The most obvious rejoinder to the claim that beauty is indefinable is that we define it every time we say "This is beautiful," for the term "beautiful" is descriptive of a certain unique attitude towards an object. If we went just one step farther and elaborated on the nature of this attitude, gave an account of it, we would have a definition of beauty. Now it is the failure to take this essential step by those who nevertheless claim to speak authoritatively on art that is responsible for the confusion that prevails in art criticism.
For beauty is the realm in which art dwells, and without an understanding of the nature of that realm, art itself is condemned to misunderstanding. And it is not at all strange, but rather to be expected in the nature of things, that it is precisely those who cry loudest that beauty is indefinable who are most dogmatic in their pronouncements on art works. Thus, the very critic who proclaims in no uncertain terms that aestheticians are braggarts and frauds proceeds to rule out of the sphere of painting all works whose subject-matter is the nude, landscapes, still-life, the mural, and calls the modern painter an inferior being, dumb, dull, conceited.
Now if beauty can not be defined, which implies that we can not know what art is, how can this critic pass judgment on that about which he himself claims nothing can be known? What he utters, in substance, is this absurdity: "I don't know what beauty is, and I don't know what art is, but I'll tell you what is and what isn't an art work." And it is invariably the very person who proclaims that of tastes there is no disputing, since what is beauty to one is not beauty to another, and that therefore a definition of beauty is absurd, who disputes loud and long with those whose tastes differ from his, and calls heaven and earth to witness that it is principally of his own tastes that there can be no room for dispute.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Now the net result of such lop-sided logic, a logic that proclaims that in art, the less you know the better and surer is your judgment, is that the critics get caught in their own nets and entangle the layman with them. A case in point is the hoax perpetrated by a resident of California, as reported in the daily press:
" Pavel Jerdanowitch" and the "disumbrationist school of painting" of which he was the "founder and supreme master," were exposed today as the whimsical revenge of a Californian upon critics who failed to appreciate the paintings of his wife.
Until Boston critics challenged the collection of Paul Jordan Smith, alias "Pavel Jerdanowitch," on display at the Vose galleries, the paintings had been admired by art patrons here, as well as in New York and Chicago. Jerdanowitch was hailed as a "modern genius" and even was offered $1500 for one painting, the Vose galleries officials said.
Smith, an author, revealed August 14, 1927, that he was the "Pavel Jerdanowitch" who painted "Exaltation," "Aspiration," and "Illumination," three ultra-impressionistic pictures which won international fame.
He painted them, he said, without the slightest knowledge of painting, "just to prove most art critics didn't know what they were talking about."
"Exaltation," the most famous of his works, at one time, Smith revealed, was called "Yes, We Have No Bananas," and served as a fire screen in his home. "Illumination" shows a drunken man staggering home, and "Aspiration," a Negro washerwoman bent over a tub of suds with eyes on a bird in a tree.
The case of Mark Twain and music is a capital illustration of how the critics confuse the layman and lead him to pretend to tastes in art that he does not possess. It is Mark Twain who is reported to have said that he always applauded music he did not understand because then he knew it was classical. The critics told him what good music was, but they also told him that the beautiful in music could not be ascertained. Now good music is beautiful music, music that gives one an experience of beauty. Hence, if one does not know the nature of the experience of beauty how can one judge whether one's response to a musical selection is or is not one of beauty, and therefore whether the music one hears is or is not good music for himself? In a letter from Germany Mark Twain wrote:
Huge crowd to hear the band play the "Fremersburg!" I suppose it is very low-grade music--I know it must be low-grade--because it so delighted me, it so warmed me, moved me, stirred me, uplifted me, enraptured me, that at times I could have cried, and at other times split my throat with shouting. The great crowd was another evidence that it was low-grade music, for only the few are educated up to a point where high-class music gives pleasure. I have never heard enough classic music to be able to enjoy it, and the simple truth is I detest it. Not mildly, but with all my heart. What a poor lot we human beings are anyway! If base music gives me wings, why should I want any other? But I do. I want to like the higher music because the higher and better like it.
But it is not we who are the poor lot, but the critics who mislead us, who tell us in one breath that we do not know what beauty is, and in the next breath tell us what art work we should or should not appreciate. They do not know, but are nevertheless most ready to tell us what is what and why. Surely, if base music gave Mark Twain wings, aroused in him an experience of beauty, why should he want any other? What other test is there as to what is good music for one, excepting that it does create the experience of beauty? And if it does, how can it be base music? And how can one get to like the higher, and how can it be higher, unless through that experience? How can one judge or evaluate it excepting by the standard of beauty? And how can any music be higher than by arousing that experience?
Apparently then, there must be something basically wrong with the contention that beauty is indefinable, for without such a definition art and art criticism must remain a wilderness of counter-charges, whims, fancies, and unwarranted judgments. Let us see, therefore, if we can get to the heart of the difficulty.
