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Art And Form

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


To determine aright the relations that should exist between form and spirit is to solve the most important, perhaps, of human problems. Ideally, of course, the one should be a perfect expression of the other; but, in this world, nothing is ideal or perfect; and in nothing is the fact more clearly exemplified than in the frequent failure of a form to represent that which, apparently, it exists for the sole purpose of representing. To recognize, and, so far as possible, to remedy this condition, are primal obligations of intelligence; and this fact justifies the extensive treatment of the subject which has characterized the literature of all periods. Introduction to "Cecil the Seer."


Unless a man could and did hum in this apparently use-less way, it is not likely that any conception of musical art could ever be suggested to him. At any rate, it is true as a fact that it is never until something in connection with the form in which he hums—the movement, the tune—attracts his attention, charms him, seems beautiful to him, and he begins to experiment or play with it for its own sake, irrespective of any aim having to do with material utility, that he begins to develop the possibilities of the musician. In a precisely similar way, talking to oneself may be said to be the underlying condition of poetry. When a man, because interested in some ulterior object, is talking to others, he has neither the time nor the inclination to think of the form that he is using. It is only when something in connection with the form—the metaphors, similes, sounds of the syllables, or words—attracts his attention, charms him, seems beautiful to him, and he begins to experiment or play with it for its own sake—it is only then that he begins to develop the possibilities of the poet.

A rude outline can convey all that is essential to suggest to oneself or to others the idea of a horse. When a man, simply to give vent to the excess of energy in his expressional nature, delays over the outline, adding to what would be necessary in hieroglyphic writing, for instance, limnings and colors that make the representation more complete or ornate, he is moved by the art-impulse. When again, merely to give vent to this energy, besides shaping, he shapes carefully, or ornaments clothing, knives, forks, or other implements; and, still more, when he does all this in connection with busts and statues, which, from their very nature by imaging human forms and faces, are peculiarly adapted for the expression of human thought and feeling, then again he is moved by this impulse. Once more, when in constructing by way of combination any object, but especially a house with which we always associate a human presence, he adds to it, above what is necessary, pillars, porches, window-caps, cornices, cupolas, and always in the degree in which these are distinctly expressive of human sentiment—as in a church, for instance,—then, too, he is influenced by the art-impulse. It is almost superfluous to point out that, in these three cases, respectively, we find the conditions leading to painting, sculpture, and architecture.—Art in Theory, VIII.



When we have any conception to communicate to others, we instinctively associate it with some sight or sound in the external world. Otherwise, as thought itself is invisible and inaudible, we might not be able to make them acquainted with it. For instance, this term expression, just used, means a pressing out,—an operation that can be affirmed literally only of a material substance which is forcibly expelled from another material substance; but, because we recognize a possibility of comparison between this operation and the way in which immaterial thought is made to leave the immaterial mind, we use the term as we do. So with thousands of terms like understanding, uprightness, clearness, muddled, etc. Carrying out the same principle, the ancients represented whole sentences through the use of hieroglyphics; and geometricians and scientists, even of our own times, represent whole arguments—the logical relations of abstract ideas and the physical relations of intangible forces—through the use of lines and figures. In a similar way and with a similar justification, we can apply the principle to the expression of thought in a subject considered as a whole. . . Not merely, as judged by separate illustrations, but by general arrangement, that oration or poem is the most successful which presents the thought in this depicted or graphic way,—a way that causes the hearer or reader to seem to see all the lines of the argument mapped out before him, the entire framework of the ideas built up and standing in front of him. But before a speaker or writer can produce such an effect, he himself must be able to see his subject lying before him, or rising in front of him; in other words, he must be able to conceive of it as comparable to some external object whose shape or movement can be perceived.—Essay on Art and Logical Form.

Almost all critics of all ages have felt it to be appropriate to take an animal or a man, the highest type of an organized being, as an ideal natural form from which to derive suggestions with reference to the essential characteristics of an ideal art-form. Plato, for instance, named head, trunk, and feet as the three essential features in every work of art; and Aristotle, recalling the fact that all products do not appeal to the eye, and cannot seem to have visible bodies, tried to state a principle more general in its reach by declaring that they must all have beginning, middle, and end. But both statements are virtually the same, and together are inclusive of all possible artistic applications of the subject. The first applies literally to forms that appear in space, the second to those that appear in time. Both mean that there should be such an order in the arrangement of the parts constituting the form as to cause all the parts to seem to be organically connected with one whole, and this whole to seem to possess all the parts necessary to render it complete.—The Genesis of Art-Form, VI.

In arranging a number of objects or individuals to be represented in the same picture, an artist will almost invariably place the larger or more prominent in the centre or at the top, thus giving the group a head; and the others on either side or below, thus giving it a trunk and feet; while he will dispose of all the members in such ways that the con-tour of the group, as outlined by all their forms together, shall seem to have some shape—that suggesting a circle, an arch, or a pyramid, as the case may be.

