The Psychology of Art. Vygotsky 1925
Principles of Criticism. Art as Perception. Rationalization of this Formula. Criticism of the Theory of Forms. Practical Results of this Theory. Deficiencies of the Psychology of Forms. Dependence on Associative and Sensualistic Psychology
There exist various psychological theories, each explaining in its own way the processes of artistic creativity or perception. Very few of them, however, have ever been pursued to an end. There is no completely and generally accepted system of art psychology. Some authors, such as Müller-Freienfels, who want to consolidate all that has been done in this field, give only an eclectic report or synopsis of disparate viewpoints. Most psychologists worked only on some particular problems of the general theory of art and proceeded in their research from different approaches, following divergent paths, and reaching different conclusions. Without a general idea or a valid methodological principle it is difficult to appraise systematically what psychology has achieved in this direction.
We can therefore investigate only those psychological theories of art which have been, or can be, developed into a systematic theory, and apply their premises to our study. In other words, we can approach critically only those psychological theories that operate with an objective-analytic method (an objective analysis of the work of art) and, proceeding from that analysis, develop a suitable psychology. Other methods of investigation are out of our reach. To check the results of our study with the aid of the facts and rules established earlier would require the final results of our study, since only the ultimate conclusions can be compared with the results of other investigations that have proceeded along a completely different path.
This procedure reduces the number of theories which can be subjected to critical investigation to three typical psychological systems, each of which is associated with a variety of partial studies, uncoordinated approaches, etc.
The critique which we intend to develop must, according to the interpretation and significance of the task set before us, proceed from the purely psychological strength and reliability of each theory. The merits of each theory in its own specialized field, such as linguistics or literature, will not be considered here.
The first and most widespread formula of art psychology goes back to W. von Humboldt; it defines art as perception. Potebnia adopted this as the basic principle in a number of his investigations. In a modified form, it approaches the widely held theory that comes to us from antiquity, according to which art is the perception of wisdom, and teaching and instruction are its main tasks. One of the fundamental views of this theory is the analogy between the activity and evolution of language and art. The psychological system of philology has shown that the word is divided into three basic elements: the sound, or external form; the image, or inner form; and the meaning, or significance. The inner form is understood to be the etymological form that expresses the content. Frequently this inner form is forgotten, or is displaced by the expanded meaning of the word. In other cases, however, this inner form can be readily determined. Etymological investigation reveals that where only the outward form and meaning were retained, the inner form existed once but was forgotten as the language evolved. For example, the Russian word for “mouse” once signified “thief,” and only by means of the inner form have the sounds acquired the meaning “mouse.” In such words as streetcar, newspaper, dogcart, and so on, the inner form is still apparent, as is the fact that the image contained in these words is gradually being pushed out by their expanded content. This leads to a conflict between the original, stricter sense of these words and the subsequent broader application. When we say newspapers, or horse-drawn dogcart, this conflict becomes obvious. To illustrate the significance of the inner form and its important role in an analogy with art, let us explore the phenomenon of synonyms. Two synonyms have the same content but a different sound form, because the inner form of each word is completely different. In Russian moon and month mean exactly the same thing. Etymologically, in Russian moon means something capricious, whimsical, changeable, and variable (alluding to the lunar phases), while month is a measure (alluding to measuring time by lunar phases). The difference between the two words is merely psychological. They lead to the same result, but with the aid of different thought processes. Similarly, two different clues may cause us to guess the same thing, but the mode of guessing will be different each time. Potebnia formulates this thought quite brilliantly: “The inner form of each word gives our thought a different direction ...”
Psychologists have found the same three elements that make up a word are also found in a work of art. It is asserted that the psychological processes of the perception and creation of a work of art coincide with the identical processes of perception and creation of a word. “The same elemental forces,” says Potebnia, “are also found in a work of art, and we can recognize them if we reason the following way: ‘There is a marble statue (outer form) of a woman with sword and scales (inner form) representing justice (content).’ We will find that in a work of art the image refers to the content, as in a word the concept refers to the sensory image or idea. Instead of the ‘content’ of a work of art we may use a more common term, the ‘idea’.
This analogy reveals the mechanism of the psychological processes that correspond to the creation of a work of art. It becomes obvious that the significance or descriptive power of a word equals its poetic value, so that the basis of an artistic experience is representation, and its general character traits are the common properties of the intellectual and perceiving processes. A child who has never before seen a glass sphere may call it a small watermelon, and explain the unusual and unknown experience by means of an old and familiar image. The familiar idea of a small watermelon helps the child to apperceive the new concept. “Shakespeare created Othello,” says Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, “to apperceive the idea of jealousy.” The child has used ‘small watermelon’ to apperceive a glass sphere ... ‘A glass sphere is nothing but a small watermelon,’ says the child. ‘Jealousy, that’s Othello,’ says Shakespeare. Successfully or not, the child has explained the glass sphere. Shakespeare has brilliantly explained jealousy, first to himself, and then to all.
Thus, poetry or art is a special way of thinking which, in the final analysis, leads to the same results as scientific knowledge (Shakespeare’s plantation of jealousy), but in a different way. Art differs from science only in its method, in its way of experiencing and perceiving, in other words, psychologically. “Poetry and prose,” says Potebnia, “are first and foremost a ‘certain way of thinking and perceiving. Without an image there is no art, especially no poetry.”
