Parker: Aesthetic Experience The Principles of Aesthetics

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The Principles of Aesthetics

Dewitt H. Parker (1920)


and Questions

In our discussion of first principles, we set down a high degree of unity as one of the distinguishing characteristics of works of art. In this we followed close upon ancient tradition; for the markedly structural character of beauty was noticed by the earliest observers. Plato, the first philosopher of art, identified beauty with simplicity, harmony, and proportion, and Aristotle held the same view. They were so impressed with aesthetic unity that they compared it with the other most highly unified type of thing they knew, the organism; and ever afterwards it has been called "organic unity." With the backing of such authority, unity in variety was long thought to be the same as beauty; and, although this view is obviously one-sided, no one has since succeeded in persuading men that an object can be beautiful without unity. [Footnote from Chapter IV: Throughout this discussion, I use "experience of art," "aesthetic experience," and "beauty" with the same meaning.]

Does this argument prejudice us against innovation?

Since art is expression, its unity is, unavoidably, an image of the unity of the things in nature and mind which it expresses. A lyric poem reflects the unity of mood that binds together the thoughts and images of the poet; the drama and novel, the unity of plan and purpose in the acts of men and the fateful sequence of causes and effects in their lives. The statue reflects the organic unity of the body; the painting, the spatial unity of visible things. In beautiful artifacts, the basal unity is the purpose or end embodied in the material structure.
But the unity of works of art is not wholly derivative; for it occurs in the free arts like music, where nothing is imitated, and even in the representative arts, as we have observed, it is closer than in the things which are imaged. Aesthetic unity is therefore unique and, if we would understand it, we must seek its reason in the peculiar nature and purpose of art. Since, moreover, art is a complex fact, the explanation of its unity is not simple; the unity itself is very intricate and depends upon many cooperating factors. . . .


Exceptions are allowed, leading to Parker’s central issue

Moreover, since the aim of art is to afford pleasure in the intuition of life, the artist will try to reveal the hidden unities that so delight the mind to discover. He will aim to penetrate beneath the surface of experience observed by common perception, to its more obscure logic underneath. In this way he will go beyond what the mere mechanism of imitation requires. The poet, for example, manifests latent emotional harmonies among the most widely sundered things. The subtle novelist shows how single elements of character, apparently isolated acts or trivial incidents, are fateful of consequences. He discloses the minute reactions of one personality upon another. Or he enters into the soul of man himself, into his private and individual selfhood, and uncovers the hidden connections between thought and feeling and impulse. Finally, he may take the wider sweep of society and tradition into view and track out their part in the molding of man and his fate. In the search for unity, the artist is on common ground with the man of science; but with this difference: the artist is concerned with laws operating in concrete, individual things in which he is interested; while the scientist formulates them in the abstract. For the artist, unity is valuable as characterizing a significant individual; for the scientist, it is valuable in itself, and the individual only as an example of it.

Science and art contrasted

This same purpose of affording pleasure in sympathetic vision leads the artist not only to present the unity of life, but so to organize its material that it will be clear to the mind which perceives it. Too great a multitude of elements, elements that are not assorted into groups and tied by relations or principles, cannot be grasped. Hence the artist infuses into the world which he creates a new and wholly subjective simplicity and unity, to which there is no parallel in nature. The composition of elements in a picture does not correspond to any actual arrangement of elements in a landscape, but to the demands of visual perspicuity. The division of a novel into chapters, of the chapters into paragraphs, of the paragraphs into sentences, although it may answer in some measure to the objective divisions of the life-story related, corresponds much more closely to the subjective need for ready apprehension. The artist meets this need halfway in the organization of the material which he presents. Full beauty depends upon an adaptation of the object to the senses, attention, and synthetic functions of the mind. The long, rambling novel of the eighteenth century is a more faithful image of the fullness and diversity of life, but it answers ill to the limited sweep of the mind, its proneness to fatigue, and its craving for wholeness of view.

The goal of clarity

Clarity leads to departures from nature


But even all the reasons so far invoked--the necessity for significance, the interest in unity, the demand for perspicuity--do not, I think, suffice to explain the structure of works of art. For structure has, oftentimes, a direct emotional appeal, which has not yet been taken into account, and which is a leading motive for its presence. Consider, for example, symmetry. A symmetrical disposition of parts is indeed favorable to perspicuity; for it is easier to find on either side what we have already found on the other, the sight of one side preparing us for the sight of the other; and such an arrangement is flattering to our craving for unity, for we rejoice seeing the same pattern expressed in the two parts; yet the experience of symmetry is richer still: it includes an agreeable feeling of balance, steadfastness, stability. This is most evident in the case of visual objects, like a Greek vase, where there is a plain division between right and left similar halves; but it is also felt in music when there is a balance of themes in the earlier and later parts of a composition, and in literature in the well-balanced sentence, paragraph, or poem. . . .

