Arthur James Balfour Balfour.

Criticism and beauty, a lecture rewritten.. online

. (page 1 of 3)
Online LibraryArthur James Balfour BalfourCriticism and beauty, a lecture rewritten.. → online text (page 1 of 3)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook



B ^ til saa






Prke Two Shillings net







A free copy of the new edition will be sent to any

purchaser of the first edition who will return his copy

to Mr, Henry Frowde, Amen Corner, E.C.















The sub-title of this lecture is in strictness
erroneous. The lecture has not been rewritten ;
it is now written for the first time. It unfortu-
nately happened that after I had promised the
University authorities to dehver it in the course
of last year, events occurred which deprived me ot
the leisure necessary to the proper carrjdng out
of my undertaking. I had therefore to choose
between leaving the managers of the Romanes
trust without a lecturer ; or doing my best to give,
in some rough and extempore form, the outlines of
the subject which I had selected for treatment.

Rightly or wrongly I chose the latter of these
alternatives : and the choice was not without its
advantages. But it had two serious disadvantages.
My theme was little adapted to my capacity for
extempore statement, and it was very unfamiliar
to the reporters. The consequences were such as
might perhaps have been foreseen. The lecture,
as reported, gave most imperfect expression to my
views ; — was, indeed, sometimes barely intelligible.



It had to be published immediately, so that
correction was impossible. But in any case no
mere correction could have remedied its defects.
Fortune, which gave me no leisure for writing
before the lecture was delivered, has given me
a few weeks since. 1 have employed them in
putting what I desired to say in a form in which
I hope it will at least be possible to understand ^

Let me add that writers on the subject I have
chosen have to use a most defective terminology.
At every turn its poverty hampers them. The
familiar word, often the only word, is too often
the wrong word. There is, for instance, no ex-
pression which, according to everyday usage,
describes the poet, the writer of literary prose, the
painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect
and, let me add, the historian. There is no term
which describes their works. I have commonly
used for these purposes the expressions * Artist ',
'Art': and it is thus that these words must be
understood unless the context forbids it.

An inadequacy of language yet more embarrass-
ing attaches to the whole group of terms which
express aesthetic quality and aesthetic feeling. I
have used, for instance, the word ' beauty ' on the


title-page : and the word ' pleasure ' constantly
recurs in the text. But works of literature or art
may have admirable aesthetic quality and yet not
be 'beautiful' in the everyday meaning of that
expression, while ' pleasure ' is but a poor, and (what
is worse) ambiguous, name for what is valuable in
aesthetic feeling. If this were a treatise instead of
a lecture, these and other important questions of
definition and nomenclature would have to be dealt
with at length. As it is, I must throw myself on
the indulgence of readers who will probably incline
to mercy in proportion as their own experience has
shown them the difficulty of expressing semi-philo-
sophic arguments in familiar language.

4 Caelton Gardens,
April, 19] 0.



The theme of this paper is Beauty and the
criticism of Beauty ; aesthetic excellence and its
analysis. From prehistoric times men have occupied
themselves in producing works of Art : since the
time of Aristotle they have spent learned energy in
commenting on them. How much are we the
wiser? What real insight do the commentaries
give us into the qualities which produce aesthetic
pleasure, or into the marks which distinguish good
art from bad ?

Any man desirous of obtaining answers to ques-
tions hke these would naturally turn in the first
place to the history of criticism, and if he did so
he would certainly be well rewarded. It may be
doubted, however, whether the reward would con-
sist in the satisfaction of his curiosity. For in
proportion as criticism has endeavoured to establish v
principles of composition, to lay down laws of
Beauty, to fix criterions of excellence, so it seems
to me to have failed : its triumphs, and they are
great, have been won on a different field. The
critics who have dealt most successfully with theory



have dealt with it destructively. They have de-
molished the dogmas of their predecessors, but have
advanced few dogmas of their own. So that, after
some twenty -three centuries of aesthetic speculation,
we are still without any accepted body of aesthetic