According to this theory of artistic understanding, a work of art can be applied as a predicate to new, imperceptive phenomena or ideas, to apperceive them in the same way as the image in a word helps apperceive the new meaning. What we are unable to understand immediately and directly can be understood in a roundabout way, allegorically. The whole psychological effect of a work of art can then be entirely credited to this indirectness.
In the Russian word mouse, according to Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, the thought goes to the target, namely to the definition of the concept, following a direct path and making only one step. In the Sanskrit it takes an indirect path, first to the meaning thief, and from there to the meaning mouse, thus making two steps. Compared to the first rectilinear movement, the latter is more rhythmical ... In the psychology of language, that is, in terms of realistic thinking (not always formally logical), what matters is how something is said, how it is thought, and how the content is presented, not what is said or thought.
It is obvious therefore that we are dealing with an intellectual theory. Art requires brain work; all the rest is incidental in the psychology of art. “Art is a certain exercise for thought,” says Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii. The fact that art, whether created or perceived, is accompanied by strong emotions is said by these authors to be a marginal phenomenon and not a part of the process itself. It comes as a prize for the effort, because the image necessary to understand a certain idea, the predicate to this idea, “has been given to me beforehand by the artist, and it came free.” The free feeling of relative lightness, of the parasitic enjoyment of exploiting somebody else’s labor free of charge is the source of artistic enjoyment. In a manner of speaking, Shakespeare worked for us by finding for the idea of jealousy the fitting image of Othello. All the enjoyment we experience in reading Othello comes from the pleasant use of somebody else’s work and from the exploitation without expense of somebody else’s artistic creativity. It is interesting to note that this unilateral intellectualism of the system is openly admitted by all the most prominent representatives of this school. Hornfeld, for instance, says that the definition of art as perception “covers only one of the aspects of the artistic process.” He also points out that with such an interpretation of the psychology of art, the boundary between the process of scientific and artistic perception is effaced, that in this respect “the great scientific truths are similar to artistic images,” and that, consequently, “this definition of poetry requires a subtler differentia specifica which is not easy to find.”
It is quite interesting that this theory is in conflict with the entire psychological tradition associated with the problem. The scholars have excluded all intellectual processes from aesthetic analysis. “Many theoreticians underscore so unilaterally that art is a matter of perception, fantasy, or feeling, contrasting art with science as the field of knowledge, that it may appear as irreconcilable with the theory of art if we assert that the process of thinking is also a part of artistic enjoyment.” This is one author’s excuse for including the thinking process in the analysis of aesthetic enjoyment. Thought is used here as a cornerstone in the explanation of the art phenomenon.
This one-sided intellectualism revealed itself quite early, so that the second generation of researchers had to introduce substantial corrections to the theories of their teachers. Strictly speaking, from a psychological viewpoint, these corrections reduce to naught the teachers’ assertions. None less than Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii had to come out with a teaching or theory, according to which lyrics are a special aspect of artistic creativity, which reveals a “fundamental psychological difference” from the epic. The essence of lyrical art can be reduced to processes of perception, or to pure brainwork. The decisive role is played by emotion, an emotion so distinct that it can be separated from the secondary emotions that arise in the course of scientific and philosophical creativity.
Any human creativity involves emotions. In analyzing the psychology of mathematics, for example, we will discover a special kind of ‘mathematical emotion.’ However, no mathematician, philosopher, or experimental biologist will agree that his task consists of creating specific emotions associated with his field of endeavor. We cannot possibly speak of science or philosophy as emotional activities . . . Emotions play a dominant role in artistic creativity.
They are generated by the content itself and can be of any sort or kind: grief, sorrow, pity, anger, sympathy, indignation, horror, and so on. These emotions per se are not lyrical, but they may incidentally include a lyrical ‘streak’ if the work of art has a lyrical form, as for instance a poem or a piece of rhythmic prose. Let us take the scene of Hector’s farewell from Andromache. In reading it we may experience a strong emotion and may even be moved to tears. But this emotion has nothing lyrical in it since it is caused only by the emotional scene. However, accompanied by the rhythmic effect of the flowing hexameters, it causes lyrical emotion. The latter was more powerful in the days when Homer’s poems were sung by blind rhapsodists accompanied by the sounds of the cithara. The rhythm of singing and music joins that of the verse.
The lyrical element is strengthened and occasionally may even have replaced the emotion caused by the subject matter. To get this emotion in its pure form, without the admixture of its lyrical component, all we have to do is transpose the scene into prose devoid of any rhythmic cadence. Imagine, for instance, Hector’s farewell from Andromache described by Pisemskii. “You will experience true feelings of sympathy, compassion, and pity; you may even shed a tear; but there will be nothing lyrical about it.”
