior cognitive and practical motives it enjoys a sense of perfection — a sense, namely, that its object is all that it ought to be. Its value is not dependent on its consequences, but is self-contained. The aesthetic interest does not take its object as a mere stepping stone — something on which to act, something from which to expect — but rests in it, dwells on it, in order to explore the richness and nuances of its content.

These experiences, which might be summarily designated as feelings of “enlargement” or of “exaltation,” are not defining characteristics — in the sense that there is no aesthetic value without them, but they are nevertheless characteristics, and may properly be credited to the aesthetic in any judgment of its place in human life. Some would say that they are distinguishing marks of “great” art, or of the “highest” aesthetic enjoyment — but that is another story.


The claim of “greatness,” like those of “enlargement” and “exaltation,” cannot be ignored, however unsatisfactory the results of any attempt to define it. The central difficulty in this case is created by the assumption that there is a one-dimensional order of greatness in which every artist or work of art can by general consent be assigned a place. No doubt it would be generally agreed that Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Raphael, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Beethoven are “great.” But there is serious doubt whether this agreement is based on any single and common standard. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the fine arts themselves have become so highly specialized that even if it were possible to define a single standard of greatness for poetry or painting, it would be of doubtful application to music or architecture. The only test which is widely accepted is “the verdict of posterity.”

There is no alternative but to conclude that greatness in art is a resultant effect of many incommensurable values, and having nothing in common save their effect upon the esteem of a sufficient number of persons over a sufficient length of time to warrant its being described as “the general esteem of mankind.” This standard is, no doubt, circular: it amounts to saying that great art is art which is judged to be great, or which achieves fame. But it changes the question. We no longer ask the unanswerable question, “What is the standard of greatness?” but “What are the more important among the many considerations whose total impact finds expression in the judgment of ‘greatness,’ and creates the necessity for the word?”

When greatness is considered as an aggregate of incommensurables which have a joint effect upon the opinion of mankind, it is no longer permissible to narrow the judgment of greatness to the internal aesthetic standard. This would, at best, define greatness in terms of the preference of connoisseurs. No standard, however vulgar or external, may be excluded so long as it is applicable to art. Prestige, and even commercial value or collector's value, may not be excluded, since these are expressions of, or causes of, general esteem. Still less is it permissible to omit usefulness (does not its usefulness as a place of worship contribute to the greatness of a Gothic cathedral?), or moral value (does not their representation of the Christian virtues contribute to the greatness of medieval painting?), or cognitive value (does not their understanding of human life contribute to the greatness of Goethe and Shakespeare?).

Those who reject the extra-aesthetic evaluation of the aesthetic, who espouse the cause of “art for art's sake,” or insist on the distinctness and independence of aesthetic value per se, justly protest against the confusion of standards. But in the extravagance or bitterness of their protest they have been led to reject these other values, and to prove their point by identifying beauty with immorality, with bestiality, with revolution, with cynicism, despair, and impiety, and with every form of iconoclasm. In their eagerness to disprove Aristotle's contention that the theme of tragedy must be noble, they select ignoble themes. But in so doing the aesthetic purists have overreached themselves. In order to free the aesthetic from contamination they have robbed it of all the super-added values which it derives from its place in life and its interaction with the other parts of man's total civilization.

There are certain aspects of art, themselves compounded of many causes, which are commonly cited as peculiarly conducive to the esteem of mankind: originality, perfection, monumental impressiveness, depth of appeal, depth of the object, cultural significance, universality, permanence, and mystical sublimation.

A work of art, like a discovery or generalization in science, may be epoch-making. Standing at a crossroads or turning point, where the path changes its direction, it may predetermine all future aesthetic activity or enjoyment. This gives greatness to Greek art and letters in general, or to the paintings of Giotto, or to the founders of modern music, such as Palestrina.24

A work of art obtains general esteem when it is superlatively good of its kind: that is, when it seems to satisfy all of the requirements of its particular medium and form. Thus one may speak of a poem of Shakespeare as a “perfect sonnet,” or a composition of Beethoven as a perfect symphony, or the cathedral at Rheims as perfect Gothic, or as “Gothic of the best period.” It stands as the seemingly complete solution of an aesthetic problem which is limited enough to be capable of a complete solution. It stands as that which cannot be improved upon, and thus acquires a kind of immortality.

Monumental impressiveness implies quantity and duration, as notably exemplified by the pyramids of Egypt. The work of the goldsmith or miniature painter, however exquisite and perfect of its kind, is not described as “monumental.” The visual arts, and particularly architecture, here enjoy an advantage over other forms of art. They endure through a long period of time in the full view of mankind. They do not require any record or interpretation, but speak for themselves. Durability is, however, a condition of greatness in all the arts, as is also quantity. It is a part of the greatness of Homer, Dante, Titian, Shakespeare, that they bulk larger in human experience through the volume of their productivity and the range of their genius.

