The Metaphysics of Fine Art


The real problem in the philosophy of Art may be very simply stated thus: How is it possible to take pleasure in something that does not come into any relation with the will?

Let me put this more fully. It is commonly felt that pleasure and enjoyment in a thing can arise only when it comes into some relation with our will, or, as we prefer to say, when it serves some end which we have in view. If this were so, it would seem to be a contradiction to talk of pleasure which did not involve bringing the will into play. And yet it is quite obvious that we derive pleasure and enjoyment from the Beautiful as such, quite apart from any connection it may have with our personal aims, or, in other words, with our will.

This problem I have solved in the following way: By the Beautiful we mean the essential and original forms of animate and inanimate Nature—in Platonic language, the Ideas; and these can be apprehended only by their essential correlate, a knowing subject free from will; in other words, a pure intelligence without purpose or ends in view. Hence in the act of æsthetic perception the will has absolutely no place in consciousness. But it is the will alone which is the fount of all our sorrows and sufferings, and if it thus vanishes from consciousness, the whole possibility of suffering is taken away. This it is that explains the feeling of pleasure which accompanies the perception of the Beautiful.

If it should be objected that to take away the possibility of suffering is also to take away the possibility of enjoyment, it should be remembered that, as I have often explained, happiness and satisfaction are negative in their nature; in other words, they are merely freedom from suffering; whilst pain is the positive element of existence. So that, when will vanishes from consciousness, there yet remains over the state of enjoyment; that is to say, the state in which there is a complete absence, not only of pain, but in this case, even of the very possibility of it.

To be freed from oneself is what is meant by becoming a pure intelligence. It consists in forgetfulness of one's own aims and complete absorption in the object of contemplation; so that all we are conscious of is this one object. And since this is a state of mind unattainable by most men, they are, as a rule, unfitted for an objective attitude towards the world; and it is just this that constitutes the artistic faculty.

To the will as it exists in the individual is super-added an intellectual faculty, which enables the will to become conscious of itself and of the objects about it. This intellectual faculty came into being in order to perform the service of the will. Now, let us suppose that the will sets the intellect at liberty for a while and grants it a full release from its service, so that the intellect may for the moment dismiss its concern for the will; in other words, abandon the personal service which forms its only natural task and, therefore, its regular occupation. If, at the same time that it is thus released, the intellect does not cease to be active and energetic,and use every endeavour to arrive at a clear apprehension of the world, it becomes completely objective; that is to say it becomes a faithful mirror of the things about it.

It is only in this way, with a pure intelligence as subject, that the object, pure and simple, can come into existence. For this postulated relation between subject and object to arise at all, it is necessary that the intellectual faculty should not only be withdrawn from its original service and be left altogether to itself, but also that, when released, it should nevertheless preserve its whole energy of activity; in spite of the fact that the stimulus of this activity, the impulse of the will, is now absent.

Therein lies the difficulty, and this is just why the condition of mind necessary in artistic creation is so rare; because all our thoughts and endeavours, our powers of sight and hearing, are always naturally exerted, directly or indirectly, in the service of our numerous personal aims, great and small. It is the will that drives the intellect to the fulfilment of its function, and the intellect flags at once if the spur is withdrawn. Rendered active in this way, the intellect is perfectly sufficient for the needs of practical life, nay, even for the kind of knowledge required in professional business. For there the aim is to understand only the relations of things, not the inner reality peculiar to them; and this kind of knowledge proceeds by applying such principles of reasoning as govern the relations in which things may stand to one another.

But though in the conception of a work of art the intellect is all in all, in the execution of it, where the aim is to communicate and represent what has been conceived, the will may, nay, must become active again; just because there is an aim to be carried out. Accordingly, in this sphere, the principles of reasoning which govern the relations of things again come into play. It is in conformity with these principles that the means used by Art are so contrived as to produce artistic effects. Thus we find the painter concerned with the accuracy of his drawing and the manipulation of his colours, and the poet looking first to the arrangement of his subject and then to a right use of expression and the laws of metre.

