Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/September 1903/Some of the Extra-Artistic Elements of Esthetic Emotion

1414333Popular Science Monthly Volume 63 September 1903 — Some of the Extra-Artistic Elements of Esthetic Emotion1903John Cotton Dana




MY work in a library has brought me in contact with the art interests of a great many people. Most of these people have been of the average, well-to-do, clerical, commercial and professional classes in this country. Representatives of women's clubs and of art classes of all kinds have been common among them. Many had traveled or were making studies preparatory to visits to art centers abroad. The modern public library thinks the promotion of interest in art in its community is a proper part of its work. With this in view it buys expensive books on art and photographs of paintings, sculpture, architecture and other things in the field of art. The library's close connection with the schools also makes it easy for the librarian to keep in touch with their work in drawing, design and general art instruction. I have had unusually favorable opportunities to learn about the art interests and the esthetic perceptions of that very interesting class of American women, the public school teachers. From them and from supervisors of drawing in the schools I have learned something of the interests of children in pictures and of their capacity for esthetic cultivation. The libraries I have been connected with have made great use in the schools of illustrations and decorations found in certain periodicals; not only of pictures from art journals, but also of material published, not for its art interest, but for its illustrative interest. For students of design, collections have been made of head and tail-pieces and initials, from many sources. Designs for wood carving, embroidery, iron work and the like have been gathered and arranged. Illustrations have been collected—sometimes by the children themselves—and arranged by artists, by subjects, by methods of reproduction and by media used in the original. Collections have been made for story-telling purposes, and to illustrate history, geography and nature-study. Reproductions of famous paintings, sculptures and buildings have been gathered and classified. I speak of this by way of introduction; to explain my interest in the subject of art; and to give grounds for presuming to speak upon it. The collecting of these pictures, the purchase of art books and the encouraging their use have "naturally brought me into close touch with the very representative group of Americans who patronize the free public library. I believe I know something about their way of looking at the subject of art; and that I know, consequently, how art is regarded by about 99 per cent, of the fairly well-to-do and moderately rich in this country. My interest in the subject, enhanced by the opportunities I have mentioned, has naturally led me to take note of art in the American home, and of the light it throws on the art knowledge and esthetic sensitiveness of the American people. My observations in this direction have confirmed me in the conclusions, herein noted, to which my work in the library had led me.

Most discussions of esthetics ignore certain common, every-day feelings which seem to be important factors in the appeal which works of art make on our attention. I have here tried to describe the nature and origin of some of these feelings, and to show that they are among the most universal and the simplest elements of esthetic emotion. I call them extra-artistic elements, because by the professional artist they are not considered to lie within the artistic field.

The physiological factors in esthetics are, in a certain sense, more fundamental than the familiar feelings I discuss in this essay. They go to the very bottom of the pleasurable sensations which the sight of certain objects gives us. But we do not yet understand them. A spot of color probably gives pleasure—under proper conditions—even to the most uncultivated observer. Savages and even some of the lower animals have this much of esthetic feeling. Meaningless arrangements of several colors probably give greater pleasure to some, even of the entirely untrained, than does the single spot of one color. Flat design in black and white, quite without suggestion of any kind, arouses agreeable sensations in some, but probably only in a few of those who have never given thought to the subject. That is, pictures, considered simply as fiat, colored designs with no regard whatever to what they portray, may produce an agreeable physiological effect on some of those who see them. This direct physiological effect is, as I have said, little understood. It sometimes, perhaps commonly, forms a part of the group of pleasurable feelings which picture-gazing evokes. It is fundamental to be sure; but with nearly all observers it is of slight importance in comparison with the mass of agreeable sensations whose nature and genesis I have outlined below.

Most of us first note a picture which we know is popularly admitted to be a work of art with a pleasure which comes of being in the fashion. It is the custom to enjoy it. We like to know and feel that we are following the custom. We find it easy to say, as all others do, that it is pretty and attractive: and so saying we get the pleasure of conformity; of being in the mode. This kind of picture-enjoyment lies upon the surface, is easy to acquire and comes naturally to all of us; and any picture which has once gained wide repute, thereby gains popular esteem, gives much pleasure, and seems to serve a proper purpose by virtue simply of being in the fashion, even though it have little to commend it to the wise critic. The word fashion carries often an implication of censure. Such censure is not intended in this case. To wish to see what others have seen is natural and proper. The mistake would lie in assuming that this kind of pleasure from picture-gazing is not present with all of us, and is not a proper element in esthetic emotion.

