Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Beauty And Art

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


Our standards of beauty, concerning which the reader may consult Chapters X. to XIV. of "Art in Theory," are derived primarily from certain forms of nature, which, because attractive and charming in themselves, cause men to like to look at them and to think about them. Accordingly, if a man wish to produce forms of art which men will like to look at and to think about, it is merely a dictate of policy, and, if he be an artist, it is generally a dictate of preference, for him to select these forms for his models; and in the degree in which he reproduces them, or any effects analogous to theirs, his product will have beauty. What is to prevent his selecting them because, viewed in one aspect, they are beautiful; and yet also selecting them because, viewed in another aspect, they, as well as all other natural forms, are analogical? Certainly there is no conflict between the conception that beauty is of paramount aesthetic importance, and the conception that the effects obtained through the use of beauty should be analogical.—The Representative Significance of Form, XII.


Let us recall a woman, in prominent position, of great beauty of form and excellence of character, a woman with the reputation, say, of Queen Louise of Prussia, the mother of the first Emperor William. Here was one whose form and face were of such a nature that, owing solely to their effects upon the organs of sight, they would cause almost any observer of ordinary taste, however ignorant of whom or of what she was, to declare her to be beautiful. But, behind and above the attractions of her mere appearance, she had such a character, such mental and sympathetic traits, that none of her own family, intimately acquainted with these, would have been willing to admit that she was beautiful to others in as deep and spiritual a sense as to themselves. But to what would their unwillingness to admit this be owing, except to a subtle belief in a phase of beauty dependent upon effects exerted not upon physical organs, but upon mind and soul? At the same time, had one of their number been blind, all the others would have regretted the impossibility of this one's recognizing her beauty as they did. But to what would this feeling be owing, except to an inward conviction that beauty is a result of effects coming from form as well as from character; and, not only this, but also from both of them when combined.-Art¬ in Theory, XII.

This combination of mental effects with those of form can be recognized more clearly in connection with poetry. In this art, besides the beauty which is due to phraseology, as manifested in the choice and sequence of words, and in various developments of assonance, alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme, everybody acknowledges that there is also a beauty dependent upon the thought, the proof of which is that this beauty is frequently as great in prose as in poetry. But from what does this beauty spring? Clearly and unmistakably from a combination of the effects of recollection, association, and suggestion, assuming concrete form in the imagination; in other words, from the harmonious effects of many different forms, some coming from without and some from within the mind, some perceptible to sight or recalled by memory as once perceptible to sight, and some, according to the laws of the mind, merely conjured by fancy. As a rule, too, the wider apart the spheres are from which these effects are derived, introducing that which is unexpected and surprising, the more striking is the beauty resulting from their combination, as where those that are extremely material are united to those that are extremely mental, e. g.,

Still as a slave before his lord,
The ocean bath no blast;
His great bright eye most silently
Up to the moon is cast.

The Ancient Mariner: Coleridge. —Essentials of Aesthetics, II.

If men think with the classicists of the extreme type that the chief end of art is imitation, either of classic models or of nature, is it not because, consciously or unconsciously, they hold to a belief that beauty is conditioned mainly upon form? And if, on the contrary , they think with the romanticists that the chief end of art is the expression of ideas, is it not because they believe that beauty is a result of thought or feeling either of the human mind as in art, or of the creative mind, as, according to the Platonists, in nature? The inference, therefore, from what has been said hitherto, is that there must be some who attribute beauty to form; and some who attribute it to the thought or feeling expressed in the form, with a probability also of the existence of some who attribute it partly to the one source and partly to the other. Art in Theory, X.


The phase of unity appealing to scientific apprehension is usually the basis of conscious or unconscious classification as it is termed ; that appealing to philosophic comprehension is usually the basis of what, if distinguished at all from classification, is termed systemization; and that appealing to aesthetic appreciation can be defined by no better term, perhaps, than harmony, as the word is used not in a technical but in a general sense. As we shall find presently, it is the phase of unity that we have in harmony, which, as manifested in connection with a variety of complex effects, produces the result that is termed beauty.—Art in Theory, XII.

