Esthetic facts and beauty
Having established, then, that esthetic judgments are objective, let us look a little more closely at the judgments themselves.
First of all, they of course have as their form an esthetic concept, which is the relationship itself and its foundation in the emotional overtones of the perceptions and/or images.
These concepts are what give us our emotional words, such as "pleasant," "disgusting," "laughable," "genial," "terrifying," "desirable," and so on. You will notice that these apply to objects, not the emotional state itself, just as "green" applies to objects and isn't the sensation which is the reaction to the green objects. Emotional words that apply to the emotion itself would be things like "happy," "depressed," "frightened," "hungry," and so on. When we use such terms, we are simply reporting to others that we have an emotion of a certain type (i.e. that some drive is operating) and are not saying anything about what caused it. So emotional words that describe one's emotional state are not esthetic concepts.
Esthetic concepts are potential relationships among objects based on relationships among emotions as their effects on us.
They are potential relationships, of course, because as concepts they are "detached from" any given individual object, and are merely the relationship itself and its foundation as a foundation of a relationship. "Pleasantness" is a relationship and as such is not actually connecting any objects.
The first thing to note about esthetic concepts is that, like perceptive concepts, they are abstract, in spite of what artists and estheticians are fond of saying about the "concreteness" of art as opposed to the "abstractness" of science.
Any concept is necessarily abstract, because it deals with only one relationship (and its foundation) out of the infinity of ways the objects can be related. It is obvious that an esthetic concept prescinds from the way the objects affect our senses, and is only interested in how they affect our emotions. When you say, "John roared at me like a tiger," you obviously are ignoring whether John's words might have the same pitch or volume of the tiger's roar; you are simply interested in the fact that they produced on your emotions the same effect.
But then why is it that art always involves some concrete object? The answer is first of all that it doesn't, necessarily. I remember the profound esthetic effect that the reading of the Christmas martyrology had on me in the seminary; all it was was a listing of dates (which were inaccurate), something like, "From the creation of the world, seven thousand years; from the flood, four thousand years; from Abraham's birth, two thousand four hundred years;... (and so on)...; while all the earth was at peace, the birth of Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, called the Messiah and the Son of God." The requisite is that whatever is being said esthetically has to produce emotions that you can use for the basis of relationships, not that it be "concrete." Much of poetry's esthetic effect, for instance, depends on things like the placement of words, their sounds together, the rhythm, and so on as well as the images they evoke.
Well, but isn't that concrete? True, perhaps; but then there are people who get esthetic effects from mathematical theorems (they actually do), and who talk of the beauty of Euclid's proofs. Even Keats (I believe it was) thought Euclid looked on "beauty bare." So concreteness is not necessary; emotional overtones are.
But if the esthetic concept is to be more than elementary, then it's not going to be something we have a single word for. And in that case, the emotions are going to be complex, and you will have to awaken them in the other person in order for him to see the relationship you want him to understand. But since emotions are not evoked by abstract terms, generally speaking, you will have to confront him with some concrete object (either in his vision, his hearing, or his imagination) which will produce the proper emotions; then he will understand your concept.
So that is why art generally speaking has to be concrete; it's just that you can't get emotions without having something concrete to cause them. Few of us are capable of feeling emotions just by willing them. Even actors have to imagine themselves in the proper situation in order to feel the emotions that they then project by empathy to the audience.
But the concreteness of the cause of the emotional reaction should not make us think that the concept itself is concrete; it leaves out enormous amounts of information about the objects it deals with.
Let us look a little more closely at simplicity and complexity. As I said, simple concepts generally have words in the language for them, because they deal with experiences that people have frequently. Some more complex ones that are common have cliché metaphors attached to them, like "the smiling meadow," "the evening of life," "like a tiger," "meek as a lamb," and so on.
As I have said a couple of times already in discussing analogy in Chapter 7 of Section 2 of the first part 1.2.7 and in the preceding section of this part, metaphors express relationships based on emotional overtones, and analogies are based on the perceptive type of relations among causes based on relations among their effects. If someone says, "He came at me like a tiger," no one expects that this means he was on all fours and making inarticulate sounds; it simply means that he produced the specific kind of fright that "the normal human being" feels when imagining himself pursued by a tiger. And the same goes for "meek as a lamb." Wooliness and making "baa" noises have nothing to do with it.
