The Co-operation Of Things And Shapes

DURING the Middle Ages and up to recent times the chief task of

painting has been, ostensibly, the telling and re-telling of the same

Scripture stories; and, incidentally, the telling them with the addition

of constantly new items of information about things: their volume,

position, structure, locomotion, light and shade and interactions of

texture and atmosphere; to which items must be added others of

psychological or
(pseudo)-historical kind, how it all came about, in

what surroundings and dresses, and accompanied by what feelings.

This task, official and unofficial, is in no way different from those

fulfilled by the man of science and the practical man, both of whom

are perpetually dealing with additional items of information. But

mark the difference in the artist's way of accomplishing this task: a

scientific fact is embodied in the progressive mass of knowledge,

assimilated, corrected; a practical fact is taken in consideration, built

upon; but the treatise, the newspaper or letter, once it has conveyed

these facts, is forgotten or discarded. The work of art on the contrary

is remembered and cherished; or at all events it is made with the

intention of being remembered and cherished. In other words and as

I shall never tire of repeating, the differentiating characteristic of art

is that it makes you think back to the shape once that shape has

conveyed its message or done its business of calling your attention

or exciting your emotions. And the first and foremost problem, for

instance of painting, is that of preventing the beholder's eye from

being carried, by lines of perspective, outside the frame and even

persistently out of the centre of the picture; the sculptor (and this is

the real reason of the sculptor Hildebrand's rules for plastic

composition) obeying a similar necessity of keeping the beholder's

eye upon the main masses of his statue, instead of diverting it, by

projections at different distances, like the sticking out arms and

hands of Roman figures. So much for the eye of the body: the

beholder's curiosity must similarly not be carried outside the work of

art by, for instance, an incomplete figure (legs without a body!) or

an unfinished gesture, this being, it seems to roe, the only real

reason against the representation of extremely rapid action and

transitory positions. But when the task of conveying information

implies that the beholder's thoughts be deliberately led from what is

represented to what is not, then this centrifugal action is dealt with

so as to produce a centripetal one back to the work of art: the painter

suggests questions of how and why which get their answers in

some item obliging you to take fresh stock of the picture. What Is

the meaning of the angels and evidently supernatural horseman in

the foreground of Raphael's Heliodorus? Your mind flies to the

praying High Priest in the central recess of the temple, and in going

backwards and forwards between him, the main group and the

scattered astonished bystanders, you are effectually enclosed within

the arches of that marvellous composition, and induced to explore

every detail of its lovely and noble constituent shapes.

The methods employed thus to keep the beholder's attention inside

the work of art while suggesting things beyond it, naturally vary

with the exact nature of the non-aesthetic task which has been set to

the artist; and with the artist's individual endowment and even more

with the traditional artistic formulae of his country and time:

Raphael's devices in Heliodorus could not have been compassed

by Giotto; and, on the other hand, would have been rejected as

"academic" by Manet. But whatever the methods employed, and

however obviously they reveal that satisfactory form-contemplation

is the one and invariable condition as distinguished from the

innumerable varying aims, of all works of art, the Reader will find

them discussed not as methods for securing attention to the shape,

but as methods of employing that shape for some non-aesthetic

purpose; whether that purpose be inducing you to drink out of a cup

by making its shape convenient or suggestive; or inducing you to

buy a particular commodity by branding its name and virtues on

your mind; or fixing your thoughts on the Madonna's sorrows; or

awaking your sympathy for Isolde's love tragedy. And yet it is

evident that the artist who shaped the cup or designed the poster

would be horribly disappointed if you thought only of drinking or of

shopping and never gave another look to the cup or the poster; and

that Perugino or Wagner would have died of despair if his

suggestion of the Madonna's sorrows or of Isolde's love-agonies had

been so efficacious as to prevent anybody from looking twice at the

fresco or listening to the end of the opera. This inversion of the

question is worth inquiring into, because, like the analogous paradox

about the pictorial "realisation" of cubic existence, it affords an

illustration of some of the psychological intricacies of the relation

between Art and the Beautiful. This is how I propose to explain it.

