The origins of art: a psychological and sociological inquiry - Y. Hirn - E-Book

The origins of art: a psychological and sociological inquiry E-Book

Y. Hirn

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When, one hundred and fifty years ago, Baumgarten wrote the treatise to which he gave the name Aesthetica , and which he described as a “theory of liberal arts and beautiful thinking,” it seemed to him needful to apologise for attracting attention to a field of inquiry so low and sensuous as that province of philosophy to which he then affixed a name. Many, he thought, might regard art and beauty, which appeal primarily to the senses, as subjects beneath the dignity of philosophers. Yet the theories and the ideas which were first brought together as an organised body of thought in Baumgarten’s short manual had so deeply influenced the speculations of his age that, a generation later, the most important questions of life came to be treated as æsthetic problems. The philosophy of art, far from needing to justify its existence, dominated all philosophy—ethics, metaphysics, and even cosmogony. Imagination was treated as the ruling faculty in all creation, and beauty was referred to as the criterion, not only in art, but in morality. Yet the importance thus given to æsthetic speculation was transitory, and the period during which philosophers were concerned, not only to find a general criterion of beauty for the arts, but also to apply that criterion far beyond the sphere of art, has been succeeded by an age which neglects speculation on art and beauty for other tasks which are regarded as far more important.

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Y. Hirn

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The aim and scope of this book is sufficiently indicated by its title. I have endeavoured throughout to restrict my attention to questions connected with the origins of art. Points of history and criticism have been touched upon only in so far as they appeared to contribute towards the elucidation of this purely psychological and sociological problem. In order to save space as well as to spare the reader’s attention, the descriptive parts have been concentrated as much as possible. As a rule, only one ethnological example, which has been selected as typical, is described in the text, while the corroborating examples are represented by references in the footnotes. And even of these references only such are adduced as have been considered especially significant. Only in one matter have I aimed at completeness, viz. that of reference to authors from whom I have borrowed facts or observations. And whenever in earlier literature I have found theories which have appeared similar to the views advanced in this book, these similarities have been pointed out in the footnotes.There is one point, however, to which the reader’s attention should be called in this Preface. When treating of the art-impulse I have—especially in the tenth chapter—mentioned in the footnotes some modern writers on æsthetic, who, although starting from different assumptions, have arrived at a conception of art which in many points may be compared to the one advanced in this book. This comparison, however, has not been carried out in the text. Considerations of space account for this omission; but it has a further ground in the circumstances under which the present work has originated. A part of it, containing the examination of feeling and its expression, and the chapter on “Animal Display,” was published in Swedish as early as 1896[1] — that is, before the above-mentioned authors had made their theories known. This is not mentioned in order to raise any futile questions of priority, but only as a justification of the way in which my conclusions have been presented.It has appeared to me that the continuity of the argument could not but have been broken if, instead of proceeding from my original starting-point, I had based my conclusions upon a critical examination of modern æsthetic doctrines. And I trust that the differences between the thesis of this book and other emotionalistic explanations will appear with sufficientclearness to the attentive reader even if they have not been expressly pointed out in the text.There are, no doubt, many points, a fuller treatment of which might have been to the advantage of the book. The force of circumstances has compelled me to aim at brevity before anything. But even if it had been possible to give this study a far greater comprehensiveness, the difficulties of expressing myself in a foreign tongue would have withheld me from any avoidable amplification. I have constantly been conscious of my audacity in appearing before the English public without sufficiently mastering the English language, and I have been anxious not to make my offence greater by any number of pages than it already is.That it has been possible at all to publish this research in English is only a result of the kind assistance which I have received from my English friends. I am indebted to Mr. G. G. Berry in Oxford, and Mr. Leonard Pomeroy in London, who have revised parts of the manuscript. And I am further indebted to my publishers for procuring me the assistance of Mr. Stephen Gwynn in preparing the book for the press. He has helped me to avoid needlessly technical expressions, and in other ways has given the work a more readable style. But he has not restricted himself to these emendations. He has assisted me with valuable suggestions as well as with information. The improvement which the work has derived from his collaboration can be sufficiently appreciated only by its author.In purely scientific matters I have benefited much from discussions with students of psychology and sociology in my own country as well as in England. My thanks are due to all of them, but especially to my old friends, Dr. Edward Westermarck and Dr. Richard Wallaschek.The “List of Authorities quoted” and the Indexes have been compiled by my wife. This is, however, only the least important part of the assistance which throughout the book has been rendered to me by the constant collaborator in all my researches.Y. H.


