The Reading Selection from Space, Time, and Deity

[Beauty Involves Illusion]

Perhaps the simplest way to understand beauty is to contrast the beautiful object on the one hand with a percept and on the other with an illusion. As contrasted with the percept, the beautiful is illusory, but it differs from illusion in that it is not erroneous. Considered from the point of view of cognition, the beautiful object is illusory for it does not as an external reality contain the characters it possesses for the æsthetic sense. I perceive the tree in front of me to have a reverse side though I see only the front; but the tree really has a reverse side, and if I change my position the back of it is now seen and the front is supplied in idea. The marble is seen cold, to revert to the trite example, but the cold which is only present in idea really belongs to the marble, and I may in turn feel it cold and with eyes shut represent its whiteness in idea. The painted tree on the other hand looks solid but is not, and no change of my position helps me to see its other side. The Hermes is a marble block of a certain form and is perceived in its real qualities of solidity and hardness, but the block does not possess the repose and playfulness and dignity that I read into it æsthetically. The words of a poem are not merely descriptive of their object, but suffused with suggestions of feeling and significance which a mere scientific description would not possess. The more perfect the artistry the more definitely does the work of art present in suggestion features which as a cognized object it has not. Mr. Berenson compares the two Madonnas that stand side by side in the Academy at Florence—the one by Cimabue, the other by Giotto.[1] The Cimabue Madonna is flat and looks flat, though otherwise beautiful. The Giotto is flat but looks three-dimensional, and so far is the more perfectly beautiful.

What is true of works of art is true of natural objects, with the necessary qualifications. In general the natural object is, when its beauty is appreciated, perceived incorrectly, or if it actually has the characters which we add to it, that is for æsthetic appreciation an accident, and is the source of a different and additional pleasure. Like the artist in painting a landscape, we select from or add to nature in feeling its beauty. Literal fidelity is, or at least may be, fatal to beauty, for it is the means of securing not beauty but truth and satisfies our scientific rather than our æsthetic sense. If this is true for the mere onlooker, it is still more so for the painter or poet who renders the work of nature in an alien material which has its own prescriptions. Or we read our moods into the scene; or endow animate or even inanimate objects with our feelings; see daffodils for instance outdoing in glee the waves which dance beside them, or fancy a straight slender stem as springing from the ground, or liken with it as Odysseus did the youthful grace of a girl.

The cases of natural beauty which most obstinately resist this interpretation are the graceful movements of animals or the beauty of human faces, a large part of which arises from their expressiveness of life and character. You may see a face as majestic as that of the Zeus of Orticoli and the man may perchance possess that character; or the horse's arching of his neck may really proceed from the self-display we read into it in finding it beautiful. But in the first place we read the feeling or the character into these forms before we learn that the creatures in question possess them; and in the next place though a natural form may thus in reality happen to possess the supplement which we add from our minds, and may so far be unlike the work of art, yet the intellectual recognition that it does conform to the æsthetic appreciation is not itself æsthetic. This is best shown by the truth that the artistic representation may be more beautiful than the original, like the suggested movements of the Winged Victory or of the figures in Botticelli's Spring. But also the knowledge that the natural object possesses the imputed characters—which is æsthetically indifferent—may even mar the æsthetical effect, for when we learn that a man is really as fine a character as he looks, our appreciation is apt to turn to moral instead of æsthetic admiration. In place of æsthetic contemplation we may have sympathy or practical respect. We may then safely follow the guidance of the beauty of art and declare that in natural objects beauty, so far as it is appreciated æsthetically, involves illusion.