Perhaps the most perverse of all forms of critical
theory is that which flourished so luxuriantly im-
mediately after the revival of learning. It professed
to base itself on experience. Accepting the classical
masterpieces as supreme models of excellence, it
asked how they were made. To examine minutely
the procedure of the great classical writers, to em-
body their example in rules, to standardize their
practice, seemed the obvious method of enabling the
moderns to attain some tincture of the literary merits
so ardently admired in the ancients : and the method
was applied with a simple-minded consistency which
to the reader of the twentieth century seems both
pathetic and ludicrous. If you would rival anti-
quity, said the critics, imitate it. If you would
imitate it, note well its methods. When these have
been thoroughly mastered, it should be as easy to
frame recipes for writing an epic, as for compound-
ing a plum-pudding : — and they framed them ac-
cordingly. '

^ All this subject is admirably discussed in Professor Saiutabury's
orreat History of Criticiftm.


It soon became evident, of course, that such a
procedure was futile. The idea that the essential
excellence of great literature could be extracted by
this process of learned analysis was too crude to
last. Yet rules of composition, supposed to be of
classical authority, did not therefore at once fall
into disrepute. A writer might, to be sure, ignore
them ; but he did so at his peril. If he failed, his
failure was unredeemed. He could not even claim
to be ' correct '. If his talents compelled success,
he was classed as an ' irregular genius ', to be re-
luctantly allowed a licence forbidden to ordinary

In the criticism of Music and Painting similar
tendencies have shovoi themselves from time to
time ; and if Antiquity had left us masterpieces
in these arts, and if Aristotle had effectively com-
mented on them, the failure of post-renaissance
criticism might have been as prominent in these
departments of aesthetics as it has been in litera-
ture. As it is, the failure is the same in kind.
The study of ancient sculpture gave rise in the
eighteenth century to some very famous generaliza-
tions. But they were based on an imperfect know-
ledge of Greek art ; and (I imagine) have long lost
the authority they once possessed. The criticism
of music and painting shows the same weaknesses


as the criticism of literature. Theory has lagged
behind practice ; and the procedure of the dead has
too often been embodied in rules which serve no
other purpose than to embarrass the living.

Criticism, however, of this kind has had its day.
it is no longer in demand. The attempt to limit
aesthetic expression by rules is seen to be futile.
The attempt to find formulae for the creation of
new works of beauty by taking old works of beauty
to pieces and noting how they were made is seen to
be more futile still. But if these kinds of criticism
are obsolete, what is the criticism which now oc-
cupies their place ?

It is abundant, and, I think, admirable. The
modern commentator is concerned rather to point
out beauties than to theorize about them. He
does not measure merit by rule, nor crowd his
pages with judgements based on precedent. His

procedure is very different. He takes his reader,

as it were by the hand, wanders with him through
some chosen field of Literature or Art, guides him
to its fairest scenes, dwells on what he deems to
be its beauties, indicates its defects, and invites
him to share his pleasures. His commentary on
Art is often itself a work of art ; he deals with
literature in what is in itself literature. And he so
uses the apparatus of learned research that the least


sympathetic reader, though he need not admire,
can scarcely fail to understand the author criticized,
the ends he aimed at, the models that swayed
him, the conventions within which he worked, the
nature of the successes which it was his fortune
to achieve.

Of criticism like this we cannot have too much.
Yet it has its difficulties ; or rather it suggests
difficulties which it scarcely attempts to solve.
For its aesthetic judgements are, in spite of appear-
ances, for the most part immediate and, so to speak,
intuitive. ' Lo, here I ' ' Lo, there ! ' ' This is
good ! ' ' That is less good ! ' ' What subtle charm
in this stanza ! ' ' What masterly orchestration in
that symphony I ' ' What admirable realism ! '
' What delicate fancy ! ' The critic tells you what
he hkes or dishkes. He may even seem to teU
you why. But the 'why' is rarely more than a
statement of personal preferences. For these pre-
ferences he may quote authority. He may classify
them. He may frame general propositions about
them, which have all the air of embodying critical
principles on which particular aesthetic judgements
may securely rest. But, in fact, these general pro-
positions only summarize a multitude of separate
valuations of aesthetic merit, each of which is either
self-sustaining, or is worthless.