When, one hundred and fifty years ago, Baumgarten wrote the treatise to which he gave the name Aesthetica, and which he described as a “theory of liberal arts and beautiful thinking,” it seemed to him needful to apologise for attracting attention to a field of inquiry so low and sensuous as that province of philosophy to which he then affixed a name. Many, he thought, might regard art and beauty, which appeal primarily to the senses, as subjects beneath the dignity of philosophers.[2]Yet the theories and the ideas which were first brought together as an organised body of thought in Baumgarten’s short manual had so deeply influenced the speculations of his age that, a generation later, the most important questions of life came to be treated as æsthetic problems. The philosophy of art, far from needing to justify its existence, dominated all philosophy—ethics, metaphysics, and even cosmogony. Imagination was treated as the ruling faculty in all creation, and beauty was referred to as the criterion, not only in art, but in morality. Yet the importance thus given to æsthetic speculation was transitory, and the period during which philosophers were concerned, not only to find a general criterion of beauty for the arts, but also to apply that criterion far beyond the sphere of art, has been succeeded by an age which neglects speculation on art and beauty for other tasks which are regarded as far more important. Such rapid changes within a few generations appear almost incomprehensible. But they can easily be explained if we take into account the intimate connection which always exists between æsthetic speculation and prevailing currents of thought.In Mr. Bosanquet’s History of Æsthetic it has been pointed out with great clearness to what extent the earlier prosperity of æsthetic studies was caused by the general philosophical situation. The theory of æsthetic, as set forth in Baumgarten’s chapter on cognitio sensitiva, and further developed in Kant’s Kritik der Urtheilskraft, dealt, as is well known, with a form of judgment which is neither purely rational nor purely sensual.[3]In metaphysics, for philosophers who had to struggle with what seemed to them an irreconcilable opposition between reason and the senses, this conception of a mediative faculty must have satisfied a most urgent need. Similarly we may suppose that the ethical observer felt himself emancipated from the narrow antagonism between body and spirit by looking at our actions in the æsthetic way. In proportion, however, as general science has been able to do away with the old dualism of higher and lower faculties, the judgment of taste has necessarily lost importance. In the development of monistic philosophy and monistic morals we may thus see one important factor, by the influence of which æsthetic has been ousted from its central position.The evolution of modern art has been still more injurious to æsthetic speculation than the progress ofscience. In the palmy days of art-philosophy conditions were eminently favourable to universal generalisations. The great periods of art, classical antiquity and the Renaissance, were so remote that only their simplest and most salient features were discerned. Nor did the art of the period exhibit the bewildering multiplicity of a fertile age,—least of all in Germany, the home and centre of æsthetic inquiry. The formative arts were less important than ever before; music, which was so soon to eclipse all other arts, had not yet awakened the interest of philosophers. The crafts were at a low ebb; landscape-gardening is indeed the only kind of applied art that we hear about at this time. Beauty, art, the ideal—these and all other general notions must have been suggested with unsurpassable simplicity by this uniform and monotonous artistic output. It is easy to understand the eagerness and the delight with which the earlier writers on æsthetic, once the impulse given, drew conclusions, made comparisons, and laid down laws. But it is equally evident that speculative zeal was bound to fall off as soon as the province of art was enlarged and its products differentiated.Even the more intimate knowledge of classical culture which was subsequently gained, necessitated important corrections in æsthetic dogmas. The artistic activities of savage tribes, which have been practically unknown to æsthetic writers until recent years, display many features that cannot be harmonised with the general laws. And in a yet higher degree contemporary art defies the generalisations of a uniform theory. With greater mastery over materials and technique, the different arts have been able to produce more and more specialised forms of beauty. The painter’s ideal can no longer be confused with that of the poet or the story-teller,nor the sculptor’s with that of the actor. Pure music, pure poetry, pure painting, thus develop into isolated, independent arts, of which each one establishes its own laws and conditions for itself. The critic who, in spite of this evolution, tries to apply a narrow æsthetic standard of beauty to all the various arts may indeed—according to his influence—delay the public appreciation of modern works, and thus indirectly impede artistic development. But no amount of theorising will enable him to arrest the growth of artistic forms whose very existence contradicts the generalisations of the old systems. And he is equally powerless to stop such violations of the supposed frontiers of the different arts as continually occur, for instance, in descriptive music, or in poetry like that of Gautier, which aims at producing a pictorial impression by means of words.It is only natural that, in times so inopportune, general speculations on art and beauty have been more and more abandoned in favour of detailed studies in the technicalities of art, historical researches in which works of art are considered chiefly as documents bearing on culture, and experiments on the physiology and psychology of æsthetic perception. For art itself and its development it would perhaps be unimportant if a science which has never exercised any great positive and direct influence on artistic production should completely disappear. But from the theoretical point of view it would be matter for regret if artistic activities ceased to be considered as a whole. And so also would it be if æsthetic feelings, judgments of taste, and ideals of beauty came to be treated only in appendices to works on psychology. It is true that all these notions have irremediably lost their former metaphysical and philosophical importance. But in compensation, art andbeauty have for modern thinking acquired a social and psychological significance. To determine the part which the production and the enjoyment of works of art play in their relation to the other factors of individual and social life—that is indeed a task which is momentous enough to be treated in a science of its own. Modern æsthetic, therefore, has still its own ends, which, if not so ambitious