ESTHETIC CONCEPTS AND FACTS
4.1. Esthetic facts
What the preceding chapter tried to show was that there can be objective esthetic knowledge, and that therefore there are such things as esthetically known facts. In other words, esthetic knowledge is not some airy "truth" which is supposedly "true" at some etherial level beyond our earthly plane, but real, honest-to-God, down-to-earth factual knowledge, that can be right or wrong.
DEFINITION: An esthetic fact is a relationship among objects known because of a relationship among emotional overtones of their effect on us.
DEFINITION: A perceptive fact is a relationship among objects known because of a relationship among the direct conscious reactions to them. That is, by a relationship among the perceptive experiences of them.
In the cases where we have achieved one or another level of esthetic objectivity, as discussed in the preceding chapter, esthetic facts are as much facts as perceptive facts; that is, the relationship as understood in consciousness implies an actual relationship of some sort in the objects that caused the consciousness; and this is true with both types of facts.
Notice--and this must be stressed again and again--that nothing more is known about a perceptive fact than about an esthetic fact; a perceptive fact is not "more factual," certainly. Further, it is not that we know "what's really out there" when we know perceptively and know "indirectly through what's in here" when we know esthetically; in both cases, our knowledge is described by the second formula and not the first.
4.1.1. Their uniqueness
But now is the time to make explicit something hinted at in the preceding chapter and then left hanging: An esthetic fact cannot be "replaced" by either a perceptive fact or a set of perceptive facts. An esthetic fact cannot be known perceptively.
Why is that? Because the emotions respond, not to some particular form of energy or type of forms or energy (as the eyes respond to electromagnetic energy), nor do they respond to a set of forms of energy. Since the emotions are the conscious aspect of our program dealing with how to behave facing the environment, they respond to things: patterned wholes of energies as integrated into various units; and thus, it is how these perceived acts go together into an integrated whole that my instinct responds to, based on its monitoring of my bodily state.
Thus, my positive feeling toward Frank and my negative feeling toward John might be largely due to what they are saying; but it is what each is saying as integrated with everything else I am perceiving about him that causes the feeling. And it isn't simply the sum of all that I perceive about Frank that causes me to feel friendly; it is how that set goes together into a unified whole that does the job.
So my perceptions will give me a lot of facts about Frank: that he has a soft voice, that he is saying things I agree with, that he is smiling, that his hair is brown, that he is looking me straight in the eye, and so on and so on. But nowhere in these facts, even were I to list all of them, would I find the explanation of the friendly feeling--because it is these facts all together as together.
So if I happen to like Frank in the same way that I like Henry, then this implies that Frank is the same as Henry. But Henry is blonde, he never looks you straight in the face, and so on. Some of the perceived properties Henry has may be the same as those of Frank, and some may be different. But my emotions (supposing I have bypassed the subjective side) tell me that Frank and Henry are really the same, and really different from John.
What I am saying is that this similarity of Frank and Henry is a real similarity; but that it this relationship does not reduce to a similarity in certain perceived properties--any more than the smiling meadow is smiling because there is any sense in which it appears like a smiling face. But that does not mean that it isn't really smiling.
184.108.40.206. "Translating" art
This explains why critics of poetry and art are apt to be adamant about the fact that you can't reduce the meaning of a poem to a prose (i.e. perceptive) statement. The poem means what it says, and no "translation" into perceptive terms does anything but distort it and miss the point.
Take Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet, for example:That time of year thou may'st in me behold
Clearly, the poem is "about" old age, and the fact that a younger person loves Shakespeare when he is old. The first stanza is the relationship between age and winter, the second about the relation between age and nightfall, and the third about the relation between age and a dying fire; and then there is the ending that, because I am about to die and leave, you love me more.
Having said that, it seems that I have said what the poem means. But the point is that that isn't it at all. What is the relation between age and winter? The particular one Shakespeare is talking about is the one you get from feeling how you feel when you see the one or two yellow leaves, the branches shaking in the cold wind, how you feel when looking at the ruins of a church, thinking of birds' song as its choir, gone--and so on. If you just say "yellow" leaves means "autumn" leaves, and you don't feel what he wants you to feel, you have misunderstood the poem.
