What Is Art? – Benedetto Croce

[…] The question as to what art is – let me answer it immediately and in the simplest manner: art is or . The artist produces an image or picture. The person who enjoys art turns his eyes in the direction which the artist has pointed out to him, peers through the hole which has been opened for him, and reproduces in himself the artist’s image. ‘,’ ‘,’ ‘,’ ‘,’ ‘fancy,’ ‘,  ‘representation,’ and so forth, are words which continually reappear as almost synonymous in discussions on art. All of them give rise in our minds to the same concept or to the same set of concepts – a sign of universal consent.

But this answer of mine, that art is , acquires significance as well as strength from all that it implicitly denies and from which art is distinguished. What are the negations it, includes? I shall indicate the chief ones, or at least those most important for us at our present moment of .

The answer denies, above all, that art is a physical fact, as, for example, certain particular colors or combinations of colors, forms of the body, sounds or combinations of sounds, phenomena of heat or electricity – in brief, anything which goes under the name of ‘physical.’ […]

… to overcome the strange and harsh sound of the truth in question or to become familiar with it, we should take into consideration that the proof of the unreality of the physical world has not only been established in an irrefutable way and is conceded by all philosophers (who are neither crass materialists nor involved in the strident contradictions of materialism), but that the proof itself is being acknowledged by the physicists themselves – as evident in the traces of philosophy which they mix in with their science – when they conceive physical phenomena as manifestations of principles which go beyond experience, such as the atoms or the ether, or as the manifestation of an Unknowable. Besides, the very Matter of the materialists is a supermaterial principle. Thus, physical facts, by their internal logic and by common consent, make themselves known not as something truly real, but as a construction of our intellect for purposes of science. Consequently, the question as to whether art is a physical fact should rationally assume another meaning, namely, whether art may be constructed physically.

This is certainly possible, and we actually do so whenever, on diverting our attention from the sense of a poem, or on giving up its enjoyment, we begin, say, to count the words of which the poem is composed and divide them into syllables and letters. Or whenever, on diverting our attention from the aesthetic effect of a statue, we measure it and weigh it. To do so is, no doubt, of the greatest utility to packers of statues, as to count words is useful to printers who have to ‘compose’ pages of poetry! But it is utterly useless to the contemplator or student of art, to whom it is not useful or permissible ‘to divert his attention’ from his proper object. Not even, therefore, in this second sense is art a physical fact, because when we undertake to penetrate its nature and its mode of operation, it is of no avail to make a physical thing out of it.

Another negation implicit in the definition of art as is that if art is , and if signifies theory in the original sense of , then art cannot be a utilitarian act. For, inasmuch as a utilitarian act aims always at arriving at a pleasure and, hence, at removing a pain, art considered in terms of its own nature has nothing to do with the useful, or with pleasure and pain, as such.

It will be admitted in effect, without too much opposition, that a pleasure as pleasure, any pleasure whatever, is not in itself artistic. The pleasure from a drink of water which quenches our thirst is not artistic. Neither is a walk in the open air which stretches our limbs and makes our blood circulate more rapidly, nor is the attainment of a coveted post which results in lending security to our practical life, and so forth. Even in the relations which develop between ourselves and works of art, the difference between pleasure and art is self-evident. For the figure represented may be dear to us and awaken the most delightful memories, but the picture may be ugly, nevertheless. On the other hand, the picture may be beautiful, but the figure represented abominable to our soul. Or the picture itself, which we approve as beautiful, may provoke later a fit of rage and envy, owing to its being a work of an enemy or a rival, to whom it will bring certain advantages and renewed vigor. Our practical interests, with their correlative pleasures and pains, are blended, become confused now and then, and disquiet our aesthetic interest, but never become united with it.

At most, to defend on more valid grounds the definition of art as the pleasurable, one might argue that art is not the pleasurable in general but a special form of it. However, this restriction is no longer a defense but rather an actual abandonment of that thesis. For assuming that art is a special form of the pleasurable, it follows that its distinctive character would not be supplied by the pleasurable as such, but by whatever distinguishes the artistic from other forms of the pleasurable. And it is to that distinctive element apart from the pleasurable, or different from it, to which it would be fitting to address the inquiry. [. . .]

