Your Mind and How to Use It

Chapter XVI

The Aesthetic Emotions

By “the æsthetic emotions” is meant those emotional feelings which are concerned with the perception of beauty or taste, and by reason of which we “like” or “dislike” certain perceptions of sensory impressions. In order to get a clearer idea, let us consider what is meant by “beauty” and “taste.”

“Beauty” is defined as “that quality or assemblage of qualities in an object which gives the eye or the ear intense pleasure; or that characteristic in an object which gratifies the intellect or moral feeling.” “Taste” (in this sense of the term) is defined as “nice perception, or the power of perceiving and relishing excellence in human performances; the power of appreciating the finer qualities of art; the faculty of discerning beauty, order, congruity, proportion, symmetry, or whatever constitutes excellence, particularly in the fine arts or literature; the faculty of the mind by which we both perceive and enjoy whatever is beautiful or sublime in the works of nature and art. The possession of taste insures grace and beauty in the works of an artist, and the avoidance of all that is low or mean. It is as often the result of an innate sense of beauty or propriety as of art education, and no genius can compensate for the want of it. * * * Tastes differ so much among individuals, nations, or in different ages and conditions of civilization that it is utterly impossible to set up a standard of taste applicable to all men and to all stages in the evolution of society.”

The æsthetic sense, feeling, and emotion are products of the later stages of the evolution of the mind of man. Their roots, however, may be seen in the crude attempts at decoration and adornment in the savage, and still further back in the tendency of certain birds to adorn their nests or “bowers.” Moreover, some sense of beauty must exist in the lower animals, which are influenced thereby in the selection of their mates, the bright plumage of the birds, and the coloring of the insects and higher animals evidencing the existence of at least a primitive æsthetic sense. Herbert Spencer says that one characteristic of the æsthetic feelings is that they are separated from the functions vitally requisite and necessary to sustain life, and it is not until the latter are reasonably well satisfied that the former begin to manifest in force.

The authorities hold that the basic element concerned in the manifestation of the æsthetic emotional feeling is the _sensory_ element, which consists of the pleasure arising from the perception of objects of vision or hearing which are deemed beautiful. There is a certain nervous satisfaction which arises from the perception of the sensation of the sight of a beautiful thing, or of the hearing of beautiful sound. Just _why_ certain sights prove agreeable and others disagreeable, or certain sounds pleasant and others unpleasant, is very difficult to determine. Association and habit may have something to do with the beauty of sight object, and there may be natural harmony of vibration in colors as there is in sound. In the case of sounds there is undoubtedly a natural harmony between the vibrations of certain notes of the scale and inharmony between others. Some have held that the secret of the enjoyment of music is found in the natural appreciation of rhythm, as rhythm is a cosmic manifestation evident in everything from great to small. But these theories do not account for the differences existing in the tastes regarding color and music manifested by different individuals, races, and classes of people.

Grant Allen says: “The vulgar are pleased with great masses of color, especially red, orange, and purple, which give their coarse, nervous organization the requisite stimulus. The refined, with nerves of less caliber, but greater discriminativeness, require delicate combinations of complementaries and prefer neutral tints to the glare of the primary hues. Children and savages love to dress in all the colors of the rainbow.” In the same way persons of certain types of taste are pleased with “rag time” and cheap, rollicking songs or dances, while others shudder at these and find delight in the classic productions of the great composers.

There is also the _intellectual_ element to be reckoned with in the æsthetic emotions. The intellect must discover the beauty in certain objects before the emotion is aroused by the perception. Halleck says: “Every time the mind discerns unity amid variety, order, rhythm, proportion, or symmetry, an æsthetic emotion arises. * * * The traveler with a trained intellect will see far more beauty than an ignorant one. In looking at a cathedral, a large part of the æsthetic enjoyment comes from tracing out the symmetry, from comparing part with part. Not until this process is complete will the full beauty of the structure as a whole be perceived. If the traveler knows something of mediæval architecture before starting on his European trip, he will see far more beauty. The opposite of the æsthetic, which we call the ugly, is the unsymmetrical, the disorderly–that in which we can discover no rhythm, plan, or beauty.”

