Three Lectures on Aesthetic/Lecture 3


It seems to me that a few words of preface to this lecture may be opportune, both to explain our attitude to the question of competence, in a region which prima facie demands something of special insight, and also to prepare ourselves for the general line which we shall adopt; and it is this general line alone for which I can venture to claim attention and sympathy. It is nothing very new, unless in a certain thorough consistency; but I think it is important, and follows from and sums up our preceding argument, and solves many difficulties.

I will therefore say a word of preface about the education in beauty of the Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/92 the first three lines, and its close in the fourth:

Apes and ivory, skulls and roses, in junks of old Hong Kong,
Gliding over a sea of dreams to a haunted shore of song;
Masts of gold and sails of satin, shimmering out of the east,
Oh, Love has little need of you now to make his heart a feast.

Beauty, fancy, the poetical imagination, seemed, I take it, to one as a boy to be something remote, and the general feeling sustained the belief. A very striking example was the approving misconception, almost universal, I think, in the last century, of Wordsworth’s great lines:

The light that never was on sea or land;
The consecration and the poet’s dream.

The whole moral of this poem is indeed very much to my point.

In the middle nineteenth century we had with us the relics of romance — for example, the sentimental German ballads, really a weak imitation of our own genuine ballads Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/94 lyrics, and there was Keats and The Ancient Mariner; and Walter Scott’s novels, and the great artists of older days. But these latter, without some sort of guidance, might seem capricious and fantastic. I think the impression was that beauty was something exotic, and that poetic imagination meant fancying very quaint and fine out-of-the-way things. One enjoyed things nearer home and more genuine; but perhaps one did not know that they were to be called beauty, or that they demanded imagination.

A great revelation came probably to many individuals with three influences: Ruskin, with his Turner interpretation and with the theory of beauty as the expression of the workman’s life; the rapprochement of Greek and modern drama through the profounder interpretation of Euripides, beginning from Browning and going on to Professor G. Murray; and oddly enough, the Pre-Raphaelite movement in English painting, which brought, like Walter Scott and William Morris, the end of the romantic Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/96 of our ordinary person, we find, I should say, that the recent movements in pictorial art have at least included phases which have enabled him to see the world with a larger and more penetrating imagination. Whatever endows him with a new gift of sight, he must suppose, I think, to be a gain. And the rapprochement between Greek and modern art and drama has immensely advanced of late, through the whole movement towards simplification of stage accompaniments and of dramatic structure. We are enabled to see and feel Greek art as straightforwardly human, sharing in the direct and passionate expression which we also find at our own doors. It is a great lesson to have learned that all good art is one. The recent revelations from China and Japan have, of course, borne strongly in this direction.

Thus I suggest that the ordinary man’s education in the beautiful, since, say, the ’sixties, has been on the whole a homecoming from fairyland to simple vision and humanity. And of course he will keep his Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/98 and the only word we can find for this property is the word “beautiful.” And, as we shall see, the degrees of its usage, its variations, make it impossible finally to draw a line between what is beautiful and what is not anywhere within this wide range of the aesthetically excellent. I mean, then, that this wide use of the word, “beautiful,” is in the end the right use.

ii. But again, while ordinary people survive, we shall want a word for what is prima facie aesthetically pleasant; or pleasant to the ordinary sensibility; and for this we shall never get the common use of language to abandon the word “beautiful.” We shall always find opposition if we say even that the sublime is a form of the beautiful, and when we come to the stern and terrible and grotesque and humorous, if we call them beautiful we shall, as a rule, be in conflict with usage. And I take it there is a real specific difference between a beautiful and the sublime, for instance.

So then, we may say that beauty in the Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/100

Now here there is an interesting and important observation to be met. Surely, it may be urged against our distinction, the very greatest achievements of all in art, and the very most beautiful and splendid things in nature, appeal to everybody, ordinary people and others, so that we must not set down the universality of appeal in beautiful things as a character which implies a trivial or superficial character in them. That is to say, it seems as if some easy beauty were yet beauty of the highest type.