Thus, a huge area of art, namely, music, architecture, and poetry, is totally excluded from the theory that explains art as the result of an exercise of thought. We are forced not only to place these art forms into a subcategory within the art categories, but to view them as a special kind of creativity alien to the visual arts as well as to philosophy and to science, while standing in the same relation to both. However, we find it extremely difficult to draw a precise boundary between lyrical and non lyrical art forms. In other words, if we admit that lyrical art forms require the work of something other than thought, we must also admit that any other art form has large areas where pure thought is by no means the only essential element. We will find, for instance, that such works as Goethe’s Faust, or Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri, The Stone Guest, or The Covetous Knight belong to the syncretistic, or mixed, forms of art, semigraphic and semilyrical. We cannot perform the same operation on them which we have tried to perform on Hector’s farewell scene. According to Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii’s teachings there is no substantial difference between verse and prose, that is between measured and non measured speech. Consequently there is no sign in the external form that would enable us to distinguish the visual arts from the lyrical arts. “The verse is nothing but pedantic prose in which metric uniformity has been maintained, whereas prose is a free verse in which iambi, trochees, etc, alternate freely and arbitrarily, and do not prevent certain prose (Turgenev’s, for instance) from being more harmonious than some verse.”
We have also seen that in Hector’s farewell scene our emotions are of two distinct kinds: those caused by the subject matter (namely, the emotions which would not disappear even if the scene were narrated by Pisemskii), and those generated by Homer’s hexameters (namely, emotions which would have been lost or would not have even arisen had the scene been written by Pisemskii). But is there any work of art in which these additional emotions, caused by the form, are lacking? In other words, can we imagine a work of art which, if retold by Pisemskii, (so that only the content is retained, the external form vanishing completely), would not lose any of its intrinsic qualities? Analysis and everyday observation show, on the contrary, that in the visual arts the indissolubility of the form coincides with the indissolubility of the form of any lyrical poem. Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii attributes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to the category of purely epic art. But here is what Tolstoy himself wrote about his novel, and, in particular, about its form:
If I wanted to put into other words what I intended to express by the novel, I would have to write exactly the same novel all over again. ... And if the critics already have understood and are able to express and paraphrase what I wanted to say, then I must wholeheartedly congratulate them and boldly affirm qu’ils en savent plus long que mot ... (that they know more about it than I ...). If the nearsighted critics think I wanted to describe only what pleased me, how Obionsky dines, and what beautiful shoulders Karenina has, they are wrong ... In nearly everything I wrote I was guided by the need of gathering thoughts and connecting them to express myself, but each thought expressed separately loses its meaning and becomes insignificant if taken out of the context to which it belongs. The context itself is not made up of thoughts (I think) but of something else, and it is impossible to express in precise words the basis of this combination. But it can be done indirectly, using words to describe images, actions, and situations.
Here Tolstoy refers quite explicitly to the subordination of thought in a work of art and shows why it is impossible to perform on Anna Karenina the operation suggested by Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii for Hector’s farewell scene. It might seem that if Anna Karenina were re-narrated in our own words or in Pisemskii’s, all of its intellectual features would be preserved. Since the novel is not written in hexameters, it is not entitled to additional lyrical emotions, and thus it would suffer no damage from such an operation. We discover, however, that to violate the combination of thoughts and words, that is, to destroy its form, is tantamount to destroying the novel, in the same way that transcribing a lyrical poem in Pisemskii’s style is equivalent to destroying its lyricism. Other works mentioned by Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, such as Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace are also unlikely to withstand this operation. It must be said that the basic operation of psychological analysis consists in this - real or imaginary - destruction of the form. The distinction between the effect of the most precise re-narration and that of the original work is the starting point for the analysis of the special emotion of form. The rationality of this system clearly reveals a complete lack of understanding of the psychology of form in a work of art. Neither Potebnia nor his pupils have ever been able to explain the special and quite specific effect generated by artistic form. This is what Potebnia has to say on the subject:
“No matter what the particular solution of the problem of why poetic thinking (in its less complex forms), more than prosaic thinking, is closely related to the musicality of sounds, namely, tempo, rhythm, harmony, and association with melody, it cannot refute the position according to which poetic thinking can do without measures and meters, while prose can artificially (though with some harm to it) be given the form of verse.”
It is obvious that meters or verses are not essential to a poetic work of art. It is equally obvious that a rule of mathematics or grammar expressed in verses is not a work of poetry. The belief that poetic thinking can be completely independent of any external form, as Potebnia asserts in the lines cited above, is a complete contradiction of the first axiom of the psychology of artistic form, which states that a work of art exerts its psychological effect only in its given form. Intellectual processes are only parts and components, or tools, in those combinations of words and thoughts which are the actual work of art. But this combination, the form of a work of art, is, as Tolstoy says, made up not of thoughts but of something else. In other words, the psychology of art does involve thought, but it is not, as a whole, the result of the labor of thought. The unusual psychological power of the artistic form was correctly understood by Tolstoy, who pointed out that any violation of that form, even if it is minimal, immediately wipes out the artistic effect:
“I have already cited somewhere the profound statement on art of the Russian painter Briullov, but I cannot but repeat it once more because this statement, better than anything else, shows what can and what cannot be taught at school. As he was correcting the sketch of a pupil, Briullov gave it a few touches here and there, and the dull, drab sketch suddenly came to life. ‘But you’ve scarcely touched it, and everything has changed!’ said one of the pupils. ‘Art begins where scarcely starts,’ replied Briullov, expressing the most characteristic trait of art. This remark is true for all the arts, but its remarkable correctness can be best seen in the execution of music. ... Let us take the three main conditions, the pitch, duration, and intensity of a sound. The execution or interpretation will only be artistic when the tone is no higher or lower than it should be, when the note is hit at its infinitely small center, when it is held exactly for the time required, and when the intensity of the sound is exactly the one required, neither weaker nor stronger. The slightest deviation in pitch of the note, the slightest increase or decrease in its duration, the slightest increase or decrease in intensity, and the interpretation is gone. The execution of the piece is no longer captivating. Thus, the ‘intoxication’ with the art of music which seems to be so easily induced, occurs only when the performer succeeds in finding those infinitely small instants necessary for a perfect interpretation. The same applies to all the arts: in painting, scarcely lighter or darker, scarcely higher or lower, slightly more to the left or right; in drama, the slightest increase or decrease of stress, or a minute acceleration or delay; in Poetry, the slightest understatement, overstatement, or exaggeration and there is no ‘intoxication.’ It occurs to the degree and extent in which the artist finds those infinitesimal elements which make up his work. There is no way to teach by external means how to discover and find these elements, since they can be found only when a person abandons himself entirely to feeling. No training or instruction can make a dancer keep in step with the music, a violinist or singer hit that minuscule but correct portion of a note, a painter draw the only proper line of all the possible ones, or the poet find the only correct combination of words. All this can be achieved only by feeling.”