“Depth of appeal” clarifies the meaning of what is sometimes called “spiritual significance.” Esteem is here based on the extent to which art calls human faculties into play. Art which appeals only to the senses, or which satisfies only certain formal requirements, is less esteemed than art which evokes the profounder emotions or requires the exercise of the higher intellectual faculties. Great art demands more for its appreciation, and in so doing also gives more. Similarly, the ideal object may be superficial or profound. The crime story, shock thriller, and melodrama, in order to make tragedy amusing and so appeal to popular taste, miss its true inwardness. “Great” art will enable men to taste the poignancy of tragedy and yet find it palatable. The “happy ending,” the sentimentalist's complacency, are concessions to the vulgar at the cost of shallowness; the satirist will reveal “the worst,” and yet enable men to enjoy its contemplation.

Art is esteemed for the degree to which it sums up and “mirrors” the cultural characteristics of a society, nation, or age. It will enjoy esteem among those to whom it thus gives articulate expression, and will stand as a landmark to the rest of mankind. The Parthenon is esteemed for being essentially Greek, Molière for conveying the spirit of France in the age of Louis XIV, Shakespeare for embodying what is characteristically English or Elizabethan. Whenever any poet or painter or musician shall have succeeded in epitomizing the industrial age, or the age of the cold war, he will be esteemed as great on that account. Art thus serves the purposes of history and of education in perpetuating and concentrating the past in memorable unities.

“Universality,” which is perhaps the commonest of the recognized attributes of greatness, refers to the extent to which the aesthetic interest selects for contemplation the common characteristics of human life. These may or may not be its familiar characteristics, such as home, or sexual love, or the common familiar relations, or the homely occupations of everyday life. When such familiar characteristics are selected it is assumed that they will be easily recognized, and appreciated. This is the claim made for art which is enjoyed by the mass of mankind, and which is therefore “popular.” But the universal object may be that which is taken as the deeper meaning of life: accessible to every man's apprehension, but requiring penetration, insight, and generalization.

Art owes its permanence in part to the sameness of human nature, whereby men continue throughout time to enjoy the same sensible qualities and structures, and in part to the unchanging character of human experience in its essentials. But there is another sense in which great works of art are said to be “immortal.” Each artistic achievement is final, or invulnerable to the effects of time. What does it mean, for example, to say that Homer's Iliad is a “joy forever”? The answer lies in the fact that its poetic value is independent of historical knowledge, and of the historical course of events. It would not have been in the least diminished if Schliemann had not discovered Troy, but had come to the conclusion that no such city ever existed. It would have been proved to be bad history, which no one has ever doubted. If the Trojan War is taken as an actual conquest of Trojans by Greeks, then in the light of later events it may prove to have been a political mistake. But such vicissitudes do not touch that realm of the imagination in which Troy was destroyed. Only provided human nature were so radically altered that the imaginary episode ceased to be enjoyed in contemplation would its artistic permanence be affected.

Finally, art is esteemed as great when it enables man to face the universe, and to rise above its differences and conflicts to some all-reconciling synthesis. A recent critic of Beethoven, in contending that this composer's work culminates in his last quartets, at the same time contends that this consummate achievement of music is the consummate achievement of all art:

To be willing to suffer in order to create is one thing; to realize that one's creation necessitates one's suffering, that suffering is one of the greatest of God's gifts, is almost to reach a mystical solution of the problem of evil, a solution that is probably for the good of the world that very few people will ever entertain … We know … that Beethoven was a man who experienced all that we can experience, who suffered all that we can suffer. If, in the end, he seems to reach a state “above the battle,” we also know that no man ever knew more bitterly what the battle is.25

This does not, however, in the least mitigate its limitations and defects, as judged by moral and cognitive standards. To see moral and cognitive evil as aesthetic good does not make them good judged by their own standards. To be “above the battle” weakens the moral will dedicated to the overcoming of evil. To achieve a state of assurance and certitude merely through the aesthetic experience weakens the faculties dedicated to the proof of truth. Nevertheless the mystical vision in which suffering is sublimated may be the most rapturous form of enjoyment.

  • 1.

    There is good authority for this usage. Thus Locke speaks of “keeping the idea which is brought into [the mind] for some time actually in view, which is called Contemplation”; and C. S. Peirce, in quoting this statement, adds that it is “(1) protracted, (2) voluntary, and (3) an action”; “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1–2 (1867–8), p. 152, note. The Locke quotation is from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. II, ch. x, § 1; cf. also Bk. II, ch. xix, § 1.

  • 2.

    From The Selected Letters of John Keats, copyright 1951 by Lionel Trilling, Farrar, Straus and Young, Inc., publishers, pp. 111–112.

  • 3.