In answer to this, I incline to think we ought to distinguish between the easier types of beauty and what might be called simple victorious or triumphant beauty; between the Venus dei Medici and the Venus of Milo; between the opening of Marmion and the first chorus of the Agamemnon. I take it that very great works of art often possess simple aspects which have a very wide appeal, partly for good reasons, partly also for less good ones. We shall see a good reason below. Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/102 the design from the ceiling of the treasury at Orchomenus. And I presume that you can show the same thing very completely in music, where the failure of appreciation is often simply the inability to follow a construction which possesses intricacy beyond a certain degree. And, no doubt, there is apt to be a positive revulsion against a difficulty which we cannot solve. It is very noticeable in aesthetic education how the appreciation of what is too intricate for us begins with isolated bits, which introduce us to the pervading beautiful quality of the texture we are trying to apprehend — a lovely face in an old Italian picture, before we are ready to grasp its “music of spaces”; a magnificent couplet in Sordello, which has been said to contain the finest isolated distichs in the English language; or a simple melody in a great symphony. When it is demonstrated to one that the texture at every point is exquisitely beautiful, as is always the case in the works which furnish the higher and rarer test of appreciation — we may think Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/104 beauty — beauty which, although of the most distinguished quality, is universal in its appeal. I mean when a passage of feeling at high tension, simply and directly expressed, has the mixture of luck and merit which makes it strike on some great nerve of humanity, and thus conquer the suffrages of the world. Great artists, from Plato to Balzac, have laid stress on this possibility, and Balzac at least was not the man needlessly to admit anything in derogation of the pure prerogative of art. I have never found the man or woman to whom the Demeter of Knidos failed to appeal, and it surely cannot be set down as facile beauty in the depreciatory sense.

But, in general, one may say that the common mind — and all our minds are common at times — resents any great effort or concentration, and for the same reason resents the simple and severe forms which are often the only fitting embodiment of such a concentration — forms which promise, as Pater says, a great expressiveness, but only on condition of being received Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/106 difficult beauty, which goes beyond what is comfortable for the indolent or timid mind, there is nothing but a “more” of the same beautiful, which we find prima facie pleasant, changed only by being intensified. But this is enough to prevent us from recognising it as beauty, except by self-education or a natural insight.

(γ) I suggested yet another dimension of the more difficult beauty, under the name of “width.”

It is a remarkable and rather startling fact that there are genuine lovers of beauty, well equipped in scholarship, who cannot really enjoy Aristophanes, or Rabelais, or the Falstaff scenes of Shakespeare. This is again, I venture to think, a “weakness of the spectator.” In strong humour or comedy you have to endure a sort of dissolution of the conventional world. All the serious accepted things are shown you topsy-turvy; beauty, in the narrow and current sense, among them. The comic spirit enjoys itself at the expense of everything; the gods are starved out and Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/108 of counter-expression the normal, all of it, plus a further point of view, caricatured, chargé, loaded or burdened with an abnormal emphasis.

Thus, here again, you have the more, as compared with the normal experience of the beautiful; you have a wide range of forms, all of them distinguished by an attitude taken up towards the conventional attitude. And this demands both a complexity of expression and a complexity of mood, departing widely from the lines of the ordinary moods of serious life, and even of serious aesthetic experience. Comedy always shocks many people.

So much for difficult beauty. Now the object of thus insisting on these two grades of beauty was twofold.

First, to defend, as not merely convenient but right, the extension of the term beauty to all that is aesthetically excellent. For the insight of gifted persons regards it all as one; and the recognition of the same nature in it throughout in consequence of sincere self-education is a Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/110 how slowly, e.g., the beauty of old age, I mean of real wrinkled old age, not stately and splendid old age, gains recognition in sculpture; I think not before the Alexandrine period.

Before going further, it will be best to return upon one fundamental point and make it quite clear. We started in the first lecture by describing the aesthetic attitude as involving a pleasant feeling of such and such a kind. But we have now seen that the pleasant feeling which is one with the appreciation of beauty is not a previous condition of beauty. It is not on some other ground a pleasure, and then by being expressed becomes beautiful. It is a pleasantness not antecedent to the appreciation of beauty, but arising in and because of it, in the freedom or expansion which the mind enjoys in and through the act which gives or finds adequate embodiment for its feeling, and so makes the feeling what it is. Therefore, you must not say pleasantness is a condition precedent of beauty; rather, beauty Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/112 and therefore embodies a feeling, then it itself falls within the general definition of the beautiful as = what is aesthetically excellent.