You also have to read it aloud, with feeling, and hear the sound of the words; because Shakespeare was a dramatist and expected that the sound would enhance the emotional tone. Change "yellow" leaves to "withered" and see what that does to the sound of the line. Change it to "golden" and see how it contradicts the meaning of the line; change it to "autumn" and see how it makes it flat; change it to "flaming" and see how it makes the line too strong, both in sense and in sound. No word must fight the feeling of despair and irony at the apparent signs of life.
There's nothing wrong with saying what a poem is "about" in perceptive terms, any more than there is anything wrong with saying that this book is "about" the esthetic experience as a way of knowing facts about the world. That's what it's about, but that isn't what it says. People mistake the prose statement of what the poem is about for its meaning; and its meaning is something totally different. The poem states a fact, really, about love in old age; but it is a fact that only the poem can reveal.
4.1.2. The esthetic and the ethical
Esthetic facts must therefore be distinguished from perceptive ones. But there is a further distinction that must be made: esthetic knowledge is not like ethical knowledge, which also in practice is intellectual, but has something to do with emotions.
This brief discussion must not be taken to imply an exploration of the whole realm of the ethical; it simply deals with the area where ethical knowledge and esthetic knowledge can be confused, and tries to show how they are different.
When we are confronted with a stimulus, then, and feel an emotion connected with it, this emotion, as I said, is the conscious aspect of our brain's programmed call to action based on its monitoring of our bodily state and its matching of stimulus and response.
Now if we consider the action called for by the emotion in relation to our goals in life and our present reality (i.e. whether the act is objectively consistent either with what I want to be or what I now am), then we are having an ethical experience.
DEFINITION: An ethical fact is a relationship between an action and the agent performing the action: specifically, whether the act is or is not consistent with the agent.
220.127.116.11. Esthetic distance
Ethical facts are facts, then; and ethical knowledge is intellectual (since it deals with relationships); but ethical facts are not esthetic facts.
The difference is that esthetic knowledge ignores the action called for by the emotion, and ethical knowledge precisely concentrates upon that action. Esthetic facts concern themselves only with the emotion as caused by the stimulus, and have nothing to do with the emotion as a call to action.
Thus, my hostile emotion toward John might make me want to punch him. If I pay attention to this, however, I get outside the esthetic realm into the ethical, where I have to consider whether this is a good or bad thing to do. In order to use the emotion for an esthetic experience, I have to ignore this aspect of it, and just consider it in relation to emotional overtones of other perceptions--in which case, I might discover that John is like a snake.
The ethical realm, therefore, gets in the way of the esthetic, which is purely theoretical (in the sense of discovering facts, not deciding what to do).
In order to have an esthetic experience, a person has to have enough control over his emotions that he can have the emotion without acting on it at all. If you are to use your emotions as pure "receiving instruments" for information, then you can't use them to act by, or you will be distracted from what they tell you about the object.
Notice that you can't suppress or repress the emotion itself; because you have to have it in order to learn about the object from it--and the more strongly you feel it, the better. But you have to block its call to action. This is a very tricky business.
DEFINITION: Esthetic distance is the characteristic of the esthetic experience in which the emotion is felt, but its call to action is ignored.
If esthetic distance is not kept, several things destroying the esthetic experience are apt to happen. The first and most obvious thing is that you get distracted by the call to action, and can't pay attention to the relationship between this emotion and emotional overtones of other perceptions--and so no esthetic experience is possible.
For instance, I was once in a performance of Beethoven's Wellington's Victory music, and in the middle the gunshots were not imitated, but were produced by someone firing blank cartridges offstage. The noise was so loud, realistic, and unexpected, that everyone was frightened; there were murmurs in the audience, indicating that the musical experience was ruined. You can't listen to the musical relationships when your emotions are telling you, "We're being attacked! Get out!"
This same characteristic is one of the things that makes pornography bad art. Pornography is not simply the depiction of sexual activity, nor is it just the vivid depiction of it. It is the depiction of it in such a way that a normal person would become sexually aroused by it; and since the sexual instinct is the second or third strongest we have (after hunger and fear/survival), its call to action will distract the viewer or reader from the esthetic meaning of the work, and lead him into fantasies of his own. In that sense, pornography is like rhetoric: it is a call to action using the esthetic experience, rather than a discovery of facts by the emotional overtones of experiences.