The element of _associative suggestion_ also enters into the manifestation of æsthetic emotional feeling. The mind accepts the suggestion of the beauty of certain styles of art, or the excellence of certain classes of music. There are fashions in art and music, as in clothes, and what is thought beautiful to-day may be deemed hideous to-morrow. This is not entirely due to the evolution of taste, for in many cases the old fashions are revived and again deemed beautiful. There is, moreover, the effect of the association of the object of emotion with certain events or persons. This association renders the thing popular, and therefore agreeable and beautiful for the time being. The suggestion in a story will often cause the beauty of a certain scene, or the harmony of a certain piece of music, to dawn upon thousands of persons. Some noted person sets the seal of approval upon a certain picture or musical composition and lo! the multitude calls it beautiful. It must not be supposed, however, that the crowd always counterfeits this sense of beauty and excellence which has been suggested to it. On the contrary, genuine æsthetic feeling often results from the discovery so made.

There is style and fashion in the use of words, resulting from fashion, which gives rise to æsthetic feelings regarding them. These feelings do not arise from the consideration of the nature of the object expressed by the word; of two words designating the same thing, one causes disgust and the other at least passive tolerance. For instance, in speaking of the sensible moisture which is emitted from the pores of the skin, we may use either of the respective terms “sweat” or “perspiration.” Both mean the same thing, and have an equally respectable origin. But to many persons the word “sweat” causes unpleasant æsthetic emotion, while the word “perspiration” is accepted without remonstrance. Some persons abhor the term “victuals,” while “viands” or “food” are accepted without protest. There is often an unpleasant, low, vulgar association connected with some words which accounts for the disfavor with which they are received, and which association is absent from the more “polite” terms employed to indicate the same thing. But in other cases there is nothing but the simple suggestion of fashion and style to account for the æsthetic acceptance or rejection.

It is possible that some psychologist of the future will establish the truth of the theory now tentatively advanced by a few investigators, namely, that taste and the sense of beauty depend almost entirely upon the element of suggestion, manifested as association, influence of authority, habit, fashion, imitation, etc. It is known that the emotional nature is peculiarly liable to suggestion, and that tastes may be created or destroyed by repeated suggestion under the most favorable circumstances. It is thought likely that if we could trace back to its roots every emotion of taste, we would find it arising from some associative, suggestive influence connected with another and more elemental class of emotions.

Regarding the fact that there is no universal standard of taste or beauty, Halleck says: “It has been said that æsthetics cannot be treated in a scientific way because there is no standard of taste. ‘_De gustibus non est disputandum_’ (‘there is no disputing about tastes’) is an old proverb. Of two equally intelligent persons, the one may like a certain book, the other dislike it. * * * While it is true that the standard of taste is a varying one within certain limits, it is no more so than that of morals. As men’s nervous systems, education, and associations differ, we may scientifically conclude that their tastes must differ. The greater the uniformity in the factors the less does the product vary. On the other hand, within certain limits, the standard of æsthetics is relatively uniform. _It is fixed by the majority of intelligent people of any age and country._ To estimate the standard by which to judge of the correctness of language or of the literary taste of any era, we examine the conversations of the best speakers, the works of the standard writers.”

The æsthetic emotions may be developed and cultivated by exercise and practice, and particularly by association and familiarity with beautiful things, and with those who have “good taste.” Appreciation of beauty is more or less contagious, up to a certain point of development, at least, and if one wishes to recognize, understand, and appreciate beauty, he should go where beauty is, and where its votaries are gathered. The study of standard works of art, or objects of nature, or the best productions of the composers of music, will do much to develop and unfold one’s higher æsthetic feelings and understanding.

It is claimed by some of the best authorities that to develop the finer and higher æsthetic feelings and understanding we must learn to find beauty and excellence in things removed from ourselves or our selfish interests. The narrow, selfish emotions kill the æsthetic feelings–the two cannot exist together. The person whose thoughts are centered on himself or herself very rarely finds beauty or excellence in works of art or music. Grant Allen well sums up the subject in the following words: “_Good taste is the progressive product of progressing fineness and discrimination in the nerves, educated attention, high and noble emotional constitution, and increasing intellectual faculties._”

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