Harry B. Lee
The Cultural Lag in Aesthetics1
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
Volume 6, Issue 2
Dec., 1947, 120-138.
HHC: Index added
The Cultural Share. A common prejudice, which manifests itself in a variety of forms, consists in our tendency to resist any effective scientific approach to the problems of art. It is our habit to treat such an approach with a loss of interest, or to treat it as irreverence.
No matter what our religious faith, or lack of it, we are agreed that our culture regards the institution of religion as a sacred one; that is, as one which our collective ideas of God have endowed with sanctity. But the reader who rightfully regards the fine arts as secular pursuits may react with surprise, and doubt or even denial, when told that we regard art also as literally sacred; and he might warm up with some resentment when asked to consider the proposition that our valuation of art as if it were sacred is based largely upon our easy acceptance of culturally dictated prejudices with which the human mind has been bound for many centuries.
We tend to classify together our concepts of art and religion as twin institutions, since they afford experiences to our inner life which resemble each other much more closely than either resembles our experience of any other social institution. Some obvious differences between our participations in art and in religion are that we seek the experience of art as an end in itself, and that of religion as the means to an end; that art leaves our thoughts free, and even frees our fantasy, whereas religion imposes obligations upon our thinking and behavior; that in experiencing a work of art we must relate ourselves to it by way of our senses, something not necessary to religious experience; that religious contemplation is a personal communion with a Being of universal quality, whereas artistic experience consists in the impersonal contemplation of a unity made up of particulars; and that from religion we expect some reward or even personal response, present or future. While these are appreciable differences, they are far outweighed by the qualities art and religion possess in common.
In viewing the outside world as the symbolic expressions of inner reality, art and religion are at once differentiated as a class apart from the practical, utilitarian institutions of our daily lives. We attend to both as exercises of the spirit; they are alike in being experiences which are noble, passionate, and serene, and which absorb our interest most fully when we turn to them for solace and with
1. The present contribution is the abridgement of a chapter from a book in preparation, entitled What Art Is. It is the fifth in the following series of studies upon problems of the creative imagination: “Poetry Production as a Supplemental Emergency Defense Against Anxiety,” Psychoanalytic Quart. (1938) 7: 232-242. “A Critique of the Theory of Sublimation,” Psychiatry. (1939) 2: 239-271. “A Theory Concerning Free Creation in the Inventive Arts,” Psychiatry (1940) 3: 229-294. “On the Aesthetic States of the Mind,” Psychiatry (1947) 10:281-306. The present abridgement contains only a few of the quotations in the chapter.
a spirit of humility and devotion. By employing within formal frames a mode of thinking which is dominantly archaic, animistic, and which makes the freest use of symbol, both provide in sensible form a focus for our contemplation of something other than ourselves. Each yields feelings of release and of elevation, similar in kind. Art, like religion, expresses the spiritual capacities of our human nature; we judge them as similar in their intent since they constitute our most salutary refuges from the transient and contingent, from the practical and the pedestrian.
The tendency of our secular culture to conceive of art as sacred has a more fundamental derivation from an ancient and still vital concept, which successive cultures have validated over thousands of years and fused with the mental habit of mankind. The history of western culture traces the close association of art and religion back to ancient times when they existed in an organic unity, when the arts had not yet been differentiated as functions separate from a religion of which they were an organic expression. The institution of art presumably became autonomous during the Renaissance, and the individual fine arts became truly secular pursuits only during the few centuries which have elapsed since they emancipated themselves from servility to the parent institution of religion. Despite our practical secularization of the arts, the ancient concept of art as an institution somehow organic with religion lingers in our minds because it has always been transmitted by successive cultures, including ours, as if it were still true.
Men have always looked to the philosopher for their authoritative concepts concerning artistic activity, and all who write about the arts take their cues, ultimately, from him. Although modern aesthetics criticizes the concept of beauty, it is still ruled by a philosophy which talks about philosophy of art but continues to treat aesthetics as the philosophical analysis of Beauty.
The aim of the philosopher is to construct a better theory of the universe than his predecessor; he is not interested in aesthetics for the sake of art, but in aesthetics for philosophy’s sake. He treats aesthetics as a department of knowledge which has a priori principles, and as one whose problems can be solved by the abstract discussion of conceptual considerations. His interest is in Art as an institution, in so far as it serves his leading concern with concepts of Ultimate and Absolute Reality. As Santayana, a philosopher of exceptional artistic sensitivity, remarked: “philosophers have interpreted aesthetic facts in the light of their metaphysical principles, and made of their theory of taste a corollary or footnote to their systems.”2 Usually, the philosopher has very little interest in art and in the phenomena of art experience; he does not go to the artist and the appreciator for the facts of their experience, but looks for his illumination in a vast reading of philosophical authority and in the subtle exercise of formal logic. From a priori assumptions about God, he deduces the properties and values of Beauty as a generic concept; there results a theistic aesthetics describing Beauty as an obscure, transcendental, etherealized something which refers more to heaven than to earth, and which has no existence outside of his reveries. All
2 Santayana, George,
The Sense of Beauty;
earthly beauty, including the artistic, is considered to be but the sensory revelation of transcendental Beauty which is the Divine Name, Idea, Summum Bonum, God.
The philosopher’s aesthetic, because culture validates it with authority, is the most powerful means by which culture indoctrinates men’s minds with an erroneous concept of the institution of art as continuing the function of its ancient organic unity with religion. Although his writings are always difficult reading, and circulate only among a limited group of scholars, it is of cardinal importance that men who are more interested in the arts than in philosophy, and more in art than in Art, receive their aesthetic directive from the philosopher; and that artistically sensitive individuals, - scholars, artists, and lay appreciators, - transcribe in their own idiom, and transmit eventually to every human being the philosopher’s misconception of the institution of art in terms of God.