    The playful emotion is also less intense. Cf. H. Zinsser, As I Remember Him, 1940, pp. 435–6: “For the poet arrests emotions at their points of greatest supportable heat, just short of the melting point as it were, and can hold in that perfect state, permanent in his words and meters, those feelings and comprehensions which pass too quickly to be held through the minds of the ordinary.”

  • 4.

    From an unpublished letter written from Berlin, October 6, 1890. The strength of this writer's interest in the contemplation of aesthetic objects is emphasized by its overcoming of the physical fatigue to which he is peculiarly vulnerable. He speaks of himself as doing nothing for two hours but look at Savoldo's “Gaston de Foix” in the Lichtenstein Gallery in Vienna, and as hanging onto railings and trembling with exhaustion while looking at pictures in Dresden. (Letters written in October and November, 1890.)

  • 5.

    E. G. Boring and others, Psychology, 1935, ch. xv.

  • 6.

    P. Viereck, “Pure Poetry, Impure Politics, and Ezra Pound,” Commentary, 11 (1951), p. 346.

  • 7.

    For the notion of “tertiary qualities,” cf. above, ch. i, § 5; ch. ii, § 8. For the formal similarity of emotion and external sensation, cf. C. C. Pratt, Music as the Language of Emotion, Library of Congress, 1952; for “fusion,” cf. S. C. Pepper, Aesthetic Quality, 1937, ch. iv, and World Hypotheses, 1942, ch. x.

  • 8.

    W. Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, Introduction, pp. 11–12.

  • 9.

    C. Pratt, op. cit., and “Objectivity of Esthetic Value,” Journal of Philosophy, 31 (1934), pp. 40–5.

  • 10.

    There is an analogy between formalism in aesthetics and formalism in physical science. Formalism in science (whether Aristotelian or Kantian) affirms the possibility of laying down “categories” from which it is possible to know in advance what hypothesis will be true or false. Modern science prescribes nothing of hypotheses in advance save that they shall be verifiable by perception. Similarly, an experimental aesthetics will prescribe nothing in advance save that its judgments shall be capable of being submitted to the test of enjoyable contemplation.

  • 11.

    The Scarlet Tree, Little, Brown and Company, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1946, p. 31.

  • 12.

    The most promising approach to this topic is that of the “Gestalt” psychologists. Cf. W. Köhler, Gestalt Psychology, 1929, ch. vi, and The Place of Value in a World of Facts, 1938, chs. iii, ix.

  • 13.

    For a summary of the place of color discrimination in animal behavior, cf. G. L. Walls, The Vertebrate Eye, 1942, ch. xii.

  • 14.

    Of which Taine provides the classic example. Cf. his Philosophie de l'Art, 1865, and Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise, 1863–4.

  • 15.

    V. Thomson, “Copland as Great Man,” New York Herald Tribune, Nov. 24, 1948.

  • 16.

    D. Taylor, Of Men and Music, Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1937, pp. 7–8. Beethoven provides a similar, but less extreme case. Cf. J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven, His Spiritual Development, 1947, Bk. II, ch. vi.

  • 17.

    Criticism and Fiction, 1891, p. 95.

  • 18.

    G. Santayana, “Brief History of My Opinions,” Contemporary American Philosophy, G. P. Adams and W. P. Montague (eds.), Vol. II, 1930, p. 256; reprinted with permission of The Macmillan Company. Jonathan Edwards's moral value is “beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or of those actions which proceed from them” — which turns out to be the same thing as benevolence. The Nature of True Virtue, Jonathan Edwards, Representative Selections; ed. by C. H. Faust and T. H. Johnson, 1935, pp. 349–50.

  • 19.

    There are indefinitely many external standards which are applicable to art—including, for example, the dealer's standard, and the collector's standard.

  • 20.

    Plato's Republic, tr. by Jowett, Bk. III, 398–9.

  • 21.

    E. Crankshaw, Russia and the Russians, 1948, p. 187.

  • 22.

    Political and ideological controls are not the only alien controls by which the aesthetic part of life may be frustrated. There is also a commercial control, less palpable, but all the more insidious.

  • 23.

    “Letter to a Hostage,” translated by John Rodker, from Modern French Stories, copyright 1948 by New Directions, pp. 152–3.

  • 24.

    An interesting illustration is provided by the modern composer Arnold Schoen-berg, who has proposed to free music from the tonal relationships of the traditional harmonic system. The “revolutionary” composer attempts to break habits, and to substitute new rules for old, and when he succeeds in converting the taste of his hearers, as he often does, he has at least given meaning to the term “originality.” Cf. P. Yates, “Arnold Schoenberg: Apostle of Atonality,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 11, 1949.

  • 25.

    J. W. N. Sullivan, op. cit., Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., pp. 223, 225, 233, 242, 252–3, 262.

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