The difference between a great conductor and an average one becomes obvious only in the performance of the same piece of music; the difference between a great painter and an imitator is to be sought in those infinitely small elements of the art that belong to the category of formal elements. “Art begins where scarcely starts” is tantamount to saying that art begins where form begins.
Thus, since form is characteristic of any work of art, whether lyrical or graphic, the particular emotion of a form becomes a necessary condition for artistic expression. This eliminates Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii’s distinction, according to which in some arts the aesthetic enjoyment outcomes more as the result of a process, as some sort of reward for the creativity of the artist, and for understanding and repeating someone else’s creativity for anyone who perceives the work of art. It is different with architecture and lyrics, where these feelings appear primarily as a fundamental emotional feature in which the gravitational center of the work of art is concentrated, rather than as ‘results’ or ‘rewards.’ These arts may be called emotional, to distinguish them from the others which we might call intellectual or ‘graphic’. ... In the latter the emotional process is governed by the formula: from image to idea, and from idea to emotion. For the former, the formula is different: from the emotion generated by external form to another, stronger emotion, which arises because the external form has become the symbol of the idea of the subject.
Both formulas are completely fallacious. As a matter of fact, it would be more correct to say that during the perception of graphic and lyrical art the emotional process evolves by the formula: from the emotion of form to something following it. In any event, the starting point, without which the understanding of art is impossible, is the emotion of form. This is best illustrated by the psychological operation performed by the author on Homer. This operation also disproves the assertion according to which art is brainwork. The emotion of art cannot be equated to the emotion accompanying “any act of predication, especially grammatical predication. The answer to the question has been given, the predicate has been found, and the subject experiences a form of mental satisfaction. An idea has been discovered, an image has been created, and the subject experiences a peculiar intellectual pleasure.”
This, as we have already shown, does away with any psychological difference between the intellectual pleasure derived from solving a mathematical problem and that derived from listening to a concert. Hornfeld is quite right when he states that “in this entirely perceptive theory the emotional elements of art are bypassed. This is the shortcoming of Potebnia’s theory, a shortcoming of which he was aware and which he would have corrected had he continued his work. We do not know what Potebnia would have done, had he continued his work; but we do know what became of his theory, which was subsequently developed by his pupils. It excluded from his formula a great number of the arts, and contradicted the most evident facts when attempts were de to apply it to the remaining ones.
The intellectual operations and thinking processes in which works of art involve us do not belong to the psychology of art in the narrower sense of the word. They are the result, consequence, conclusion, or effect of a work of art, and they can occur only as a result of the fundamental effect generated by the work of art. The theory which starts out from this position behaves, as Shkiovskii remarked quite wittily, like a horseman who wants to get on his horse but jumps over it. The theory misses the target and does not explain the psychology of art as such. The following simple examples illustrate our point. Valerii Briusov adopted this theory and claimed that any work of art, by some special method, leads to the same perception as does the course of a scientific proof. For instance, what we experience in reading Pushkin’s poem The Prophet can also be described by scientific methods. “Pushkin proves the same idea using poetic means, namely by synthesizing concepts. But since the conclusion is wrong, there must be mistakes in the proofs. Indeed, we cannot accept the image of the seraphim, nor can we accept the substitution of the heart by coal, and so on. All the merits of Pushkin’s poem notwithstanding ... we can accept it only if we share the poet’s viewpoint. Pushkin’s The Prophet is a historic fact, as is, for instance, the teaching of the indivisibility of the atom.” The intellectual theory is pushed to absurd extremes here; hence, its psychological oddities and peculiarities are especially evident. It would appear that if a work of art contradicts scientific truths, it has the same value for us as the teaching of the indivisibility of the atom, that is, of an incorrect and therefore abandoned scientific theory. But then, about 99 percent of all the world’s works of art should be discarded as material having only historical value. One of Pushkin’s great poems begins with the words:
The earth is motionless:
Is held by Thee, Creator, so that
It will not fall on land and water
And crush us.