Simple esthetic concepts, then, have common words and phrases in our ordinary vocabulary. But there are much, much more complex ones; and these can't be expressed in just one or a few words. They are what works of art express.
If you consider Michelangelo's David, for instance, you find that it is a whole esthetic treatise. The basic idea is that of Florence as David facing the Goliath of the rest of the world; but there is the worried frown on David's brow that gives an entirely different emotional tone to the statue from what one receives from the story in the Bible; there is the rather vacant look about the eyes, staring off at the horizon that makes you feel that David is looking at more than just a challenge, and is seeing into the heart of the universe; there is the whiteness of the marble and its coldness that makes it very different in its emotional effect from a full-size replica I once saw in Cincinnati that was made of painted fiberglass. There is its size and the obvious strength of the man that has its emotional overtone, as well as the perfection of his body, without an ounce of fat. There is, for those who know the history of art, the fact that this is obviously an Italian peasant and not a Greek god, and yet just as obviously has the Greek gods as its pattern. For those who know the history of the statue itself, there is the emotional overtone connected with the fact that this came out of a piece of flawed marble that Michelangelo saw in a yard and thought he could use by carving around the flaws. For those who believe that Michelangelo was homosexual, there are the erotic overtones connected with the fact that he carved such a statue. And for me, on my trip to Florence without being able to see the original in the museum (which was closed, as everything in Italy seemed to be, for repairs), and saw the copy in the square where Michelangelo intended it--but with a face fouled with bird droppings--there was the emotional overtone of the commentary on the people of Florence who would let this happen to the symbol of their noblest spirit.
Not that I have exhausted the things you can notice and their emotional overtones; I have barely scratched the surface. All of these are interrelated and unified by that one statue in that one city; and they say something as complex as this book with its thousands of pages is saying in the perceptive realm. Somebody who goes through the square and looks at the statue and says, "That's nice. Come on; the book says we have to see the duomo," "understands" what Michelangelo was saying about as much as someone who looks at the cover of this book and flips a page or two and says, "Oh, I see; it's about reality." No one would pretend that he had "read" the book by doing this; but people say of things like the David, "What do you want to go back and look at it again for? We saw that yesterday."
Really complex works of art do not tire; as Kant pointed out, they are "inexhaustible." Every time I hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, I have a new and slightly different esthetic experience, because in the state I am in, I am receptive to some emotions that I wasn't the previous time, I notice sounds that I hadn't heard because I concentrate at different times and let my concentration lapse at different times, and so on; so the unified effect of all of this is different, and I understand a slightly different fact about that set of sounds from what I understood the last time--and simultaneously, of course, know something slightly different about myself as an emotional being. Beethoven's genius, like that of all great artists, was to be able to weave into a meaningful unity all sorts of variations on the emotional overtones his music would produce.
Note that there are two different kinds of complexity: the internal, based on the emotional impact of the shapes, colors, or the pitches, volumes, timbres, and so on. Each of these components of a painting or sculpture or a piece of music or poetry or drama has its own emotional impact; and they intermesh with each other into a complex relationship. This is why the wrong meter, say, can destroy a poem; because it doesn't fit; or a different rhythm can make the same melody into a totally different piece of music. Meredith Wilson in The Music Man used the same tune for "Seventy-Six Trombones," as a stirring march, and "Good Night, my Someone" as the love musings of Marian the Librarian; and the difference was that one was in march time and the other in waltz time.
Music without lyrics is almost completely internally complex in this way. The esthetic concept consists in hearing the sounds and feeling their emotional impact, and then hearing them again after contrasting sounds, so that there is then a different emotional impact of the same sounds; and it is this interplay of sounds and emotions that is basically what is esthetically going on.