In prose, poetry, and song, at home, at church, and at school, the education of the child accents the association of art with the supernatural. When grown, a more elaborate education keeps us ever mindful of this association in the religious derivation and significance of many words used in relation to art, such as genius, imitation, inspiration, theatre, grace, orchestra, museum, virtuosity, divination, enthusiasm. Subtly, and repeatedly, one is reminded of the original sacred unity of art with religion by such expressions as “the divine enthusiasm of the poet”, “the soul of art”, and “the religion of Beauty”. Like God, artistic beauty is “unearthly”; because art is “heavenly”, it must not be profaned, and is to be separated from mundane, everyday, practical affairs. Or if you prefer the theory of imitation: the artist imitates at some remove the makings of “God, the Artist”, or of “God, the Artificer”. One is confronted with mellifluent variations of the same among the prolific modern output of popular books about works of art, and about the lives of artists, which rhapsodize in religious idiom the philosopher’s theocentric aesthetic, sometimes even with pulpit rhetoric.
There still adheres to our idea of art an aura of supernatural significance, even though artists since Giorgione have refused ecclesiastical domination. This other-worldly concept of the institution of art is afforded the widest currency in formal and informal education, though art no longer exists for the sake of the Church. We cling with an unreasoned tenacity to the dogma of the philosopher who assures us that we experience through art evidence of divinity. It is our prepossession with this culturally approved but erroneous concept of art which is responsible for the confusion among theories of aesthetics, and which inhibits the birth of a humanistically oriented and truly scientific aesthetics.
We do not like to believe that today we sanctify as religious the institution of art, yet the evidence that we do so is plain to read in the authoritative literature upon the subject. In the service of objectivity, I shall quote only western literature, and only that of the twentieth century, in order to avoid those writings which contain too bold, and too frequent, iteration of the idea that the experience of art is religious in quality or value.
The italics in these quotations are mine. I would remind the reader that for the present argument it is a matter of indifference if an authority sometimes
qualifies his statement of artistic-experience-as-religious with the self-critical caution that his use of the word “religious” does not have supernatural reference. He knows other words which do not have this frank reference, but which do not express his real belief and meaning, so he refuses to use them. Therefore, we must conclude, that, by his insistence upon using the word religious he is saying what he really means; and that in his self-critical struggle to disinherit an erroneous concept, he has yielded to ancient authority. I would call attention to the frequent use of the word soul in current writings about art, despite the fact that mind has long since been differentiated from soul.
Edman, philosopher, concludes The World, The Arts And The Artist (1928) with the following paragraph:
Experience remains at its core a mystery, a mystery which at any moment may become clarified in an immediate act of apprehension or vision. The mystics call that unutterable core of being the One. But the One has taken a thousand different forms. The artist is the true revealer of the mystery; the esthetic observer, where he is truly alive in vision and appreciation, is the true mystic. For in a work of art he has recognized one aspect of the One, clear and passionate and intense. Experience has become for him for a moment a lucid flame; he is in the experience of beauty, to use the now wellworn language, for a moment at one with the One, at home in the Absolute. 3
Whitehead, philosopher, in a paragraph about art in which the word “soul” occurs five times, states in Science And The Modern World (1935):
The fertilisation of the soul is the reason for the necessity of art… Great art is the arrangement of the environment so as to provide for the soul vivid, but transient values. 4
Alexander, philosopher, asks in Beauty And Other Forms Of Value (1934):
Great artists know or believe that they are inspired from something outside themselves. Why should we suppose them to be deceived?5
Art and religion are means to similar states of mind. And if we are licensed to lay aside the science of aesthetics and, going behind our emotion and its object, consider what is in the mind of the artist, we may say, loosely enough, that art is a manifestation of the religious sense. If it be an expression of emotion - as I am persuaded that it is an expression of that emotion which is the vital force in every religion, or, at any rate, it expresses an emotion felt for that which is the essence of all. We may say that both art and religion are manifestations of men’s religious sense, if by “man’s religious sense” we mean his sense of ultimate reality. 6
3. Edman, Irwin, The World, The Arts and The Artist: New York, W. W. Norton and Co. Inc., 1928 (xi and 88 pp.); p. 88. Cf. Dewey, John, Art as Experience; New York, Minton Balch and Company, 1934 (vii and 349 pp.); pp. 195, 270, 49. See also Valery, Paul, “Leonardo and the Philos phers.” Hound and Horn (Winter 1931) 4: 231-255, p. 233.
4. Whitehead, Alfred North, Science and The Modern
5. Alexander, S., Beauty and Other Forms of Value;
6. Bell, Clive, Art; New York, Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1914 (xv and 293 pp.); p. 92.
Listowel, aesthetician, in A Critical History of Modern Aesthetics (1933), states of “the experience of the beautiful” that
… we feel the beautitude of perfect peace… we penetrate the very arcanum of beauty, the holy of holies itself.7
Venturi, art historian and critic, declares in Painting and Painters (1945):
Every painting that is a work of art has also a moral or religious feeling. This does not mean that it must support any particular moral theory or religion. The very opposite is true: a work to be art must go beyond any moral or religious credo. But a work of art must participate in that aspiration towards a universal among which is typical of moral or religious feelings. 8
Anderson, playwright, reports in The Basis of Artistic Creation in Literature (1942):
The theatrical profession may protest as much as it likes, the theologians may protest, and the majority of those who see our plays would probably be amazed to hear it, but the theatre is a religious institution devoted entirely to the exaltation of-the spirit of man. It has no formal religion. I am only trying now to arrive at what that religion is, but there is no doubt in my mind that our theatre, instead of being, as the evangelical ministers used to believe, the gateway to hell, is as much of a worship as the theatre of the Greeks, and has exactly the same meaning in our lives. 9
Van Loon, educator, declares in his popular The Arts (1937):
Man, even at his proudest moments, is a puny and helpless creature when he compares himself to the Gods. The Gods speak unto him through creation. Man tries to answer, he tries to vindicate himself, and that answer, that vindication, is really what we call art. 10
Our experience of art yields a satisfaction the quality of which is described by all writers to be spiritual. While these disagree in regard to almost everything about the nature of aesthetic experience, all agree that it is an exercise of the Spirit. The basis for this point of agreement is a curiously loose employment of the word spiritual for its specific reference to the supernatural. Webster’s New International Dictionary defines “spiritual” as pertaining to the intellectual and higher endowments of the mind, to the moral feelings or the states of the soul, the affections of the soul as influenced by the divine Spirit, and to sacred things or the church; not lay or temporal. Other terms, such as “aesthetically satisfying”, would be more descriptive, but less emotive with the religious reference of artistic experience required by culture. Another word commonly used in descriptions of artistic experience and, like spiritual, borrowed from religious
7. Listowel, Earl of, Critical History of Modern
8. Venturi, Lionello, Painting, and Painters;
9. Anderson, Maxwell, “The Basis of Artistic Creation in
Literature.” The Bases of Artistic Creation by Anderson, Maxwell;
Carpenter, Rhys; and Harris,
10. Van Loon, Hendrick Willem, The Arts;
terminology, is contemplation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines contemplation as “The action of beholding. The action of mentally viewing, attentive consideration, study, meditation. Religious musing”.