You might be tempted to rejoin — ah, but the ugly expresses only something unpleasant. But we have seen why this will not help us. If an object comes within the definition of beauty, then (supposing the definition is right) its being unpleasant to us would merely be due to our weakness and want of education, and it would come within the limits of difficult beauty.

So we go back to the paradox; if it has no expressive form, it is nothing for aesthetic. If it has one, it belongs to the beautiful. This is no quibble. It is a fundamental difficulty about beauty and truth and goodness; it comes when you try to set up an opposite to anything which depends on being complete. Try love and hate. Hate is to be the opposite of love; well, what do you hate and why? What is your hate directed upon? It Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/114 which must be accounted for as much as if it were fundamental and invincible. When we judge an appearance as ugly, even if ultimately we are wrong, what is it that we mean to indicate?

One might say, an appearance is ugly which has indeed, as everything must have, a form and a self - expression in a sense, but a form such as to convey an impression of formlessness. The German “Unform” is suggestive at this point. Primarily meaning “formlessness,” it may also convey the implication of ugliness. We can show the same usage, in saying, for example, “That is a hideous hat, it is perfectly formless.” But, prima facie, this can only mean that a thing has not the kind of form we expect. Or even if there could be an expression of unexpressiveness, you would, in one sense, have in it the very highest achievements of the sublime and the humorous. For the sublime, take the famous passage in Job, or Milton’s description of death. These present to your imagination something whose aesthetic embodiment is that it is Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/116 they are mere absences of beauty. No doubt they would have a positively shocking effect. But we see what they would be. They would be, not something new and alien and brought from somewhere else than beauty. They would consist in a beauty in the wrong place, parallel to conceiving moral badness as a goodness in the wrong place. You can easily fancy a case by misuse of the human form, substituting limbs of the lower animals for its limbs, as in fauns or mediaeval devils. Suppose the beautiful silky ear of a dachshund replacing the ear of a beautiful human face. It would be, I imagine, a horribly hideous thing. Here we have, in principle, I think a genuine case of ugliness. But we see how limited its antagonism to beauty is. Then you get again the problem whether in the whole context of what is imagined this discord may not itself be made expressive, and so subordinated to beauty, as in some fairy tale of enchantment. If so, note that it becomes really a part of the whole beauty. It is a halfPage:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/118 is looked for in the beautiful, and its opposite found” (Solger). That is to say, the appearance must suggest an adequate embodiment of a feeling, and also frustrate it. The imagination must be at once excited in a particular direction and thwarted in it. The pain of a discord in music, it has been said, is like trying to do a sum in your head, and finding the numbers too high. A nickering light is another simple example; if the period of flickering is just enough to begin to satisfy the eye, and then to check its activity, it is exceedingly painful.

Then, going back on our account of the embodiment of feeling and the experience of the rising mountain, we see that any sudden check or break in a pattern, e.g. an obvious want of symmetry, if it is not explained to the imagination, must have this effect of arousing the mind in a certain direction, and then obstructing it in that same direction. This double effect may be brought under the general head of the inexpressive. But of course it is not the Page:Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).djvu/120 quite unprovoked, is, as we said, a typical case.