The complexity can be extreme. Someone has analyzed Bach's St. Matthew Passion simply by length of parts, and found that it is full of nested "golden proportions." For some reason, a work of art (of any type) is esthetically satisfying if it divides in such a way that the shorter part is to the longer as the longer is to the whole (this is not a simple fraction, by the way, if you want to figure it out). For instance, one of the reasons why Happy Birthday is a perennial favorite is that "Happy birthday dear ..." has the syllable I have italicized at the golden-proportion point. It seems that the St. Matthew Passion has each little part divided according to the golden proportion; and these parts fit together into subsections which are related by the golden proportion; and these into larger sections also related the same way, up through a dozen or so layers until the final work's two parts are divided by the golden proportion. Unfortunately, we rarely hear it that way, because conductors, who don't have quite the esthetic sense Bach did, cut out parts of it to get it into performable compass.
But of course Bach's St. Matthew Passion is not pure music by any means; it involves the lyrics which are the text of Matthew's Report of the Good News, as well as various poetic commentaries and traditional hymns. And this is external complexity. The passages of the Bible have their emotional overtones, and so do the poems and the hymns. Each of these emotional overtones must fit into the emotional overtones of the music for the music to "work" as a piece of art--otherwise, we will be confused by it, rather than understanding something.
So Bach was not merely saying something about the interrelations of sounds; he was using those interrelations of sounds to say something about the death of Jesus; and because of the meaning of the music as music, we understand something that much more profound about the esthetic meaning of the death of Jesus and its relation to ourselves both as its cause and is beneficiary.
Some art has almost nothing but external complexity. The Christmas martyrology I mentioned above connects, just by mentioning the names on Christmas day, the emotional overtones involved in the Creation and the various events and people in the Bible, and gives an esthetic meaning to Jesus as the culmination of history up to himself and the beginning of history from then on. In itself it is just a list; and if you don't have any particular emotional reaction to the names and events mentioned, it is a pretty boring list; its esthetic meaning comes through and by the emotions these names evoke in the Christian.
The same sort of thing goes for such apparently "simple" songs like Were You There When They Crucified My Lord, which is just a tune, not much more than an arpeggio of a major triad, with no tricky rhythms or harmony like many Gospel songs; but the lyrics put you there, looking up at him, and the "Oh!--Sometimes it causes me to tremble!" is so vague in itself that it collects around it all of the conflicting turmoil of what that event produces in the believer who imagines himself there. It can be devastating in its esthetic impact if sung by one who knows what he is doing, and listened to by someone who is receptive to all the nuances.
So concepts can be either simple or complex; but they can also be more or less clear. In the perceptive realm, it is often the case that you understand something, but haven't weeded out just what the "hooks" in the object are that allow you to relate them in the way in question; your concept is not clear. For instance, when I was writing about logic a couple of sections ago, I knew that there was something about contemporary logic that was wrong, because it made supposedly sound conclusions that I saw could be in fact false; and I had some idea that it involved the way connectives were used. But it wasn't until I investigated these and tried out several possibilities, alternately convincing myself that I had shown the flaw in contemporary logic, and then being convinced that I was the one who was wrong, that I hit upon what you have read. For me, at least, my concept was clarified by what I went through.
Similarly, esthetic concepts can relate objects without being clear what it is about their emotional overtones that connects them--even though you may be aware that they are related esthetically somehow. Works of art can be unclear in this way.
For instance, allusions to things that practically no one has read make some of T. S. Eliot's poems unclear; he even had to publish footnotes for The Waste Land. Obviously you can't connect something emotionally if you don't know what it's connected to, or don't have the "objective correlative" that he talked about. What he was trying to do was bring in the external complexity of having people recognize the phrases he was quoting and add to his poem the force of the poems and so on he was alluding to. But it won't work if people don't recognize that your line is a quotation.
Lack of clarity should not be confused with complexity. As long as I mentioned Eliot, consider the opening three lines of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Let us go, then, you and I
While the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
This also serves to show what the difference is between esthetic and perceptive concepts. Obviously, if there is any relation between the sky and a patient, it is emotional, not visible. Note that the evening is "spread out" against the sky, evidently (from the next line) in the sense that a sleeping person is spread out on a bed. But the evening is drugged, unconscious, but also facing a crisis, because it is on the operating table. That is, there is something quiet but ominous about the way the evening feels--as Prufrock is about to go into the room where "the women come and go/ talking of Michelangelo" and is afraid to say anything meaningful about life or they will sneer politely at him.