It is reasonable to conclude from the literature quoted that we regard the institution of art as if it were religious in essence, and secular only in name. The kind of disparity I have described between our attitude toward the arts as secular pursuits and our attitude toward the institution of art as sacred is an instance of what Ogburn has named “cultural lag”. 12 What is it in the human mind that yields such convincing affirmation of this erroneous concept as to win anew from successive generations adherence to it, and thus render the lag effective?
The Individual Share. The spiritual intent and satisfaction of the maker of a work of art is attested by all who are creative, and by all whose capacity for appreciation permits them to plumb its most significant aesthetic meanings, even though these include many who doubt or deny the existence of God. Let Leonardo, the father of the modern art of painting, speak for the artist: “A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man, and the intention of his soul”.
The possibility for a sensitive appreciator, whether artist or non-artist, educated or illiterate, believer or atheist, to share deeply in a spiritual enjoyment of art is too well known to require description. Rather, let us listen to Goethe’s Monologue Of The Enthusiast:
What use to you my ardent mind
Which flames before your eyes?
What good the spell of art that binds
All life in mystic wise?
If you still lack the vital power
How can your life o’erflow,
Or love within you ever flower
That further art may grow?
Leonardo’s statement is still typical of the artist’s and the critic’s references to the spiritual intention of the artist’s work; Goethe’s is still typical of the sensitive appreciator’s description of his experience as a spiritual one. In declaring that the experience is an exercise of the spirit, they imply that its function is a religious one.
The most deeply absorbing experiences of art, whether of creating or appreciating, are commonly described as resulting in a unification of self and as yielding a pleasure which is construed as religious. Persons endowed with the capability for artistic experience of this kind, - and these include persons who do not believe in God, as well as those who do, - describe it as an occasional capacity
11. The attention of the reader is recalled to the fact that these quotations from the writings of authorities in this field are confined to the twentieth century; and that they exclude the writings of Neo-Thomist philosophers and their followers, of those whose professions are related to theology and the ministry, and of beauty mystics.
12. Ogburn, William F., “The Hypothesis of Cultural Lag”, in The Making of Society edited by Calverton, V. F.; New York, The Modern Library, 1937 (xviii and 923 pp.); pp. 719-730.
for the absorption of their entire interest in what they sense to be an extensive degree of union with the work of art; as a release from the world of practical things by way of a state of mind which they call “unearthly” because it seems that the ordinary boundaries of space and time are transcended; and as accompanied with that exquisite exaltation of mood and feeling of completed being which is variously called rapture, ecstasy, transport, enthusiasm, lyrical state, or elevating excitement of the soul.
If we compare the most prominent features of this mode of artistic experience with those of religious mysticism as described by James in The Varieties Of Religious Experience (1902),13 are impressed with their remarkable similarities. 1) Both mystical religious experience and the contemplative mode of artistic experience are said to be ineffable, incapable of description with ordinary language. 2) Both are said to have a noetic quality, affording a sense of unusual insight into the depths of truth which cannot be plumbed by the discursive intellect. (3) Both are transient experiences, unable to be sustained for long. (4) Both experiences are characterized by a feeling of passivity to a superior power, as if one’s own will were held in abeyance. (5) Neither experience can be had at will, even in the presence of the same external focus of contemplation; both experiences occur under conditions which are unknown and beyond our control.
If we wish to distinguish between religious mysticism and the contemplative experience of art which results in some sense of union with the work, we can differentiate them according to the following individual characteristics. Mystical religions experience does not require a sensible focus for our contemplation; its content concerns only the rapt love of God; it is described as an absorption into Him; and it is construed to be the fleeting recapture of an antecedent reality. The contemplative experience of a work of art requires a sensible focus for our contemplation, and occurs when neither the form nor the subject-matter of this focus refers to the supernatural. Further distinction between these experiences concerns their differences in respect of ineffability and noetic quality. The creative artist can no more than the religious mystic give with ordinary language a satisfactory description of his state of mind in inspiration, of his vision of “new truth”, or of his then more acute perception of reality. The artist, however, has the advantages of better communicability from being able to express his insight through the plastic language of his work, and from the sensitive appreciator’s occasional capacity to apprehend rather extensively these intuitively legible embodiments of the artist’s insight in symbol.
It now becomes evident that it is the personal experience of the contemplative state of mind in relation to a work of art, occuring in the artistically sensitive, which lends the fullest individual credibility to the authorized theocentric aesthetic with which culture has already indoctrinated them.
To summarize: 1. Philosophers, who are relatively insensitive to art, are authorized by culture to formulate a theocentric aesthetic for us. With this aesthetic, notwithstanding the actual secularization of the arts and the seeming autonomy of the institution of art, culture ever renews in our minds, with the
12. James, William, The Varieties of Religious
value of a current truth, the once true concept of an organic unity of art and religion as sacred. Whether we have a practical or a theoretical interest in the arts, we receive our aesthetic directive from the philosopher.
