THE CULTURAL IMPORTANCE OF THE ARTS SUSANNE K.

LANGER Every culture develops some kind of art as surely as it develops language. Some primitive cultures have no real mythology or religion, but all have some art — dance, song design (sometimes not only on tools or on the human body). Above all, dances that seem to be the oldest elaborated art. The ancient ubiquitous character of art contrasts sharply with the prevalent idea that art is a luxury product of civilization, a cultural frill, a piece of social veneer. It fits better with the conviction held by most artists, that art is the epitome of human life, the truest record of insights and feelings, that the strongest military or economic society without art is poor in comparison with the most primitive tribe of savage painters, dancers, or idol-carvers. Wherever a society has really achieved culture, (in the ethnological, not the popular sense of social forms) it has begotten art, not late in its career, but at the very inception of it. Art is, indeed, the spearhead of human development, social and individual. The vulgarization of art is the surest symptom of ethnic decline. The growth of a new style always bespeaks a young and vigorous mind, whether collectively or single. What sort of thing is art, that it should play such a leading role in human development? It is not an intellectual pursuit, but is necessary to intellectual life; it is not religion, but grows up with religion, serves it and in large measure determines it (as Herodotus said, “Homer made the gods,” and surely the Egyptians deities grew under the chisels of sculptors in strangely solemn forms). We cannot enter here on a long discussion of what has been claimed before as the essence of art, the true nature of art, or its defining functions; in a single lecture dealing with one aspect of art, namely its cultural influence, I can only give you by the way of preamble my own definition of art, with categorical brevity. That does not mean that I set up this definition in a categorical spirit, but only that we have no time to debate it, so you are asked to accept it as an assumption underlying these reflections. Art, in the sense here intended --- that is, the generic term subsuming painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, literature and drama --- may be defined as the practice of creating perceptible forms expressive of human feeling. I say “perceptible” rather than “sensuous” forms because some works of art are given to imagination rather than to the outward senses. A novel, for instance, usually is read silently with the eye, but it is not made for vision, as a painting is; and though sound plays a vital part in poetry, words even in poetry are not essentially sonorous structures like music. Dances require to be seen, but its appeal is to deeper centers of sensation. The difference between

Another word in the definition that might be questioned is “creation. and will further agree that a picture is a glimpse of reality seen through a temperament. or anything else? First of all.. it applies to everything that may be felt. that a work of art is good or bad or perhaps rather poor. though a few. apparent events that constitutes a literary works. let us ask just what is meant here by “express”. Even a Gothic cathedral is supposed to express the religious emotions of its countless. where it denotes only pleasure and pain. it takes in all those meanings. that clearly. self-sufficiency. or even a form given to imagination. or even our general mental or physical condition. as perhaps it sounds. that a work of art is a form. as an appearance. The rills are not fixed things. nor as a reminder of them. Most people believe that music and poetry are expressions of emotion. blue. which it has when you say.” and more particularly “expressive form. But it is always a perceptible. feeling well or ill. The word “form” has several current uses. Or a directed emotional attitude (we say we feel strongly about something).” form that involves the very nature of art and therefore the question of its cultural importance.forms made of motion.” are fairly remote. I am using the word in a simpler sense.is not the one I an assuming here. or flocks of birds wheeling overhead. the rills of rain trace sinuous forms on the windowpane. It is in the sense of an apparition given to our perception. as an appearance.2 dance and mobile sculpture makes this immediately apparent. on a foggy night.” “the sonnet form” --. This. As I use the word. or a transient. But all works of art are purely perceptible forms that seem to embody some sort of feeling. When you watch gnats weaving in the air.” I think it is justified. What does have to understood is the meaning of “form. Since we are speaking of art. self-identical whole. you see dynamic forms --. not pretentious. they are forms of motion. individual reality. Its age makes the process . in defining art as the creation of perceptible forms expressive of human feeling. but that issue is slightly beside the point here. “Feeling” as I am using it here covers much more than it does in the technical vocabulary of psychology. where it sometimes means sensation (as when one says a paralyzed limb has no feeling in it). it might be good to point out that the meaning of stylistic pattern----“the sonata form.g. most of them have some relation to the sense in which I am using it here. and is the form of a man. what sort of “expression” we are talking about.” or “ a mere matter of form. as a situation is said to harrow your feeling. such as: “ a form to be filled in for tax purposes. but what is meant by calling such forms “expressive human feeling”? How do apparitions “express” anything — feeling. or even in the shifting limits of ordinary discourse. being quite specialized. If anyone prefers to speak of the “making” or “construction” of expressive forms that will do here just as well. it has natural being. or to evoke tender feeling). The trees are gigantic forms. sometimes emotion (e. not as a comment on things beyond it in the world. look a natural being. then is what I mean is “form”. anonymous builders. like the passage purely imaginary. dynamic form like a melody or a dance. And it is thus. It maybe permanent form like a building or vase or a picture. so let us shelve it. it has a character of organic unity. or bit above ourselves.