In the selection of a theme, both poetry and the plastic arts take some one individual person or thing and endeavour to present it as a separate entity, with all its peculiarities, even down to the minutest, exhibited with the most accurate precision. Science, on the other hand, works by the treatment of abstract ideas, everyone of them representing innumerable individuals; and it proceeds to define and mark out the characteristics of these ideas, so as to fix them once and for all. A comparison between these two methods might lead one to suppose that Art is an insignificant, petty, nay, almost childish pursuit. But the nature of Art is such that with it one case holds good for a thousand; for by a careful and detailed preservation of a single individual person or thing, it aims at revealing the idea of the genus to which that person or thing belongs. Thus some one event or scene in the life of a man, described with complete truth—described, that is to say, so as to exhibit precisely all the individuals which go to make it what it is—gives us a clear and profound insight into the idea of humanity itself, as seen from this particular point of view. But, in spite of this difference of method between Science and Art, there is some similarity in their treatment of single facts. For just as the botanist picks a single flower from the boundless realm of the vegetable world, and then takes it to pieces in order to demonstrate, from the single specimen, the nature of the plant itself; so the poet chooses out of the endless turmoil of human life as it hurries incessantly on its way, some one scene, nay, often only some one mood, some one sensation, so that he may show us from it what is the life and character of man.

And thus it is that the greatest minds, Shakespeare and Goethe, Raphael and Rembrandt, do not think it unworthy of them to bring some quite ordinary person before us—not even one that is anything beyond the common—to delineate him with the greatest accuracy, in the endeavour to show him to us in the most minute particularity. For it is only when they are put before us in this way that we can apprehend individual and particular facts of life; and that is why I have defined poetry as the art of rousing the imagination by means of words.

If the reader wishes for a direct example of the advantage which intuitive knowledge—the primary and fundamental kind—has over abstract thought, as showing that Art reveals to us more than we can gain from all the sciences, let him look at a beautiful human face, full of expressive emotion; and that too whether in nature itself or as presented to us by the mediation of Art. How much deeper is the insight gained into the essential character of man, nay, into nature in general, by this sight than by all the words and abstract expressions which may be used to describe it. When a beautiful face beams with laughter, it is as though a fine landscape were suddenly illuminated by a ray of light darting from the clouds. Therefore ridete, puellæ, ridete!

Let me here state the general reason why the idea, in the Platonic meaning of the word, may be more easily apprehended from a picture than from reality; in other language, why a picture makes a nearer approach to the idea. A work of art is some objective reality as it appears after it has passed through a subject. From this point of view, it may be said to bear the same relation to the mind as animal food, which is vegetable food already assimilated, bears to the body.

But there is another and deeper reason for the fact in question. The product of plastic and pictorial art does not present us, as reality does, with something that exists once only and then is gone for ever—the connection, I mean, between this particular matter and this particular form. It is this connection which is the essence of any concrete individuality, in the strict sense of the word. This kind of art shows us the form alone; and this, if it were given in its whole entirety, would be the Idea. The picture, therefore, leads us at once from the individual to the mere form: and this separation of the form from the matter brings the form very much nearer the Idea! Now every artistic representation, whether painting or statue, is just such a separation; and hence this separation, this disjunction of the form from the matter, is part of the character of a work of æsthetic art, because it is just the aim of such art to bring us to the knowledge of the Idea.

It is, therefore, essential to a work of art that it should give the form alone without the matter; and further, that it should do so without any possibility of mistake on the part of the spectator. This is really the reason why wax figures produce no æsthetic impression, and therefore are not, in the æsthetic sense, works of art at all; although, if they were well made, they produce an illusion a hundred times greater than the best picture or statue could effect; so that if deceptive imitation of reality were the object of art, they would have to take the first place. For a wax figure of a man appears to give not only the mere form but with it the matter as well, so that it produces the illusion that the man himself is standing before you. The true work of art should lead us from the individual fact, in other words, that which exists once only, and then is gone for ever, to the mere form or the Idea—in other words, that which always exists an infinite number of times in an infinite number of ways. Instead of doing this, the wax figure appears to present us with the individual himself—in other words, with that which exists once only, and then never again; and yet, at the same time, it fails to represent the life which gives such a fleeting existence its value. This is why a wax figure is repulsive; it is stiff and stark, and reminds us of a corpse.