Emotional appeal of structure

Keeping in mind the motives which explain the structure of works of art, I wish now to distinguish and describe the chief types. There are, I think, three of these, of which each one may include important special forms--unity in variety, dominance, and equilibrium.

THREE main kinds of form

Unity in variety was the earliest of the types to be observed and is the most fundamental. It is the organic unity so often referred to in criticism. It involves, in the first place, wholeness or individuality. Every work of art is a definite single thing, distinct and separate from other things, and not divisible into parts which are themselves complete works of art. No part can be taken away without damage to the whole, and when taken out of the whole, the part loses much of its own value. The whole needs all of its parts and they need it; "there they live and move and have their being." The unity is a unity of the variety and the variety is a differentiation of the unity.[Footnote: Cf. Lipps: Aesthetik, Bd. I, Drittes Kapitel.] The variety is of equal importance with the unity, for unity can assert itself and work only through the control of a multiplicity of elements. . . .

Unity in variety

Is this language meant to be descriptive, or prescriptive?

The unity in some forms of art is tighter than in others; in a play closer than in a novel; in a sonnet more compact than in an epic. In extreme examples, like The Thousand and One Nights, the Decameron, the Canterbury Tales, the unity is almost wholly nominal, and the work is really a collection, not a whole. With all admissions, it remains true, however, that offenses against the principle of unity in variety diminish the aesthetic value of a work. These offenses are of two kinds—the inclusion of the genuinely irrelevant, and multiple unity, like double composition in a picture, or ambiguity of style in a building. There may be two or more parallel lines of action in a play or a novel, two or more themes in music, but they must be interwoven and interdependent. Otherwise there occurs the phenomenon aptly called by Lipps "aesthetic rivalry"--each part claims to be the whole and to exclude its neighbor; yet being unable to do this, suffers injury through divided attention.

These three books are collections of stories

For example?

Unity in variety may exist in any one or more of three modes—the harmony or union of cooperating elements; the balance of contrasting or conflicting elements; the development or evolution of a process towards an end or climax. The first two are predominantly static or spatial; the last, dynamic and temporal. I know of no better way of indicating the characteristic quality of each than by citing examples.

Three species of unity in variety

Aesthetic harmony exists whenever some identical quality or form or purpose is embodied in various elements of a whole--sameness in difference. The repetition of the same space-form in architecture, like the round arch and window in the Roman style; the recurrence of the same motive in music; the use of a single hue to color the different objects in a painting, as in a nocturne of Whistler: these are simple illustrations of harmony. . . . Harmonious also are characters in a story or play which are united by feelings of love, friendship, or loyalty. Thus there is harmony between Hamlet and Horatio, or between the Cid and his followers.

First: Aesthetic Harmony

Aesthetic balance is the unity between elements which, while they oppose or conflict with one another, nevertheless need or supplement each other. Hostile things, enemies at war, business men that compete, persons that hate each other, have as great a need of their opponents, in order that there may be a certain type of life, as friends have, in order that there may be love between them; and in relation to each other they create a whole in the one case as in the other. There is as genuine a unity between contrasting colors and musical themes as there is between colors closely allied in hue or themes simply transposed in key. Contrasting elements are always the extremes of some series, and are unified, despite the contrast, because they supplement each other. Things merely different, no matter how different, cannot contrast, for there must be some underlying whole, to which both belong, in which they are unified. In order that this unity may be felt, it is often necessary to avoid absolute extremes, or at least to mediate between them. Among colors, for example, hues somewhat closer than the complementary are preferred to the latter, or, if the extremes are employed, each one leads up to the other through intermediate hues. The unity of contrasting colors is a balance because, as extremes, they take an equal hold on the attention. The well-known accentuation of contrasting elements does not interfere with the balance, because it is mutual. A balanced unity is also created by contrasts of character, as in Goethe's Tasso, or by a conflict between social classes or parties, as in Hauptmann's Die Weber. Balanced, finally, is the unity between the elements of a painting, right and left, which draw the attention in opposite directions. The third type of unity appears in any process or sequence in which all the elements, one after another, contribute towards the bringing about of some end or result. It is the unity characteristic of all teleologically related facts. The sequence cannot be a mere succession or even a simple causal series, but must also be purposive, because, in order to be aesthetic, the goal which is reached must have value. Causality is an important aspect of this type of unity, as in the drama, but only because a teleological series of actions depends upon a chain of causally related means and ends. The type is of two varieties: in the one, the movement is smooth, each element being harmoniously related to the last; in the other, it is difficult and dramatic, proceeding through the resolution of oppositions among its elements. The movement usually has three stages: an initial phase of introduction and preparation; a second phase of opposition and complication; then a final one, the climax or catastrophe, when the goal is reached; there may also be a fourth,--the working out of the consequences of this last. Illustrations of this mode of unity are: the course of a story or a play from the introduction of the characters and the complication of the plot to the denouement or solving of the problem; the development of a character in a novel from a state of simplicity or innocence through storm and stress into maturity or ruin; the evolution of a sentiment in a sonnet towards its final statement in the last line or two; the melody, in its departure from the keynote, its going forth and return . . .