The phrases seem puzzling as you first read them; but once you get beyond the idea that two images must visually resemble each other and concentrate on how you feel as you read the words and picture what they evoke, you see that the lines make sense as setting the tone of the poem.
Lack of clarity is not to be confused with what is called "ambiguity" in art. Very often in a poem, for instance, words are used with two different perceptive senses and both are intended because they are emotionally connected. Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening illustrates ambiguity in the last stanza:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep--
And miles to go before I sleep.
Up to the last line, looking at the woods has been about the woods themselves and the calm and ordinariness and peace of them; but the repetition of the penultimate line as the last line of the poem makes "sleep" take on the feel of the "sleep" which is death; and the whole poem suddenly becomes an attitude toward life and death. The point is that this is a legitimate attitude toward life and death; and as soon as we hear it, we realize that it is true, if by no means the whole truth on that subject. It is an esthetic way of saying what St. Paul told the Philippians: "I don't know what I'd rather have; I'm torn between the two. What I'd like is to say goodbye and be with the Prince; but staying in my body might be more useful for you."
I believe it was Frost who was once chided by a scientist about how exact science was and how inexact poetry was. "Is that so?" he is said to have answered. "I just spent a whole week looking for the inexact word."
So perceptive ambiguity does not mean esthetic ambiguity; that comes from works of art where one part esthetically says one thing and another part something different. For instance, the rhythm of the following gives you the impression that the poet is talking about a dance:
Lift her up tenderly,
Lift her with care,
Fashioned so slenderly,
Young, and so fair.
But the woman is, as I remember, a prostitute whose body is being fished out of the Thames. The poet probably thought that the rhythm would evoke the incongruity of her beauty and what happened to her; but to me, at least, the rhythm is joyous, and even frivolous, and it jars with the esthetic effect of the imagery.
In the early days of Rock 'n Roll, it was interesting to me to see how the lyrics had absolutely nothing to do with the music. They could be love ballads or social comments or even a description of "splishin' and splashin'" in the bathtub; it didn't matter. They were the plain paper wrapping for the music, which was invariably The Joy of Sex. As Rock advanced and developed into Rap, the tunes became more and more of a monotone, and the lyrics referred more and more explicitly to what the music and rhythm was about all along. Rock and Rap produce unified esthetic impressions now--to such an extent that a record in which a young rapper rejoices at "getting yo' pussy busted" has been banned as obscene. It's about time someone recognized what this sort of thing has clearly been saying for decades and decades.
And this brings up the subject of unity. Obviously, since a concept is the grasp of a relationship, then there has to be a unity in what is esthetically understood.
In natural objects, like landscapes and sunsets, we tolerate things that don't belong, because we don't expect nature to be arranging itself for our esthetic understanding. Hence, a tree in the wrong place in a landscape doesn't take away from the beauty of the landscape--until you make a photograph of it. Then it annoys.
Why is that? Because a photograph is a work of art; and a work of art is supposed to be making a statement. You don't put words into pleonastic a statement if they don't belong and contribute to its meaning. If you do, people get confused, because they presume you're not an idiot and so they try to fit it in somehow. Similarly, if there is something incongruous in a work of art, the viewer will think that it is there intentionally, and will try to see a meaning with it in there, with the result that he will fail to understand what you did say. (You did catch what I was doing with "pleonastic" above, didn't you?) This doesn't happen with nature because we don't try to unify everything, and so simply ignore what doesn't fit.