such as “horse”. A person may work for a long time to give his statement the best possible form. Sentence are complicated symbols-so complicated. To treat it just like a lyric or an easel picture seems a bit silly. in any essential way. which is a special combination of words. or what not. The work “expression” has two principal meanings: in one sense it means self-expression – giving vent to our feelings. there is no critical standard for symptoms. however. in the phrase “White Horse Whiskey. If an idea is clearly conveyed by means of symbols we say it as well expressed. Words are the terms of our thinking as well as the terms in which we present our thoughts. blushing. And sometimes the meaning is an idea we never had before. Giving expression to an idea is obviously a different thing from giving expression to feeling by laughing. Language will formulate new ideas as well as communicate old ones. an expression of its designer’s emotion or state of mind. so that all people know a lot of things that they have merely heard or read about. on the other hand. but that really confuses our judgment of the lyric and the picture as well. Self-expression is a spontaneous reaction to a situation. somewhere between “horror” and “horticulture”. A common word. But a discoursed so worked out is certainly not a spontaneous reaction.” or in the dictionary. “expression” means the presentation of an idea. flung-out overpass across a highway— an architectural work of art. and so is a meaningful combination of words. If. and find words to express his ideas. Symbolic expression. In another sense. the company we are in and the emotions that stir us.” but may be called “conceptual expression. crying. A sentence. In this sense. or offering his kingdom for one – for instance. or quivering. you either try to calm him down. the angry man tries to tell you what he is fuming about. that we have to consider them word by word and analyze the way they are put together to understand the meaning they convey. but in either case you understand quite well that he is furious. For to tell a story coherently involves “expression” in a quite a different sense: this sort of expression is not “selfexpression. it refers to a symptom of what we feel. to find the exact words for what he means to say and to carry his account or his argument most directly from one point to another. The symptoms just are what they are. he will have to collect himself. The things we can say are in effect the things we can think. an event.3 indistinct enough to put it beyond very searching question. or you rage back at him. sometimes. a foreign place. as many of our offices and ramps and bridges are— could be. usually by the proper and apt use of words. The incongruity. Thus a word is a symbol. however. points to misunderstanding that becomes apparent only when we try to conceive the skyscraper as an emotional exhibition. It is a misconception of what is meant by “expression” in art. or concerns something we have never seen-a new animal. extends our knowledge behind the scope or our actual experience. curtail his emotional expression. But a device for the presentation of an idea is what we call a symbol. conveys an idea even when no one is exclaiming over the presence of a horse. is our prime instrument of conceptual expression. . But it is harder to imagine how a modern office building or a fine. You do not say of a man in a rage that his anger is well expressed. real or imagined. expresses the idea of some state of affairs. not a symptom. therefore.” Language of course.