It might be thought that it is sculpture alone which gives form without matter; and that painting gives matter as well as form, by making colour serve to imitate matter and its composition. But this objection would imply that form is to be taken in a purely geometrical sense; and that is not what is here meant. Form must be taken in the philosophical sense of the word, as the opposite of matter; and therefore it includes colour, surface, texture; in short, quality, in whatever it may consist. It is quite true that sculpture alone gives form in the purely geometrical sense, exhibiting it on a matter which the eye can see to be foreign to the form, namely, marble; and in this way the form comes to stand by itself so as to strike the eye at once.

But painting does not give matter at all, and it gives only the mere appearance of the form, not in the geometrical, but in the philosophical, sense just a described. Painting, I say, does not give even the form itself, but only the mere appearance of it—that is to say, merely its effect on one of our senses, the sense of sight; and that, too, only in so far as a particular act of vision is concerned. This is why a picture in oils does not really produce the illusion that the thing represented is actually before us, both in form and matter. The imitative truth of a picture is always subordinated to certain admitted conditions of this method of representation. Thus, by the unavoidable suppression of the parallax of our two eyes, a picture always makes things appear in the way in which a one-eyed person would see them. Therefore painting, equally with sculpture, gives the form alone; for it presents nothing but the effect of the form—an effect confined to one of the senses only, namely, that of sight.

In connection with this subject it is to be observed that copper-plates and monochromes answer to a more noble and elevated taste than chromographs and watercolours; while the latter are preferred by persons of little culture. This is obviously due to the fact that, pictures in black and white give the form alone, the form, as it were, in the abstract; and the apprehension of this is, as we know, intellectual, in other words, a matter of the intuitive understanding. Colour, on the other hand, is merely an affair of sense, nay more, of a particular arrangement in the organ of sight which depends upon the activity of the retina. In respect of the taste to which they appeal, coloured prints may be likened to rhymed, and copper-plates to blank, verse.[1] The union of beauty and grace in the human form is the clearest manifestation of the will on the topmost stage of its objectivation, and for that very reason the highest achievement of the plastic and pictorial arts. But still, everything that is natural is beautiful. If there are some animals of which we find a difficulty in believing this to be true, the reason of it is that we are unable to look at them in a purely objective light, so as to apprehend their Idea. We are prevented from doing so by some unavoidable association of thought, chiefly the result of some similarity which forces itself upon our notice; as, for instance, the similarity of the ape with man; so that instead of apprehending the idea of an ape, what we see is the caricature of a man. In the same way a toad appears to produce an effect upon us similar to that of dirt and slime, and yet this is not enough to explain the unbounded aversion, nay, the feeling of dread and horror, which comes over some people at the sight of this animal, as over others when they see a spider. The feeling appears to be deeper than any mere association can explain, and to be traceable to some mysterious fact of a metaphysical nature.

The inorganic world, so far as it does not consist of mere water, produces a very sad, nay, an oppressive effect upon the feelings, whenever it is presented to us quite by itself. Examples of what I mean are afforded by districts which offer to the eye nothing but a mass of bare crags; that long valley of rocks, for instance, without a trace of vegetation, near Toulon, on the way to Marseilles. The same effect is produced on a large scale, and in a much more striking degree, by the African desert. The melancholy impression which this kind of scenery makes is mainly due to the fact that masses of inorganic matter obey one law only, the law of gravity; and consequently everything is disposed in accordance with it.

Contrarily, the sight of vegetation produces a feeling of direct pleasure, and that too in a high degree; and the pleasure is greater in proportion as the vegetation is rich, various, luxuriant, and left to itself. The more immediate reason of this is that, in the case of vegetation, the law of gravity appears to be overcome, as the vegetable world tends to move in a direction the exact contrary of that taken by gravity. This is, indeed, the direct way in which the phenomenon of life announces its presence, as a new and higher order of things. It is an order to which we ourselves belong: it is something akin to us and the element of our being. And so, at the sight of it, our heart is moved. That straight upward direction is the source of our pleasurable feeling. This is why a fine group of trees looks so much better if a few tall, tapering pines shoot out from the middle of it. On the other hand, a tree that has been cut down has lost all its effect upon us: and one that grows obliquely has not so much as one that stands straight up. A tree which bends over the earth with its branches obedient to the law of gravity, makes us melancholy; and we call it the weeping willow.