To see old friends again after a time of separation always gives us pleasure. The emotions which go with the act of recognition are so generally agreeable that we greet with considerable warmth of feeling even those old acquaintances we have never much cared for if we meet them after long separation or at a distance from the scenes where we once knew them. This recognition-element among the factors of pleasurable emotion lies at the bottom of much of our joy in the familiar quotation, of our admiration for the classic in literature and the familiar in art. A picture often spoken of, often alluded to in print, seen occasionally, even in the simplest or crudest reproduction, is at once recognized, and at once gives us the pleasure of recognition, when seen again. This manner of picture-appreciation lies, of course, close to the pleasures of memory, to the indulgence of habit, and to the complacence of conservatism; just as the pleasures aroused by the picture which it is the fashion to admire lie close to the self-satisfaction born of conformity to the prevailing moral code. These fashionably-born and habit-bred emotions form a large part, a very large part, of the delight we find in picture-gazing. Art galleries are full of people who gain little from their visits there beyond these simple and familiar emotions. Yet in the discussion of esthetics they are commonly almost ignored. The origins of the feelings which are aroused by works of art are assumed to be complex, peculiar and quite remote from everyday life; whereas the most dominant of them lie close at hand, in conformity and habit. In the field of literature we see this truth very clearly illustrated. The classics of one's native tongue are chiefly enjoyed because they are familiar. Often, probably commonly, they have a power to move us which is due to their content, or to our knowledge of the peculiar circumstances under which they were produced, or to their relation to a widespread creed, or to the personality of their writers, or to the influence of their promoters or expositors, or to their particular aptness of phrase, or to the peculiar sensitiveness of a few of their many readers to the spell wrought by special arrangements of words. But, once having become imbedded in the popular mind, once having become the accustomed reading of a generation or two, they hold their power very largely through the fact that they are easily recognized, are habitual visitors, and arouse often the joy of recognition. The St. James version of the Bible is perhaps an example of the best possible use of the English of its time. But of this we cannot be sure. As a book it has long been popular—on other grounds than those of style. Being popular it molded our forms of expression for generations. All our speech harks back to it. To read it is to catch in every phrase a pleasing echo of the language of our own time, and this regardless of the agreeable familiarity of thought and incident. We recognize it, and delight in it. If circumstance had cast that version into a different form we should, no doubt, admire it none the less; and our language would be different from what it now is, perhaps better.

Allied to both fashion and recognition as an element in esthetics is curiosity; not the inquiring curiosity of the seeker, but the passing curiosity which we take in uncommon things. The picture much talked about—this is the one we wish to see. Having seen it the emotional tension is relaxed, and we have an agreeable sense of satisfaction. Near to this and perhaps part of it is the pleasure given by the sight of a picture which is rare or ancient or high in price, or one which was made with much labor or with unusual technical skill. The patch-work quilt of a thousand pieces made by a woman of seventy-five without the use of glasses, this gives great pleasure to its observers. It is a curio. To most observers it is looked at with a pleasure of like origin to that with which they gaze upon a painting by an old master. I am not condemning this form of emotion. I am simply setting it down where it belongs as forming a part in many cases of the pleasure of picture-gazing, as a part of esthetic emotion. Much of the furnishing of the homes of people of wealth and cultivation—being rare, costly and representative of great labor and much technical skill—gives to its owners a pleasure of like origin with that imparted by the crazy quilt.

Kinship in knowledge is a bond of friendship. The beginning of sympathy is like-mindedness. We cannot care much for those we do not know; we know those who know the things that are known by us. Meeting in a distant land one alien to us in every way, but familiar with the same home scenes, a friend of friends of ours, we have for him at once a touch of sympathy, and find pleasure in our meeting. So, if we look upon a picture in company with others who are with us in our enjoyment—even when, as is most often the case, the enjoyment is born of fashion, habit and curiosity—we have a sense of companionship with them, a pleasurable feeling born of a common interest, which we ascribe as to its origin to the picture itself. In fact, the picture, as a work of art, is not the cause of our enjoyment at all. A tight-rope walker or a sacred relic would serve as well; perhaps better in many cases. We simply have widened and increased our sympathies through the acquisition of a new point of contact with our fellows.

Almost all pictures tell a story. Those which seem not to do so at first sight are usually found to be full of meaning on second look; and a very large proportion of all the pictures most commonly seen, those m the illustrated journals, are intended almost solely as aids to narration. Stories are dear to us all. We are eager to hear them, to read them, and especially to see them. One that is told by a picture, and so is flashed upon the mind in a glance of the eye, adds to other possible excellencies those of brevity and surprise. In a picture we look usually first for what it tells—that it gives us, in a flash, a bit of life from a new point of view, seen in a different light, touched with humor, pathos or other sentiment—this is commendation enough. A portrait is to most a story picture. It tells more about the person portrayed than many pages of biography, and interests chiefly by what it tells.