In architecture, the foundation corresponds to the foot, the wall to the trunk, and the roof to the head. All these features taken together may present effects of grouping similar to those in painting and sculpture. The various projections, gables, pediments, chimneys, domes, spires, whatever they may be, that make up the wings and roofs, may be arranged so that, taken together, they can be in-scribed in a low or a high arch, rounded or sharpened like a pyramid. As a rule, the greater the appearance of the exercise of design in the organic arrangement of these features, the more satisfactory are they to the eye that looks to find in them the results of art.—Essentials of Aesthetics, XIV.


Our first conception would be that the sight or sound perceived in nature would of itself indicate the forms in which the thoughts or feelings awakened in connection with it should be reproduced in art. Such is sometimes the case. It would always be the case, if art were a mere imitation. But, whether imitative or not, art is also an expression of thought and emotion, and, because it is so, the form used must, at times, be subordinated to the requirements of that which is to be expressed. To illustrate this, suppose a man to have listened to the story of a battle. It might be presumed that a representation of what he has heard would also assume the form of a story, and therefore be artistically expressed in a poem. But often the effect of the story upon his imagination, as also of his imagination upon it, is such that what is experienced can be represented truthfully only through a picture. Again, it happens some-times that the forms through which the effects have been exerted, have lingered so long in his mind, and experienced so many modifications there that, though critical analysis may detect, as in architecture and music, that the effects produced have been suggested by forms in nature, the artist himself is unconscious of what these forms were.—Idem, Ix.


Misunderstanding of the relations to expression of technique and consequent suspicion of it, is common in our own country. I sometimes think that it is constitutional with us. Certainly no race manifests such possibilities of error in this direction as does the Anglo-Saxon. Many of us have apparently become so accustomed to see a form used to express a mental condition diametrically the opposite of that which it should express, that we have ceased to recognize any necessity of having the one correlated to the other. Is there any other race among whom an ideal hero is a man like Rochester in " Jane Eyre, " Bertie in "The Henrietta, " or the "Disagreeable Man" in "Ships that Pass in the Night "—a man whose exterior exactly misrepresents his interior? Is it a wonder, either, that this nonconformity of the ideal to the real in actual life should influence conceptions of art? An Italian or a Frenchman with a voice naturally melodious, a frame naturally graceful, and both naturally flexible, seems to believe instinctively that the form of expression should be, and can be, conformed to that which is behind it; and he seldom thinks of appearing in public until he has studied sufficiently to secure this result. But an Englishman or an American who, as a rule, has by nature either an inarticulate drawl or a nasal twang, and an awkwardness not only unthinking but unthinkable, he, forsooth, must hold a theory that any study of elocutionary technique is unnecessary !—Essay on the Function of Technique.


Go to critics of literature who believe that art is "the application to anything" of the laws of art-form—which, for reasons given on page 235, is a strictly just way of shortening what is meant by the exceedingly loose use of the term proportion in the above definition—and ask them who is the first English poet of the age. They will probably answer—and few would differ from them—Swinburne. Now ask them what is the influence upon life of the thought presented in his poetry, what is the particular phase of inspiration to be derived from it; and they will probably answer that to them as critics this is immaterial; that not the thoughts of the poet, not his subjects give him his rank, but his manner of presenting them, his style, the rhythm of his verse, and its harmony as produced by alliteration, assonance, or rhyme. Again, ask a critic of painting of the same school to show you the best picture in a gallery. He is as likely as not to point you to the figure of a woman, too lightly clothed, posing not too unconsciously near some water; or, too heavily clothed, sitting in front of a mirror. You ask him what is the peculiar phase of thought expressed in this picture, the particular inspiration for life to be derived from it ; and he will look at you and laugh. Nothing to-day, in our country, is supposed to show more ignorance about art, than the conception that interest in a picture has any-thing to do with a subject, or with its suggesting a story, whether inspiring or otherwise. We must judge of the picture, we are told, entirely by the form, the style, the use in it of light and shade and color.