The task to which an artist is set varies from one work to another,

while the shapes employed for the purpose are, as already said,

limited by his powers and especially by the precise moment in

artistic evolution. The artist therefore thinks of his available shapes

as something given, as means, and the subject he is ordered to

represent (or the emotion he is commissioned to elicit) as the

all-important aim. Thus he thinks of himself (and makes the critic

think of him) not as preventing the represented subject or expressed

emotion from withdrawing the beholder from the artistic shapes, but,

on the contrary, as employing these artistic shapes for the sole

purpose of that representation or emotional expression. And this

most explicable inversion of the real state of affairs ends by making

the beholder believe that what he cares for in a masterpiece is not

the beauty of shape which only a masterpiece could have, but the

efficacy of bringing home a subject or expressing an emotion which

could be just as efficaciously represented or elicited by the vilest

daub or the wretchedest barrel organ! This inevitable, and I believe,

salutary illusion of the artist, is further in creased by the fact that

while the artist's ingenuity must be bent on avoiding irrelevance and

diminishing opportunities for ugliness, the actual beauty of the

shapes he is creating arises from the depths of his unreasoned,

traditional and organised consciousness, from activities which might

be called automatic if they were not accompanied by a critical

feeling that what is produced thus spontaneously and inevitably is

either turning out as it must and should, or, contrariwise, insists

upon turning out exactly as it should not. The particular system of

curves and angles, of directions and impacts of lines, the particular

"whole-and-part" scheme of, let us say, Michelangelo, is due to his

modes of aesthetic perceiving, feeling, living, added to those of all

the other artists whose peculiarities have been averaged in what we

call the school whence Michelangelo issued. He can no more depart

from these shapes than he can paint Rembrandt's Pilgrims of

Emmaus without Rembrandt's science of light and shade and

Rembrandt's oil-and-canvas technique. There is no alternative, hence

no choice, hence no feeling of a problem to resolve, in this question

of shapes to employ. But there are dozens of alternatives and of acts

of choice, there is a whole series of problems when Michelangelo

sets to employing these inevitable shapes to telling the Parting of the

Light from the Darkness, or the Creation of Adam on the Vault of

the Sixtine, and to surrounding the stories from Genesis with

Prophets and Sibyls and Ancestors of Christ. Is the ceiling to remain

a unity, or be broken up into irrelevant compositions? Here comes in,

alongside of his almost automatic genius for shapes, the man's

superhuman constructive ingenuity. See how he divides that ceiling

in such a way that the frames of the separate compositions combine

into a huge structure of painted rafters and brackets, nay the

Prophets and Sibyls, the Ancestors and Ancestresses themselves,

and the naked antique genii, turn into architectural members,

holding that imaginary roof together, securing its seeming stability,

increasing, by their gesture its upspring and its weightiness, and at

the same time determining the tracks along which the eye is forced

to travel. Backwards and forwards the eye is driven by that living

architecture, round and round in its search now for completion of

visible pattern, now for symbolic and narrative meaning. And ever

back to the tale of the Creation, so that the remote historic incidents

of the Ancestors, the tremendous and tremendously present lyric

excitement and despair of the prophetic men and women, the pagan

suggestion of the athletic genii, all unite like the simultaneous and

consecutive harmonies of a titanic symphony, round the recurrent

and dominant phrases of those central stories of how the universe

and man were made, so that the beholder has the emotion of hearing

not one part of the Old Testament, but the whole of it. But

meanwhile, and similarly interchanging and multiplying their

imaginative and emotional appeal, the thought of those most

memorable of all written stories unites with the perception and

empathy of those marvellous systems of living lines and curves and

angles, throbbing with their immortal impacts and speeds and

directions in a great coordinated movement that always begins and

never ends, until it seems to the beholder as if those painted shapes

were themselves the crowning work of some eighth day of Creation,

gathering up in reposeful visible synthesis the whole of Creation's

ineffable energy and harmony and splendour.