Many critics, it is true, would be slow to admit
this. They are not content with historical and
descriptive accounts of art and artists. They long
for immutable principles of judgement, based on
the essential nature of beauty. It does not suffice
them to rejoice over what, in their eyes at least, is
beautiful ; nor yet to make others rejoice with
them. Unless they can appeal to some critical
canon, abstract and universal, their personal esti-
mates of aesthetic value seem of small account.
Nor is it enough for them that they should be
right. To complete their satisfaction, those who
_^ffer from them must be wrong.
/ This is perfectly natural. No one willingly
believes that what he greatly admires is admirable
only for him. We all instinctively lean to the
opinion that beauty has ' objective ' worth, and
that its expression, whether in nature or irl art,
possesses, as of right, significance for the world
at large. Yet how is this possible? It is not
j merely that no code of critical legislation seems
ito be forthcoming. The difficulty lies deeper. If
we had such a code, what authority could it claim ?
To what objective test can judgement about beauty
be made amenable ? If a picture or a poem stirs
my admiration, can there be any meaning in the
statements that my taste is bad, and that if I felt


rightly I should feel differently ? If there be a
meaning, what is it?

In dealing with this fundamental question we
must, I think, distinguish. There are kinds of
aesthetic excellence to which, in a certain sense,
we can apply an 'objective ' test; though they are*
neither the highest kinds of excellence nor the/
most important from the point of view of theory]
I might cite as examples technical skill, workman-
ship, the mastery over material and instruments, and
kindred matters. These are more or less capable
of impersonal measurement ; and I cannot doubt
either that the pleasure they give to the sym-
pathetic observer is very great, or that it belongs
to the same genus, if not the same species, as
aesthetic feeling in its more familiar and higher

Some may think it dishonouring to beauty thus
to class it with technical skill. Others, forgetful
that Fine Art is the distant cousin of sport, may
think it dishonouring to the technical skill required
of the poet, the painter, or the musician, to com-
pare it with that required of the cricketer or the
biUiard-player. There is no doubt an all-important
difference between them. In the case of games,
the pleasures which the sympathetic observation of
great skill produces in a competent spectator are


unaffected by the result ; for, beyond itself, true
sport has, properly speaking, no result. Victory })
and defeat are subordinate incidents. The final
cause of games is the playing of them. In Art,
on the other hand, skill is a means to an end ; and
if the end be not attained there is apt to arise a
certain feeling of dissatisfaction. Dexterous versi-
fication which does not result in poetry, admirable
brush-work expressing a mean design, may in their
degree give pleasure ; but it is pleasure marred by
the reflection that the purpose for which versifica-
tion and painting exist has not, in these cases, been

However this may be, my contention is that the
pleasure given by the contemplation of technical
dexterity is aesthetic, and that technical dexterity
itself is capable of objective estimation. In games
of pure skill it is certainly so. He plays best who
wins. The scorer is an infallible critic ; and his
standard of excellence is as * objective ' as any
man could desire. In other cases, no doubt, the
measure of technical merit may not be so precise.
It may be hard, for example, to decide v/hich
member of a hunt rides best across country, or
which composer shows the greatest mastery of
counterpoint and fugue. Yet these also are ques-
tions more or less capable of ' objective ' estima-


tion. The trained critic, be it in the art of riding
or in contrapuntal conventions, may, by the
application of purely impersonal tests, make a
tolerably fair comparison. Familiar with the diffi-
culties which have to be met, he can judge of the
success with which they have been surmounted.
Basing his estimate, not on feeling but on know-
ledge, he can measure aesthetic qualities by a scale
which is not the less 'objective' because it may J
often be uncertain in its application. -A*