The highest beauty, in all its different phases, results, as is the case in other departments of excellence, from harmony in effects. Analyzing the elements of these effects, carries with it the additional conclusion that, so far as beauty is physical, it results when sounds, shapes, or colors harmonize together and in such ways that their combinations harmonize with the natural requirements of the physical senses—ears or eyes—that are addressed; that, so far as beauty is psychical, it results when the thoughts and feelings suggested or expressed through forms harmonize together, and also with the natural requirements of the mind addressed; and that, so far as beauty is both physical and psychical, it results when all the elements entering into both physical and psychical effects harmonize together, and also with the combined requirements of both the senses and the mind. In this latter case, it will be observed that the complete beauty which results necessitates something more than that which is either formal or expressional. It can be obtained in the degree only in which a form beautiful in itself fits a beautiful ideal conjured in the mind by the imagination as a result of a harmonious combination of thoughts and feelings. To express all this in language as concise as possible, we may say that beauty is a characteristic of any complex form of varied elements producing apprehensible unity (i. e., harmony or likeness) of effects upon the motive organs of sensation in the ear or eye, or upon the emotive sources of imagination in the mind; or upon both the one and the other.—Idem, XIV.

The essential element of beauty is harmony resulting from complexity of effects, and the greater the number of the effects upon the mind that can be added to effects upon the senses, the greater, at times, is the amount of the beauty. A single tone gains in beauty, as has been said, when compounded of several different partial tones; but it is usually more beautiful when heard in connection with a melody or chord or series of chords that multiply the complexity many scores of times. The tone is still more beautiful when, in addition to this, it resembles, so as clearly to represent, some natural or conventional method of expression, and therefore some effect of emotion, and in connection with this a combination of the effects of many different emotions. So with poems, pictures, statues, and buildings; they are all made more beautiful, the more their harmony results from effects of apparent complexity in the form, and more beautiful still, the more, in addition to this, it results from the mental effects of images recalled in memory or conjured by imagination, as well as of infinite ranges and spheres of these. In fact, this increase of beauty always continues up to the point where confusion begins.. This is true even of the blending of effects from different arts, as where to those of melody are added those first of harmony, then of poetry, then of acting, then of dancing, then of painting, then of sculpture, then of architecture, till, finally, we have all the components of a Wagnerian opera. In all such cases, up to the point where confusion begins—but it must be confessed that with some, perhaps with most people, it begins long before the list is completed—there is an apprehensible increase of the distinctly esthetic influence. Idem, XIII.


As related to the human form, one must always bear in mind that its proportions are expressive of significance. All the members, whether connected with forehead, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, chin, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, waist, hips, legs, calves, ankles, feet, are adapted to some purpose; in our minds they are associated with this purpose; and seem beautiful or ugly, on account, partly, of the way in which they fulfil it, and partly, of the deficiency or superabundance of the characteristics supposed to be represented by them, in case they are relatively smaller or larger than is usual. This is true as applied to combinations, the beauty of which is ordinarily judged to be dependent upon form solely. For instance, take those outlines of the countenance composing what are ordinarily described as regular features. When, as in these, after drawing vertical and horizontal lines across the face, the corresponding parts of eyebrows, eyes, nostrils, on the opposite sides of the face, appear to be in exact balance, inasmuch as the whole is outlined by a framework that is exactly square or rectangular, the external arrangement is satisfactory because it seems representative of something internal that is satisfactory; in other words, because we associate these physical conditions with correlated ones that are mental and moral. Because the face is square, we judge that the character is square. For instance, Mephistopheles as represented on the stage is always painted with the arch of the eyebrows not in line with the horizontal, but beginning high up on the temples and running downward toward the bridge of the nose. This is the way, too, in which even a handsome man looks when contracting his brows under the influence of arrogance, pride, contempt, hatred, and, most of all, of malice. With a similar general effect of irregularity, a simpleton on the stage is painted with nostrils and lips which exaggerate the expression of the smile by running too far up the sides; and a scold, with the sides of the same features exaggerating the expression of the sneer and frown, by running too far down. Or if we consider combinations which almost every one admires, of a comparatively small ankle and large calf, or of a small wrist and large forearm, or of a small waist and broad shoulders, or, in a woman, broad hips; certainly one way of explaining the effects of combinations of this kind is to attribute them to significance. Clumsy joints at the places where the body must bend suggest a lack of flexibility, deftness, and grace; and slender muscles at the places where the body must exert itself suggest a lack of stability, strength, and persistence. Therefore, though the curve connecting the ankle with the calf, or the wrist with the forearm, or the waist with the breast or hips, is beautiful, as will be shown by-and-by, because it fulfils a requirement connecting together with ease two outlines in vision, it is beautiful also because it fulfils a requirement connecting together with satisfaction two facts in thought. After all that can be claimed, there-fore, for the effects of mere outlines, there remain certain other requisites of beauty for which these never can account. They can be attributed to significance alone, under which general term we may include, for reasons given in Chapter XV. of " Art in Theory," all such suggestions as are contained in conceptions like those of adaptability, fitness, association, symbolism, sympathy, and personality.—Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, vu.