Thus we approach the general result that the principal region in which to look for insuperable ugliness is that of conscious attempts at beautiful expression — in a word, the region of insincere and affected art. Here you necessarily have the very root of ugliness — the pretension to pure expression, which alone can have a clear and positive failure. It is possible, I take it, for the appearances of nature to have the same effect, and therefore to be genuinely ugly. But there is a wide difference of principle between the two provinces, because to nature we can never impute the conscious effort at beautiful expression; and therefore the particular context in which we seem to see such an effort negatived must always be one of our own choosing. The ugly effect must therefore be in some degree imputable to our own mis-selection rather than to the being of nature herself; although, of course, one may argue that just because she has no conscious choice, she must accept discredit for her ugly appearances, as well as credit for her beautiful ones. But one might perhaps rejoin again, “Yes, but in her infinite wealth of contexts and appearances, there is always ample opportunity for the selection of beautiful form, and therefore we have no right to pin her down to an ugliness which does really spring from our limitation.” You may reply again that if it is left to us there is just as much room for seeing ugliness as for seeing beauty. But I doubt this. If the intentional attempt at beauty is the main condition of ugliness, then in nature the main condition of ugliness is certainly absent, while immeasurable stores of form and order are as certainly present for those who can elicit them.

And the same applies in great measure to the world of useful objects, so long as they pretend to be nothing more than they are. So long they cannot be fraudulent; and their solid simplicity of purpose may well make it possible to see a beauty in them, due, so to speak, to their single-heartedness, which may make their form a single harmonious expression. On the other hand, any attempt to confer upon them mere decorative beauty inconsistent with their purpose would at once make them positively ugly.

This gives us the clue to a reasonable estimate of the current idea that ugliness is all of man’s making and not of nature’s. It seems in principle to rest upon the fact we have noted, that man alone has in him the capacity for the attempt to achieve pure expression for its own sake, in other words, beauty, and therefore he is much more likely to produce the appearance of the combined attempt and failure which we have seen to be the essence of the ugly.

One further ambiguity in a common phrase seems worth clearing up. Is beauty the aim of art? Is “art for art’s sake” a watchword that conveys a truth?

I hope that the line we have taken shows its value by making it easy to deal with these ideas. Beauty, we have seen, is an ambiguous term. If it means some given ideal which lays restrictions beforehand upon individual expressiveness, something of the nature of the easy beauty, which rules out what is beyond our capacity to grasp at a given moment, then it is very dangerous to say that beauty is the aim of art. It is dangerous, that is, if it means to us that we know beforehand what sort or type of thing our beauty is to be. For beauty is above all a creation, a new individual expression in which a new feeling comes to exist. And if we understand it so, there is not much meaning in saying that it is the aim of art, for we do not know beforehand what that is to be. If we understand it otherwise, as a rule previously prescribed, then it is something which must be hostile to free and complete expression for expression’s sake. In that case the aim of art is not the full aim, but only the art in the aim, and that is a fatal separation.

Of “art for art’s sake” the same criticism, I think, holds true. It tells you nothing if it only tells you that the aim of art is to do what art truly aims to do. But if it means that art is some limiting conception, some general standard accepted beforehand, then I suggest that it becomes actively mischievous. The aim of art can then no longer be the full self-developing aim which is the aim of art, because art as an abstract conception has been thrown into the idea of the aim, carrying with it a fatal and restricting self-consciousness. In applying a method or principle rightly, you do not think of the method or principle. You think of the work, and live the method or principle. Art, like knowledge, is creative and individual, and you cannot lay down beforehand where either of them will take you. And if you make the attempt, you must be unfaithful to their freedom.

I have not attempted in these lectures to give a systematic account either of the forms of beauty, for example the tragic and the sublime, or of the historical development of art. What I desired was to concentrate upon a single leading conception, the conception of the way in which an object of imagination can be expressive of feeling, and the consequences of this way of expression for the feeling so expressed. And what I should like to have effected, from a negative point of view, so far as it is still necessary in these days, would be to have torn away the gilded veil, the glamour, so to speak, which hangs over the face of beauty and separates it from life. We are not advocating what is miscalled realism; our account of imaginative vision makes that a mere absurdity. But I am trying to prove, and not merely to prove but to help ourselves to realise, how the whole world of beauty, from the Greek key pattern on the one hand and our admiration of the curve of a waterfall on the other, up to the intricacies of the greatest architecture or the tension of Shakespearean tragedy, is the individual operation of a single impulse, the same in spectator and creative artist, and best discerned when we penetrate the heart of strength and greatness under the veil of commonplace destiny or tragic collision, where there is no golden haze to flatter our indolence and luxury. And now as always one’s words seem a tale of little meaning, which goes on missing the heart of its own intention. Let me end with a quotation from an early tractate of Goethe, which contains in a few brief strokes all that I have been saying, and the germ, I think, of all that the last hundred years of aesthetic have taught us. Only I must give the warning that he employs the term beautiful sometimes in the sense which he and I alike are working against, the sense of easy beauty.

