Read CHAPTER VIII of The Gate of Appreciation, free online book, by Carleton Noyes, on ReadCentral.com.

THE ARTS OF FORM

THE maker of the first bowl moulds the plastic clay into the shape best adapted to its purpose, a vessel to hold water, from which he can drink easily; the half-globe rather than the cube affords the greatest holding capacity with the least expenditure of material. He finds now that the form itself over and above the practical serviceableness of the bowl gives him pleasure. With a pointed stick or bit of flint he traces in the yielding surface a flowing line or an ordered series of dots or crosses, allowing free play to his fancy and invention. The design does not resemble anything else, nor does it relate itself to any object external to the maker; it has no meaning apart from the pleasure which it gave him as he conceived and traced it, and the pleasure it now gives him to look at it. To another man who sees the bowl, its form and its decoration afford likewise a double pleasure: there is first the satisfaction of senses and mind in the contemplation of harmonious form and rhythmic pattern; and second, there is communicated to him a feeling of the maker’s delight in his handiwork, and sympathetically and imaginatively the beholder realizes that delight in his own experience.

I am walking with a friend along a road which climbs a wooded hillside. A few steps bring us to the top and the edge of a clearing. There, suddenly a sweep of country is rolled out before us. A quick intake of the breath, and then the cry, “Ah!” Consciousness surges back over me, and turning to my friend, I exclaim, “See the line of those hills over there across the tender sky and those clouds tumbling above them; see how the hills dip down into the meadows; look at the lovely group of willows along the bank of the river, how graciously they come in, and then that wash of purple light over everything!” My simple cry, “Ah!” was the expression of emotion, the unconscious, involuntary expression; it was not art. It did not formulate my emotion definitely, and although it was an expression of emotion, it had no power to communicate the special quality of it. So soon, however, as I composed the elements in the landscape, which stimulated my emotion, into a distinct and coherent whole and by means of that I tried to convey to my friend something of what I was feeling, my expression tended to become art. My medium of expression happened to be words. If I had been alone and wanted to take home with me a record of my impression of the landscape, a pencil-sketch of the little composition might have served to indicate the sources of my feeling and to suggest its quality. Whether in words or in line and mass, my work would be in a rudimentary form a work of representative art. The objective fact of the landscape which I point out to my friend engages his interest; his pleasure derives from those aspects of it which my emotion emphasizes and which constitute its beauty; and something of the same emotion that I felt he realizes in his own experience.

The impulse to expression which fulfills itself in a work of art is directed in general by one of two motives, the motive of representation and the motive of pure form. These two motives are coexistent with human activity itself. The earliest vestiges of prehistoric races and the remains of the remotest civilizations are witnesses of man’s desire to imitate and record, and also of his pleasure in harmony of form. Certain caves in France, inhabited by man some thousands of years before history begins, have yielded up reindeer horns and bones, carved with reliefs and engraved with drawings of mammoths, reindeer, and fish. On the walls and roofs of these caves are paintings in bright colors of animals, rendered with correctness and animation. Flint axes of a still remoter epoch “are carved with great dexterity by means of small chips flaked off the stone, and show a regularity of outline which testifies to the delight of primitive man in symmetry." Burial mounds, of unknown antiquity, and the rude stone monuments such as Stonehenge and the dolmens of Brittany and Wales, emerging out of prehistoric dawns, are evidence of man’s striving after architectural unity in design and harmony of proportion.

The existence of these two separate motives which impel creation, man’s desire to imitate and his delight in harmony, gives rise to a division of the arts into two general classes, namely, the representative arts and the arts of pure form. The representative arts comprise painting and sculpture, and literature in its manifestations of the drama, fiction, and dramatic and descriptive poetry. These arts draw their subjects from nature and human life, from the world external to the artist. The arts of form comprise architecture and music, and that limitless range of human activities in design and pattern-making for embellishment including also the whole category of “useful arts” which may be subsumed under the comprehensive term decoration. In these arts the “subject” is self-constituted and does not derive its significance from its likeness to any object external to it; the form itself is the subject. Lyric poetry stands midway between the two classes. It is the expression of “inner states” but it externalizes itself in terms of the outer world. It has a core of thought, and it employs images from nature which can be visualized, and it recalls sounds whose echo can be wakened in imaginative memory.