Every first-grader knows that the earth is not motionless but revolves. Thus these stanzas have no serious meaning for a civilized person. Why, then, do poets resort to obviously untrue and incorrect ideas? Marx points out that the most important problem in art is to explain why the Greek epics and the Shakespearean tragedies retain the significance of a standard and unattainable model to this day, despite the fact that the circumstances from which their ideas and concepts developed have long since disappeared. Greek art was able to evolve only from Greek mythology, but it continues to stir and excite us, even though Greek mythology has lost all real meaning for us, apart from a historical one. The best proof that in art this theory operates essentially with an extra aesthetic moment is provided by the fate that befell Russian symbolism, the theoretical premises of which fully coincide with the theory under investigation.
Viacheslav Ivanov crystallized the conclusions reached by the Russian symbolists in the formula: “Symbolism lies beyond the aesthetic categories.” It is as though the processes of thinking and theory are all beyond the aesthetic categories and psychological experiences of art. Far from explaining to us the psychology of art, these processes require an explanation which can be given only on the basis of its scientific development.
A theory is best evaluated by means of those extreme conclusions, concerned with an entirely different field, which make it possible to verify its laws by using facts of a completely different category. It is interesting to follow the conclusions of the theory which we are studying and to apply them to the history of ideologies. At first sight the history of ideologies appears to be in perfect harmony with that of the constant change of social ideology caused by changes in production techniques. It apparently explains how and why changes in the psychological impression generated by the same work of art occur, despite the fact that the form of the work remains the same. Once we establish that the crux of the matter, so to speak, is not the content planned by the author but that attributed to it by the reader, it becomes obvious that the content of this work of art is a dependent and variable quantity, a function of the psyche of social man. The artist’s achievement is not found in the minimum content that he intended to give his work. Rather, it is mirrored in the flexibility of the image, in the capacity of the internal form to inspire different contents. A simple riddle (in which from a play on Russia words we have a window, a door, and a heap) can evoke the idea of the relationships between the different strata of a people to the flowering political, moral, and scientific ideas. Such an interpretation of the riddle will be wrong only if we pretend that it is based on its objective meaning rather than on the personal feeling it brought about in us. There is a story about a poor fellow who wanted to get water from the river Sava to dilute some milk in a cup. As he was filling his cup, a wave from the river washed away the milk, whereupon he exclaimed, ‘Sava, Sava, you haven’t profited by this, but have only made me sad!’ Someone may see in this tale the inexorable, cataclysmic, and destructive effect of world events, the bad luck and ill fate striking out at individuals, the cry that issues from the heart of a person stricken by an irreparable, and, from his subjective viewpoint, undeserved loss. Mistakes are easily made by imposing on a people one understanding or another, but it is obvious that stories like this live on for centuries, not because their literal meaning but on account of the significance attached them. This explains why the works of ignorant people and of dark ages can retain their artistic value even in advanced, sophisticated times. also explains why, despite the alleged immortality of art, there comes time when, with rising difficulties in understanding and with the inner form forgotten, works of art lose their value.
This can account for the changeability of art in history. “Tolstoy compared the effect of a work of art with contagion; this comparison is particularly suitable in this case: I caught typhus from Ivan, but I’m suffering from my own typhus, not Ivan’s. I have my own Hamlet, not Shakespeare’s. Typhus is nothing but an abstraction necessary to theoretical thought and created by it. Each generation, each reader has its own Hamlet.”
This appears to explain the dependence of art on history quite well but a comparison with Tolstoy’s formula completely exposes the fallacy of this explanation. It is true that, for Tolstoy, art ceases to exist when one of its smallest components is violated. It is also true that for him work of art is a complete formal tautonymy. In its form it is always equal to itself. “I have said what I have said” - this is an artist’s own answer to the question of what he wanted to say with his work. The only way to reconfirm himself is to repeat the entire novel with the same words he used in the first place. Potebnia claims that a work of art is always allegorical. “I didn’t say what I said, but something else,” his formula for a work of art. It is obvious that this theory does not explain the change in the psychology of art per se, but the change in the use of the work of art. Each generation, each era uses the work of art in its own way. To be used, a work of art has to be felt in the first place. But how it is felt by different generations and different eras the theory explains in a way that is not exactly historical.
Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii points out that psychology of lyrics makes feeling a matter of work rather than of mind and establishes the following points:
The psychology of lyrics is characterized by certain special symptoms which distinguish it quite sharply from the psychology of other forms of creativity. ... The distinctive features of lyrics must be recognized as eternal; they reveal themselves in the earliest stages of lyricism accessible to investigation and run through its entire history. All the changes to which they are subjected in the course of evolution not only do not violate their psychological nature, but contribute to making lyrical expression fuller and more complete.