2. The aesthetically most sensitive (artists, aestheticians, art critics, and lay appreciators) are capable of the contemplative experience of a work of art. They misinterpret an ideal satisfaction for a religious one, and accept this as convincing validation of the philosopher’s theocentric aesthetic as a trustworthy directive.
3. The philosopher’s writings, esoteric in concept and language, have a quite limited circulation. Artists, art, critics, art historians, and lay appreciators are, as writers, more fertile, intelligible, and artistic than the philosopher; it is their writings, misconstruing as religious their contemplative experiences of art, and describing them in everyday language, which support and lend the widest currency to the philosopher’s concept that art is still an institution from which supernatural and sacred, instead of humanistic, values flow.
Cultural Factors in the Scientific Attitude. Descriptive science deals with the facts of experience; it observes, describes, and classifies them, and then draws its generalizations from these. Aesthetics, on the other hand, is regarded by philosophy as a “normative science”, concerned with values and norms established a priori as the portrayal of the ideal and ultimate perfection which is God. The corollary of these assumptions is that the “purely subjective values” of art cannot be comprehended further by human intellect, and that they are as incapable of scientific exploration as is God, - the Unknowable. 14 In fact, these values and the experiences of art altogether are traditionally described as mysterious and inscrutable since they are miraculous and not subject to natural law. The resulting tendency is that we reject as inelegant, sullying, or blasphemous, the attempts of human reason to import into the “mysterious problems of art” more of scientific light than of metaphysical obscurity and otherworldliness. If we are art-lovers, we are content or even gratified to call artistic sensitivity “a mysterious gift”; and to preserve the mysteriousness with which culture has always surrounded what philosophy has assumed to be an interior experience of God, a sublime paradox which must remain undisturbed. If we are science-proud, we are likely to dismiss artistic sensitivity as an effeminate and mystical something which is neither worthy of, nor capable of, scientific explanation; and to estimate aesthetics as a field of spurious knowledge.
We are told that Art has reasons which human reason cannot fathom; that art has the divine qualities of perfection and incomprehensibility. Monk’s study of the history of “grace” as a critical term refers to Les Entretiens d’Artiste et d’Eugene (1671) by Bonhours, whose “discussion ends with the interesting
14. For comments upon this attitude see Munro, Thomas, Scientific Method in Aesthetics; New York, W. W. Norton and Co., 1928 (xi and 101 pp.); p. 81. Also Benjamin, Harold, An Introduction to Human Problems; Cambridge, Houghton Muffin Co. 1930 (xii and 472 pp.); pp. 295-296.
suggestion that there is a relationship between grace in art and grace in theology, itself an inexplicable mystery about which it is best to be silent, but which triumphs over the heart and which may be described as the je ne scay quoy of the supernatural and the divine. 15 The je ne sais quoi and non so che are critical terms used even today concerning a grace in art which is beyond human ken; they express an attitude of mind toward the problems of art which is alive today as it was in the sixteenth century when French and Italian aestheticians coined these question-begging terms. In the twentieth century we are cautioned by Cram, supervising architect for leading American universities, in The Ministry Of Art (1914), as follows:
Now I do not mean to involve myself in the perilous
definition of this mystical and incomprehensible thing, beauty; says
In Art (1913), Bell states:
Also at this point a query arises, irrelevant indeed, but hardly to be suppressed: “Why are we so profoundly moved by forms related in a particular way”? The question is extremely interesting, but irrelevant to aesthetics. In pure aesthetics we have only to consider our emotion and its object: for the purposes of aesthetics we have no right, neither is there any necessity, to pry behind the object into the state of mind of him who made it. 17
Greene, in The Arts And The Art Of Criticism (1940),18 argues that artistic beauty, like color and sound, is an irreducible, unique, and ineffable quality; and states, therefore, that artistic quality cannot be further explored, - “as a simple and ultimate quality it eludes analysis as inevitably as do sound and. color”. 19 As one turns the pages of the popular A Treasury Of Art Masterpieces (1939), edited by Craven, one reads.
The emotional life of art is insoluble; it can no more be explained than the life of a tree, a woman, or any organic thing. 20
Artists make similar declarations. . Anatole
15. Monk, Samuel H., “A Grace Beyond the Reach of Art”, J. History of Ideas (1944) 5:131-151; pp. 146-147.
16. Cram, R. A. The Ministry of Art; New York, Houghton, Muffin and Co., 1914 (xii and 246 pp.) pp. 222-223.
17. Reference footnote 6; pp. 10-11.
18. Greene. Theodore M., The Arts and The Art of
19. Reference footnote 18; p. 389. For a recent discussion of artistic beauty as an unanalysable ultimate, and of the influence of value judgements upon aesthetics and art criticism, see Heyl, Bernard C., New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism; New Haven, Yale University Press, 1943 (ix and 155 pp.).
20. A Treasury of Art Masterpieces, edited by Craven, John;
21. France, Anatole, On Life and Letters;
Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Rodin: “Mystery is the atmosphere that bathes the greatest art”. Debussy: “Men in general forget that as children they were forbidden to dismember their puppets, but they still persist in poking their aesthetic noses where they are not wanted. If nowadays they have ceased to split open their playthings or toys, they still explain, dissect, and with cool indifference put an end to all mystery”.
We meet, too, the old rationalization that to analyze
any vital entity down to its last elements destroys it.
Yet art is mysterious, because its essential quality, its originality and difference defy analysis. Since art can be felt and enjoyed but not measured or weighed, science cannot touch it except externally. If art were only what can be stated scientifically about it, the unique value of art would be lost. The mystic says the same of his experience: only the outside of it can be observed; the inner feeling cannot be penetrated by the psychologist; the mystic himself can hardly tell what that is, and that is the whole thing. 22
Writers who dare defy culture’s philosophical dictum
that art must remain a mystery sometimes feel it necessary to address apology
and reassurance to the reverent reader.