But, you say, there certainly was a time when theories of art were different. Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, yes, and Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller too,—all these had style or form, yet what one thinks of chiefly, when he reads them, is not this, but the thought that is behind it. Then there is Raphael. On a Sunday, one could sit for an hour before the Sistine Madonna, and feel more benefited than in most of the churches. But Raphael's is not a name, you find, with which to charm the modern critic. You are told that you are behind the age. This statement gives you a new suggestion, and you proceed to apply it. You ask yourself if you are also behind the age in your conceptions of literary art. You take up the nearest periodical and read the poetry in it, and its criticisms upon poetry. What are the new poets doing? What is it in their work that excites praise? The thought? —its breadth of conception? its completeness of development? its power of expressing truth fitted to uplift spiritually? How often do we see, in an American criticism, any-thing like an analysis of a new American poem? How often do we see an effort to bring to light the subtle character of the philosophy of which it is the expression? And there is the kindliest of reasons why these are not seen. A suggestion of logical arrangement, as in Dante or Milton, a hint of ethical maxims, though set as brilliantly as in Shakespeare or Schiller, would give a poet of our own day, were he commended for these particularly, a hard tramp up the road to recognition. What our people want is style, form. "Yes, " say the critics, "but imaginative form. You can't object to that." Certainly one can—to imagination used for mere form's sake. Imaginative form has value only when it images a truth; and this is that which our modern critics have forgotten. Any comparison, however odious, will do for them, if it be only a comparison, and almost any style if it only ring, even if as hollow as some of the French forms of verse that our magazines admire so much. Not, of course, that the style must always be as dainty as in these. Some of us prefer to take it—as the English do their cheese —strong, with plenty of light and shade, and if the former be leprous and the latter smutty, so long as the effects are anything but weak, our critics, especially of our religious journals, are apt to like it all the better. The truth is that the moment that, through an overbalancing regard for form, people come to think that it alone has value, and that the subject in art is immaterial, they are in a fair way to become realists in that very worst sense in which it means believers in the portrayal in art of any amount of ugliness or nastiness so long as it be only that which they term "true to nature." This is the belief which, at present, is uppermost in France, brought about in that country by the predominating influence, through more than one century, of a materialistic art-philosophy. . . And this French attitude of mind toward art,—art which some believe to be the handmaid of civilization and religion, and the most powerfully elevating of any purely human influence;—this attitude of mind and this direction toward high achievement in art, is that to which almost all those potent in criticism in our country, to-day, are doing their utmost to point our own people.—Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music, Preface.


And so with music. The difference between a melody of Offenbach and the least successful recitative-work of Wagner is the difference between treating musical form as if it were wholly a matter of form, and as if it were wholly a matter of significance. The difference between both and the best music of Wagner, and of Mozart, Beethoven, and Sullivan, too, is that in this latter the equilibrium between the two tendencies in art is maintained.—Idem, Introduction to Music as a Representative Art.


Art is a development of the earliest endeavor of men to give form to thought for which they have no form at their command. It is not at the command of the savage or of the child, simply because no form appropriate has come, as yet, within the very limited range of his experience or information. It is not always at the command of the cultivated man, because, often, all forms with which he is acquainted seem to be inadequate. Accordingly the uncultivated and the cultivated alike are impelled to originate expressions for themselves. In doing this, they are obliged to interpret nature in a certain way. They must think about that which they have observed, and before they have had time to examine it critically, through the exercise of their conscious powers, they must judge of it instinctively through the exercise of their unconscious promptings. This principle applies, not only to their use, for purposes of expression, of imaginative words and imitative drawings, but to their whole methods of conceiving of the material world. The boy hears of a sailor or of a general, and for the very reason that he has had no experience of the life led by either, he imagines it, and the man in the same condition surmises what might be the experience of a fairy or of a saint.—Essentials Essentials of Aesthetics, III.


It is hoped that a few examples which, possibly, on second thought, the author might explain, or the reader apprehend differently, will not deter any from a serious consideration of the principles themselves, the acceptance of which cannot fail to have an important influence upon all one's views either of art or of life. For, if true, they show that the poems, symphonies, paintings, statues, and buildings produced by the artist differ from the elementary forms of these produced before his appearance, mainly in the greater degree in which he has learned to read through forms, whether human or not, that which is in the soul of man and of all things. For one who practises art or enjoys it, or takes any interest in it whatever, though not beyond a perception that it is about him and has come to stay; and not only for such an one, but for all who live in a world surrounded by appearances which could awaken infinitely more interest, were it believed that every slightest feature of them might be recognized to be definitely significant and suggestive and, therefore, instructive and inspiring,—this, certainly, is a conception of art and of life and of the relations between them, which is worth holding. Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture as Representative Arts, Preface.


Most of us are not aware of the extent to which we think through this use of forms. We fancy that we think through the use of words. So we do, but only so far as words have been made arbitrarily to take the place of forms. We think in dreams, do we not? In these, what are we doing except thinking? Yet how many words do we seem to hear in our dreams? The vast bulk of our experience then appears to pass before consciousness in visible pictures. The same may be affirmed of what occurs during our reveries, though we seldom analyze these sufficiently to discover the fact. Essay on Teaching in Drawing.


A principle or law which has never been applied in invention can have no existence until it has been given a form; and it cannot be given a form until the image of it has been conceived in the mind. Therefore, in order to be able to invent, a mind must, first of all, be able to think in images. This is the same as to say that an original product, before it can become real, must be ideal, in other words, that the main difference between the action of the mind in physical construction and in metaphysical, is in the order of time in which the one or the other appears. After the preliminary work in the imagination, the arts separate. That which the mind seems to see, the poet records in words, the painter in pigments, the architect in brick and mortar, the machinist in wood and iron.—Idem.


A scientist, philosopher, or statesman is often successful in the degree alone in which he is able to visualize the material effects of a collection of facts, principles, or motives, in such a way as to substitute for the chaos in which they ordinarily appear, 'what we term a well-outlined system. There is no radical difference in mental action between planning a military campaign executed by guns through the agency of bullets, and a political campaign executed by words through the agency of ballots.—Idem.


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