This shows quite clearly that since we talk about the psychology of art, in the proper acceptance of the word, it appears to be eternal. Despite all the changes, it expresses its nature more fully and seems to be not subject to the general law of historical evolution, at least in its substantial parts. If we remind ourselves of the fact that for our author lyrical emotion is general artistic emotion, i.e., emotion of form, we see that the psychology of art, in so far as it is the psychology of form, remains immutable and eternal. What changes and evolves from generation to generation is the way it is used and applied. The monstrous strain on our thought, which becomes evident, even conspicuous when we follow Potebnia and try to introduce some meaning into a modest and unassuming riddle, is a direct consequence of the fact that the study is con- ducted in the area of the use and application of the riddle rather than in that of its actual meaning and nature. Virtually anything can be made meaningful. Hornfeld gives many examples of some nonsense or absurdity to which we give a meaning. The inkspot tests conducted by Rohrschach show quite unmistakably that we give meaning, structure, and expression to the most absurd, random, and senseless accumulations of forms. In other words, a work of art by itself cannot be responsible for the thoughts and ideas it inspires. The thought or idea of political evolution, and of a varying approach to it from different quarters and viewpoints is certainly not contained in the modest riddle. If we replace its literal meaning (window, door, and heap) with an allegorical one, the riddle will stop functioning as a work of art. There would be, in fact, no difference between a riddle, a fable, and an extremely complex work if any and each of them could contain the greatest and most valuable thoughts and ideas. The difficulty does not consist in the fact that the use of a work of art in a specific era has its own, specific character, that the Divina Commedia has a different social purpose in our time than in Dante’s; rather, the difficulty consists in showing that the reader, who is under the influence of the same conventional emotions as any contemporary of Dante’s, uses the same psychological mechanisms in a different way and experiences the Commedia in a different way.
In other words, we have to show that not only do we interpret works of art differently, but we also experience and feel them differently. This is why Hornfeld entitled his paper on the subjectivity and changeability of understanding, “On Interpreting Works of Art.”
It is important to show that the most objective and, it would seem, the purest visual art is - as Guyau showed for landscaping - in the final analysis the same lyrical emotion, that is, the specific emotion of the artistic form, “The world of A Sportsman’s Notebook,” says Gershenzon, “is a faithful representation of the peasantry of Orlov province in the 1840s; but if we take a closer look we discover that this world is a masquerade: the images of Turgenev’s state of mind are disguised in the flesh, life, and psychology of Orlov peasants, and even in the landscape of Orlov province.”
And finally, the most important of all: The subjectivity of understanding, the meaning introduced by us, is definitely not a specific peculiarity of poetry. It is the sign of any understanding. As Humboldt quite rightly put it, any understanding is a non-understanding; that is to say, the thoughts instilled in us by someone’s speech never coincide entirely with the thought in the mind of the speaker. Anyone listening to a speech and understanding it apperceives the words and their meaning in his own way, and the meaning of the speech will be a subjective one every time, no more and no less than the meaning of a work of art. Briusov, following Potcbnia, sees the peculiarity of poetry in that it uses synthetic views rather than analytic opinions as does science. “If the opinion, ‘man is mortal’, is basically analytical – although we have arrived at it by induction, by observing that all people die – the poet’s (Tyutchev) expression, ‘the sound fell asleep’, is a synthetic statement. No matter how much one analyzes the term sound, the concept of sleep will not be found in it. Something from outside must be added, that is, synthesized into it, to obtain the concept of ‘the sound fell asleep.” The trouble is, however, that our everyday language, our business and journalistic prose, is literally crammed with such synthetic statements. With the aid of such statements we shall never be able to find a specific indication of the psychology of art that distinguishes it from any other form of emotion. A newspaper statement to the effect that “the government fell” contains, in this context, as much synthesis as the expression “the sound fell asleep.” Conversely, in poetry we find many such statements that cannot be recognized as being synthetic in the sense expounded. When Pushkin says “Love subjugates all ages,” he makes a statement that is not at all synthetic, although it is quite poetic. We see that if we dwell on the intellectual processes initiated by a work of art, we are likely to lose the precise symptom or sign which distinguishes them from all other intellectual processes.
Another manifestation of poetic emotion adduced by this theory as a specific characteristic of poetry is the picturesqueness, or the emotional meaningfulness, of a concept. According to this theory, a work of art is all the more poetic, the more picturesque, graphic, obvious, and incisive the emotional image evoked in the mind of the reader. “If, for instance, in imagining a horse I take the time to think of a black horse galloping along, its mane waving, etc., my thought is bound to be artistic - it will perform a minor act of artistic creativity.”
Thus it would seem that any image-bearing concept is at the same time a poetic concept. Here we see a most obvious connection between Potebnia's theory and the associative and sensualistic trends in psychology on which all the teachings of this school are based. A tremendous upheaval has occurred in psychology since the merciless criticism of both these trends, as applied to the higher processes of thought and imagination, razed to the ground the old psychological system, and with it Potebnia's statements and the assertions based on it. The new psychology has shown quite correctly that the process of thinking, in its higher forms, occurs without the help of graphic concepts or images. The traditional doctrine, according to which thought is nothing but an association of images or concepts, appears to have been completely abandoned after the fundamental investigations of Bühler, Messer, Ach, Watt, and other psychologists of the Würzburg school. The absence of graphic concepts in other thinking processes may be regarded as quite an achievement of the new psychology; Külpe tries to reach extremely important conclusions for aesthetics as well. He points out that the traditional idea of the graphic character of a poetic image collapses under the new discoveries. “All we have to do is to take the observations of readers and listeners. Frequently we know what it is about; we understand the situation, the behavior, and the personality of the characters; but we think of the corresponding or graphic concept only accidentally.”