There are certain combinations of colors or sounds, say a flag like that of Italy, or a tune like the " Austrian National Hymn," the effects of which, in every land, without some-thing to interfere with the normal action of the eye or ear, are recognized to be beautiful. Yet it is possible that, owing to certain associations of ideas, or to certain suggestions excited by their effects upon the mind, the indisputable beauty both of the flag and of the tune may fail to appeal to some. Did the Italian flag seem beautiful at the time of the unification of Italy to the adherents of the Pope? or the Austrian hymn seem so to the Italians when Austria was their oppressor? On the contrary, for exactly opposite reasons, the sound of a Scotch bagpipe or the sight of a Scotch plaid, though neither may fulfil aesthetic laws in its effects upon the physical organs of perception, excite in the Scottish head and heart that which, with his hand on the Bible and fear of eternal punishment in store for per-jury, the Scotchman would be willing to declare an effect of beauty. Yet even he might be willing to admit, too, that certain other things could be more beautiful,—an admission which, logically carried out, would lead to the acknowledgment that complete or ideal beauty is attained only by effects, if there be any, recognized to be beautiful not only by the senses irrespective of the quality of their appeal to the mind, and by the mind irrespective of the quality of their appeal to the senses, but also by both the senses and the mind; in other words, when the effects upon the senses seem to fit those upon the mind in such ways that both together seem to fit the whole duplex nature of the man to whom they are addressed. Art in Theory, XII.

In the first place, there are forms made up of complex effects containing every element of beauty, so far as concerns their appeal to the eye or ear, and yet which, on account of the character of their appeal to the mind, no delicately organized aesthetic, to say nothing of moral, nature could declare to be, in anything like a satisfactory or complete degree, beautiful. Instead of this, their beauty in any degree might be denied. Take a scene of debauchery—a mingling of vice and nakedness—could any amount of faultless music or physique make this seem to a pure mind other than disgusting and revolting? And could the effects of beauty be fully experienced, or consciously experienced at all, in connection with either feeling? Notwithstanding every argument or example of immoral art, there is but one answer to this question. Certainly they could not, and why not? Because the effects which act together harmoniously, so far as concerns their influence upon the ear or eye, are accompanied by other effects produced through the agency of the imagination calling up forms from the realms of recollection, association, and suggestion; and with these latter effects those from without are discordant.—Idem, XIII.

Every physiologist admits that the nerves may be affected not only from the sense-side, but also from the mind-side. A man suffers in spirits and health not only because of influence exerted upon his body from without, but also because of influence coming from his own thoughts and emotions. It is a simple physiological fact, therefore, that, even though the nerves may be agreeably affected by a form, nevertheless if, owing to a lack of adaptability or fitness, or to a failure to meet the mind's requirements of association, symbolism, sympathy, or personality, certain suggestions of the form jar upon one's sense of congruity or propriety, or, as we say, shock one's sensibilities, then even the physiological condition which is the subjective realization of the presence of beauty will not ensue.