The passage, however, explains itself:

“When I first went to see the cathedral, my head was full of general conceptions of good taste. I reverenced, from hearsay, harmony of masses and purity of form, and was a sworn foe to the confused caprices of Gothic decoration. Under the rubric ‘Gothic’, like an article in a dictionary, I had collected all the mistaken synonyms that had ever come into my head, ‘disorderly, unnatural, a heap of odds and ends, patchwork, overloaded.’ . . . How unexpected was the feeling with which the sight amazed me, when I stood before the building. My soul was filled by a great and complete impression, which, because it was composed of a thousand harmonious details, I was able to taste and to enjoy, but in no way to understand and explain. How constantly I returned to enjoy this half-heavenly pleasure, to comprehend in their work the giant-spirit of our elder brothers! . . . How often has the evening twilight interrupted with friendly rest the eye fatigued by its exploring gaze, when the complex parts melted into complete masses, which, simple and great, stood before my soul, and my powers arose gladly at once to enjoy and to understand. . . . How freshly it greeted me in the morning brilliance, how gladly I observed the great harmonious masses, vitalised in their numberless minute parts, as in the work of eternal nature, all of it form, and all bearing upon the whole! how lightly the enormous firm-based building rises into the air, how broken it is, and yet how eternal! And so do I not well to be angry when the German art-scholar mistakes his own advantage, and disparages this work with the unintelligible term ‘Gothic’! . . .

“But you, dear youth, shall be my companion, you who stand there in emotion, unable to reconcile the contradictions which conflict in your soul; who now feel the irresistible power of the great totality, and now chide me for a dreamer, that I see beauty, where you see only strength and roughness.

“Do not let a misconception come between us; do not let the effeminate doctrine of the modern beauty-monger make you too tender to enjoy significant roughness, lest in the end your enfeebled feeling should be able to endure nothing but unmeaning smoothness. They try to make you believe that the fine arts arose from our supposed inclination to beautify the world around us. That is not true. . . .

“Art is formative long before it is beautiful, and yet is then true and great art, very often truer and greater than beautiful art itself. For man has in him a formative nature, which displays itself in activity as soon as his existence is secure; so soon as he is free from care and from fear, the demigod, active in repose, gropes round him for matter into which to breathe his spirit. And so the savage remodels with bizarre traits, horrible forms, and coarse colours, his ‘cocos’, his feathers, and his own body. And though this imagery consists of the most capricious forms, yet without proportions of shape, its parts will agree together, for a single feeling has created them into a characteristic whole.

“Now this characteristic art is the only true art. When it acts on what lies round it from inward, single, individual, independent feeling, careless and even ignorant of all that is alien to it, then, whether born of rude savagery or of cultivated sensibility, it is whole and living. Of this you see numberless degrees among nations and individuals.

“The more that this beauty penetrates the being of a mind, seeming to be of one origin with it, so that the mind can tolerate nothing else, and produce nothing else, so much the happier is the artist.”[1]

That, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much what I have been trying to say to you.

In the discussion on p. 85 ff. the reader might be puzzled as to the relation of the two phases of beauty, “easy” and “difficult,” together with the three suggested cases of “difficulty” in beauty, to the various species of the beautiful, such as beauty proper, sublimity, and others, which are mentioned here and there in the text, but are not methodically discussed.

I should explain that I held a methodical account of the species of beauty too much to undertake in the limits of these lectures, and therefore confined myself to explaining how there can at all be a genuine beauty which yet falls beyond that to which the name is currently given. The distinctions of pp. 85 and 87 are akin to the specific distinctions but do not coincide with them.


  1. From Goethe’s Von deutscher Baukunst, written when he was twenty-four. Werke, ed. Stuttgart, 1858, Bd. 25, S. 1. The subject is Strasburg Cathedral.