Secondly, there is a more subtle need for esthetic distance on the part of an artist. When Wordsworth defined poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquillity," he was referring to this sense. If a person is too deeply involved in an emotion, it tends to spill over in his consciousness, and everything else he experiences or recalls while under its spell has the same emotional overtone--and so would be esthetically the same. Thus, when you are in love, everything wears a smile--but, as the song says, "smoke gets in your eyes," and you can't see what's there, esthetically.
A person writing poetry in this state will then make comparisons that are not objectively valid, because the secondary objects do not in fact produce the emotion he feels when considering them.
Therefore, the artist (who wants to say something esthetically meaningful) must be able to feel the emotions, but he must have enough distance from being involved with them that he can tell when the object is producing the emotion and when the emotion he feels is just a spillover from his present state. That is the "tranquillity" he needs.
4.2. Esthetic concepts
Now, as I said in discussing understanding, the relationship itself and the property as understood is called the "concept." I mentioned that concepts are abstract and universal; and on the face of it, it would seem that esthetics doesn't deal with them, since art and beauty are concerned only with the individual and concrete.But this is a mistake, partly due to Immanuel Kant's theory of esthetics, but also partly due to a natural misinterpretation of what is going on.
We must remember, first of all, that esthetics deals with anything understood through emotional overtones, and not simply with what is called "great art"; great art is to the ordinary esthetic experience as a treatise on philosophy is to the ordinary ideas about what life is.
Hence, some pretty mundane ideas are in fact acts of esthetic understanding. Words like "attractive," "repulsive," "pleasant," "ugly," "scary," "good tasting," "calm," "nervous," and so on are words whose meaning can be understood only if you know what the emotion involved is; and so they express an ordinary, trite esthetic experience--one so common that we want to refer to it often enough that we have a word to express it.
"Great art" expresses an act of esthetic understanding that is very complex and brand-new (at least in some respect); and so there isn't a word already in the language that can give the meaning intended.
4.2.1. Their abstractness
But as the words above indicate, there seem to be esthetic concepts, and they seem just as abstract as perceptive ones. And in fact, this is always the case. Esthetic understanding comes by way of an abstract concept.
For instance, the smiling meadow reveals only one aspect or property of the meadow: the respect in which it is emotionally like a smiling face. The meadow is also green, warm, open (perceptive concepts) and inviting, lazy, tranquil, and so on (esthetic concepts)--and these latter are not the same as smiling. No, the smilingness tells you something about the whole meadow as a whole, but it only tells you one something about it, and it leaves out all sorts of other facts that are also true of the meadow.
So the concept of "smilingness" is an abstract one. And of course, that concept (which doesn't really have a word to express it) will apply to anything else that "smiles" at us--or gives us the same kind of feeling. So the concept is not only abstract, it is universal.
Yes, but what about great art? Isn't that concrete? Take Michelangelo's David. That huge statue is certainly a concrete object. But what it says is something esthetic about David as about to conquer Goliath (you can feel how he feels by looking at his face, and by looking at his body, you know he's going to win); about Florence, whose patron is David, about not underestimating the potential of your material (it was carved from a flawed block of marble that was thought to be junk), about the relation between ancient art and modern art (since the statue is of a muscular peasant, not the ideal of Greek beauty), and so on and so on. But it doesn't tell you all about David, or about Florence, or about carving statues, or about the ideal of masculine beauty; there are all kinds of facts about these things that can't be learned from the statue. It tells a great deal; it is a whole esthetic treatise on David, Florence, and art itself; but it says basically one very complex fact about these subjects as interrelated in it--just as this book says only one complex fact about beauty, art, and the esthetic experience in relation to experience in general.
So what is expressed by the David is in fact abstract--and would apply to anything else that had the same relationship. Of course, like this book, the relationship is so complex that application beyond the specific things related is unlikely.