Some readers may even feel that the matters covered by these phrases must remain mysterious… Reverent readers may therefore be reassured, for inquiry will at best only push the mystery a little further off, analysis will only turn a simple mystery into a complex one, - and no explanation of poetry will explain it away. 23
Even so courageous an investigator of the mysteries of our mental life as Freud obeys culture’s proscription of scientific curiosity about the creation and appreciation of art, although he made critical explorations of the institution of religion. In various places where his writings refer to the problems of art, Freud states: “The nature of artistic attainment is psychoanalytically inaccessible to us”. “It (psychoanalysis) can do nothing towards elucidating the nature of the artistic gift, nor can it explain the means by which the artist works”. “Whence comes the artist’s ability to create, is not the question of psychology”. “Unfortunately, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms before the problem of the poet”. Other medical psychologists obey the same proscription. Jones remarks, in A Psychoanalytic Study Of Hamlet (1910):
Psychologists have as yet devoted relatively little attention to individual study of genius and of artistic creativeness, and have mainly confined themselves to observations of a general order. They seem to share the shyness or even aversion displayed by the world at large against too searching an analysis of a thing of beauty, - the feeling expressed in Keats’ lines on the prismatic study of the rainbow. 24
23. Prescott, Frederick C., The Poetic Mind;
24. Jones, Ernest, Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis;
Rank, in Art And Artist (1930), predicts that psychology will never contribute anything to understanding of the productive personality,
since ultimately we are dealing with dynamic factors which remain incomprehensible in their specific expression in the individual personality. 25
It is refreshing, indeed, to find that there are some contemporary authorities on these subjects, none of whom are primarily aestheticians, who criticise the aura of mystery with which philosophical aesthetics has surrounded the problems of art. Cassirer, in An Essay On Man (1944) says:
On the other hand this “removal to a distance” which is here described as one of the necessary and most characteristic features of the work of art has always proved to be a stumbling block for aesthetic theory. If this be true, it was objected, art is no longer something really human, for it has lost all connection with human life. The defenders of the principle l’art pour l’art did not, however, fear this objection; on the contrary they openly defied it. They held it to be the highest merit and privilege of art that it burns all bridges linking it with commonplace reality. Art must remain a mystery inaccessible to the profanum vulgus. 26
Munro, in Scientific Method In Aesthetics (1928), criticizes the aura of mystery as follows:
Yet any proposal to apply the methods of natural science in aesthetics is apt to be met with scepticism and indifference. The reply is sure to be forthcoming that its problems are beyond the reach of scientific investigation: that value in art is largely a subjective affair, and hence not susceptible to objective generalization; that aesthetic feelings are too subtle and indescribable to be analyzed in scientific terminology, too diverse and unpredictable to be formulated in universal laws. If they are to be rationally grasped at all, it can be only through a philosophic imagination which is itself a kind of poetry. 27
To sum up: Those who wish to investigate the problems of art with the means and methods of science are handicapped not only by the real difficulties these problems present to an objective observer; but also by accepting as the premise for their studies an erroneous philosophical theocentric aesthetic which dictates that beauty should be the object of their interest, and which states also that beauty is “an unanalyzable ultimate”. They are inhibited, too, by those frequent variations of philosophical directive in the non-philosophical literature which parrot the dictum that the problems of artistic experience are sacred precincts which it is forbidden, and unnecessary, or impossible, to explore.
Individual Factors In The Scientific Attitude. We have seen how the individual experience of art endows with credibility the lagging cultural view of art as a sacred institution, and helps to sustain our belief that artistic experience consists in one’s reverberation with the echoes of Divinity. The same unwitting synergism of individual with cultural factors exists in regard to the features of “myster-
26 Rank, Otto, Art and Artist;
26. Cassirer, Ernst, An Essay on Man;
27. Munro, Thomas, Scientific Method In Aesthetics; New York, W. W. Norton and Co., 1928 (ix and 101 pp.); p. 14.
iousness” and inscrutability which are alleged of this experience as corollaries of us assumed relationship to the supernatural. The philosopher states that artistic experience is mysterious and inscrutable because beauty (the Beauty of God, and of God in Nature or in Art) is an Absolute Value, an unanalyzable ultimate. The individual creative artist or re-creative appreciator testifies that he cannot explain how his occasional deeper experiences of art happen, or why he cannot repeat this kind of experience at will, even of the same work of art. However, the reason for his mystification derives from the unconscious nature of his experience, rather than from its inscrutability as an echo of God.
Besides the tendency of culture to discourage inquiry into the problems of artistic experience, there are certain individual factors which contribute to the aloofness of the scientist towards art and aesthetics, and diminish his interest in investigating these problems.
It could be said of the scientist, as of the philosopher, that he is often not very sensitive to works of art, and is generally incapable of experiencing them contemplatively. Many scientists rationalize their disinterest in art by evaluating it contemptuously as a frivolous waste of time. A few even feel called upon to apologize for some interest in art, after the manner of the funeral oration of Pericles which, according to Thucydides’ History, apologized for the unspartan-like Athenian interest in art and other cultural subjects with the words: “We are lovers of beauty, but of beauty only in her frugal forms, and we cultivate the mind without the loss of manliness”.
Another factor which lessens the scientist’s interest in this field is his inclination to regard art criticism and aesthetics as a disordered conglomeration of spurious knowledge which, like alchemy and astrology, belongs to the lunatic fringes of the mind. The chief complaints of those scientists who are sympathetic to this field are complaints against the obscure and metaphysical character of the general literature of aesthetics, and against the emotive character of descriptions of artistic experience rendered by the creative artist and the sensitive appreciator. It is natural for the scientist to be suspicious of any kind of experience which claims to intuit something beyond sensory apprehension and measurement, and which beggars description with ordinary language. A worthy object of scientific research in this field would be to elucidate the psychological basis for the extravagant and otherworldly character of these descriptions. We could draw reasonable conclusions about their objectionable subjective features only if we possessed a scientific account of artistic experience; then we could understand and evaluate them. Neither the philosopher nor the philosophical aesthetician quarrels with subjective features in descriptions of artistic experience since these individual testimonies generally lend support to philosophical aesthetic. The art critic is unable to criticize these descriptions because he, too, describes his artistic experience in prose freighted with the same faults. Only the scientist complains.