It is usual to decry this story-telling element in pictures. Mr. John C. Van Dyke, for example, in his book on 'Art for Art's sake' speaks of 'The Angelus' as having a 'literary interest crowded into it to the detriment of pictorial effect.' We can not see in the picture, he says, 'the sound of the bells of the Angelus coming on the evening air, from the distant church-spire.' 'We must go to the catalogue to find the meaning of those two peasants standing with bowed heads in a potato field.' And he says, that, 'two thousand years hence, with the ringing of church-bells abandoned and forgotten fifteen hundred years before, we would not comprehend and appreciate the picture as we now do a Parthenon marble.' Mr. Van Dyke forgets that the Parthenon marble itself also tells a story; and that it is because we know the story well, because Greece and its religion, its social life and its art are familiar that we comprehend and appreciate at once even a fragment of that country's creations. The fragment arouses our recognition -pleasure, and most strongly. It appeals to us also by what it tells of the past; it tells it easily because we are full of a knowledge which makes us fit to receive it. Suppose Greece and her temples forgotten, a Parthenon marble would be beautiful still, probably, but it would be no more easily comprehended and appreciated than would 'the Angelus' if church-bells had passed out of human memory. All pictures are illustrative; all are story-telling in a measure. It is inevitable that they should be so. They can not, as Mr. Van Dyke seems to wish to have them do, 'show deep love of nature per se, independent of human association.' The question of illustrative intent is entirely one of degree. Nor is there any rule whereby one can say how much of this element a picture should contain. There it is; there it must be. It is good, and we may rejoice that it adds its force to that of the other factors in the delights of picture-gazing.

To the story element in pictures as a cause of our enjoyment of them we must add another element closely allied to it, that of history. The historical picture is always a story picture; but it usually tells to an observer more than a mere story. If we are ourselves already familiar with the incident depicted, we gain from looking at the picture the recognition-pleasure already noted. If we are not familiar with it we take pleasure in adding to our historical knowledge the particular incident set forth in the picture. That is, in looking at historical pictures we either pride ourselves on a recognition which assures us that we are so far well-informed, or we please ourselves by adding to the sum of our knowledge.

Knowledge of the life of an artist, of his peculiarities, of striking incidents in his career, of the country and the time in which he lived—this knowledge adds much to the pleasure gained from pictures. A glance at one, if it is recognized as by an artist of whom the observer already has some knowledge, gives first the pleasure of identification or naming—not different from that which one has who can name on sight a distant mountain peak—and next, through association the pleasure of recalling, even though vaguely, facts in the artist's life. Much of the pleasure won from pictures lies in this identification-emotion.

The pleasures thus far noted as derived from pictures are not derived from pictures only. We get the same enjoyment from looking at scenes upon the stage, at photographs of nature, at nature herself, at incidents in real life about us and from poetry, story and literature in general. This is equivalent to saying, and the saying is a true one, that most' of the enjoyment of pictures is due to effects not at all associated with or flowing from 'art' as that word is generally used by artists. The artist himself, however, is by no means free from the influence of the factors already enumerated. From time to time, in his development as an artist, he has undoubtedly tried to free himself from what seemed to him the embarrassing limitations of the habit, formed in youth, of getting from pictures pleasures born of fashion, curiosity, sympathy and story. He never succeeds in doing this. He sees all pictures as he does all art—as I have said in discussing the presence of the story element in all art—through the medium of his own past experiences and of his own character. He sees them first as an animal, as a social being, as a person fashioned by the age and country in which he lives. As an artist, however, as a person skilled in his calling, the things that usually most interest him are technique, design, color, light and shade, line, and manner of laying the paint on the canvas. It has probably always been the fashion for artists themselves to speak rather scornfully of the interests aroused by and the pleasure taken in pictures from the point of view of the story or of the other elements already mentioned, and to think of them as lying outside the field of art proper. But the artists who are of the broader view readily admit the importance in painting of these extra-artistic features. From the point of view of craft, of technical skill in painting, these matters of line, and color, and light and shade, and arrangement, and method of applying paint, all are of great importance. But only with the craftsman who is unduly interested in the question of skill do these purely artistic matters seem of greater importance than the factors of enjoyment already mentioned.

If I have been right in this analysis of the pleasures gained from pictures, we may describe the picture-gazing of the average person somewhat as follows: He likes the color; he likes to look because others look; he likes to look because he enjoys seeing an old friend; because he has the habit of looking; because he enjoys seeing the curious; because he enjoys the sympathy with his fellows which comes from enjoying the same objects with them; because he enjoys the story of the picture; because the picture renews for him an incident in history; because considered simply as a design the picture is to his thinking well made and he finds agreeable the relation of its lines and its colors and their arrangement, their harmonies and their contrasts; and because, having skill as a painter, or knowing of that skill, he is interested in the manner in which the artist in question laid on his paint.

These remarks on some of the simpler elements of esthetic emotion as shown in picture-gazing may seem commonplace, may seem too obvious to be worth the saying. But the obvious and the commonplace—these very often escape us. They are particularly ready to do so when we speak of beauty, art and esthetics. In this field words are very often merely counters, not real coin. All of us have our pleasurable emotions when we look upon beautiful things, else why do we call them beautiful? And the very words in which we speak of things of beauty seem themselves to have a power to move us; and we ascribe to them meanings when in fact they are often only meaningless echoes, faint, but still able to stir our emotions.

Beauty as a factor in the pleasures of picture-gazing, this I have not named. Yet the whole discussion is concerning it. For, if a picture, or any other object gives us the pleasure described it must possess the subtle quality of beauty. That quality itself cannot be described. When we see a beautiful thing we know it. What more can be said? If experts, who are careful observers of the things which people say they find beautiful, if experts in esthetics say the beauty of a certain object is of the better kind, their statement is worthy of attention. It is difficult to say of beauty and the critics more than this.