Slightly different from the clarity of a concept is its precision. Teachers of writing are constantly urging students to be "concrete" and "precise," when often what they mean is to be clear. Unfortunately, students are apt to think that substituting a concrete object for a general term makes what they are doing precise and snappy, when often it makes it ludicrous or boring. I remember a philosopher who likened Josiah Royce to "two eucalyptus trees." Why two? Why eucalyptus? His paper gave no hint of this, though the trees kept sprouting at every other page. It was concrete; but the concreteness added nothing to what he was trying to say, and in fact distracted from it. The fact that I remember the two eucalyptus trees and nothing whatever else about what he was saying after what must be fifteen years shows how such incongruous concretion can overwhelm the point. I am sure you remember some clever television commercial without being able to recall the product it was trying to sell, because it called attention to its own cleverness, not its product.
There is a mystery writer, whose name escapes me, whose detective, a Bostonian, roams streets that I knew from childhood. But the writer is infected with this disease of "concreteness," and even I got tired of hearing every business establishment along Route One described as the hero drove up it. A good writer like Dickens uses descriptions to contribute to the emotional atmosphere he needs for his novel, not to shout, "See how much research I have done!" After you've read the Cliff Notes of one of Dickens's novels and see what the plot is, you can read it and notice how beautifully the extended descriptions fit.
While I am on the subject of Dickens, I think it worth while to point out that his characters are often seen as one-dimensional, because each of them has some stock phrase or gesture that makes him immediately identifiable. Mr. Micawber is always stepping back for a leap forward, Uriah Heep is so 'umble, Fagin is always saying "My dear," Mrs. Jellyby is so concerned with the African natives, Mrs. Dombey is so proud, and so on.
But this sort of thing is only at a very superficial level, and the characters actually are very subtly drawn. The device of the tic that each of them has is that Dickens realized that in a novel of more than eight hundred pages, with dozens of characters coming in and going out and weaving their lives together, something more than just names would be needed to make the reader remember after a lapse of a month (the novels all first came out serially) who was who. So the identifying tic is nothing more, really, than the literary version of what a costume designer does on the stage in dressing his characters in distinctive colors so that each will be distinctively recognizable.
In this case, then, the concreteness of what Dickens does with his characters has an esthetic point, and lends clarity to what is an exceedingly complex work. So individualness and "concreteness" can sometimes be clear and precise, and sometimes not.
A concept is precise when it leaves out anything that is not relevant to it; and a term or phrase or image is precise when it says just exactly what is meant, no more and no less. This is not the same as clarity, though it is closely connected with it. For instance, the definition of an infinite set two chapters ago was precise, but not clear. It showed, as you recall, how you could determine whether any object in the universe was a member of the set or not (and so it was precise, excluding what was not relevant); but it was not clear, in that it did not define what was meant by "all" in the sense of "and no more."
In esthetics, there are such things as general esthetic concepts, as well as concepts that are tied down to a definite small set of objects. To substitute the more "concrete" ones (those of less scope) by using imagery that is too definite is to give the impression that the concept is more restricted when in fact it is still the general idea that you are trying to get across. Thus, too much "precision" in this sense produces a lack of clarity.
In the respects above, esthetic concepts are not really different from perceptive concepts; but esthetic concepts have a property that perceptive ones don't have: that of intensity. Depending on how strong the emotion is that is the basis of the esthetic comparison, the esthetic experience itself will be more or less intense. The understanding as such is spiritual, of course, and has no degree; but just as our perceptive understanding is always connected with an image, so our esthetic understanding is not divorced from its emotional base; and so the experience as a whole is both intellectual and emotional (as well as involving other sensations, of course).
There can be simple esthetic concepts that are very intense (what critics call "powerful"). I mentioned that Were You There wasn't as simple as it seemed to be on the surface; but it clearly has nothing like the complexity of the St. Matthew Passion, which is "about" the same event. But some people find it more intense than the Passion, if only because it is all so concentrated.
But of course there are extended, complex works that also are extremely moving. I remember my little son's coming into my living room as I was listening to a recording of Die Meistersinger, and being frightened at seeing me sitting there staring at the stereo with the tears streaming down my cheeks. I happened to be in a super-receptive mood at the time, and it was too much for me.