they seem irrational because language does not help to make them conceivable. how it can interplay with feeling usually called love. It may serve somebody’s need of self-expression beside. it gives them form. . possible combinations and new emergent phenomena. and think about. a pattern of almost infinitely complex activation and cadence. The only pattern discursive thought can find in them is the pattern of outward events that occasion them. sense experience is only a flow of impressions. discursive language.4 because they present the objects of thought to the thinker himself. the phenomena of feeling and emotion are usually treated by philosophers as irrational. etc. easier for logicians to understand than for artists. Language gives outward experience its form. that feeling and emotion are irrational. as subjective as our feelings. . this dynamic pattern that finds its formal expression in the arts. and makes it definite and clear. There are different degrees of fear. love. There is. all mental attitude and motor set. remember. The real nature of feeling is something language as such – as discursive symbolism – cannot render. or reference to something beyond itself. as discourse formulates our ideas of things and facts in the outside world.” the life of felling and emotion. but they are thought of as so many degrees of the same simple feeling. To it belongs the whole gamut of our sensibility. The expressiveness of art is like that of a symbol. on the contrary. It is. it means “thrown together” . like a symbol. Without words. an important part of reality that is quite inaccessible to the formative influence of language: that is the realm of so-called “inner experience. for. or what the experience of hate is really like. not a vague mass. It has an intricate dynamic pattern. however. But in English usage it has come to mean a sign that stands for something else to which it directs our attention. as many people suppose. the words whereby we refer to feeling only name very general kinds of inner experience – excitement. words make it objective. calm. a symbol in the full and usual sense – in that it does not point beyond itself something else. But there is no language to describe just how one joy differ so radically from another. but the gist of it is that the form of language does not reflect the natural form of feeling. . Those are the deeper reaches that underlie the surface waves of our emotion. it formulates our ideas of inwards experience. . not that of an emotional symptom. It is a pattern of organically interdependent and interdetermined tensions and resolutions. Before language communicates ideas. I think. the sense of straining thought. The unfitness of language to convey subjective experience is a somewhat technical subject. joy sorrow. Therefore. For this reason. and most people cannot conceive anything without the logical scaffolding of words. hate. and carve it up into things and facts that we cannot. This is . The word “symbol” does not originally connote any representative function. and make human life a life of feeling instead of an unconscious metabolic existence interrupted by feelings. But human feeling is a fabric. so we cannot shape any concepts of feeling with the help of ordinary. The reason why language is so powerless here is not. Whatever has a name is an object for thought. it is a formulation of feeling for our conception that a work of art is properly said to be expressive. A work of art differs from a genuine symbol – that is. In a special sense one may call a work of art a symbol of feeling. and in fact makes them what they are. makes them clear. how it burns and then goes cold in almost the same moment. but that is not what makes it good or bad in art.

or the feeling in. its logical forms are merely very different from the structures of discourse. It may be a solid form. And “feeling. or dramatic forms we can conceive what vitality and emotion feel like.” Form in this context means a configuration. something seen or heard or imaginatively grasped as an entity. in effect. or a dynamic form like a whirl or a stream. symbolic logic). not self-expression or venting of one’s feeling. or even the image of events known as a story. “Expression” is here taken to mean articulation. It is the formulation of so called “inward experience. Every work of art is a form in this sense. is not separable from expression. Art objectifies the sentence and desire. self-consciousness and world consciousness. because its forms are incommensurable with the forms of language and all its derivatives (e. a work of art. subjective reality. And we speak truly.g. mathematics. what I mean by the definition of art proposed at the beginning of this lecture: Art is the practice of creating perceptible forms expressive of human feeling. The primary function of art is objectifying feeling so we can contemplate and understand it. All this time I have been expounding. presents its form to imagination alone. as the sense of a true metaphor.” and “expressive. that. not the feeling it means. emotion. fiction. emotions and moods that are generally regarded as irrational because words cannot give us clear ideas of them. word by word. or it may be a sounding form like a melody.” and “feeling. emotion. the feeling it expresses appears to be directly given with it. that anything language cannot express is formless and irrational – seems to me to be an error. But they are so much like the dynamic forms of art that art is their natural symbol. dance. from the feeling of vitality. music. But the premise tacitly assumed in such a judgment – namely. like dreams or memory. Its relation to feeling is a rather special one that we cannot undertake to analyze here. is used in the broadest sense.5 something a work of art does not do. or a value of a religious myth. every tension in a sentient organism.” that is impossible to achieve by discursive thought.” finally.” the “inner life. . Through plastic works. an integral whole given to perception like an apparition. a work of art presents something like a direct vision of vitality. We have dwelt in the exact sense of “form. denoting anything that can or could be felt – sensation. We speak of the feeling of. I believe the life of feeling is not irrational.

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