A third negation effected with the help of the theory of art as is the denial of art as a moral act. In other words, it denies that art is that form of practical activity which, though necessarily associated with the useful and with pleasure and pain, is not immediately utilitarian and hedonistic, operating as it does on a higher spiritual plane. Even so, as theoretical activity, is against anything practical. In fact, as has been observed from time immemorial, art does not originate from an act of will. Good will, which constitutes the honest man, does not constitute the artist. Moreover, since art is not born from an act of wili, it likewise is not subject to any moral evaluation, not because an exemption privilege is accorded to it, but simply because no way is available to apply moral distinctions to it. An artistic image can depict a morally praiseworthy or blameworthy action. But the image itself, as such, is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy, morally. Not only is there no penal code which can condemn an image to prison or to death, but no moral judgment passed by a reasonable person could ever address itself to it as its object. Otherwise, to judge Dante’s Francesca immoral or Shakespeare’s Cordelia moral (these perform a mere artistic function, being like musical notes within Dante’s and Shakespeare’s souls) would be just as valid as to judge a square moral or a triangle immoral.

Furthermore, the moralistic theory of art is also represented in the history of aesthetic doctrines and is not altogether dead even today, although it is much discredited in current opinion. However, it is discredited not only for its internal defect, but, in addition, to some extent, on account of the moral shortcomings of some present tendencies which facilitate, thanks to psychological jargon, that refutation which should be made – and which we are here doing – solely on logical grounds. From the moralistic doctrine is derived art’s pre-established goal to serve as a guide to the good, inspire the abhorrence of evil, correct and improve manners and morals. And from the same source comes the demand that artists contribute to the public education of the lower classes, the reinforcing of the national or warlike spirit of a people, the spreading of the ideals of a modest and industrious life, and so on.

All of which are things that art cannot do, any more than can geometry, which, notwithstanding, does not lose any of its respectability on this account; and in view of this, one does not see why art should lose any of its, either. […]

[…] The moralistic doctrine has also its true side. For if art is beyond morals, the artist is not, since he is neither beyond nor this side of it, but under its dominion. Insofar as he is a man, the artist cannot shirk the duties of man and should consider art itself – which is not and never will be morals – as a mission, to be practised like a priesthood.

Furthermore (and this is the last, and perhaps the most important, of the general negations which it suits my purposes to mention here), with the definition of art as goes the denial that it has the character of conceptual knowledge. Conceptual knowledge in its pure form (which is that of the philosophical) is always oriented toward reality and aims to establish the real as distinguished from the unreal, or to diminish unreality in status by including it within reality as a subordinate part of itself. In contrast, refers precisely to the lack of distinction between reality and unreality – to the image itself – with its purely ideal status as mere image.

The contrast being made here between intuitive or sensuous and conceptual or intellectual knowledge, between aesthetics and noetics, is aimed at restoring the autonomy of this simpler and elementary form of knowledge, which has been compared with the dream (dream, certainly not sleep) of the theoretical life, with respect to which philosophy would be the waking state. Accordingly, whoever before a work of art asks whether what the artist has expressed be metaphysically or historically true or false is asking a meaningless question, and falls into the error analogous to the one of the man who wants to bring before the tribunal of morality the ethereal images of fancy.

The question is meaningless because the distinction of true and false always concerns an assertion about reality, that is, a judgment, and thus is not applicable to the presentation of an image or to a mere subject – which is not the subject in a proposition, lacking as it does attribute or predicate. It is useless to object that the individual character of the image has no meaning without a reference to the universal, of which that image is its individuation. For here we certainly are not denying that the universal, like the spirit of God, is everywhere and animates everything from within itself. But we are denying that the universal is logically explicit or thought out in as such. And likewise is it useless to appeal to the principle of the unity of the spirit, which is not weakened but rather strengthened by our precise distinction between fancy and thought, because only from distinction is opposition born, and concrete unity from opposition.

Ideality (as this property which distinguishes from concept, art from philosophy and history, from assertion of the universal, and from perception or narration of events, has also been called) is the quintessence of art. As soon as reflection or judgment develops out of that state of ideality, art vanishes and dies. It dies in the artist, who changes from artist and becomes his own critic; it dies in the spectator or listener, who from rapt contemplator of art changes into a thoughtful observer of life.