This ability art has to overpower people has no counterpart in the perceptive realm. Since the emotional impact is connected with understanding something that is recognized as true, the combined experience seems to be that the material world is torn open before your eyes, and you are staring straight into the face of God. C. S. Lewis, in fact, in Surprised by Joy, connects this experience with God; and if I remember correctly, credits his conversion to Christianity to it.
But of course, it isn't really anything that cosmic; it's just that esthetic understanding carries emotional freight along with it, and when the emotions are very intense, they invest the concept generated from them with a special sense of importance. One time when Robert Shaw was conducting the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus in a performance of Handel's Messiah, his pre-concert pep talk to us gave me, at least, the impression that he was convinced that music and nothing else was going to save the world. I am sure that this was because of the intense esthetic experiences he had connected with it. He was deluded, unfortunately.
In connection with intensity of the esthetic concept, I think this is the place to speak of Aristotle's famous "catharsis" (purging) of pity and fear that he says in the Poetics is what happens in a tragedy. His idea is, I think, mistaken as I understand it; but it points to something like what I was talking of above. From what he says, I gather that the experience of a tragedy where you are watching some absolutely horrible event that you know isn't really going on there before your eyes is something like what people do when they take roller-coaster rides. In a roller-coaster, you feel as if you are going to fall to your death, but at the same time you know that you are perfectly safe; hence, you can deliberately experience the fear as a sensation, without bothering with what you are supposed to do about it.
In that sense, I think that enjoying roller-coaster rides (and tragedies too, insofar as they are experienced in this way) is supporting evidence for my position that goodness and badness and pleasure and pain are subjectively defined. I mentioned this in the section on the sense faculty in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the third part 3.2.5, and in Chapter 10 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.10 in discussing the subjectivity of goodness and badness.
In any case, I think that what Aristotle was saying was that the fact that you know that there are actors in front of you makes you not throw up or rush to Oedipus' help when he comes on stage with his eye-sockets streaming blood; and so the emotion of pity for him and fear that this might well have happened to you in the same situation are "purged" by the laxative of your awareness that it's all "just pretend."
I don't really think that that's what's going on in tragedy. It might be what happens in horror movies or the type of movie nowadays that revels in how realistically it can show human entrails being gouged out of people.(1) But tragedy goes beyond this. You experience the horrible emotions of pity and fear (and disgust, seeing Oedipus, for instance)--emotions which you would ordinarily avoid--but you do so in a context where the horrible events that happen to the hero make esthetic sense, and so the problem of evil is esthetically solved for you. You see how the hero brought this retribution on himself, and, horrible as it is, how it is just and fitting; but you see this esthetically, through your emotions, and not just as an abstract perceptive fact; hence you understand it in that "other" way we have of understanding.(2)
And since pity and fear are unpleasant emotions, they tend to be more intense than pleasant ones; and so the tragedy tends to be one of the most powerful of esthetic experiences. But it must be connected with this realization of a fact about the evil that happens in this world for it not to be merely a roller-coaster ride.
There was a movie some years ago called Jeux Interdits, which had to do with a child who was running away from Nazi strafers with her parents, and when she got up after the planes had passed over, found both of her parents and the little dog she carried shot. She wandered into a farmhouse where there was a little boy, and the two of them buried the dog, taking a gravestone from the cemetery to mark the place. Later, they began burying other animals this way (these were the "forbidden games"). But at the end of the film, the girl was simply taken away from the family she had grown so attached to. I knew the plot, but was able to sit through only half of the film, partly because I simply could not stand the point of it, which was that none of this made any sense; bad things just happen. And of course that too is true. But it was too much for me. Of course, part of the problem in my case was that at the time, I had two children just the age of the two in the film (they looked a good deal like them, in fact, since I am of French descent and so is my wife in part), and the girl happened to be named Paulette and the boy Michel--and my children are Paul and Michele. This is a good example of how circumstances of one's personal life can invest something with a meaning it can only have for oneself, but which is none the less valid for that. In any case there was no "purgation" of the emotions for me, however good the film might have been for the normal person.