“Hark! hark! the lark at heaven’s gate sings,
And Phoebus ’gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies;
And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes;
With everything that pretty bin,
My lady sweet, arise!
Arise, arise!”

The intellectual and sensuous elements which lyric poetry embodies are finally submerged under the waves of emotional stimulus which flow from the form as form. Such poetry does not depend upon the fact of representation for its meaning; the very form itself, as in music, is its medium of communicating the emotion. Art, therefore, to phrase the same matter in slightly different terms, has a subjective and an objective aspect. In the one case, the artist projects his feeling into the forms which he himself creates; in the other case, the forms external to him, as nature and human life, inspire the emotion, and these external forms the artist reproduces, with of course the necessary modifications, as the symbol and means of expression of his emotion.

The distinction between the representative arts and the arts of form is not ultimate, nor does it exclude one class wholly from the other; it defines a general tendency and serves to mark certain differences in original motive and in the way in which the two kinds of work may be received and appreciated. In actual works of art themselves, though they differ as to origin and function, the line of division cannot be sharply drawn. The dance may be an art of form or a representative art according as it embodies the rhythms of pure movement or as it numerically figures forth dramatic ideas. Painting, as in the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and the wall paintings of Tintoretto and Veronese in the Ducal Palace of Venice, may be employed in the service of decoration. Decoration, as in architectural sculpture and in patterns for carpets and wall-coverings, often draws its motives from nature, such as leaves, flowers, fruits, and animals; but when the function of the work is decorative and not representative, the naturalistic and graphic character of the subject is subordinated to the purposes of abstract and formal design. A picture, on the other hand, which is frankly representative in purpose, must submit its composition and color-harmony to the requirements of unity in design; in a sense it must make a pattern. And a statue, as the “Victory of Samothrace,” bases its ultimate appeal, not upon the fact of representation, but upon complete, rhythmic, beautiful form.

To the appreciator the arts of form carry a twofold significance. There is first the pleasure which derives from the contemplation and reception of a harmony of pure form, including harmony of color, of line, and of flat design as well as form in the round, a pleasure of the senses and the mind. Second, works of art in this category, as they are the expression for the artist of his emotion, become therefore the manifestation to the appreciator and means of communication of that emotion.

Man’s delight in order, in unity, in harmony, rhythm, and balance, is inborn. The possession of these qualities by an object constitutes its form. Form, in the sense of unity and totality of relations, is not to be confounded with mere regularity. It may assume all degrees of divergence from geometric precision, all degrees of variety, ranging from the visual perfectness of the Parthenon to the sublime and triumphant inconsequence of the sky-line of New York city. It may manifest all degrees of complexity from a cup to a cathedral or from “Home, Sweet Home” to Tschaikowski’s “Pathetic Symphony.” Whatever the elements and the incidents, our sense of order in the parts and of singleness of impression endows the object with its form. The form as we apprehend it of an object constitutes its beauty, its capability to arouse and to delight.