Schopenhauer says, “Were we to translate the speech we hear into images of fantasy rushing past us, images that grapple and intertwine as the words and their grammar flow by, what a confusion would seize our minds as we listen to someone, or read a book. In any event, this does not happen.” Indeed, we would be appalled to think of the ugly distortion is the close approximation of the image to our understanding, and since without this all graphicalness becomes meaningless, the image must be better known to us than that which it explains.” He adds, “This ‘duty’ is not fulfilled by Tyutchev's comparison of boundaries with deaf and dumb demons, or by Gogol's comparison of the sky with God's chasuble, or by Shakespeare's similes which astonish us because they are so strained.”
Let us state once more that any riddle always goes from the simipler to the more complicated image, and not vice versa. A riddle that asks “Iron boils in the meat pot - what is it?” and answers, “the horse's bit,” gives an image that strikes us with its complexity as compared with the simplicity of the solution. This is always the case. When Gogol in his Terrible Vengeance gives his famous description of the Dnieper, he does not contribute to the objective representation of that river but creates a fantastic image of a marvellous stream that has nothing to do with the real Dnieper. He asserts that no river in the world equals the Dnieper, while in fact it is not among the world's largest rivers. He claims that only “an occasional bird reaches the middle of the Dnieper,” while in fact any bird can fly from one bank to the other several times without effort. Thus, not only does he take us to the actual image of the river, but he takes us away from it in accordance with the purposes and intentions of his imaginative and romantic story. In the plot, the Dnieper is indeed an unusual and fantastic river.
This example from Gogol's work is frequently used in textbooks to show the difference between poetic and prosaic descriptions. The authors claim, in full agreement with Potebnia's theory, that Gogol's description differs from the one found in a geography book only in that he gives an imaginative and descriptive picture of the river, whereas the geography book gives a bare, matter-of-fact account of it. A simple analysis, however, reveals that the harmonic form of this rhythmic fragment and its hyperbolic, almost inconceivable, plasticity are meant to create a totally new meaning which is a requisite for the short story of which this fragment forms a part.
All this becomes quite evident when we consider that words, which are the basic material of any poetic work of art, are not necessarily graphic; so that the fundamental psychological error (usually made by sensualistic psychologists) consists in substituting words for graphic or descriptive images. “The material of poetry is made up of words, not of images or emotions,” says Zhirmunskii. The sensations and images evoked by words may not exist at all. At any rate they are only a subjective addition made by the reader to the meaning and significance of the words he reads. “To build an art with these images is impossible. Art requires completeness and precision; hence it cannot be left to the mercy of the reader's imagination. The work of art is created by the poet, not the reader.
Words, by their very psychological nature, nearly always exclude graphic images. When a poet speaks of a horse, the word does not imply a flying mane, galloping, etc. Any such additional meaning is brought in (and usually quite arbitrarily) by the reader. By applying to these readers' additions Tolstoy's famous scarcely, we can see how unlikely such arbitrary, vague, and imprecise elements can be subjects of art. It is said that the reader or spectator completes with his imagination the picture or image created by the artist. Christiansen, however, has convincingly shown that this takes place only when the artist remains the master of the stirrings of our fancy, and when the formed elements predetermined quite precisely the work of our imagination. This happens with paintings representing depth or distance. But the artist must never allow our fancy or imagination to perform an arbitrary addition or completion. “An engraving shows all objects in black and white, but when we actually look at them, they seem different. We do not perceive them as black and white objects. We do not see the trees as being black, the meadows gray, and the sky white. Is this due to our imagination filling in the true colors of the landscape, putting forth a colorful image with green trees and meadows, gay flowers and blue skies instead of what the engraving actually shows? The artist, I suppose, might say 'Thanks so much for adding the work of ignoramuses and laymen to my creation.' A disharmony among the added colors may very well destroy his design. But stop to think for an instant. Do we really see the colors? Of course, we have the impression of a perfectly normal landscape with natural colors, but we do not actually see it. The impression remains outside the image.”
In a thorough investigation which immediately acquired great acclaim, Meyer has exhaustively shown that the very material used by poetry excludes a graphic and pictorial representation of the subject matter. He defined poetry as “the art of non pictorial philological representation.” As he analyzes all the forms of philological representation and the origin of concepts, he concludes that imagery and sensorial obviousness are not the psychological property of poetic experience and emotion, and that the content of any poetic description is fundamentally extra imaginative. The same was shown by Christiansen by means of extremely astute observations and critique. He established that “the purpose of representing objects in art is to show the featureless impression of the object, not its sensorial image.” It is to Christiansen's merit to have proved this point also for the graphic arts, where obviously this theory runs into heavy contradictions. “It is the established opinion that the visual arts aim at the eyes, in order to enhance the visual property of things.” Is it possible that here art also strives toward something imageless, rather than toward the sensorial image of an object, considering that it creates ‘pictures’ and is called visual? An analysis does show, however, that in the visual arts as well as in poetry the imageless impression is the final aim of representing an object.
Thus, at every point we were forced to contradict the dogma according to which art's end in itself is its emotional content. To entertain our feelings is not the final purpose of an artistic design or plot. The most important part in music is that which we cannot hear, in sculpture, that which we cannot see or touch. Wherever an image appears, intentional or not, it is never a sign of poeticity. Speaking of Potebnia's theory, Shklovskii remarks, “This construction is based on the equation: image equals poetry.” In actual fact, however, there is no such equality. For it to exist one would have to assume that any symbolic use of a word is necessarily poetic, be it only for one brief instant when the symbol is created. However, we can conceive of using a word in its indirect connotation without creating a poetic image. On the other hand, words used in their direct meaning and put together in sentences that do not evoke images may be works of poetry as, for instance, Pushkin's poem ‘I loved you once, perhaps this love.’ Imagery or symbolism does not distinguish poetic language from prose.