The author is aware that to take this ground is to meet with the accusation, on account of the one subject to which the principle is most frequently applied, that he is confounding the aesthetical with the ethical. But this is not so. It seems so because the dictates of conscience are more apt to be the same in all men than those of any other part of one's nature, and because, therefore, that which violates these dictates is that which is most likely to appear distasteful to the largest number. But the principle involved applies to a vast range of subjects which have nothing to do with ethics. A picture untrue to the requirements of history also, or to the scenes of a locality, might have a correspondingly distasteful effect upon the mind of an historian or a traveller; might so jar upon his sensibilities as to counterbalance entirely any possible degree of excellence in form considered merely as form.—Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, VII.


We sometimes find, as in the pictures of early Christian art, a degree of beauty which cannot be attributed to any fulfilment of the laws of line or color, such as meet the physiological requirements of the eye. Yet often these pictures are acknowledged to possess great charm, owing to what is termed, notwithstanding the implication of some that it does not exist, beauty of expression. What is meant by this? Careful analysis will show that it means that there are evidences in them of a blending of separate and very widely different effects, only a few of which are attributable to form as form. The rest are attributable to traits of character, which certain of the depicted faces and figures are supposed to manifest. But is not every one of these traits of character conjured by the imagination of the spectator and assigned to the forms only so far as they have effects upon recollections of some like form, or upon associations with it, or else as they in some other way suggest a significance which can have its origin in no place except his own mind ?—Art in Theory, XIII.

There are forms the inharmonious effects of which upon the senses render them incapable of appearing beautiful, considered merely as forms ; and yet, on account of other accompanying effects exerted upon the mind, these same forms often manifest, not a little, but a great degree of beauty. Recall, for instance, many a tone expressive of joy, admiration, wonder, surprise, as it is uttered upon the stage, not only in dramas that are spoken, but in operas that are sung; and yet such tones, having all the scientific qualities of noise and not of music, have precisely the thrilling and inspiring effects upon thought and emotion that are ascribed to beauty. It is the same with lines. The rigid straightness and sharp irregularity allowed in art because they alone are expressive of passion, either rightly or wrongly impelled, do not in themselves considered, whether used in dramatic representation or in pictures or statues, contain any harmonious elements such as must appeal to the eye before a form can produce upon it the physical effect of beauty. So with colors. In connection with certain scenes or figures the effects which the mind attributes to beauty may often be received from forms depicted in hues that to the eye alone appear to be only dingy, mixed, and sometimes positively inharmonious.—Idem, XIII.


To men generally, a fabric of a single hue hanging in a shop-window, two or three of different hues thrown accidentally together, and certain figures, even rooms, on account, sometimes of their colors, sometimes of their proportions, sometimes of both, are termed, and properly termed, beautiful. When so used, the word does not refer necessarily to any human thought or feeling that men recognize as being suggested through them or by them. All that is meant is, that certain colors and spaces have been so presented as to fulfil requirements of physical laws that make them attractive or agreeable to the sense of sight. Women are not wrong in principle, only in their application of the effect to a lower sense, when they apply the same word to soups and pies agreeable to taste.—Idem, X.


Ordinary language recognizes a phase of beauty in mere significance, despite the form. Let one come upon a woman with a deformed figure and homely countenance, dressed in most inharmonious colors, and in a most illy proportioned room; yet if she be engaged in the utterance of some noble sentiment, or in the performance of some sublime act of charity or of self-sacrifice, the expression of the motive in her face and frame, together with her surroundings, may be so accordant with the demands of his soul as to trans-figure the mere forms, and prepare him to swear before a court of justice that he has seen what is beautiful.—Idem, X.