Because of the essential make-up of man’s mind and spirit, powers that are innate and determined by forces still beyond the scope of analysis, the perception of a harmony of relations, which is beauty, is attended with pleasure, a pleasure that is felt and cannot be explained. This inborn, inexplicable delight is at once the origin of the arts of form and the basis of our appreciation. Each art, as the fashioning of objects of use, as decoration, architecture, and music, is governed by its own intrinsic, inherent laws and rests its appeal upon man’s pleasure in form. There is no standard external to the laws of the art itself by which to judge the rightness and the beauty of the individual work. In the arts of use and in decoration and architecture, the beauty of a work, as the beauty of a chair, as in the ordering and appointments of a room, as the beauty of a temple, a theatre, a dwelling, derives primarily from the fitness of the object to its function, and finally from the rhythm of its lines and the harmony of its masses and proportions, its total form. A chair which cannot be sat in may be interesting and agreeable to look at, but it is not truly beautiful; for then it is not a chair but a curiosity, a bijou, and a superfluity; to be beautiful it must be first of all frankly and practically a chair. A living-room which cannot be lived in with comfort and restfulness and peace of mind is not a living-room, but a museum or a concentrated department store; at best it is only an inclosed space. A beautiful building declares its function and use, satisfies us with the logic and coherence of its parts, and delights us with its reticence or its boldness, its simplicity or its inventiveness, in fine, its personality, as expressed in its parts and their confluence into an ordered, self-contained, and self-sufficing whole. Music, using sound for its material, is a pattern-weaving in tones. The power of music to satisfy and delight resides in the sensuous value of its material and in the character of its pattern as form, the balance and contrast of tonal relations, the folding and unfolding of themes, their development and progress to the final compelling unity-in-variety which constitutes its form and which in its own inherent and self-sufficing way is made the expression of the composer’s emotion and musical idea. Lyric poetry is the fitting of rhythmic, melodious, colored words to the emotion within, to the point where the very form itself becomes the meaning, and the essence and mystery of the song are in the singing. Beauty is harmony materialized; it is emotion ordered and made visible, audible, tangible. If in the arts of form we seek further a standard of truth, their truth is not found in their relation to any external verity, but is determined by their correspondence with inner experience.

In the category of the arts of form the single work is to be received in its entirety and integrity as form. The whole, however, may be resolved into its parts, and the individual details may be interesting in themselves. Thus into decorative patterns are introduced elements of meaning which attach themselves to the world and experience external to the artist. Many ornamental motives, like the zigzag and the egg-and-dart, for example, had originally a symbolic value. Sometimes they are drawn from primitive structures and fabrics, as the checker-board pattern, with its likeness to the plaitings of rush mattings, and the volute and spiral ornaments, which recall the curves and involutions of wattle and wicker work. Again, decoration may employ in its service details that in themselves are genuinely representative art. The frieze of the Parthenon shows in relief a procession of men and women and horses and chariots and animals. The sculptures of Gothic churches represent men and women, and the carvings of mouldings, capitals, and traceries are based on naturalistic motives, taking their designs from leaves and flowers. The essential function of ornament is to emphasize form and not to obscure it, though nowadays in machine-made things a kind of pseudo-embellishment is laid on to distract attention from the badness and meaninglessness of the form; in true decoration the representative elements are subordinated to the formal character of the whole. The representative interest may be enjoyed separately and in detail; but finally the graphic purpose yields to the decorative, and the details take their place as parts of the total design. Thus a Gothic cathedral conveys its complete and true impression first and last as form. Midway we may set ourselves to a reading of the details. The figure of this saint on the jamb or the archivolt of the portal is expressive of such simple piety and enthusiasm! In this group on the tympanum what animation and spirit! This moulding of leaves and blossoms is cut with such loving fidelity and exquisite feeling for natural truth! But at the last the separate members fulfill their appointed office as they reveal the supreme function of the living total form.

Music, too, in some of its manifestations, as in song, the opera, and programme music, has a representative and illustrative character. In Chopin’s “Funeral March” we hear the tolling of church bells, and it is easy to visualize the slow, straggling file of mourners following the bier; the composition here has a definite objective base drawn from external fact, and the “idea” is not exclusively musical, but admits an infusion of pictorial and literary elements. In listening to the love duet of the second act of “Tristan,” although the lovers are before us in actual presence on the stage, I find myself involuntarily closing my eyes, for the music is so personal and so spiritualized, it is in and of itself so intensely the realization of the emotion, that the objective presentment of it by the actors becomes unnecessary and is almost an intrusion. The representative, figurative element in music may be an added interest, but its appeal is intellectual; if as we hear the “Funeral March,” we say to ourselves, This is so and so, and, Here they do this or that, we are thinking rather than feeling. Music is the immediate expression of emotion communicated immediately; and the composition will not perfectly satisfy unless it is music, compelling all relations of melody, harmony, and rhythm into a supreme and triumphant order.