Science does not admit mysteries, and it condemns the primitive tendency to explain the unknown by the supernatural and the magical. Many of its attempts to diminish the realm of the unknown have succeeded in extending natural knowledge against the claims of the supernatural. Should the scientist who
might become interested in the problems of art recoil from investigating them, when he recalls the experience of William James whom science-proud contemporaries treated with contempt for his courageous and scientific approach to a problem similarly regarded, - that of religious mysticism? Or should he draw instruction from James’s observation that “there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think”?28
It would be good scientific temper for us to accept tentatively as facts: that many honest citizens (some of them being religious agnostics, skeptics, and atheists) are capable of the deepest contemplative experiences of a work of art which is devoid of religious reference; and that they describe these experiences in a manner which most resembles that in which the religious mystic construes his experience of God. We ought to be able to accept as data worthy of scientific curiosity the descriptions by artistically sensitive persons of their contemplative experiences. As scientists, we should guard against depreciating and dismissing these data on account of their baffling nature, their reported religious qualities, their claims to noesis, or one’s inability to verify them from personal experience. It would be in better scientific temper to accept these descriptions as worthy of investigation, deserving our serious interest since they concern an important area of human activity, and one capable of explanation on naturalistic grounds. We should remember in this connection that numerous authentic experiences with the same qualities of noesis and ineffability have led not to the creation of a work of art, but to other fruits of the creative imagination such as scientific discovery, and inventions. 29
The Dictionary Of Philosophy (1941)30 reports that among philosophers it is a “disputed issue” as to whether aesthetics can become a science. It is true, rather, that aesthetics cannot become a science as long as it is guided by a philosophical directive which is erroneous; and that aesthetics cannot become a science until it is guided by a humanistically oriented directive. Philosophy, whose authority in this field is sponsored by the most conservative forces in culture, - the church, the university, and the academy, - will fail to give us a satisfactory theoretical basis for an empirical science of aesthetics until it succeeds in differentiating soul and mind.
It is a primitive tendency to explain the unknown by the supernatural. Not long ago, men believed that during artistic inspiration as well as in religious enthusiasm, their souls were possessed by the gods they invoked. As we have seen, more of supernaturalism still adheres to our concept of art than we like to
28. Reference footnote 13; p. 410.
29. Concerning the “sense of beauty” as a factor in scientific discovery and invention, and the fact that some scientists attest that discovery is an aesthetic experience, see the very interesting discussion of Hadamard, Jacques, in The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field; Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1945 (xiii and 136 pp.).
30. See article on aesthetics by Munro, T. in The
Dictionary of Philosophy,
notice. Our curiosity about the mental processes concerned in art creation and appreciation is as effectively discouraged by culture, - in the same ways and for the same reasons and rationalisations, - as our curiosity is discouraged about the mental processes concerned in religious enthusiasm. Just as the phenomenon of revelation is the least investigated topic of the philosophy of religion, so are the inspiration and creativeness of the artist the least investigated topics of an aesthetics and a psychology which continue to describe them as mysteries beyond our ken, and which behave as if this were true.
We say of the work of art that it is salutary and endowed with power to enrich human life; yet, despite our advanced scientific interest in man, and impressive progress in the mental sciences, one of the arresting inconsistencies in our culture is our ignorance about what moves the artist only occasionally to create a work of art or why it possesses remarkable powers over those who only sometimes find themselves moved to appreciate it contemplatively. It is notable, too, that we are unusually tolerant of pseudo-scientific explanations of artistic experience.
The theoretical literature of aesthetics consists largely of expansion of ancient confusions about the subject, a good deal of highbrow-beaten fantasy, and some sheer fudge. This literature consists largely of philosophical writings which are speculative and formalistic. It is not concerned primarily with man’s relationship to art but with a metaphysical concept of Beauty. With the advance of science, this traditional chaos among theories of aesthetics becomes more obvious, and is deplored by all who are more interested in art than in metaphysics. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, an increasing share of the contributions to the literature of aesthetics has claimed to he scientific; however, a careful examination of these reports reveals them to be pseudo-scientific. They propose to explore the nature of artistic experience according to the methods of science, but are concerned, instead, with applying the means of science only to the philosophical problem of beauty.
The attempts of historians of aesthetics to bring order into the general literature have resulted chiefly in collations of the theories of aesthetics in which the chief connections between theories consist in their chronological arrangement, and in their descriptions of the relationship existing between a theory of aesthetics and its parent - metaphysics or another theory of Beauty; or in explaining the appearance of a new theory of aesthetics as the reaction to social changes (in military fortunes, economic welfare, political life, or ecclesiastical attitude) or to modification in artistic taste. Sometimes they achieve a measure of order in subdividing the chaos into a number of lesser ones under broad classifications such as Play, Voluntaristic, Emotionalist, Hedonistic, Instrumentalist, Intellectualist, Theories of Intuition and Technique, Theories of Form, of Sympathy, of Cultural Influence, of Isolation and Equilibrium, and of Psychological Detachment. Some critiques deplore the chaotic state of the literature, but do not succeed in importing much order into it; rather, it is their usual pattern to demonstrate that the current theories do not explain our experiences of art, and then to increase the chaos with yet another theory. Altogether, one gains little enlightenment about the problems of artistic experience from one’s acquaintance with the literature about that metaphysical will-o-the-wisp, Beauty; one gains,
instead, an increasing sense of disappointment over the retardation of aesthetics in becoming a science.