Finally, during the past ten years the most serious and shattering criticism has been leveled against the traditional theory of imagination as a combination of images. Meinong's school (as well as the schools of other researchers) showed with sufficient thoroughness that imagination and fantasy must be regarded as functions servicing our emotional sphere, and when they discover some exterior and superficial similarity with mental processes, the reasoning is always based on emotion. Heinrich Meyer discovered an extremely important property of this emotional thinking. He found that the basic tendency of the facts of emotional thinking is substantially different from that of discursive thinking. The process of perception is pushed to the background and not recognized. Consciousness performs eine Vorstellungsgestaltung, nicht Auffassung (representation of an image, not conception). The fundamental purpose of the process is completely different, although the exterior forms may occasionally coincide. The activity of imagination consists of an order of affects, like feelings which manifest themselves in expressive movements. There exist two opinions among psychologists as to whether emotions increase or decrease under the effect of affective concepts: Wundt maintained that emotions decrease, but Lehman held the opposite view. If we apply to this question the principle of single-pole energy output as introduced by Kornilov in interpreting rational processes, we will see that in emotions as well as in thoughts an increase of the charge at the center leads to a weakening of the charge in the peripheral organs. Here and there the central and peripheral charges are in an inverse ratio to one another; consequently any increase from affective concepts represents basically an act of emotion, similar to acts complicating the reaction, by adding to it intellectual elements of choice, distinction, and so on. Since the intellect is nothing but inhibited will, we might possibly think of imagination as inhibited feeling. In any event, the obvious resemblance with rational processes cannot overshadow the fundamental differences which exist here. Even strictly perceptive opinions which refer to a work of art and are Versidndni's Urteile (judgments of comprehension) are not opinions but emotionally affective acts of thought. Thus when looking at Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, the thought arises that “this is Judas. He is obviously upset and has overturned the salt.” Meyer explains this in the following way: ‘I recognize Judas only on the strength of the affective emotional way of representation.’ This shows that the theory of graphic representation as well as the assertion concerning the rational character of aesthetic reaction runs into considerable opposition from psychologists. Where graphicalness is the result of the activity of the imagination, it obeys laws completely different from those of the usual creative imagination and the usual logical-discursive thinking. Art is the work of the intellect and of very special emotional thinking, but even after having introduced these corrections we have still to solve the problem confronting us. Not only do we have to establish with maximum precision how the laws of emotional thinking differ from other forms of this problem; we also have to show how the psychology of art differs from other forms of that same emotional thinking.
Nothing reveals the impotence of the intellectual theory better and more fully than the practical results to which it has led. Any theory, in the final analysis, is by preference checked against the practical results issuing from it. The best evidence of whether a theory correctly recognizes and understands the phenomena with which it is concerned is given by the extent to which it controls these phenomena. Approaching the problem from a practical angle we see that this theory is totally incapable of mastering the facts of art. Neither in literature nor in the teaching of literature, in social critique, nor in the theory and psychology of creativity, has this theory given anything that could induce us to believe that it grasps one or the other law of the psychology of art. Instead of a history of literature, it has created a history of the Russian intelligentsia (Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii), a history of social thought (Ivanov-Razumnik), and a history of social movements (Pypin). In these superficial and methodologically inaccurate works the theory distorted the literature, which it used as material, and the social history which it tried to understand with the aid of literary phenomena and events. When an attempt was made to base an understanding of the intelligentsia of the 1820's upon Eugene Onegin, an equally distorted and incorrect view of the intelligentsia and of Eugene Onegin resulted. It is true that some traits of the intelligentsia of the 1820's can be found in Eugene Onegin, but these traits are so changed, transformed, compounded with others, and brought into a completely different connection with the plot, that on their basis it is as impossible to form a correct idea of this group in the 1820's as it is impossible to write a grammar of the Russian language on the basis of Pushkin's poetic language. No serious scholar or investigator could ever conclude, proceeding from the assumption that Eugene Onegin “reflects the Russian language,” that the words in the Russian language distribute themselves in the form of iambic tetrameters, and rhyme in the way they rhyme in Pushkin's poem. Any attempt at perceiving anything through a work of art will fail as long as we have not learned to distinguish the auxiliary artistic techniques used by the poet to process the material he has taken from life.
There remains one last point to make. The general premise of this practical application of the theory, the typicalness of the work of art, must be taken with a good deal of circumspection and subjected to very accurate scrutiny. The artist does not give a collective photograph of life; hence, typicalness is by no means the feature he pursues. Thus, anyone endeavoring to investigate the history of the Russian intelligentsia on the basis of the Chatskiis and Pechorins risks remaining with completely fallacious ideas and understandings of the phenomena under study. With such a brand of scientific investigation we may hit the target no more than once in a thousand times. This, more than any theoretical considerations, testifies to the groundlessness and superficial- ity of the theory whose fine points we have just discussed.