The point here is when the emotions are so intense that they overwhelm the idea, the esthetic experience is lost. It is like what I said with respect to pornography a while back. Here the idea conveyed was too feeble to support the emotions I felt (I would find it difficult to imagine an idea so profound that it could have sustained the emotions I was feeling); and so it was trivialized by the very emotions it sprang out of. On the other hand, Othello or Madama Butterfly mean something that makes the agony of watching the heroes destroyed worth while.(3)
So this theory of the esthetic experience seems to make a lot of things about art fit together; which gives me the notion that it must at least be on the right track.
Before talking about beauty and ugliness (Haven't I been? No.), there is just one other thing about esthetic concepts and facts that needs mentioning in this sketch: the fact that there is such a thing as esthetic logic. In a work of any complexity, there will be lesser insights that are understood and go together into a larger whole, just as in this book, there are the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters, the sections, the parts, and finally the whole, which can be summed up in one single statement: "This is how reality is related to experience."
Esthetic concepts and judgments (and their expressions) connect together in ways that are entirely different from perceptive judgments and statements; and as a matter of fact, one of the most common fallacies in art is to join the parts together by perceptive logic rather than esthetic logic.
It sounds a little odd to talk about the "logic" of the parts of a painting, but actually, you don't see a painting all at once, as I mentioned in the section on the sense faculty in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the third part 1.2.5 where I was discussing the time sense--even though the experience is, as I mentioned there, in another sense timeless. But the fact is that paintings are so arranged that your eyes tend to be led from one part to another by lines, colors, and shapes, in a very definite pattern; and so, although it seems to you you are just looking at the painting as a whole, you are noticing parts of it in sequence and not randomly. This is the visual logic of the painting.
A painting's esthetic logic, however, is somewhat different. For it to "work," the esthetic meaning of the various parts has to follow the sequence of the visual logic, so that there is a progressive deepening of the partial truths that go to make up the painting's whole impact. You must not only understand how what you now notice builds upon what you saw a moment ago, but also where you are in the process of noticing and how far you have to go before you get the point. It is this awareness of being in the middle and not completely understanding what is there that, even in a painting, makes it dissatisfying to be called away from it before you have finished looking at it. With music and drama and novels and so on, this is a little easier, because you can know just by looking at the program (if the editors were kind) or seeing the number of pages left to go. But the experience of being lost in the middle is analogous to what happens when listening to a badly organized speech. It seems interminable, not because the speaker isn't saying anything (though too often that too is true) but even when he's saying too much and you don't know where he is in the whole thing, how he got here, and how long it will take him to shut up.
The esthetic logic of the various works of art is what is codified in the "rules" of the art in question. In painting, for instance, the rules of composition are the rules of the esthetic logic of the painting; in music the study of harmony and other aspects of composition give you the rules of how our ears follow things and how the emotions connected with them also follow. Aristotle did a pretty good job of giving the esthetic logic of the drama of his time, though of course much of it has loosened up as time has passed; we no longer think of it as an esthetic virtue to have a drama happen in what we now call "real time."
If the logic of the work of art is violated, it produces confusion, not understanding; people don't see how the parts fit together.
Then why is it a dogma of art nowadays (and for past centuries also) that "Rules are made to be broken"? Nowadays, in fact, one of the most rigid rules for art that it's no good unless some accepted rule has been broken. And artists, who have been breaking more and more rules, have, in their slavish attachment to this rule, begun breaking the rules of common decency to make their art viable and "strong." I was once talking with an art professor in my college, who showed me a set of paintings of a girl as a Freshman and then as a Senior. The first set was competent pictures of flowers; the second a series of animal skulls. "See how she's improved? he said. "Those are strong." I could see no significant difference in them beyond the fact of the choice of subject.
But aside from breaking rules in order to follow the rule that you must break rules, the fact is, as Kant pointed out, that geniuses do break rules. In fact, Kant defined genius as the capacity for making rules, in the sense that the genius, in breaking the established pattern, has created a new pattern for people to follow.
And of course this is what is behind all the rule-breaking. The genius, as I mentioned when discussing abstraction in Chapter 4 of Section 3 of the second part 2.3.4, doesn't organize his perceptions (and/or emotions) in the same way normal people do, with the result that sensations get connected with what at first sight seem totally unrelated other sensations; but once this is done, understanding can see a relationship, which obviously was not seen by anyone before, because no one had connected the objects in which was its foundation.