as those of the former speculative science of beauty, are nevertheless of no small importance. These ends, however, can no longer be attained by the procedure of the old æsthetic systems. As the problems have changed with changing conditions, so too the methods must be brought into line with the general scientific development. Historical and psychological investigation must replace the dialectic treatment of the subject. Art can no longer be deduced from general, philosophical, and metaphysical principles; it must be studied—by the methods of inductive psychology—as a human activity. Beauty cannot be considered as a semi-transcendental reality; it must be interpreted as an object of human longing and a source of human enjoyment. In æsthetic proper, as well as in the philosophy of art, every research must start, not from theoretical assumptions, but from the psychological and sociological data of the æsthetic life.Such a procedure, however, is encumbered with difficulties, of which the writers on speculative æsthetic were scarcely aware. When theories of art and beauty were based on general a priori principles, there could not possibly be any doubt as to the point of departure in the several researches. But when we have no assumptions to start from, the very demarcation of the subject may become a matter of uncertainty. In the philosophy of art, to which department of æsthetic Iwish to restrict my researches in the present work, this difficulty of formulating the data and quæsita—the facts which we have to go upon, and the facts which we wish to find out—constitutes the first, and by no means the least important, problem.If we are to embark upon a scientific treatment of art without any preconceived definitions, the aim and conditions of such treatment can only be determined by examining the prevailing notions on the subject, as they are expressed in language and in literature. As an interpretation for general use and of general applicability, a theory of art can claim attention only if it conforms to the recognised usage of the principal æsthetic terms. In the various definitions of art which are contained in the different æsthetic systems, we must therefore try to find some point of unity from which to approach our subject. The difficulties of such a task are evident to any one who has gone through the discouraging experience of reading a history of æsthetic. The investigator who seeks an accurate demarcation of the whole area of art, as distinguished from other departments of life, meets with partial definitions which can be applied only to certain fixed forms of art. We need mention but a few of the most typical instances. Even an ardent admirer of Taine is compelled to admit that his generalisations are too exclusively derived from the study of poetry and the formative arts. In the same way it is only by laborious adjustments that the theory of Vischer can be applied to music and lyric poetry; the aphorisms of Ruskin do not even pretend to apply to any but the formative arts; and Mr. Marshall’s Æsthetic Principles—to adduce one of the most recent attempts in general art-theory—are too obviously those of an expert in architecture. In none of the modernsystems has sufficient room been made for certain forms of art which, from the evolutionist’s standpoint, are of the highest importance: such as acting, dancing, and decoration. All the one-sided definitions are, moreover, so inconsistent with each other that it seems impossible to make up for their individual deficiencies by an eclectic combination. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, if some writers on art, confused by the bewildering contradictions of æsthetic theories, have called in question the very existence of any universal art-criterion.[4]Those who adopt this attitude—which seems the more justified now that the arts have become widely differentiated—deny the possibility, not only of all general art-philosophy, but also of any sociological and psychological treatment of artistic activities as a whole. But even if all other hypotheses are banished, æsthetic research cannot possibly dispense with the fundamental assumption of the unity of art. And in point of fact there can be found in most systems, if we do not insist on too minute and positive demarcations, at least one common quality which is ascribed to all its different forms. Notwithstanding the mutual contradictions of art-theories, the believers in a general æsthetic can always appeal to the consent with which the majority of authors have upheld the negative criterion of art. Metaphysicians as well as psychologists, Hegelians as well as Darwinians, all agree in declaring that a work, or performance, which can be proved to serve any utilitarian, non-æsthetic object must not be considered as a genuine work of art. True art has its one end in itself, and rejects every extraneous purpose: that is the doctrine which, with more or less explicitness,has been stated by Kant,[5]Schiller,[6]Spencer,[7]Hennequin,[8]Grosse,[9]Grant Allen,[10]and others. And popular opinion agrees in this respect with the conclusions of science. This distinctive quality of independence seems therefore to afford us a convenient starting-point for the treatment of art in general.Owing to its negative character, this criterion does not give us much information as to the real qualities of art. But even the poorest definition is enough to begin with, if it only holds good with regard to all particular cases. Unfortunately, however, we need only apply the test of independence in the concrete instance to find that even the applicability of this single accepted criterion may be seriously disputed. There is scarcely any author, however he may formulate his general definitions of art, who would assess the relative value of art-works according to their degrees of disinterestedness. No candid man would, for instance, nowadays contend that an arabesque composition is per se more æsthetically pure than a statue or a poem.[11]But we may even go farther. We must question whether every work of art ought to be degraded from its æsthetic rank, if it can be convicted of having served any external utilitarian purpose. This strict conception of the æsthetic boundaries has been eloquently attacked by Guyau in his celebrated treatise, Le principe de l’art et de la poésie.