Here, then, are aesthetic qualities (I have taken
artistic workmanship as an example) which have
a known reality apart from aesthetic feeling, and
which can be independently measured. Of these it
is possible, in a certain loose sense, to say that the
man who admires them is right, and the man who v , (V

does not admire them is wrong : that the one sees
excellence when it is there, while the other does not. n^"
/But when we pass from quaUties like these, through
doubtful and marginal cases, to the qualities we
call 'sublime', 'beautiful', ' pathetic ',' humorous ',
* melodious ', and so forth, our position is quite
different. What kind of existence are they known
to possess apart from feeling ? How are they to be
measured except by the emotions they produce?
Are they indeed anything but those very emotions
illegitimately ' objectified ', and assumed to be per-



manent attributes of the works of art which happen
in this case or that to excite them ?

Questions of this kind have, I suppose, haunted
all those who cannot accept canons of criticism
based on precedent or authority. And many are
the devices adopted, or hinted at, by which the
sceptical individualism, which these doubts suggest,
may be removed or mitigated.

Of such devices the most familiar is the assump-
tion that, however impossible it may be tp discover
in what beauty consists, it is quite unnecessary
(^to do so, since there is a common agreement as to
; the things which are in fact beautiful. Though the
naturalist may not be able to define life, yet the
world is not embarrassed to distinguish the living
from the dead. Though there are many colour-
blind people among us, yet the world judges with
practical security that the flowers of a geranium are
red and its leaves green. In like manner (it is
thought) the world recognizes beauty when it sees
it, unmoved either by the dissent of negligeable
minorities, or by the imperfections of aesthetic

These analogies, however, are misleading. Biolo-
gists may be perplexed about the mystery of life,
but they can always tell you why they regard this
body as Uving, and that one as dead. Their canons


of judgement have ' objective ' value, and are as
applicable to new cases as to old. The aesthetic
critics of whom 1 am speaking make no such claim.
They do not pretend to catalogue the external i
attributes by which the objective presence of the
higher kinds of beauty can be securely established,
which are never present when it is absent, or absent
when it is present. They are always reduced in the
last rq^sort to ask, 'Does this work of art convey
aesthetic pleasure?' — a test which, on the face of
it, is subjective, not objective.

So also with regard to colour. There are of
course persons of abnormal vision to whom the
flower of a geranium appears to possess very much
the same hue as its leaves. But this throws no
doubt on what ordinary men mean either by the
sensation of red, or by a red object. The physical
quality which constitutes redness is perfectly well
known, and when its presence in some external
body is otherwise estabhshed, it may be confidently
foretold that it will produce the sensation of
red in persons normally constituted. But subject
to. what has been said above, we know nothing
of the objective side of beauty. When we say
that a tune is melodious, or an image sublime,
or a scene pathetic, the adjectives may seem to be
predicated of these objects, in precisely the same



way as redness is predicated of a geranium. But
f it is not so. As I have already observed, we are
merely naming the sentiments they produce, not
the qualities by which they produce them. We
cannot describe the higher beauties of beautiful
objects except in terms of aesthetic feehng — and
ex VI termini such descriptions are subjective.

It may, however, be admitted that if there were
a general agreement about things that are beautiful,
only philosophers would disquiet themselves in
order to discover in what precisely their beauty
consisted. But notoriously there is no such agree-
ment. Difference of race, difference of age, different
degrees of culture among men of the same race
and the same age, individual idiosyncrasy and col-
lective fashion occasion, or accompany, the widest
possible divergence of aesthetic feeling. The same
work of art which moves one man to admiration,
moves another to disgust ; what rouses the enthu-
siasm of one generation, leaves another hostile or

These things are undeniable, and are not denied.
But it is sometimes sought to soften the * indi-
vidualist' conclusions to which they lead, by ap-
pealing from the wild and wandering fancies of
ordinary men to an aristocracy of taste ; and it
must in fairness be acknowledged that among


experts there is something distantly approaching
a common body of doctrine about the literary and
artistic masterpieces of the world. Set a dozen
contemporary critics to make lists of the best books,
pictures, buildings, operas, and the results will be
fairly harmonious. These results (it is claimed)
may be regarded as evidence that among qualified
judges there is an agreement sufficient to serve as
a working substitute for some undiscovered, and
perhaps undiscoverable, criterion of artistic merit.