4.2.2. Why art is concrete
Then why are works of art always concrete and individual? The answer is that, first of all, they aren't all that way. Certain forms of poetry, for instance (like many of the Psalms), have very little imagery and rely very heavily on abstract words; but they "work" as poems. The Greek plays used a great deal of abstract words, yet they are very powerful as plays.
But that can't be the real answer, since these are the rare exceptions. And the answer, really, is simple. An emotion is an overtone of a perception.
Generally speaking, when we are in the "dry" mode of communication such as you are now finding in this book, the emotions involved are at a pretty low level--and the one most prevalent is apt to be boredom.
But if a person is to understand something esthetically, he has to feel the proper emotional overtone, or the comparison made based on emotional overtones is esthetically meaningless. Generally speaking, the way to arouse an emotion is to call to mind a perception that is calculated to have the emotion as an overtone.
But that, of course, means that you have to use imagery and concrete objects. If the David is described to you, for instance, it is hard to get the emotional impact you feel when you see that enormous, gleaming, polished statue towering over you, frowning off into the distance (I have tried to awaken a feeble copy of the experience with these words--and you can judge how well I succeeded). But to discover what Michelangelo was trying to say, you have to feel the whole complex set of emotions that he intended you to feel--and you can't really do that without looking at the statue itself.
Notice, by the way, that, particularly for a person who has seen the statue, the little foot-high "copies" can serve to recall the esthetic idea, much as notes or a summary can serve to recall a book you have read. They aren't the same thing by a long shot, but they have their uses. But this, of course, serves to confirm that the concept itself is abstract.
So the need for concretion in works of art is not because the concept expressed is somehow "concrete," but because the concept comes through emotions, and emotions are awakened by concrete perceptions.
4.2.3. The unity of the object
Another aspect of art that critics stress is also explained in terms of the esthetic concept: that a work of art is supposed to have "unity."
The reason for this is obvious, once you know what an esthetic experience is. Since it is an intellectual experience, it is the understanding of a relationship, and of course a relationship is a connection among whatever is related. But "unification" is another way of talking about "interconnection."
Hence, if there are parts of the object that don't connect esthetically with other parts, the mind tries to find what the connection is, and finding none is confused. The assumption is, particularly with a work of art, that there is an esthetic connection of all the parts (or why have the part there?); and so if a part is there that is esthetically unconnected (however much it might be perceptively connected), the mind keeps trying to fit it in, and the result is not an esthetic experience, but the simple emotion of annoyance.
Thus, a bad novelist who is interested in the nuclear freeze movement might have one of his characters in a conversation give a kind of sermon on nuclear war; but unless this advances the esthetic thrust of the novel, then it is not only boring to the reader, but confusing and annoying; because he is trying to see its esthetic meaning in relation to the rest of the novel, and he neither gets the perceptive idea the author was trying to convey nor the esthetic idea that the author intended in the rest of the novel.
This, of course, applies equally in the perceptive realm. If I were to insert here in this book a section on Biblical translation (which happens to be a hobby of mine), you would wonder what it had to do with esthetics, and would try to find some connection with what this book is talking about; and if you couldn't find it, you would either consider yourself dense (because you would assume that I saw a connection you couldn't see) or think of me as a fool, who couldn't decide what he was talking about.
4.3. Esthetic logic
It might seem that now is the time to discuss the esthetic version of truth, error, falseness, goodness, and badness; but this is really the realm of beauty and art, which we will get to in the next few chapters. There is, however, one more topic that is still pretty much within the realm of the experience itself, and which needs comparison with its perceptive counterpart: esthetic logic.
DEFINITION: Logic in general is the way in which one experience follows from another one.
The kind of thing that is studied under the name of "logic" is a special case of this. What it is is the logic of statements as expressions of acts of understanding, and of how certain statements "follow from" other ones in the sense of being forced by what preceded under pain of contradicting what was said before. Thus, when I say that any man is an animal and any animal is a living being, I cannot say that there is any man who is not a living being without contradicting myself.
This is what is called "formal logic." It is not, however, the only logic that exists. If, for instance, a man has for the past twenty years eaten an egg every day for breakfast, it is logical (i.e. reasonable) to expect him to do so today, in spite of the fact that he could without contradiction actually not eat one.