When is a sound beautiful? Few would think of answering this except by saying, when it is a blending together, in accordance with the laws of harmony, of several sounds, as in melodies or chords, or series of these,—in other words, when the sound is not simple but complex. But let us be accurate in this matter. Is it not true that a single sound, like the solitary, unvaried note of a bird or of a prima donna, is sometimes beautiful? Certainly it is. But when is it beautiful? Of course, when it is musical. But when is it musical? As all physicists know, in the degree in which it is complex; and complex under such conditions that all its component effects work together in ways causing them to fulfil the same laws of harmony that are fulfilled in chords or series of them. . . . For instance, when a string like that of a bass viol is struck, its note, if musical, is not single or simple: it is compound. Suppose that it produces the tone of the bass C—representing a sound-wave caused by the whole length of the string. This C is the main, or, as it is termed, the prime tone that we hear. But, at the same time, this same string usually divides at the middle, producing what is called a partial tone of the C above the bass, representing a sound-wave caused by one half the string's length. It often produces, too, partial tones of the G above this, of the C above this, and of the E above the last C, representing sound-waves caused, respectively, by one third, one fourth, and one fifth of the string's length. —Idem, XII.


When is a line beautiful? Who, if asked this, would not answer, when it outlines a figure? And when does it out-line a figure?—When it is a combination of many lines of different directions; and, therefore, when its effects are complex. But here again it may be asked, is a single line never beautiful? And again we may answer, "certainly." But, if so, the line is never perfectly straight; it is never a line having the simple effect of only one direction. The line of beauty is a curve; in other words, it has a complex effect. Nor is it really beautiful even then, except when its different sections are conditioned and related so as to produce effects which, for reasons that cannot be given here, are recognized to be harmonious. The same is true of colors also. It is with the harmony or contrast occasioned by the presence of many of these used together that we ordinarily associate the idea of beauty. But yet a single color may be beautiful. At the same time, when this is so, it is owing either to the contrast between it and everything surrounding it, or else to harmonious effects of light and shade, as they apparently play upon the surfaces of a hue, and also subtly underlie it in those exact subdivisions of the elements of light and of its absence, which determine what it is. Idem, XII.


On the whole, however, this fact that men attribute beauty to that which makes an appeal to the sympathies has not been sufficiently emphasized. Yet nine people out of ten, especially among those not educated in particular schools of art, whose minds therefore act according to first principles rather than according to derived ones, in reading poetry, in looking at pictures, or in entering houses, judge of their beauty precisely as the poet Coleridge said that he did of the inspiration of the Bible—namely, by the feeling that it found him. In this fact with reference to the influence of art, lies the degree of truth that there is, when not made universally applicable, in the theory of "association." We all take delight in songs and choruses like those of which we have pleasant reminiscences; in passages of poetry that express thoughts or feelings like those to which we have been led by our own experiences; in landscapes like those by which we have been surrounded in hours of pleasure; in figures like those which we have loved or should wish to love could we only find them; in buildings like those which we have possessed or should like to possess as homes. In all these cases, with a possibility of a breadth of applicability in other directions not possible to the theory of association, as held exclusively, the principle of ascribing beauty to the influence of like effects exerted by the forms from without and by those conjured by the imagination within, covers all the facts. But notice, too, that among these like effects, in cases where beauty emanates from a work of art, are included not merely effects traceable to the thought, feelings, will, in short the whole character of the artist, all of which have been manifested by him in his art-form, but also those conjured by the imagination from the thought, feelings, will, in short the whole character, of the one to whom the beauty appeals. Idem, XV.


Going back to what was said of the play-impulse or the art-impulse, which is distinctively manifested, as explained there, in an excess of psychical or spiritual life, let us observe more carefully than was then done the sources of the manifestations of this excess, which, of course, will be the same thing as to trace the sources of beauty; for it is in beauty that the manifestations culminate. Where, then, are the sources of this? Are they wholly in the mind, the soul, the spiritual being of the subject of it? If so, why does the impulse characteristically express itself, as shown on page 73, in imitation? It certainly would not do this were it not under the influence of natural appearances that could be imitated. Yet again, would any number of natural appearances that could be imitated account for the excess of vitality carrying on the imitation? Must not this vitality come from within? It certainly seems so. Yet if it be so indeed, we have clearly indicated effects both from without and from within.—Idem, XV.