[Æsthetic Semblance]

But æsthetic semblance is not error, not illusion in the accepted sense, which is cognitive. To express the matter by way of paradox, the æsthetic semblance is vital to æsthetic truth, or it is an ingredient in a new reality which is æsthetic. Cognitive illusion is in fact the transitional stage between reality without value and reality with æsthetic value. Illusory appearance, we saw, is the appearance of reality in some of its parts to a mind which for one reason or another is perverse or twisted. It only becomes unreal in the sorting out, insofar as it is believed. As believed in, it is unreal, but it then becomes an element in a new reality which is error. The illusory thing in its illusory form, though founded in reality, has as such, in its illusory form, no reality at all, but only as possessed by the mind. But whereas the error is erroneous because it is excluded by the real thing about which it is concerned, the æsthetic semblance is not attributed to any real object outside the æsthetic experience itself. Watch for a short time a revolving drum, on the paper of which are drawn vertical lines. When the drum is stopped the paper seems to move in the opposite direction. That is an illusory appearance, and is illusion if it is taken to be reality. Contrast this with the æsthetic illusion of the figures in the picture of the Spring. It would be cognitive illusion if we thought the figures to be really moving. But they are really in motion in the æsthetic reality in which the pictured form and the æsthetically imputed motion are indissolubly one. Thus it is because a cognitive illusion is pinned down by the reality which it cognizes, and cognizes falsely, that it is unreal. Insofar as it is a reality, it has become an artificial product of the reality it cognizes and of mind, and was therefore described before as a work of art. When we pass into artistic imagination, whether its object is externalized in stone or words or remains a vision of things, we have a work of art in the proper sense. Illusion is half art, half truth. It fails of being either truth or art for the same reason; it is personal, while both truth and art are impersonal.

[Beauty in Nature and Art Is Impersonal]

Thus in the beautiful object, whether of art or nature, one part is contributed by the mind, and it is relatively a matter of indifference whether the mind in question is that of the person who creates the work of art or that of the mere spectator, who follows in the artist's traces. In the case of natural beauty, the spectator and the creator are one. The element contributed by the mind may vary from the mere addition of external properties, as in seeing the flat picture solid, for example, in the bare æsthetic effect of the drawing of a cube or a truncated pyramid, up to distinctively human characters of feeling or character, as in animating a statue with pride, or words or sounds with emotion as in a lyric or in music. Animation with life is intermediate between these extremes, for life though less than mental, and still for us something external which we contemplate, is yet on a higher level of external existence than solidity of form. It is only through what is thus added that the beautiful object has meaning or character or expressiveness.

I add that the expressiveness need not be something characteristic of man. The expressiveness of the work of art is to be itself, to be what it represents, to have the significance appropriate to it; for the painted animal or tree to seem alive and to grow or move according to its kind; for the drawn cube to look solid; for the pillar to seem (and to be) perfectly adjusted to support the weight it bears, and to bear it with case. An ugly portico with stunted Doric columns gives the impression that the weight which the columns bear is crushing them; the tall columns of the Parthenon suggest that the roof is a light burden; the suggestion in neither case being true in fact. We may naturally enough render these impressions by investing the columns with life—springing up from the ground, and the like—but they belong really to the mechanical order. Thus the imputation of life and character enter into the expressiveness of the beautiful object, only when that object means life or character. They are but one species of expressiveness. Further in every case, no matter how much of mind or character is read into the thing by the mind for which it is beautiful, the expressiveness remains that of the thing and not that of the creating or appreciating mind itself.[2] In choice and treatment of his subject the artist impresses himself indeed upon his work, which so far expresses or reveals him. But to feel Shakespeare in Hamlet is not to appreciate Hamlet æsthetically but to judge it critically. In the expressiveness which he adds to his material from his very personality the artist depersonalizes the work of art. Even in a beautiful lyric the passion ceases to be merely that of the artist. It is the paradox of beauty that its expressiveness belongs to the beautiful thing itself and yet would not be there except for the mind. Under the conditions of the material in which it is expressed, the beautiful owes some part of its meaning to the mind, and so far it owes to the mind not only its percipi as every perceived object does, but its esse. We have therefore all the greater need of caution in extending what is true of beauty to the objects of knowledge, whose esse is not percipi, but esse, independently of the mind which is compresent with them.

