Attention To Shapes

TO explain how art in general, and any art in particular, succeeds in

reconciling these contradictory demands, I must remind the Reader

of what I said (p. 93) about the satisfactory or unsatisfactory

possibilities of shapes having begun to be noticed in the moments of

slackened attention to the processes of manufacturing the objects

embodying those shapes, and in the intervals between practical

employment of these more
or less shapely objects. And I must ask

him to connect with these remarks a previous passage (p. 44)

concerning the intermittent nature of normal acts of attention, and

their alternation as constituting on-and-off beats. The deduction

from these two converging statements is that, contrary to the a-priori

theories making aesthetic contemplation an exception, a kind of

bank holiday, to daily life, it is in reality one-half of daily life's

natural and healthy rythm. That the real state of affairs, as revealed

by psychological experiment and observation, should have escaped

the notice of so many aestheticians, is probably due to their theories

starting from artistic production rather than from aesthetic

appreciation, without which art would after all probably never have

come into existence.

The production of the simplest work of art cannot indeed be thought

of as one of the alternations of everyday attention, because it is a

long, complex and repeatedly resumed process, a whole piece of life,

including in itself hundreds and thousands of alternations of doing

and looking, of discursive thinking of aims and ways and means

and of contemplation of aesthetic results. For even the humblest

artist has to think of whatever objects or processes his work aims at

representing, conveying or facilitating; and to think also of the

objects, marble, wood, paints, voices, and of the processes, drawing,

cutting, harmonic combining, by which he attempts to compass one

of the above-mentioned results. The artist is not only an aesthetically

appreciative person; he is, in his own way, a man of science and a

man of practical devices, an expert, a craftsman and an engineer. To

produce a work of art is not an interlude in his life, but his life's

main business; and he therefore stands apart, as every busy specialist

must, from the business of other specialists, of those ministering to

mankind's scientific and practical interests.

But while it takes days, months, sometimes years to produce a work

of art, it may require (the process has been submitted to exact

measurement by the stop-watch) not minutes but seconds, to take

stock of that work of art in such manner as to carry away its every

detail of shape, and to continue dealing with it in memory. The

unsuspected part played by memory explains why aesthetic

contemplation can be and normally is, an intermittent function

alternating with practical doing and thinking. It is in memory,

though memory dealing with what we call the present, that we

gather up parts into wholes and turn consecutive measurements into

simultaneous relations; and it is probably in memory that we deal

empathically with shapes, investing their already perceived

directions and relations with the remembered qualities of our own

activities, aims and moods. And similarly it is thanks to memory that

the brief and intermittent acts of aesthetic appreciation are combined

into a network of contemplation which intermeshes with our other

thoughts and doings, and yet remains different from them, as the

restorative functions of life remain different from life's expenditure,

although interwoven with them. Every Reader with any habit of

self-observation knows how poignant an impression of beauty may be

got, as through the window of an express train, in the intermittence

of practical business or abstract thinking, nay even in what I have

called the off-beat of deepest personal emotion, the very stress of

the practical, intellectual or personal instant (for the great

happenings of life are measured in seconds!) apparently driving in

by contrast, or conveying on its excitement, that irrelevant aesthetic

contents of the off-beat of attention. And while the practical or

intellectual interest changes, while the personal emotion subsides,

that aesthetic impression remains; remains or recurs, united, through

every intermittence, by the feeling of identity, that identity which,

like the rising of the mountain, is due to the reiterative nature of

shape-contemplation: the fragments of melody may be interrupted in

our memory by all manner of other thoughts, but they will recur and

coalesce, and recurring and coalescing, bring with them the

particular mood which their rythms and intervals have awakened in

us and awaken once more.

That diagrammatic Man on the Hill in reality thought away from

the landscape quite as much as his practical and scientific

companions; what he did, and they did not, was to think back to it;

and think back to it always with the same references of lines and

angles, the same relations of directions and impacts, of parts and

wholes. And perhaps the restorative, the healing quality of aesthetic

contemplation is due, in large part, to the fact that, in the perpetual

flux of action and thought, it represents reiteration and therefore


Be that as it may, the intermittent but recurrent character of shape

contemplation, the fact that it is inconceivably brief and amazingly

repetitive, that it has the essential quality of identity because of

reiteration, all this explains also two chief points of our subject. First:

how an aesthetic impression, intentionally or accidentally conveyed

in the course of wholly different interests, can become a constant

accompaniment to the shifting preoccupations of existence, like the

remembered songs which sing themselves silently in our mind and

the remembered landscapes becoming an intangible background to

our ever-varying thoughts. And, secondly, it explains how art can

fulfil the behests of our changing and discursive interest in things

while satisfying the imperious unchanging demands of the

contemplated preference for beautiful aspects. And thus we return to

my starting-point in dealing with art: that art is conditioned by the

desire for beauty while pursuing entirely different aims, and

executing any one of a variety of wholly independent non-aesthetic