Second: Aesthetic Balance

Balance contrasted with difference

Third: Process

Teleological = related to goals or ends

Two varieties of process: smooth and dramatic

Each form of unity has its difficulties and dangers, which must be avoided if perfection is to be attained. In harmony there may be too much identity and too little difference or variety, with the result that the whole becomes tedious and uninteresting. This is the fault of rigid symmetry and of all other simple geometrical types of composition, which, for this reason, have lost their old popularity in the decorative and pictorial arts. In balance, on the other hand, the danger is that there may be too great a variety, too strong an opposition; the elements tend to fly apart, threatening the integrity of the whole. For it is not sufficient that wholeness exist in a work of art; it must also be felt. For example, in Pre-Raphaelite paintings and in most of the Secession work of our own day, the color contrasts are too strong; there is no impression of visual unity. In the dramatic type of unity there are two chief dangers--that the evolution be tortuous, so that we lose our way in its bypaths and mazes; or, on the other hand, that the end be reached too simply and quickly; in the one case, we lose heart for the journey because of the obstacles; in the other, we lose interest and are bored for want of incidents.

By “felt,” Parker seems to mean experienced

We come now to the second great principle of aesthetic structure—Dominance. In an aesthetic whole the elements are seldom all on a level; some are superior, others subordinate. The unity is mediated through one or more accented elements, through which the whole comes to emphatic expression. The attention is not evenly distributed among the parts, but proceeds from certain ones which are focal and commanding to others which are of lesser interest. And the dominant elements are not only superior in significance; they are, in addition, representative of the whole; in them, its value is concentrated; they are the key by means of which its structure can be understood. They are like good rulers in a constitutional state, who are at once preeminent members of the community and signal embodiments of the common will. Anything which distinguishes and makes representative of the whole serves to make dominant. In a well-constructed play there are one or more characters which are central to the action, in whom the spirit and problem of the piece are embodied, as Hamlet in Hamlet and Brand in Brand; in every plot there is the catastrophe or turning point, for which every preceding incident is a preparation, and of which every following one is a consequent; in a melody there is the keynote; in the larger composition there are the one or more themes whose working out is the piece; in a picture there are certain elements which especially attract the attention, about which the others are composed. In the more complex rhythms, in meters, for example, the elements are grouped around the accented ones. In an aesthetic whole there are certain qualities and positions which, because of their claim upon the attention, tend to make dominant any elements which possess them. In space-forms the center and the edges are naturally places of preeminence. The eye falls first upon the center and then is drawn away to the boundaries. In old pictures, the Madonna or Christ is placed in the center and the angels near the perimeter; in fancy work it is the center and the border which women embroider. In time, the beginning, middle, and end are the natural places of importance; the beginning, because there the attention is fresh and expectant; towards the middle, because there we tend to rest, looking backward to the commencement and forward to the end; the end itself, because being last in the mind, its hold upon the memory is firmest. In any process the beginning is important as the start, the plan, the preparation; the middle as the climax and turning point; the end as the consummation. Of course by the middle is not meant a mathematical point of division into equal parts, but a psychological point, which is usually nearer the end, because the impetus of action and purpose carry forward and beyond. Thus in a plot the beginning stands out as setting the problem and introducing the characters and situation; then the movement of the action, gathering force increasingly as it proceeds, breaks at some point well beyond the middle; in the last part the problem is solved and the consequences of the action are revealed. . . .

Dominance as the second principle of aesthetics
Some experienced element must serve as a focal point

For example, the central character of a story

“Natural” focal points in the temporal organization of narratives

As I have already indicated, there may be more than one dominant element; for instance, two or more principal characters in a novel or play--Lord and Lady Macbeth, Sancho and Don Quixote, Othello and Desdemona, Brand and his wife. In this case, there must be either subordination among them, a hierarchical arrangement; or else reciprocity or balance, as in the illustrations cited, where it is difficult to tell which is the more important of the two; otherwise they would pull the whole apart. The advantage of several dominant elements lies in the greater animation, and when the work is large, in the superior organization, which they confer. In order that there may be perspicuity, it is necessary, when there are many elements, that they be separated into minor groups around high points which individualize and represent them, and so take their place in the mind, mediating between them and unity when a final synthesis of the whole is to be made.