The beauty of the beautiful object lies in the congruence or coherence of its parts. According to the ancient doctrine it is the unity within that variety. Of these elements some are intrinsic to the beautiful thing, and some are imported from the mind and thereby belong to the thing; and it is a condition of the beauty that its external form must be such as to bear and compel that imputation. Disproportion or want of perspective, to take the simplest illustrations, may mar the beauty. Or the material may be inadequate to the effect, as when an architect builds in terra cotta what requires stone for stateliness. In virtue of the harmonious blending within the beautiful of the two sets of elements, some existing in reality and some supplied by the mind, the unity in variety is also expressive or significant. The beautiful satisfies both the ancient and the modern criterion; and a new reality is generated in which mind and the nonmental have become organic to each other, not in the sense that the beautiful necessarily contains mind, though it may do so, for example, in a picture of a man, but that its expressiveness is due to the blending of elements supplied from two sources, and the external beautiful thing is beautiful only through this fitness of the externally real elements to their expressiveness. Like truth and goodness, beauty exists only as possessed by mind, but whereas in them mind and the external still sit loosely to each other, and in the one case the mind contemplates an external reality which owes to the mind its truth but not its reality, and in the other case the mind alters reality practically but the practical results do not owe their character to mind but only their goodness; in beauty external reality and mind penetrate each other, and the external thing receives its character of coherence from its connection with mind.

Thus when Kant declared that beauty was so judged because it set the understanding at work in harmony with the imagination, he spoke truly, but according to his fashion in subjective terms, and so far inadequately. Truly, because, whereas in perception of an external object the imaginative elements are but a part of the real object which is cognized, in beauty the supplementing imagination is independent of what is perceived and yet is blended with what is perceived into a new æsthetic whole. Inadequately, because the beauty or coherence between the elements supplied in sense and in imagination belongs to the æsthetic object, and the interplay of cognition and imagination describes only the condition of the mental process involved in the æsthetic appreciation and not the beauty of the æsthetic thing itself. Such an account considers beauty as a purely subjective character, whereas beauty belongs to the complex of mind and its object, or as I have so often expressed it, to the beautiful object as possessed by the mind. Since the beautiful object owes one part of its constituents to the actual participation of the mind, beauty is in this sense a tertiary "quality" of the beautiful object, thus conceived.

But the analysis of beauty implies something further. The coherence of real external elements with other elements supplied from mind, while constituting beauty, distinguishes beauty from ugliness, and therewith distinguishes the mind which appreciates beauty from that which fails to do so or which sees beauty in ugliness, and unites together the minds which appreciate the beautiful as beautiful. Coherence in the internal constitution of beauty is also coherence among the minds which appreciate it, and exclusion of other minds. The mind for which an object is beautiful is not any mind but one which apprehends or appreciates impersonally or disinterestedly. Beauty in this way involves reference to other minds, and the reason of this or rather the explanation of its possibility is no easy matter. Beauty is not merely something which gives pleasure but which pleases in a certain way, and in a way which can be shared by other minds.



Bernard Berenson. Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. New York and London, third edition. 13.


I am aware that in the above paragraph I am raising (and evading) several difficult questions. How far may human meaning be read into the æsthetic object consistently with beauty? Beyond a certain point the practice of personification may become sentimental. There is, in addition, the question of legitimacy of different effects in different arts. A painter could not paint the flowers dancing with glee as the poem on the daffodils does. It would be interesting to inquire whether Wordsworth always preserves the legitimate limitations of art. These questions illustrate the difficulties raised by Lipps's doctrine of Einfühlung or empathy (see his Æsthetik, from which as well as from his earlier and well-known Raumæsthetik I have learned much). Perhaps in the paragraph I am describing rather an ideal, in urging that the expressiveness of the object belongs to the object itself, and I should rather say that the object is beautiful in proportion as it conforms to this standard. And I quite admit that what is said of beauty in this subchapter applies more easily to the arts of sculpture and painting than to the other arts. Of music I have hardly dared to speak at all, for I do not know whether sounds and their arrangement suggest emotion as sculptured shapes suggest life and character, which I suspect to be the truth; or whether they mean emotion as words mean the things they name.