[Comments on the aesthetic theory that "the sense of beauty is an emotional state arising from progressive psycho-physical accommodation to mental objects.") In nature, opposing effects, like differently produced waves on a pool, can often be seen to assimilate; and we have a certain interest in watching the result. So with the sense of accommodation, the one to the other, and, by consequence, of progressive identity of the different stages of logical processes. But notice that in these it is necessary only that two or more very nearly connected conceptions should assimilate, where-as in beauty—as will be recognized upon recalling the conditions underlying rhythm, versification, musical harmony, proportion, collected outlines of columns, arches, windows, roofs, even the tones of a single scale or the colors of a single painting,—it is necessary that whole series and accumulations of effects should assimilate; that, so far as possible, everything presented should seem to be the result of putting like effects (not necessarily like forms—see page 153) with like. This requirement of beauty appears to be met by saying that, in it, the amount of assimilation is increased,—that it results in the degree in which the processes to which attention ministers all tend together to give this sense of accommodation. But even this statement seems insufficient. In the degree in which pleasure of any kind what-ever predominates, the consciousness of opposing effects must be subordinated to that of assimilation. Distinctly aesthetic pleasures differ from those afforded by logical connection, or by mere sensational ease or assimilation not only in the relative amount of likeness in them, but also in the relative comprehensiveness of this. There may be The very complexity and unity that have been shown to be essential to beauty of form can be recognized by only the exercise of distinctively mental analysis. Indeed, the range of the appreciation of beauty is invariably limited by the ability of the mind to make this analysis. If musical tones be made to follow one another too rapidly for the mind to distinguish the differences between them, the result is not rhythm or melody, but noise; or if a round disk with harmonious colors near its rim be made to revolve too rapidly for the mind to distinguish them, the whole produces only the effect of a mixed color usually of a dingy and thoroughly non-beautiful white. A similar result is produced in poetry by metaphors or similes, the different effects of which are so complicated as to appear mixed, as well as by hues, outlines, or carvings of a similarly confused nature in pictures, statues, or buildings. —The Essentials of Aesthetics,II.

Now the question comes, Are all the effects entering harmoniously into that complex result which constitutes beauty traceable to such as influence merely the physical organs of the ear or eye? In answer to this it may be stated, first, that it has been discovered that not only do the nerves of the ear and eye vibrate as affected by sound and sight, and communicate to the brain intelligence of particular degrees of pitch and hue as determined by the rates and sizes of the vibratory waves, but that in addition to these the nerves, as well, that constitute the sub-stance of the brain vibrate and thus give rise to thoughts and feelings; and, not only so, but that the vibrations of the nerves in particular parts of the brain give rise to thoughts and feelings of a particular character; such, for instance, as those connected with particular exercises of memory in recalling general events or specific terms. These facts have been ascertained through various observations and experiments in connection with the loss or removal of certain parts of the brains of men or of animals, or with the application of electricity to certain systems of nerves accidentally or artificially exposed or else naturally accessible. Of course, such discoveries tend to the inference that all conscious mental experience whatsoever, precisely as in the case of sensations excited in the organs of the ear and eye, are effects of vibrations produced in the nerves of the brain. If this inference be justified, the line of thought that we have been pursuing apparently justifies the additional inference that all conscious mental experiences of the beautiful are effects of harmonious vibrations produced in the nerves of the brain.—Idem, II.


The aspiration and the aim of art
That will not bide contented till the law
Of thought shall supersede the law of things,
And that which in the midnight of this world
Is but a dream shall be fulfilled in days
Where there is no more matter, only mind,
And beauty, born of free imagination,
Shall wait but on the sovereignty of spirit.

—West Mountain, from "The Mountains about Williams-town."


It does not seem to be true, therefore, that beauty can be referred merely to form, or merely to significance, or merely to both together. To cover all the facts indicated by, at least, the ordinary use of the term, we must acknowledge that all these theories contain some truth; and, at the same time, that beauty is complete alone in the degree in which beauty of form and of significance are combined.—Art in Theory, x.


Home | More Articles | Email: