1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > What Are the Nature and Functions of Art?

(Part 5)

What Are the Nature and Functions of Art?

But comparatively little has been done in a purely scientific manner to determine the nature and functions of Art so as to fix the relations of the different arts to simple or natural beauty. Aristotle supplied a few valuable doctrines, which have been rendered still more precise by Lessing and others. Yet there seems even now no consensus of opinion as to the precise aims of art, how far it has simply to reproduce and constructively vary the beauties of nature, or how far to seek modes of pleasurable effect wider than those supplied by natural objects. A theory of arts at all comparable in scientific precision to existing theories of morals has yet to be constructed. The few attempts to establish a basis for art of a non-metaphysical kind are characterized by great one-sidedness. Thus, for example, the theory that the function of art is to imitate nature, has been broached again and again with scarcely any reference to music, merely, as it seems, out of an impatience for some one defining property.

Without attempting to sketch a complete doctrine of art, a suggestion may be offered as to the right direction of inquiry.

First of all, then, the widest possible generalizations on the various emotional susceptibilities to which art can appeal must be collected, from a study both of mental phenomena as a whole, and of all varieties of pleasurable feeling actually ministered by the several forms of arts. This would fix the end of the fine arts in the widest sense, marking it off from the ends of utility and morality.

Secondly, the highest aims of art, or the ideal of art, would have to be determined by a consideration of the laws of compatibility and incompatibility among these various orders of gratification, the requirements of quantity, variety, and harmony, in any lofty aesthetic impression, and the relative value of the sensational, intellectual, and emotional elements in aesthetic effect.

This part of the subject would include the discussion of the value and universal necessity of the real and the ideal in art, truth to nature and imaginative transformation. These conclusions would require verification by means of the widest and most accurate study of the development of the arts, in which could be traced the gradual tentative progress of the artistic mind towards the highest achievements of art, as well as the permanent superiority of all those forms of art which most clearly embody this tendency. This part of the theory of art would clearly connect itself with the problem of the general law or tendency in aesthetic development already referred to. The proper determination of these two ideas, the whole range of possible aesthetic delight, and the direction of the highest, purest, and most permanent delight of cultivated minds, would at once dispose of many narrow conceptions of art, by recognizing the need of the widest possible diversity and grades of artistic value, if only experiments requisite to the discovery of its highest function.

At the same time the meaning and limits of the universal and necessary in art would be defined, and the unsuggestive and dreary conflicts between an unbending absolutism and a lawless individualism shown to be irrelevant. The validity of canons of art, and their limitations, would in this manner be fixed, and the impatient exaltation of certain schools and directions of taste reduced to a modest assertion of a purely relative truth.

The aims of art as a whole being thus determined, the next thing would be to define and classify the individual arts of painting, music, poetry, &c., according to their respective powers of embodying these aims. This would require a careful consideration of the material or medium of expression employed by each art, and the limitations imposed by it as to the mode of representation. The determination of this part of aesthetic theory, which Lessing commenced, would require not only technical but considerable psychological knowledge. Similarly, any conclusion arrived at on this subject would need to be verified by a reference to the history of the arts, as exemplifying both the successes of a right conception of the scope and possibilities of the particular art, and the failures resulting from a mistaken conception. Many other points, such as the nature of genius, the function and bounds of criticism, the relation of aesthetic culture to intellectual, moral, and social progress, would be included in a complete scheme of art doctrine.

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