[12]Though the ultimate conclusions of thiswork are perhaps not so clear as might be desired, yet we do not see how his attitude in estimating concrete manifestations of art can be assailed. It would, to take an example, be absurd to contend that the singing of Taillefer lost in æsthetic value by contributing to the victory of Hastings. And however strictly we may insist upon the requirement that every genuine work of art should have been created purely for its own sake, we cannot possibly conceal the fact that some of the world’s finest love lyrics were originally composed, not in æsthetic freedom, which is independent of all by-purposes, but with the express end of gaining the ear and the favour of a beloved woman. The influence which such foreign, non-æsthetic motives have exercised on art will also become more and more apparent with increased knowledge of the conditions of æsthetic production. The further the psychological biographer pushes his indiscreet researches into the private life of individual artists, the more often will he find that some form of interest—personal, political, ethical, religious—enters into the so-called disinterested æsthetic activity. Such instances must induce undogmatic authors to relax to some extent the strict application of this criterion. And even those philosophers who, in spite of the historical evidence, insist upon applying it will be compelled to admit that they have taken for works of genuine art productions which, from their philosophic standpoint, have no claim to the title.The danger of such mistakes is all the greater when one has to deal with the lower stages of artistic development. In point of fact recent ethnological researches have conclusively proved that it is not only difficult, but quite impossible, to apply the criterion of æsthetic independence to the productions of savage and barbaroustribes. It is true that the large province of primitive art has not as yet in its entirety been made the subject of systematic study. But, on the other hand, the results which have been arrived at with regard to decoration, its most typical form, amply bear out our view. In almost every case where the ornaments of a tribe have been closely examined, it has appeared that what to us seems a mere embellishment is for the natives in question full of practical, non-æsthetic significance. Carvings on weapons and implements, tattooings, woven and plaited patterns, all of which the uncritical observer is apt to take for purely artistic compositions, are now explained as religious symbols, owners’ marks, or ideograms. There is still room for discussion as to whether in certain individual interpretations the tendency to look for concealed meanings has not been carried too far. But there can be no doubt that the general principles which to many students seemed so fantastic when first formulated by Stolpe, Read,[13]and others, have derived additional support from every fresh inquiry into primitive systems of decoration.The isolated researches which have been carried on within the department of primitive literature and drama all point in the same direction. Wherever ethnologists have the opportunity of gaining some insight into the inner life of a savage tribe, they are surprised at the religious or magical significance which lies concealed behind the most apparently trivial of amusements. And it is to be remarked that they have learned to appreciatethis esoteric meaning, not by a closer study of the manifestations themselves, but through information acquired by intercourse with the natives. There is often not a single feature in a savage dance which would give the uninitiated any reason to suspect the non-æsthetic purpose. When North American Indians, Kaffirs, or Negroes perform a dance in which all the movements of the animals they hunt are imitated, we unavoidably see in their antics an instance of primitive but still purely artistic drama. It is only from the descriptions of Catlin, Lichtenstein, and Reade[14]that we learn that these pantomimes have in reality quite as practical a purpose as those imitations and representations of animals by which hunters all over the world try to entice their game within shooting distance. According to the doctrine of sympathetic magic, it is simply an axiomatic truth that the copy of a thing may at any distance influence the thing itself, and that thus a buffalo dance, even when it is performed in the camp, may compel the buffaloes to come within range of the hunters. But the deceptive appearance of disinterestedness, which in these cases might have led one to mistake a mere piece of hunting magic for a specimen of pure dramatic art, is apt to make us cautious about accepting as independently æsthetic any performance of primitive man.In the songs and dances by which savages exhort themselves to work and regulate their exertions we findan aspect of utilitarian advantage which is real and not imaginary. Evidently also this advantage, and not any independent æsthetic pleasure, is—intentionally or unintentionally—aimed at in the war-pantomimes, the boating songs, dances, etc. And it is no doubt for this reason that music and dance have attained so surprising a development in the lower stages of culture. In trying, therefore, to explain the historical development of art, we are compelled to take into account that foreign purpose which is repudiated in art-theory.If every work of art were really an end in itself—a Selbstzweck—standing quite isolated from all the practical utilities of life, it would be nothing less than a miracle that art should be met with in tribes which have not yet learnt to satisfy, nor even to feel, the most elementary necessities of life. In such a case it is not music only which would, as Wallace thinks, have to be explained by supernatural causes:[15]primitive art in all its departments would baffle our attempts at rational interpretation. By studying, however, the artistic activities of savage and barbarous man in their connection with his non-æsthetic life, writers on evolutionary æsthetic have succeeded in solving this great crux of art-history. The dances, poems, and even the formative arts of the lower tribes possess indeed, as every ethnologist will admit, unquestionable æsthetic value. But this art is seldom free and disinterested; it has generally a usefulness—real or supposed—and is often even a necessity of life.[16]A historical conception of art is thus, it appears,incompatible with a strict maintenance of the æsthetic criterion. But it may still be asked whether we are therefore compelled to join Guyau in abolishing all distinctions between art and other manifestations of human energy.