Geniuses, precisely because energy does not flow along the paths it does in a normal brain, also have a different sort of spontaneous logic within them; one which can be consciously imitated by those who follow them, but which is natural for the geniuses themselves. When a person of this type sees a series of relationships and recognizes that it leads to something true, then, trusting that he has hit upon something valid, he ignores what he has been taught, and goes his own way.
To the extent that what he saw is true, and to the extent that he expresses himself clearly, people can follow his logic and understand what he was saying. And once they see that the new logic describes the world (and/or in esthetics the human way of reacting emotionally to it), the new logic "catches on," and we have new rules for that field of investigation.
This happens in the perceptive realm also. Newton's Principia Methematica Philosophiæ Naturalis introduced, with the "fluxions" (his version of the calculus), a whole new procedure (i.e. a new logic) in "natural philosophy," which was seen as valid until Einstein's new approach and that of quantum mechanics superseded it. This is the same sort of thing that I was describing, even though slanting it toward art.
So the true artist is not necessarily trying to be "innovative" and "break new ground." Very often those who are breaking new ground leave behind nothing but a hole. No, the artist has seen something which cannot be expressed using the old rules, and so new ones must perforce be invented, because to follow the old rules is to falsify the insight. As you read this book, you have probably noticed how many neologisms there are (my spelling checker certainly has); but they are there, not because I am interested in coining new terms, but because the ordinary terms are misleading. In this very section, for instance, I used the term "individualness," because "individuality" has a different meaning from what I needed at the time. The same goes for the "breakthrough" artist.
One of the reasons, of course, that so many of our contemporary artists break the rules is because they really have nothing to say, and following the rule of breaking the rules is the easiest way of sounding as if you're saying something--because people can't understand you, and if they see your stuff hanging in a gallery, they're generally humble enough to blame themselves, not you. Every genius is misunderstood in his own time, perhaps; but it doesn't follow that everyone who is misunderstood in his own time is a genius. This is nothing special about my time, I think; most of what is produced by way of art in any age is nothing new or profound, just as most of what goes by the name of science in our scientific journals is pretty pedestrian stuff.
One way, actually, that you can tell the artist who has something to say from the one who is laying down a smoke screen over a desert is that the former gives the impression that he is trying very hard to make himself clear. He doesn't use highfalutin, pretentious phrases, artistically speaking; he just talks--it's just that the way his words go together doesn't seem to make sense until you shift your perspective.
This again happens in the perceptive realm. Those "scientists" whose works are full of jargon are trying to hide the fact that they've got nothing to say, while those who have something new to say tend to use ordinary terms whenever possible. This is not always true, of course. Kant's works bristle with technical terms and tortured syntax, and yet he had a brilliant and profound new approach to things. There is no law that says that a person has to eschew the fancy word that expresses his meaning just because there is a simpler term that almost does the job. He will be less clearly understood by more people in the latter case; but some people would rather be more clearly understood by fewer, and so take the exact if more unfamiliar term.Next
1. I remember that when my son was very little, he had no trouble watching cartoons in which all sorts of mayhem was perpetrated upon the characters. But once "Uncle Al," one of those hosts of a live show for children, was in a Halloween special playing Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. My son was jumping up and down and screaming for me to do something when Hansel was about to be put into the oven. He knew it was Uncle Al, and Uncle Al was a real person--and so for him there was no "catharsis."
2. This is not to deny Aristotle's point that in order to achieve esthetic distance, allowing you to see these horrible things for their meaning, you have to know that they're not really happening. Hitler's agents making lampshades out of human skin, might have had an esthetic experience, but only to the extent they dehumanized themselves.
3. Not that I go to see this particular play and opera any more. I seem to be becoming more sensitive to the sufferings of others as I grow older, and I've already learned the basic thing these works are trying to say, I think; and it seems less and less worth while for me to watch other people suffer, even if only "just pretend," for the sake of learning new esthetic details.