Until the close of the nineteenth century, the accepted doctrines of aesthetics were philosophical and fundamentally theocentric. They confounded the relationship of man to art with a metaphysical concept of one of its elements, Beauty. It was natural for the authoritative doctrine about art to continue to be based upon academic metaphysical theories, and to derive undeserved confirmation from the testimonies of art-sensitive individuals, until a time came when philosophical theory could be tested empirically. This day arrived with the great scientific revolution in the last half of the nineteenth century. Natural science had just secured an established place in the universities, and philosophy was somewhat depreciated. Those who turned to science for the solution of the problems of aesthetics were, like the philosophers, men endowed with a capacity for abstract and logical thinking but lacking in artistic sensitivity. But they were more interested in science and in art than in metaphysics, and were thus able to share the reaction of that time against philosophy. They failed because the philosophical aesthetic by which they were guided concerned itself not as much with man’s relationships to a work of art as with the manifestation of Divine Perfection in the Beauty of art and nature. Thus, in the laboratory, the scientific problem of examining artistic experience was displaced by the philosophically given problem of beauty; and, accordingly, testing consisted merely of applying the means of science for exploring beauty in terms of sensory functions, of pleasure and pain, and of aesthetic preference.
The writings of Fechner (Introduction To Aesthetics, 1867)31, the father of experimental psychology and the pioneer in psychological aesthetics, are typical of a long series of scientific reports by those who proposed to conduct their inquiries concerning beauty “in the manner of the natural scientist”; that is, to begin with observed facts, to classify these, and then draw generalizations from them. But the scientific aesthetician, in drawing conclusions from data, wished also to inquire scientifically into the facts concerning abstract beauty in works of art. He found himself in a dilemma because, by applying the limited means of physical science to the misconceived problem of beauty measured as pleasure and sense, he had solved nothing. The aestheticians who condemned philosophy and turned to science found themselves still chained to philosophy by way of its aesthetic directive for their efforts. Although they could think about sense-physiology according to the rules of science, when they attempted to draw generalizations and conclusions from their data in order to explain the given problem of beauty, they were forced to revert to the speculative thinking and the universals of philosophy. 32
The scientifically minded aesthetician sometimes found another way out from his dilemma, in explaining one unknown by another unknown. Beauty, the unknown, was described in terms of something else than art, as by bringing
31. Fechner, Gustav, T., Vorschule der Aesthetik; Leipzig, Breit Kopf and Hartel,1897-98 (pp. 314).
32. Cf. Croce, Benedetto, Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic; London, Macmillan and Co., 1922 (xxx and 474 pp.); p. 388.
it within some larger context which is then presumed to describe also beauty. Thus, the evolutionary school explained not artistic experience but the derivation of natural beauty (which philosophical aesthetic directive confuses with artistic beauty) by placing it within the larger context of natural selection, where it was then assumed to be a judgment of taste common to man and animal (Darwin, The Descent Of Man, 1871); or by placing it within the larger context of play, considering art to be a kind of play, and then assuming that art-as-play consisted in the mere discharge of excess energy (Spencer, The Principles Of Psychology, 1870).
For another example, Allen, a physiologist who for many years was considered one of the leading authorities in scientific aesthetics, elaborated Spencer’s theory of art-as-play. Allen’s Physiological Aesthetics (1877)33 proposes “to elucidate physiologically the nature of our Aesthetic Feelings”, and construes this proposition into “why we receive pleasure from some forms and colors and not from others”:
The aesthetically beautiful is that which affords the maximum of Stimulation with the Minimum of Fatigue or waste in processes not directly connected with vital functions.
I feel convinced that every Aesthetic Feeling though it may incidentally contain intellectual and complex emotional factors, has necessarily for its ultimate and principal component, pleasures of sense, ideal and actual, either as tastes, smells, touches, forms, or colours.
This was good speculative physiology for the time, but all of Allen’s “feelings”, “convictions”, and physiological vocabulary did not “elucidate physiologically the nature of Aesthetic Feelings”. However, it is all we could reasonably expect from scientific aestheticians of that day who struggled with the handicaps of a misdirecting aesthetic doctrine and limited experimental means.
The scientific techniques of the end of the nineteenth century were capable of observing only the abstracted sensory elements of artistic experience to which the authoritative aesthetic directed them. Consequently, the experimental and genetic contributions towards scientific aesthetics eventuated only in sterile reports, which, like the philosophical theories, failed to explain our experiences of art. In order to resolve the difficulties natural to explanations of an organized and emotional whole from data concerning a few of its simple sensory and intellectual elements, they finally resorted to the speculative thinking they had condemned in philosophical aesthetics.
Since the time of Fechner, Helmholtz, Spencer,
33. Allen, Grant, Physiological Aesthetics; New York, D. Appleton and Co., 1877 (xi and283 pp.); pp. 39, 193.
an artistic product; or else to observe his physiological reactions to various elements of aesthetic experience. All of these efforts fail for the same reasons as did those of the pioneers in this field.
The creation and appreciation of art are contemplative and mental, not simply sensory, experiences. Scientific studies which do not go to the art-sensitive person to observe there the contemplative modes of artistic experience as wholes, and which, instead, concern themselves only with abstracted elements of the experience, have been conspicuously unproductive; besides, they leave Hamlet out of the play by failing to inform us about what goes on within the mind of the maker or appreciator when he achieves from a work of art the satisfaction which we exalt as “spiritual”.
The aim of an effective scientific approach would be to observe artistic experiences as whole experiences, and for their other mental features as well as the sensory and intellectual elements. Man, in the presence of a work of art, is not merely homo sapiens. The other mental features I refer to are the less rational elements of mental life, the “spiritual”, the emotional, and the intuitive ones. Were it not that it deals with clinical material, and that it is not an experimental technique, the psychoanalytic method of observing the unconscious as well as the conscious institutions of the mind would be ideal for accomplishing these aims.
Although Freud was a most courageous investigator, who contributed impressive new insights into our mental life and also into many institutions of our culture, he did not give us a comprehensive understanding of the mental processes which lead to the creation and the contemplative appreciation of art. He helped us to understand the artist as a citizen, but not as an artist. None the less, his basic contributions toward understanding the mental process of artistic sublimation are highly significant: (1) a new and definite description of human sexuality in terms of its component infantile sexual instincts, instead of the adult sexual instinct which others had described as being closely associated with art and religion; (2) his demonstration of the economic, dynamic, and topographical features of an unconscious mental life which is the fount of artistic experience; (3) his description of sublimation as an unconscious mental process which deals with non-repressed instinctual tendencies, - that is, in a manner which does not involve repression; and (4) his conception that sublimation can prevent mental illness. With these important fundamental contributions Freud has given us valuable insights which in themselves do not solve the problem of aesthetics, but which might be employed as worthy guides in more systematic approaches toward solving them than have been attempted.