Whereas the representative arts are based upon objective fact, drawing their “subjects” from nature and life external to the artist; in decoration, in architecture, and in music the artist creates his own forms as the projection of his emotion and the means of its expression. Richard Wagner, referring to the composition of his “Tristan,” writes: “Here, in perfect trustfulness, I plunged into the inner depth of soul events, and from out this inmost centre of the world I fearlessly built up its outer form. . . . Life and death, the whole import and existence of the outer world, here hang on nothing but the inner movements of the soul. The whole affecting Action comes about for the reason only that the inmost soul demands it, and steps to light with the very shape foretokened in the inner shrine.” The form, thus self-constituted, has the power to delight us, and the work is at the same time the expression of emotion. The arts of form please us with the pleasure that attends the perception of formal beauty; but this pleasure docs not exhaust their capability to minister to us. What differentiates art from manufacture is the element of personal expression. Born out of need, whether the need be physical or spiritual, fulfilling the urge to expression, a work of art embodies its maker’s delight in creating. Correspondingly, beyond our immediate enjoyment of the work as form, we feel something of what the man felt who was impelled to create it. His handiwork, his pattern, his composition, becomes the means of communicating to us his emotional experience.

Obviously the significance of any work is determined primarily by the intensity and scope of emotion which has prompted it. The creation of works of art involves all degrees of intention, from the hut in the wilderness rudely thrown together, whose purpose was shelter, to a Gothic cathedral, in its multitudinousness eloquent of man’s worship and aspiration. The man who moulded the first bowl, adapting its form as closely as possible to its use and shaping its proportions for his own pleasure to satisfy his sense of harmony and rhythm, differs from the builders of the Parthenon only in the degree of intensity of his inspiring emotion and in the measure of his controlling thought. The beauty of accomplished form of cathedral and of temple is compelling; and we may forget that they rose out of need. Both hut and bowl are immediately useful, and their beauty is not so evident, that little touch of feeling which wakens a response in us. But in their adaptation to their function they become significant; the satisfaction which accompanies expression is communicated to us as we apprehend in the work the creator’s intention and we realize in ourselves what the creation of it meant to him as the fulfillment of his need and the utterance of his emotion.

So the expressive power of an individual work is conditioned originally by the amount of feeling that enters into the making of it. Every phrase of a Beethoven symphony is saturated with emotion, and the work leads us into depths and up to heights of universal experience, disclosing to us tortuous ways and infinite vistas of the possibilities of human feeling. A simple earthen jug may bear the impress of loving fingers, and the crudely turned form may be eloquent of the caress of its maker. So we come to value even in the humblest objects of use this autographic character, which is the gate of entrance into the experience of the men who fashioned them. Every maker strives toward perfection, the completest realization of his ideal within his power of execution. But the very shortcomings of his work are significant as expressive of what he felt and was groping after; they are so significant that by a curious perversion, machinery, which in our civilized day has supplanted the craftsman, tries by mechanical means to reproduce the roughness and supposed imperfections of hand work. Music is the consummate art, in which the form and the content are one and inextricable; its medium is the purest, least alloyed means of expression of instant emotion. Architecture, in its harmonies and rhythms, the gathering up of details into the balanced and perfect whole, partakes of the nature of music. But the arts of use and decoration also have their message for the spirit. There is no object fashioned by the hand of man so humble that it may not embody a true thought and a sincere delight. There is no pattern or design so simple and so crude that it may not be the overflow of some human spirit, a mind and heart touched to expression.