In fact, everything that involves multiple acts of understanding will have its own logic. The reason is simple. If we understand several facts in some general area of knowledge, then our understanding will want to understand how these facts go together. The facts themselves are relationships among objects; but if there are many of them, we can only understand the area as a whole when we see the relationships among the facts. Hence, we will fit the facts known into a sequence and pattern, so that we can see how they go together--and this, by the definition above, is a logic.
But since esthetic facts are known because of the emotional overtones of the perceptions, then the logic of these facts will in general be different from the logic of perceptive facts. That is, esthetically known facts will fit into different sorts of patterns from perceptively known ones; and the patterns for esthetic facts will be emotionally valid, as opposed to perceptively "reasonable."
The "rules of composition" in music and art are actually the laws of the esthetic logic of the art in question--each art having its own logic. They were discovered through the years by trial and error, and are the ways in which esthetically known facts can fit into patterns and sequences that "feel" right, as opposed to those that "look" right.
Students have a great deal of trouble with these rules, for two reasons. The first is that they want to substitute perceptive logic for esthetic logic, and can't understand why their teachers tell them that what they are doing is bad. For instance, they paint landscapes with the horizon halfway up the painting, and large objects carefully distributed at equal distances from the center line--and then they wonder why the teacher says that their paintings are unbalanced. The reason is that the kind of balance they put into the painting was a perceptive balance, which unfortunately is not the same as an emotional balance; one side will feel heavier than the other.
Students writing novels make their characters into "the kind of person" that they want, and their teachers tell them that they "don't breathe," or "aren't rounded," or are "abstract." Then they read Dickens, and find people like Mr. Micawber and Mrs. Gamp, and say, "But these are even more abstract than mine are!" What the teachers are saying (badly) is not that characters in novels have to be concrete (they are all abstract), but that they have to be esthetically logical, not perceptively so. Dickens's characters are extremely abstract and "one-dimensional," but they "work": they "fit," or "feel right"--except for his heroines, and to a lesser extent his heroes. There he failed, because he he was inventing a person who might be more complex than the Uriah Heeps and Peggotys, but was "what one would expect a good woman to be" in the sense of what comes out of manuals of ethics, not of one's emotional experience with people.
Dickens's characters are a beautiful example of the fact that art is abstract, not concrete; and at the same time are an object lesson (with the exception noted above) in what the difference is between esthetic logic and perceptive logic.
The second problem students have with the rules of the art is that "rules were made to be broken." Great art seems always to violate the rules that were thought to be inviolate; and students chafe under the rules, because you can't do great art that way.
The answer to this difficulty is that a new insight involves a reorganization of the data in a way that was not discovered before; and so it looks like a repudiation of the rules. But this is not just true in the esthetic realm. Newton's discoveries on gravitation made him invent the mathematics of "fluxions," which violated the known laws of mathematics and later came to be called calculus; Einstein's insights led him into describing things in terms of tensors and not vectors; Dirac needed a "delta" function that violated the rules of mathematics; Boole violated the cardinal rules of logic--and so on. Now all of these iconoclastic insights are part of what a student studies as "the system" of mathematics--with no notion of the fact that it was developed by way of denying what seemed to be eternal truth.
But that does not mean that you can get anywhere just by breaking the rules. Violate the known rules of formal logic, and you will talk gibberish; violate esthetic logic, and you will talk esthetic gibberish. When geniuses "violate" the known rules, it isn't because they don't know them, or don't want to follow them; it is because they have discovered a fact that shows them that the old logic is false in this situation. Violations of logic are forced on a person; they're not something that you undertake without extreme provocation.
The trouble is that students are apt to think that they are saying something new when they violate the old rules; but they have the cart before the horse, and wind up saying nothing. You have to have the new thing to say first; and if it absolutely can't be said clearly within the rules, you violate the rules--and while you are at it, create new ones (which add to, but don't repudiate, the old ones). What used to be logical doesn't become illogical, either in the perceptive or in the esthetic realm, simply by the discovery of a new way of arranging things.
But now it is finally time to talk about beauty.