This example of Michelangelo's ceiling shows how, thanks to the

rythmical nature of perception, art fulfils the mission of making us

think from Shapes to Things and from Things back to Shapes. And it

allows us to see the workings of that psychological law, already

manifest in the elementary relations of line to line and dot to dot, by

which whatever can be thought and felt in continuous alternation

tends to be turned into a whole by such reiteration of common

activities. And this means that Art adds to its processes of selection

and exclusion a process of inclusion, safeguarding aesthetic

contemplation by drawing whatever is not wholly refractory into

that contemplation's orbit. This turning of non-aesthetic interests

from possible competitors and invaders into co-operating allies is an

incomparable multiplying factor of aesthetic satisfaction, enlarging

the sphere of aesthetic emotion and increasing that emotion's volume

and stability by inclusion of just those elements which would have

competed to diminish them. The typical instance of such a possible

competitor turned into an ally, is that of the cubic element, which I

have described (p. 85) as the first and most constant intruder from

the thought of Things into the contemplation of Shapes. For the

introduction into a picture of a suggested third dimension is what

prevents our thinking away from a merely two-dimensional aspect

by supplying subsidiary imaginary aspects susceptible of being

co-ordinated to it. So perspective and modelling in light and shade

satisfy our habit of locomotion by allowing us, as the phrase is, to

go into a picture; and going into, we remain there and establish

on its imaginary planes schemes of horizontals and verticals besides

those already existing on the real two-dimensional surface. This

addition of shapes due to perspective increases the already existing

dramas of empathy, instead of interrupting them by our looking

away from the picture, which we should infallibly do if our

exploring and so to speak cubic-locomotor tendencies were not

thus employed inside the picture's limits.

This alliance of aesthetic contemplation with our interest in cubic

existence and our constant thought of locomotion, does more

however than merely safeguard and multiply our chances of

empathic activity. It also increases the sensory discrimination, and

hence pleasureableness, of colour, inasmuch as colour becomes,

considered as light and shade and values, a suggestion of

three-dimensional Things instead of merely a constituent of

two-dimensional Shapes. Moreover, one easily tires of "following"

verticals and horizontals and their intermediate directions; while

empathic imagination, with its dynamic feelings and frequent

semi-mimetic accompaniments, requires sufficient intervals of repose;

and such repose, such alternation of different mental functions,

isprecisely afforded by thinking in terms of cubic existence.

Art-critics have often pointed out what may be called the thinness, the

lack of staying power, of pictures deficient in the cubic element;

they ought also to have drawn attention to the fatiguing, the almost

hallucinatory excitement, resulting from uninterrupted attention to

two-dimensional pattern and architectural outlines, which were,

indeed, intended to be incidentally looked at in the course of taking

stock of the cubic qualities of furniture and buildings.

And since the limits of this volume have restricted me to painting as

a type of aesthetic contemplation, I must ask the Reader to accept on

my authority and if possible verify for himself, the fact that what I

have been saying applies, mutatis mutandis, to the other arts. As

we have already noticed, something analogous to a third dimension

exists also in music; and even, as I have elsewhere shown,[*] in

literature. The harmonies accompanying a melody satisfy our

tendency to think of other notes and particularly of other allied

tonalities; while as to literature, the whole handling of words, indeed

the whole of logical thinking, is but a cubic working backwards and

forwards between what and how, a co-ordinating of items and

themes, keeping the mind enclosed in one scheme of ideas by

forestalling answers to the questions which would otherwise divert

the attention. And if the realisation of the third dimension has come

to be mistaken for the chief factor of aesthetic satisfaction, this error

is due not merely to the already noticed coincidence between cubic

imagination and artistic genius, but even more to the fact that cubic

imagination is the type of the various multiplying factors by which

the empathic, that is to say the essentially aesthetic, activity, can

increase its sphere of operations, its staying power and its intensity.