[17]By doing away with the only definition which is common to the majority of æsthetic systems, we should dissociate ourselves from all previous views on art. And it seems hard to believe that all dogmatic writers on æsthetic, one-sided as they may often seem, have founded their theories on a pure fiction. The independent æsthetic activity, which simply aims at its own satisfaction, cannot have been invented for the sake of the systems. The mere fact that so many theories have been proposed for its explanation furnishes, it seems to us, a sufficient proof that the conception of this activity corresponds to some psychological reality. Certainly the “end in itself” has not played so important a part in the practice of artists as writers on æsthetic would have us believe; and it is impossible to distinguish its effects in concrete individual instances. But from all we know of the life and work of artists, there appears to be a tendency—more or less consciously followed, it is true, in different cases—to make the work its own end. And in the public we can in the same way notice an inclination—which grows with increasing culture—to regard art as something which exists for its own sake, and to contemplate its manifestations with independent æsthetic attention. Whatever we may think about the genesis of particular pictures and poems, we know that at least they need no utilitarian, non-æsthetic justification in order to be appreciated by us. And with as much assurance as we can ever feel in comparative psychology we may take it for granted that the same way of looking at art has prevailed in other stages of culture as well. However cautious one may be in drawing conclusions from analogies between higher and lower forms, a closer study of primitive art must needs compel every one to admit that these dances, poems, and ornaments, even if they originally served practical, religious, or political aims, may at least have come by degrees to be enjoyed in the same way as we enjoy our art. By denying such subjective independence in the creation and enjoyment of art, we should be no less guilty of one-sidedness than those authors who deny that genuine art has ever been influenced by “foreign purposes.” If it is presumptuous to adduce any particular works or manifestations in proof of free and independent production, it may be no less audacious to contend that even the most primitive form of art has flourished in tribes destitute of all æsthetic cravings. There is room for discussion on the degree of influence which “autotelic”[18]artistic activity has exercised in particular works and manifestations. It may also be made an object of research to determine at which precise stage of development æsthetic attention becomes so emancipated as to entitle us to speak of a pure and free art-life. But it does not seem that such inquiries can ever lead to any positive result. The more one studies art, especially primitive art, from a comparative and historical point of view, the more one is compelled to admit the impossibility of deciding where the non-æsthetic motives end and the æsthetic motives begin. The only result we can reach is the somewhat indefinite one that it is as impossible to explain away the artisticpurpose as it is to detect its presence in a pure state in any concrete work of art.For art-philosophy as a distinct science even this non-committal conclusion is of vital importance. It gives us a right to regard all the forms and developments of art as witnesses to an activity which tends to become more and more independent of the immediate utilities of life. This tendency, on the other hand, not only affords us a point of unity from which to start upon a research into the general philosophy of art; it also presents to us one of the greatest problems of the same science. How it is that mankind has come to devote energy and zeal to an activity which may be almost entirely devoid of a utilitarian purpose is indeed the riddle, sociological as well as psychological, which would seem in the first place to claim the attention of the philosopher. To the writer of this book, at any rate, it appeared that a discussion, and an attempt at solution, of this seeming paradox was a task sufficiently important and interesting to form of itself the subject of a special investigation.But although the aspects of autotelic artistic activity give us at once a datum and a problem on which we may confidently base our research, we must not overlook the peculiar difficulties that will necessarily arise from the exclusively psychological, non-historical character of this basis. A historic study of art shows us that the artistic activity proper can never be explained by examining concrete works as we meet them in reality. Whenever we have to deal with art as autotelic, the need of theoretical abstraction forces itself upon us with irresistible cogency. It is of no avail to argue from the data of art-history, because we can never fully know the mental origin of the works. Theproblem presented to us by the tendency to engage in artistic production and artistic enjoyment for their own sake can only be solved by studying the psychology both of artists and of their public. The “art-impulse” and the “art-sense,” as referring to subjective tendencies in creators and spectators, are the chief notions with which we have to operate in such an investigation. And when we are obliged to introduce the notion of the “work of art” we have to remember that this term, strictly speaking, refers to an abstract and ideal datum. Only by thus restricting our attention to the psychical facts can we attain any clear conception of that autotelic aspect of art on which so much stress has been laid in all æsthetic philosophy.It is needless to say, however, that even a purely philosophic interpretation of art would be impossible without a knowledge of its works and manifestations as they appear in real life, with all their extraneous, non-æsthetic elements. The psychological examination must therefore necessarily be supplemented by an historical one. The methods of the latter research cannot be the same as those used in a strictly æsthetic inquiry. And the words will naturally be employed in a different sense. We do not at that stage demand of a poem, a painting, or a drama, that it should fulfil more than the technical requirements of the several arts. The ornamentation of a vase, e.g. is in this sense a work of art even if it serves a magical, i.e. a supposed practical purpose. Indeed it is most advantageous, if we wish to bring out the influence of sociological factors with the greatest possible clearness, to concentrate our attention upon the very qualities which we have to disregard in the treatment of purely artistic activity. The productions of primitive tribes, in which art is so closely connected with life,supply the most profitable material for such a study. After having examined, in these simple forms, all the sociological aspects of art, it will be possible to place the two art-factors in the most illustrative antithesis and to study their mutual influence. From this it should be possible to suggest—although in this work no detailed attempt will be made to follow out the reasoning—why it is that the concrete work of art, although its historical origin may be entirely non-æsthetic, has always proved so eminently adapted to serve the needs of the purely aesthetic craving. And by starting from the conception of æsthetic activities which has been arrived at on psychological grounds, it should also be possible to determine the particular qualities in individual works of art which make them more or less able to satisfy this craving. Thus a theory of the psychological and sociological origins of art may furnish suggestions for those which have been considered as distinctive of æsthetic proper, such as the critical estimation of works of art, or the derivation of laws which govern artistic production.