Water neutralises in a great measure the oppressive effect of its inorganic composition by its exceeding mobility, which gives it an appearance of life, and also by its constant interplay of light and shade. Besides, water is absolutely indispensable for the existence of life.

But above and beyond this the pleasurable feeling which the sight of vegetable nature gives us, comes from that look of rest, peace and satisfaction which it wears; whilst the animal world is mostly presented to us in a state of unrest, pain, even of struggle. This explains why it is so easy for the sight of vegetation to put us into a state where we become a pure intelligence, freed from ourselves.

It is a very astonishing thing that vegetation, even of the commonest and humblest kind, is no sooner withdrawn from the capricious influence of man than it straightway groups itself picturesquely and strikes the eye as beautiful. This is true of every little spot of earth that has been left wild and uncultivated, even though thistles, thorns and the commonest flowers of the field were all it bore. Where the ground is tilled—in cornfields, for instance, and kitchen-gardens, the æsthetic element in the vegetable world sinks to a minimum.

It has long been observed that everything constructed for the use of man, whether it is a building or only an utensil, must, if it is to be beautiful, preserve a certain similarity with the works of Nature. But a mistake has been made in thinking that the similarity must directly strike the eye and have to do with the shape the thing takes; as, for instance, that pillars should represent trees or human limbs; that receptacles should be shaped like mussels or snail-shells, or the calyx of a flower, and that vegetable or animal forms should be met with everywhere in Art.

The similarity should be indirect; that is to say, it should lie not in the shape itself, but in its character. One shape may differ from another in actual appearance and yet be the same in character. Accordingly, buildings and utensils should not be imitated from Nature, but should be constructed in the spirit of Nature. This will show itself in a perfect adaptation of means to ends, so that the thing itself and every part of it may directly proclaim what its purpose is. This will be effected when that purpose is attained in the shortest way and in the simplest manner. It is just this striking conformity to a certain end that stamps the products of Nature.

In Nature the will works from within outwards, after completely dominating its material. But in Art it works from without, by a process of intuition; it may be, by setting up the abstract idea of the purpose which the object of art is to serve; it then attains its end and delivers itself of its meaning by impressing it upon some alien material; that is to say, some material originally devoted to another form of will. Yet for all that, the character I have described as belonging to a product of Nature may be preserved. This is shown by the ancient style of architecture, where every part or member is precisely suited to the purpose it is immediately meant to serve—a purpose thus naively brought into view, and where there is a total absence of anything that does not serve some purpose.

To this is opposed that Gothic style, which owes its mysterious appearance just to the multitude of aimless ornaments and accessories it displays, where we are obliged to ascribe to them some purpose which we cannot discern; and again, that quite degenerate style of architecture which affects originality by playing, in all sorts of unnecessary and round about ways, with the means used for producing artistic effect, dallying capriciously with them, and at the same time misunderstanding their aim.

The same remark holds good of ancient vessels and utensils, the beauty of which is due to the fact that they so naively express their nature, and the purpose they were meant to serve; and so of all other receptacles made by the ancients. You feel in looking at them that if Nature had produced vases, amphoræ, lamps, tables, stools, helmets, shields, armour and so on, they would be made in that style.

As regards the birth of a work of art in a man's mind, if he is only in a susceptible mood, almost any object that comes within his range of perception will begin to speak to him, in other words, will generate in him some lively, penetrating, original thought. So it is that a trivial event may become the seed of a great and glorious work. Jacob Böhme is said to have been enlightened upon some deep point of natural science by the sudden sight of a tin can.

In the end it all depends upon the power a man has in himself; and just as no food or medicine will bestow or take the place of vital energy, so no book or study can give a man a mind of his own.




  1. Cf. Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Vol. II., p. 488,

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