But the more we examine the character of this
agreement among experts the less weight shall we
feel disposed to attach to it; — and for more than one
reason. In the first place, it must be remembered
that the very: fact of its. existence has caused the
cultivated portion^ of mankind — all who take even
the most superficial interest in literature and art —
tCLjbeJbrought, under the, influence- of _a^ common
literary and arti&tic_±raditiQn. This has many con-
sequences. It inclines some persons to assume an
admiration which they do not feel for things which
everybody round them thinks worthy to be admired.
Others again keep silence when they cannot praise.
Nothing, they think, is gained by emphasizing
dissent. Why proclaim from the house-tops that
some author, long since dead, does not, in their
opinion, deserve the share of fame assigned to him


by accepted tradition ? Let him rest. A more
important effect is that the unfelt pressure of
general opinion produces not merely sham profes-
sions, but genuine sentiments. Fashion, whether in
clothes or operas, whether in manners or in morals,
(as I have shown elsewhere) is an influence which,
though it may produce some hypocrites, most
certainly produces many true believers. And tradi-
tion, though infinitely more than mere fashion, is
fashion still.

These considerations require us largely to discount
the agreement prevalent in current estimates of
literature and art. But there is a more important
point still to be noted, which yet further diminished
the value of any conclusions which that agi-eement
may seem to support. For we are bound to ask
how deep the agreement goes even in the cases
where in some measure it may be truly said to
exist. Do critics who would approximately agree
in their lists of great artists, agree as to the order
of their excellence ? Do men of ' trained sensibility'
feel alike in the presence of the same masterpiece ?
J do not believe it. The mood of admiration
aroused by style, by technical skill, by the command
of material and instruments, may well form a
commori ground where competent critics will find
themselves in decent agreement. But as the


quality of aesthetic emotion rises, as we approach
the level where the sentiment of beauty becomes
intense, and the passion of admiration incommuni-
cable, there is not — and, I believe, cannot be — any
real unanimity of personal valuation. On these high
peaks men never wander in crowds : • they whose
paths lie close together on the slopes below, perforce
divide into diminishing companies, as each moves
upwards towards his chosen ideals of excellence.

If any man doubt that the agreement among
experts is in some degree artificial, and in some
degree imaginary, let him turn for a moment from
the critics who have created our literary and artistic
tradition to the men of genius who have created
Literature and Art. No one will deny that they
were men of ' trained sensibility': no one will main-
tain that they were agreed. So little, indeed, have
they been agreed, that the law of change prevailing
through certain important periods of artistic history
seems to be based on their disagreement. Succes-
sive epochs, which show little difference in other
elements of culture, yet often differ vehemently in
their aesthetic judgements. Action is followed by
reaction. A school, at one moment dominant,
gradually decays, and is succeeded by another of
sharply contrasted characteristics. The art-producing
fields get wearied, as it were, of a crop too


often sown ; their harvests dwindle ; until in the
fullness of time a new vegetation, drawing upon
fresh sources of nourishment, springs suddenly into
vigorous and aggressive life.

Now, in looking back, either on revolutions like
these, or on other less abrupt but equally im-
portant changes, of which the history of Literature
and Art shows so many examples, we must not,
for the purposes of the present argument, take up
^ the position of the eclectic critic who, calmly
appreciative and coldly just, sees merits in every
school and is impassioned over none. All that my
argument requires is proof that the judgements of
great writers and artists, especially when they are

1 3

Online LibraryArthur James Balfour BalfourCriticism and beauty, a lecture rewritten.. → online text (page 1 of 3)