There are two things which have to be investigated—the reason why works of art are created, and the reason why works of art are enjoyed. By choosing at the outset to approach art in its active aspect—to examine into the impulse of the artist—we do not desert the central field of æsthetic inquiry. On the contrary, it seems that a study of art-production affords the most convenient starting-point for any comprehensive treatment of art; all the more because every æsthetic pleasure, even when apparently most passive, always involves an element of unconscious artistic creation.


When absorbed in the beauty of nature we do in fact appear to ourselves to be entirely receptive; but in truth our enjoyment, if the enjoyment has any æsthetic value at all, is always more or less derived from the activity of our own mind. It does not matter much, from the psychological point of view, whether we make an abortive but original effort to select and arrange the impressions which we receive, as is the case when a new aspect of nature delights us, or whether we merely reproduce at second hand the impression originally arranged by an artist, as happens when we admire a statue, or recognise in a

landscape some effect that Turner has recorded.


In either case the passive attitude can never be explained without reference to the active one.

In the historic interpretation of art it is of no less importance to study its productive side. It is only by considering art as an activity that we can explain the great influence which it has exercised on social as well as on individual life. These are, however, views which can only be properly established in the later chapters. Here we have merely to dwell on the aspects which present themselves to the psychological observer; and there is no doubt that from his point of view the impulse to produce works of pure art constitutes the chief æsthetic problem. If once the creation has been satisfactorily accounted for, it is relatively easy to explain the subsequent enjoyment of art. Accordingly, by concentrating our attention on the art-impulse we approach the art-problem at its very core.

It has, however, been contended by some authors that the independence of external motives is nothing peculiar to art-production. There is, undoubtedly, a certain kind of scientific study—for instance, some departments of higher mathematics—which may be carried on entirely for its own sake without any regard to practical application, or even to increased knowledge of nature. And it is even more impossible to find any immediate utilitarian purpose for all the intense activity, mental and physical, which is devoted to sports and games. Every one knows that the “end in itself” which any of these affords may in many cases exercise as great an attraction as any of the utilitarian aims in life.

Chess is said to have a demoniac power over its devotees, and the attachment of a golfer to his game can only be described in the language of the most intense passion. The same sacrifice of energy and interests to a one-sided and apparently useless purpose, which in art seems so mysterious, may thus, as Professor Groos remarks, be found in activities of far less repute.


It is evident that if artistic creation were in no wise different from these other examples of autotelic manifestations, there would be no ground for considering the art-impulse as a separate or distinctive problem.

We can scarcely believe, however, that even Professor Groos himself would seriously maintain the parallel between art-production and the last-mentioned activities. There are indeed cases in which a man of science devotes his whole energy to a task which is so abstract that it seems to give no satisfaction to the craving for positive truth. But it is always an open question whether the attractiveness of such researches is not, strictly speaking, more æsthetic than scientific. Higher mathematics is perhaps, for those that live in the world of abstract quantities, only an abstract form of art, a soundless music or a wordless poetry. In other cases the eagerness with which pure science is pursued as an autotelic end may be explained as a result of acquired habits. Like the miser, the passionate researcher may often gradually lose sight of the ultimate aim of his activity and concentrate all his attention on the means. There can be no question of denying the emotional value and the great attractive force which thus comes to be attached to these secondary purposes. But in comparing such autotelic activities to those of art we have to remember that the passion, however intense it

may be, is probably not primary but derived; and it is in any case self-evident that it can be developed only in exceptional cases and in peculiarly predisposed individuals.

By the same criterion we can also separate the art-desire from the love of games and sports. However passionate the sporting mania may be in individuals or nations, it can never be compared as a universal and primary impulse with the craving for æsthetic creation. Philosophers who bestow their whole attention only on the mature works which can be studied in the history of art, may indeed contend that even the art-impulse is given to some favoured few. But this view, which would reduce all art-life to the status of a great and marvellous exception, cannot possibly be upheld in a psychological æsthetic.

It is, no doubt, the fact that the percentage of executive artists in modern nations is an almost negligible quantity. It is also probable that—contrary to a common notion—the poets, the painters, and the dramatists form a distinct class even among the lower tribes.


But in treating the art-impulse as a psychological phenomenon the inquiry cannot be restricted to the few individuals who publicly practise a certain art. As far as the artistic powers are concerned, these undoubtedly stand apart from the rest of mankind. But we are not entitled to maintain that they are also distinguished by some peculiar psychical impulse. From the point of view of artistic perfection, there is all the world between the youthful verses of Goethe and the doggerel of a common schoolboy. But, psychologically, the schoolboy’s doggerel may be the result of as strong a craving for poetic expression as any of the

world’s greatest poems.


Bad or good, known or unknown, every manifestation of artistic activity is equally illustrative for our purpose. We have to count with the immense number of dilettanti who produce in privacy and in secret, as well as with recognised artists. And even those unfortunate persons who have never been able to find for themselves any satisfactory mode of æsthetic expression may still be adduced in proof of the universality of the artistic desire. If the notion of art is conceived in its most general sense, every normal man, at some time of his life at least, is an artist—in aspiration, if not in capacity.

If, moreover, we take into consideration the eagerness and devotion which is lavished upon artistic activity—not least, perhaps, by those who have never appeared as artists—we shall be compelled to admit that the art-impulse is not only commoner, but also stronger and deeper, than any of the above-mentioned non-utilitarian impulses. If it can be explained at all, it is only by deriving it from some great and fundamental tendency of the human mind. This fact has, naturally enough, not been realised by those writers on æsthetic who only study the ideal work of art as it appears among civilised nations. In short, the great systems of æsthetic philosophy have never expressly stated the problem of finding an origin for the art-impulse; and any interpretation of that impulse which may be derived constructively from their speculations upon the work of acknowledged artists is irreconcilable with the wider notion of art as a universal human activity. If the aim of every artist really were, as

Vischer must have thought, to reinstate by the creation of a semblance the Idea in the position from which it is in Reality always thrust by material accidents; if he desired, for instance, to show a human character as it would be but for the accidents of life;


or if, to use the language of Taine, the artist’s main object were to produce a representation of nature in which the essential characters enjoy an absolute sovereignty; if he strove to depict a lion in such a way to emphasise specially these leonine traits which distinguish the lion from any other great cat,


— then it would be hard to understand the attraction which art has exercised on people who are almost devoid of intellectual cravings. We could not possibly find any connection between modern and primitive art. Nor could we explain why, for instance, poetry and music are so often cultivated by persons who do not otherwise show the slightest eagerness to understand the hidden nature of things, who do not meddle with ideas or “dominating faculties.” Even in the case of philosophically-minded artists such motives are probably somewhat feeble. The intellectualistic definitions may perhaps explain the æsthetic qualities of the work of art itself. But they can never account for the constraining force by which every genuine work of art is called into existence.