* * *

In reality, is production of an image. But it is not production of an incoherent accumulation of images obtained by reconjuring up ancient images, letting them succeed each other at will, or combining them in the same arbitrary fashion, such as joining the neck of a horse to the human head, as is done in a child’s game. In order to express this distinction between and fantasy, the olden poetics made use, especially, of the concept of unity and required that any artistic work produced be simplex et unum\ or it utilized the allied concept of unity in variety, according to which the several images were to come to a focus and blend into a complex image. To meet the same need, the aesthetics of the nineteenth century worked out the distinction (which is found in not a few of its philosophers) between fancy (corresponding to the artistic faculty proper) and (corresponding to the extra-artistic faculty). To collect, select, divide, and combine images presupposes within the spirit the production and the possession of the single images themselves. Fancy is a producer, whereas is a parasite, fit for incidental occasions but incapable of begetting organization and life. […]

The artistic image (it has been said) is such, when it attaches an intelligible to a sensible, and represents an idea. Now ‘intelligible’ and idea’ cannot have any other meaning (nor have they had any other for the defenders of this theory) than concept, even though it is the concrete concept or idea, which is peculiar to lofty philosophical speculation and differs from abstract concepts and from those representative of the sciences. But, in any case, the concept or idea unites the intelligible with the sensible in every instance, and not solely in art. For the new conception of the concept, inaugurated by Kant and immanent (so to speak) in all modern thought, heals the breach between the sensible and the intelligible worlds, conceiving as it does the concept as judgment, judgment as a priori synthesis, and a priori synthesis as the word which becomes flesh, as history. Thus, contrary to intention, that definition of art reduces fancy to logic, and art to philosophy. At best, it proves effective against the abstract conception of science, but not really as regards the problem of art. (Incidentally, Kant’s Critique of Judgment – aesthetic and teleological – had precisely such historical function of correcting whatever of abstract still remained in the Critique of Pure Reason.) To require a sensible element for the concept, besides that one which it already possesses inherently as concrete concept, and besides the words by means of which it expresses itself, would be a superfluous thing. To be sure, if we insist on this requirement, we avoid the conception of art as philosophy or as history, but only to fall into the conception of art as allegory.

The insurmountable difficulties of allegory are well known; so is its barren and anti-artistic character known and universally felt. Allegory is the extrinsic union, or the conventional and arbitrary juxtaposition of two spiritual facts – a concept or thought and an image – whereby it is posited that this image must represent that concept. Moreover, not only does recourse to allegory fail to explain the integral character of the artistic image, but, what is more, it deliberately sets up a duality. For given the juxtaposition of thought and image, thought remains thought and image remains image, there being no relation between them. So much so that, whenever we contemplate the image, we forget the concept without any loss, but, on the contrary, to our gain; and whenever we think the concept, we dispel, likewise to our advantage, the superfluous and annoying image.

Allegory met with much favor in the Middle Ages, with its mixture of Germanic and Romanic elements, barbarism and , bold fancy and subtle reflection. However, this was owing to a theoretical prejudice, and not to the actual reality of medieval art itself, which, wherever it is art, ejects allegorism from itself or resolves it from within. This need to resolve allegoristic dualism leads, in fact, to refining the theory of as allegory of the idea to the other theory, that of as symbol. For in symbol the idea is no longer thinkable by itself, separable from the symbolizing representation, nor is the latter representable by itself effectively without the idea symbolized.

As Vischer the aesthetician (upon whom must fall the blame, if upon anybody, for a comparison so prosaic regarding a subject so poetic and metaphysical) used to declare, the idea is all dissolved in the representation, just as a lump of sugar dissolved in a glass of water continues and functions in each molecule of water, yet is no longer recognizable as a lump of sugar. Only, the idea which has disappeared and has become all representation, the idea which it is not possible any longer to grasp as idea (except by extracting it, like sugar from sweetened water), is no longer idea. It is only the sign of the yet-to-be-discovered principle of the unity of the artistic image. Certainly, art is symbol, all symbol, that is, all significant. But symbol of what? Signifying what? is truly artistic, is truly and not a chaotic accumulation of images, only when it has a vital principle which animates it and makes for its complete unity. […]

Croce’s Guide to Aesthetics was originally published as Brevario di estetica in 1913.

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