The widespread notion that beauty is indefinable arises from the failure to distinguish between the terms art and beauty. These terms are related, but not identical. Beauty is an experience, while art is an activity. If the art activity is aroused by the experience of beauty, it may result in a product which constitutes an adequate record of that experience, in which case the product is an art work. For the creator, then, an art work is a successful expression of an experience of beauty. For the layman an art work is any product which is an outgrowth of artistic activity and which arouses in him an experience of beauty.
Hence, art, in general, is an activity for the expression of an experience of beauty, or a product that arouses an experience of beauty. The art work, however, which is an expression of an experience of beauty for its creator, may or may not be a stimulus for beauty to the onlooker, or it may be such for one person, and not for another. But this fact does not invalidate its significance as an expression for its creator. Nor does its failure to arouse beauty in one person detract from its value as an object of beauty for another person. Furthermore, there is beauty without art for both creator and appreciator. Not every experience of beauty gives rise to an art work, in that the artist may make no effort to give his experience bodily form, or in that his attempt to do so is unsuccessful, while the experience of beauty may be derived from a wider field of objects and occurrences than the limited realm of art works. The sphere of beauty is co-extensive with the whole realm of experience, only a small fraction of which ultimately finds its expression in works of art.
Now the objective of the aesthetician is twofold, namely, to define the experience of beauty irrespective of its source, to analyze the artistic activity in order to ascertain what an art work is in terms of its creator. Since an art work is a record of an experience and an activity, it is possible to determine what it is that impels it, what the steps are in its making, and what its objective is. In other words, in analyzing the artistic activity, the aesthetician also defines, by implication, the art work in which the activity culminates. But he does not define the art work objectively, that is, in terms of its material features. He does not say or imply that if a product possesses certain physical qualities it is an art work and will or should arouse an experience of beauty. He does not attempt to teach the painter how or what to paint, or the novelist how or what to write, or the poet how to write poetry, or the musician how to compose, or the playwright how and what to dramatize.
This bold and impertinent task he leaves to the critic. Nor does the aesthetician make the foolish attempt to define an art work objectively for the appreciator. It is quite evident to him that the same stimulus may give rise to a variety of reactions in different persons, or even to the same person on different occasions. He is also quite fully aware of the fact that a variety of stimuli may arouse the same or a similar response in several individuals. Thus the same article of food may give one person a stomach ache, another a headache, and agree with a third, while a variety of foods may cause a like experience--stomach ache --in several persons. Hence, to define or describe the stimulus for a stomach ache in general terms is manifestly absurd, but to define or describe a stomach ache is perfectly possible. That is, an experience can be defined generally, but the stimulus for a certain experience can be defined only in specific cases, and even then it is impossible to state just why that particular stimulus should produce that particular effect.
In other words, there is no saying why or when a certain object will give rise to this or that experience. But whenever the certain experience occurs, it is definable in terms of its salient characteristics. I can not say that this or that object, provided it possesses certain features, will give me an experience of beauty, for the object that is beautiful to me today may fail to be so tomorrow. But whenever I have the experience of beauty, and whatever its stimulus, my experience is the same in kind, differing only in intensity. Hence an experience is definable in general terms, as a certain state of being, although the cause for the experience is not so definable. It would be absurd to attempt a definition of a Romeo or a Juliet. But the experience of love has been very aptly defined by numerous writers, from the time of the author of The Song of Songs to the present day.
Now the aesthetician does not define an object of beauty, but he does attempt to define the experience of beauty. Again he leaves the impossible task of describing an object of beauty in terms of its physical characteristic to the critic who belabors him. The aesthetician simply tries to do for the appreciator what he attempts to do for the creator. The creator does something when he creates and the appreciator does something when he appreciates. Hence arises the question for both creator and appreciator: What is the nature of the activity whether creative or receptive? The aesthetician
describes neither the product of the creator nor the stimulus object of the appreciator. His interest is entirely in analyzing the experience and the activity that lead to the birth of an art work--still born as it may at times be--and the experience aroused by an art work when that experience is called beauty. Consequently, the charge against the aesthetician that in seeking a definition of the nature of the experience of beauty he is setting up an objective standard for art works, that he is giving criteria in terms of which one may determine whether a certain art product is or is not beautiful, is absurd; it exists only in the mind of the critic whose stupefaction at the daring of the aesthetician comes primarily through his failure to understand what the aesthetician tries to do.
We see, therefore, that it is not the aesthetician who is inconsistent, and who attempts the impossible, but rather those who prefer these charges against him. The critic maintains that beauty is indefinable in the abstract, and then proceeds to set up standards for what is art or what is not art. It is he who dares tell the artist what to do and what not to do, the why, what, and how of art. The aesthetician, on the other hand, sets up no standards, dictates no procedures or objectives, but takes the creative mind in its labors for beauty, and the responsive mind in its search for beauty, and analyzes both phenomena in an objective and disinterested search for knowledge.