There are some authors, however, who have felt the need of a dynamic explanation of the art-impulse, which should trace the motive force to its origin. It was so with Aristotle when he interpreted artistic production as a manifestation of the desire to imitate. By this theory art is indeed brought into connection with a general animal impulse, the æsthetic importance of

which can scarcely be overestimated. It is only by reference to the psychology of imitative movements that we shall be able to explain the enjoyment of art. But it seems, nevertheless, somewhat strained to make imitation the basis and purpose of artistic activity, seeing that there are various forms of art, as, for instance, architecture and purely lyrical music or poetry, in which we can scarcely detect any imitative element at all. The theories of Aristotle, of Seneca, and all their modern followers, can only be upheld if the word “imitation” is used in a much wider sense than that which it generally bears. But even those who, with Engel, would consider the bodily movements as “imitating the thoughts,”


or those who in æsthetic would speak of “circulary reaction”


as a phenomenon of imitation, would find it hard to discover in any of these relatively automatic manifestations such a mental compulsion as that which impels to artistic activity. Moreover, as we need scarcely point out, art in all its forms always strives after something more than a mere likeness.

It seems equally superfluous to emphasise the fact that no genuine artist has made it his sole object to please. The fatal confusion between art-theory and the science of beauty has indeed led some writers on æsthetic to derive artistic activities from an impulse to “produce objects or objective conditions which should attract by pleasing.”


Such views will especially recommend themselves to those who believe in an animal art called forth by sexual selection. Nor can it be denied that the means of attraction employed in the

competition for the favour of the opposite sex supply a part of the material which is used in the various arts.


With the artistic impulse itself, which, according to its very definition, is independent of external motives, the various means of attraction have no connection whatever.


From the theoretical point of view it is undoubtedly easier to defend Professor Baldwin’s way of stating the case, in which the “self-exhibiting impulse” takes the place of the “instinct to attract by pleasing.”


Figuratively speaking, an element of self-exhibition is involved in every artistic creation which addresses itself to a public. And without a public—in the largest sense of the word—no art would ever have appeared. But it seems somewhat difficult to make this self-exhibiting—in a sense which implies an actual audience—the aim and purpose of, for instance, the most intimate and personal examples of lyrical poetry.

It may of course be contended, by those who advocate the importance of the last-mentioned interpretations, that the variety of art-forms compels us to assume, not one, but several art-impulses. At this stage of our research we cannot enter upon a discussion of such views; but it will at least be admitted that explanations which can be applied in the whole field of art must be preferable to partial definitions.

This merit of universality, at least, cannot be denied to the theories which derive art from the playing impulse. The notion of a sportive activity involves precisely that freedom from external, consciously

utilitarian motives which, according to the consensus of almost all writers on æsthetic, is required in every genuine manifestation of art. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was by reference to the play-impulse that Schiller tried to distinguish artistic production from all “unfree” forms of activity.


It is true that the notion of “play” as used by Schiller and Spencer—who has given the theory a physiological foundation—is chiefly important as a negative demarcation. But even Schiller brings in a positive factor when he speaks of the force by which “overflowing life itself urges the animal to action” (“wenn das überflüssige Leben sich selbst zur Thätigkeit stachelt”).


In Spencer’s theory, on the other hand, the “excessive readiness” to nervous discharge which accompanies every surplus of vigour, and which, in his view, accounts for play, represents a motor element, the impelling force of which must be considered as very strong.


As is well known, Spencer, Wallace, and Hudson have applied this principle of surplus energy to explain so-called animal art, rejecting the theory which ascribes æsthetic judgment to the female.


As formulated by the last-mentioned authors, the play-theory is, however, open to objection from a physiological point of view. It has been remarked by Dr. Wallaschek that, in speaking of animals, the phrase “surplus of vigour” ought to be superseded by “inapplicability of energy” or “unemployed energy.”


And still more explicitly Professor Groos has shown that a stored-up supply of energy is by no means a necessary condition for play.


But these criticisms have by no means deprived the play-instinct of its importance as a dynamic factor. Since Groos by his epoch-making researches has been able to prove that the majority of games—especially the games of youth—are based upon instincts, we can adduce as an impelling force “the demon instinct that urges and even compels to activity not only if and so long as the vessel overflows (to use a figure of speech), but even when there is but a last drop left in it.”


By considering artistic activity as a kind of play, one is therefore able to account for its great attractiveness, even when no “surplus of vigour” can be shown to exist.