There can be several dominant elements
These must be organized in a hierarchy or in reciprocity or in balance

The third great principle of aesthetic structure is equilibrium or impartiality. This is a principle counteracting dominance. It demands, despite the subordination among the elements, that none be neglected. Each, no matter how minor its part in the whole, must have some unique value of its own, must be an end as well as a means. Dominance is the aristocratic principle in art, the rule of the best; this is the democratic principle, the demand for freedom and significance for all. Just as, in a well-ordered state, the happiness of no individual or class of individuals is sacrificed to that of other individuals or classes; so in art, each part must be elaborated and perfected, not merely for the sake of its contribution to the whole, but for its own sake. There should be no mere figure-heads or machinery. Loving care of detail, of the incidental, characterizes the best art.

Equilibrium as the third aesthetic principle

Again: Is this descriptive or prescriptive?

Of course this principle, like the others, is an ideal or norm, which is only imperfectly realized in many works of art. Many a poet finds it necessary to fill in his lines and many a painter and musician does the like with his pictures or compositions. There is much mere scaffolding and many lay-figures in drama and novel. But the work of the masters is different. There each line or stroke or musical phrase, each character or incident, is unique or meaningful. The greatest example of this is perhaps the _Divine Comedy_, where each of the hundred cantos and each line of each canto is perfect in workmanship and packed with significance. There is, of course, a limit to this elaboration of the parts, set by the demands for unity and wholeness. The individuality of the elements must not be so great that we rest in them severally, caring little or nothing for their relations to one another and to the whole. The contribution of this principle is richness. Unity in variety gives wholeness; dominance, order; equilibrium, wealth, interest, vitality.

The structure of works of art is even more complicated than would appear from the description given thus far. For there is not only the unity of the elements among themselves, but between the two aspects of each element and of the whole--the form and content. This--the unity between the sense medium and whatever of thought and feeling is embodied in it--is the fundamental unity in all expression. It is the unity between a word and its meaning, a musical tone and its mood, a color and shape and what they represent. Since, however, it is indispensable to all expression, it is not peculiar to art. And to a large extent, even in the creative work of the artist, this unity is given, not made; the very materials of the artist consisting of elementary expressions--words, tones, colors, space-forms--in which the unity of form and content has already been achieved, either by an innate psycho-physical process, as is the case with tones and simple rhythms, or by association and habit, as is the case with the words of any natural language, or the object-meanings which we attach to colors and shapes. The poet does not work with sounds, but with words which already have their definite meanings; his creation consists of the larger whole into which he weaves them. Of course, even in the case of ordinary verbal expression, the thought often comes first before its clothing in words, when there is a certain process of choice and fitting; and in painting there is always the possibility of varying conventional forms; yet even so, in large measure, the elements of the arts are themselves expressions, in which a unity of form and content already exists.

Form and content must be unified

In art, however, there are subtler aspects to the relation between form and content, and these have a unique aesthetic significance. For there, as we know, the elements of the medium, colors and lines and sounds, and the patterns of these, their harmonies and structures and rhythms, are expressive, in a vague way, of feeling; hence, when the artist employs them as embodiments of his ideas, he has to select them, not only as carriers of meaning, but as communications of mood. Now, in order that his selection be appropriate, it is clearly necessary that the feeling tone of the form be identical with that of the content which he puts into it. The medium as such must reexpress and so enforce the values of the content. This is the "harmony," as distinguished from the mere unity, of form and content, the existence of which in art is one of its distinguishing properties. I have already called attention to this in our second chapter. It involves, as we observed, that in painting, for example, the feeling tone of the colors and lines should be identical with that of the objects to be represented; in poetry, that the emotional quality of meter and rhythm should be attuned to the incidents and sentiments expressed. Otherwise the effect is ugly or comical.

Why are ugliness and comedy excluded from aesthetic experience?

When we come to the work of art, this harmony is already achieved. But for the artist it is something delicately to be worked out. Yet, just as in ordinary expression form and content often emerge in unison, the thought itself being a word and the word a thought; so in artistic creation, the mother mood out of which the creative act springs, finds immediate and forthright embodiment in a congenial form. Such a spontaneous and perfect balance of matter and form is, however, seldom achieved without long and painful experimentation and practice, both by the artist himself in his own private work, and by his predecessors, whose results he appropriates. Large traditional and oftentimes rigid forms, such as the common metrical and musical schemes and architectural orders, into which the personal matter of expression may aptly fall, are thus elaborated in every art. As against every looser and novel form, they have the advantages first, of being more readily and steadily held in the memory, where they may gather new and poignant associations; second, of coming to us already freighted with similar associations out of the past; and last, of compelling the artist, in order that he may fit his inspiration into them, to purify it of all irrelevant substance. Impatient artists rebel against forms, but wise ones either accommodate their genius to them, until they become in the end a second and equally spontaneous nature, or else create new forms, as definite as the old.

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