I have described elsewhere34 the neglect with which psychoanalysts have treated a rich opportunity to inform the mental processes concerned in artistic experience with conclusions of a scientific order based upon observation of their artist patients, and of the transitory aesthetic phenomena which occur not infrequently in non-artist patients during psychoanalytical treatment. It is my thesis that the ineffectiveness of this scientific approach to the problems of
34. Lee, Harry B., “A Theory Concerning Free Creation in the Inventive Arts.” Psychiatry (1940) 3: 229-293.
artistic experience derives, like that of experimental aesthetics, from an unquestioning acceptance of culture’s erroneous philosophical directive. Our present interest is, then, to examine whether the conceptual and methodological faults revealed in the psychoanalytical literature concerning subjects aesthetic are of the same character as those we have already noted in philosophical aesthetics, and in experimental aesthetics.
In A Critique Of The Theory Of Sublimation (1939),35 I demonstrated that the evolutionary character of psychoanalytic theory as a science had failed to impress itself upon that share of the theory which deals with the unconscious mental processes of sublimation, and particularly with those of artistic sublimation. Freud’s attitude toward the problems of art expresses the influence upon him of the philosophical aesthetic which declares beauty to be the problem, and that beauty is a mysterious and unanalysable ultimate. This attitude is shared by those psychoanalysts who, like Freud, orient themselves to that will-o-the-wisp which philosophy has made of Beauty as a universal; or who devote themselves to speculation upon the subject-matter of the work of art rather than to the observation of those mental processes which endow the entire work of art with an unique and disinterested delight. Thus the psychoanalyst tries unsuccessfully to apply the theory of psychoanalysis to the subject-matter of a work of art, instead of applying the psychoanalytical method of observation to the mental processes concerned in creating and in apprehending the aesthetic content of a work. Both the psychoanalyst and the experimental aesthetician behave as if they had experienced, and not shaken off, the same indoctrination with a misconceived and lagging aesthetic to which all are inured by culture.
The fault of the philosopher, who is interested in aesthetics according to the degree to which it serves as a proving ground for theoretical principles about something else in which he is primarily interested (the universal, Beauty), is duplicated in psychoanalytical literature. Here the stated aim to investigate artistic experience soon deteriorates into a demonstration of something else, the ubiquity of the Oedipus complex in subject-matter. For this frequent fault in his approach to the problems of art, the psychoanalyst has been justly criticized by many scholars whose expectations have been disappointed in these contributions. 36 Dewey states, in Art and Experience (1934, p. 316):
A more extreme form of the reductive fallacy exists when works of art are “explained” or “interpreted” on the basis of factors that are incidentally inside them. Much of the so-called psychoanalytic “criticism” is of this nature. Factors that may, - or may not, - have played a part in the causative generation of a work of art are treated as if they “explained” the aesthetic content of a work of art itself. Yet the latter is just what it is whether a father or mother fixation, or a special regard for the susceptibilities of a wife,
35. Lee, Harry B., “A Critique of the Theory of Sublimation.” Psychiatry (1939) -270.
36. For excellent critiques of Freud’s conception of the
place of art in life and of his application of the psychoanalytical theory to
art, see: Fry, Roger, “The Artist and Psychoanalysis,” in The New Criticism,
edited by Burgum, E. B.
entered into its production. If the factors spoken of are real and not speculative, they are relevant to biography, but they are wholly impertinent as to the character of the work itself.
Munro writes, in Scientific Method In Aesthetics (1928):
Up to the present, the doctrines of Freud, Jung, Adler, and Stekel have been less far-reaching in the interpretation of art than they were expected to be. The search for Oedipus complexes, erotic symbolism and unconscious wishfulfillments has been more successful in literature than elsewhere, especially in interpreting primitive myths, fairy-tales and poetic imagery, and in analyzing the motivation of characters in fiction. In the visual arts and in music it has met with little success. A number of pretentious efforts to psychoanalyze the arts have been disappointingly far-fetched. When plausible in explaining details of subject-matter, or the character of an artist, they usually fall short of explaining those distinctive qualities of form that make the artist and his work aesthetically important. 37
The faults of the philosophical aesthetician, who accepts “beauty” as his problem, and then confuses problems of art with those of “beauty” by bracketing the beauty of art with that of nature, are duplicated in psychoanalytical literature. For example, Freud brackets “the beauty of human forms and movements, of natural objects, of landscapes, of artistic and even scientific inventions”… “We expect a cultured people to revere beauty where it is found in nature and to create it in their handiwork so far as they are able”. 38
The philosophical aesthetician’s statement that the problem of artistic beauty is a mystery which cannot be solved, is duplicated in psychoanalytical literature. Although Freud criticizes the view that problems of religion are inscrutable, he states that “The nature of artistic attainment is psychoanalytically inaccessible to us”; that psychoanalysis “can do nothing towards elucidating the nature of the artistic gift, nor can it explain the means by which the artist works”; “Whence comes the artist’s ability to create is not the question of psychology”; “Unfortunately, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms before the problem of the poet”; and that the artist “possesses the mysterious ability to mould his particular material”.
Summary. We have found that such radically different scientific approaches to the problems of artistic experience as those of experimental aesthetics and psychoanalysis are governed by the same basic faults in their conception of the nature of these problems as philosophical aesthetics; that both of these approaches, from accepting the same erroneous premises, are misled into applying their respective techniques, or else their theories, to discriminations which have little to do with the central problems of aesthetics. We must conclude that the scientist’s misconception of his problem, the ineffectiveness of his efforts, and the sterility of the scientific literature about aesthetics, result from our lifelong indoctrination by culture with the idea that art is an echo of divinity.
37. Reference footnote 27; p. 67.
38. Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and Its Discontents;