In the beginning of this chapter we did indeed contend that the “compulsion” which prompts to artistic activity is too strong to be even compared with the passion for sports and games. But this superiority may of course be explained as a result of some peculiarity of this special kind of play. As a matter of fact art is, in a far higher degree than any of the sports and games, able to satisfy the greatest and most fundamental instincts of man. Groos has tried to prove that the artistic motives which in all times have been most popular, offer to the spectator as well as to the producer an opportunity for warlike and erotic stimulation;


and Guyau had already remarked how im

portant a part the moods of war, or rather of struggle, play in all enjoyment of art.


It is easy to understand the eager prosecution of an activity which thus affords free, if imaginary, exercise for instincts and tendencies which would otherwise be thwarted by the narrow restrictions of social life. We are all animals in captivity, and we eagerly seize every kind of vicarious function which can give at least a memory of the life from which we are excluded.

At lower stages of social evolution, where instincts are more in harmony with life, the play-element in art must evidently be of still greater importance. Artistic production and artistic enjoyment provide exercise for those very functions which are most important in real life. Art fulfils a great social mission, and is developed in subservience to the struggle for life. The play-theory, as formulated by Professor Groos, affords, therefore, in many cases an explanation of the high artistic level reached by the lower tribes. In our historical treatment of primitive dances and dramas we shall be continually obliged to have recourse to this theory. And it will thus appear that it is no deficient appreciation of its importance which compels us to look elsewhere for an explanation for the artistic impulse.

Play and art have indeed many important characteristics in common. Neither of them has any immediate practical utility, and both of them do nevertheless serve some of the fundamental needs of life. All art, therefore, can in a certain sense be called play. But

art is something more than this. The aim of play is attained when the surplus of vigour is discharged or the instinct has had its momentary exercise. But the function of art is not confined to the act of production; in every manifestation of art, properly so called, something is made and something survives. It is true that in certain manifestations—for instance in the dance or in acting—the effect is destroyed as soon as created; it survives only in the rhythm devised by the dancer, or in the spectator’s memory of the part played. But this is accidental, not essential to the nature of the arts as arts. On the other hand, there is nothing in the nature of the play-impulse to call for a stereotyping of the state of mind and feelings to which it gives rise. Still less can the artistic qualities, such as beauty and rhythm, which, however difficult to define scientifically, always characterise works of art, be interpreted as a result of the play-impulse. The theories of Schiller, Spencer, and Groos may indeed explain the negative criterion of art, but they cannot, any more than the imitation theories or the Darwinian interpretation, give us any positive information as to the nature of art.

In order to understand the art-impulse as a tendency to æsthetic production, we must bring it into connection with some function, from the nature of which the specifically artistic qualities may be derived. Such a function is to be found, we believe, in the activities of emotional expression.

It is therefore to the psychology of feeling and expression that we shall turn for the solution of the problem of the art-impulse.


Before attempting to prove that the impelling force in art-creation is to be explained by the psychology of feeling, we must first pay some attention to the general theory of emotional states. It would be impossible to assert anything about the æsthetic importance of such activities as have their origin in emotional conditions without first having made out the relation between feeling and movement.

In this purely psychological investigation it is advantageous to postpone all æsthetic considerations. The important thing is to get hold of the mental factors in their simplest possible form. Even the lowest feelings, therefore, the feeling-tones of mere physical sensation or the vaguest emotional states, such as comfort or discomfort, which are overlooked in all works on æsthetic proper, may be of great value in this preliminary discussion.

It is preferable to begin with the feeling-tones of definitely physical origin, because these hedonic elements have been subjected to an experimental investigation which could never be undertaken with regard to the complex emotions and sentiments. As early as 1887 Féré published some important researches on the re

lation between sensation and movement. By submitting persons to various external stimuli, he showed that every such stimulus calls forth a modification of the activities of the body, which modification, according to the intensity and the duration of the stimulus, takes the character either of enhancement or of arrest. In all cases when the apparatus used in the experiments indicated a shortened reaction-time and an increased development of energy, the subject of the experiment had experienced a feeling of pleasure. Every painful stimulus, on the other hand, was connected with a diminution of energy.


These results have been corroborated in the main by the later researches of Lehmann. He has not, however, restricted his attention to the development of energy, but has also measured the changes in pulsation and respiration which occur under the influence of various stimuli. His conclusions are these:—

“ Simple pleasurable sensations are accompanied by dilatation of the blood-vessels, and perhaps also by an increase in the amplitude of heart-contraction, together with an increase in the innervation of the voluntary muscles, at least of those connected with respiration. In sensations of pain one has to distinguish the first shock of irritation from the subsequent state. At the moment of irritation there ensues a deeper inhalation, and, if the irritation is strong, also an increase in the innervation of voluntary muscles. Then there generally follows a relaxation.”


The physiological theory of pleasure and pain which can be deduced from these experiments is, however,

neither new nor original. Féré has himself pointed out that his researches only serve to prove the views which have been advanced with more or less explicitness by Kant, Bain, Darwin, and Dumont.


All authors who have closely studied the movements of expression have also remarked that pleasurable feelings are accompanied by a tendency towards increased activity (Gratiolet, Darwin, Bain, Bouillier, Mantegazza).


And the popular views on pleasure and pain, as we find them expressed in literature, all agree on this point: “La joie est l’air vital de notre âme. La tristesse est un asthme compliqué d’atonie.”


Every one knows that movement and unchecked increased activity generally create pleasure. And, on the other hand, functional inhibition is in our experience closely connected with feelings of pain.