Psychology of Art. Vygotsky (1925)

Art as a Catharsis

Theory of Emotions and Fantasies. Principles of the Economy of Force. Theory of Emotional Tone and Feeling. The law of the “Double Expression of Emotion” and the law of the “Reality of Emotion.” Central and Peripheral Discharge of Emotions. Affective Contradiction and the beginning of Antithesis. Catharsis. Rejection of the Content of Form.

The psychology of art involves two, or possibly three, branches of theoretical psychology. It depends upon findings from the study of perception, the study of the emotions, and the study of imagination and fantasy. Art, when studied in a psychology course, is considered under one, two, or all three of these topical umbrellas. These categories are of differential importance in the study of the psychology of art. The psychology of perception obviously plays a tertiary role because theorists long ago abandoned the naive sensualism according to which art is nothing but the enjoyment of beautiful things. The aesthetic response, at its most primitive, has long been distinguished from the perception of a pleasant taste, odor, or color. Although the problem of perception is an important consideration in the psychology of art, it is not the main one, because it depends on prior decisions about other questions which form the very heart of our problem. The response to art begins with sensory perception, but does not end with it. This is why the psychology of art must begin, not with a chapter on elementary aesthetic experiences, but with the other two problem areas – emotion and imagination. Indeed, all psychological systems which attempt to explain art are nothing but various combinations of the theories of imagination and emotion. In psychology there are no areas more obscure than these two. In recent times they have been the subject of a great many investigations, all of which have neglected to propose a generally acceptable system for study. Matters are even worse in objective psychology, where a system has been developed which conceptualizes the behavioral forms corresponding to processes of the will (to use the old mentalistic term), and represents intellectual processes, but continues to leave domains of emotion and imagination virtually untouched. “The psychology of feeling,” says Titchener, “is to a large extent the psychology of personal opinion and conviction.”[1] This view applies also to imagination, and, as Zenkovskii says, “psychology here is like a bad joke.” Since little is known about imagination and emotion, the most mysteriously problematic question in modern psychology is the association between emotional facts and imagination. Emotions have many different characteristics, the first of which, according to Titchener, is indefiniteness. This indefiniteness is what distinguishes emotion from sensation. “Clarity is not one of the properties of emotion. Pleasure and displeasure may be intense and prolonged, but they are never clear. In terms of naive psychology, this means that we cannot concentrate our attention on an emotion. The more attention we pay to a sensation, the clearer it becomes and the better we remember it. But we cannot concentrate our attention on an emotion. As soon as we try, pleasure or displeasure immediately dissipates, and we find ourselves observing some irrelevant sensation or image which we had not intended to observe in the first place. If we want to enjoy a concert or a painting, we must carefully perceive what we hear or see; pleasure, however, disappears as soon as we try to focus our attention on It.”[2]

Thus, in terms of empirical psychology, emotion is beyond the domain of consciousness, since everything that cannot be fixed within the attentional focus is pushed to the extreme limits of the conscious. Many psychologists, however, emphasize a different, contrasting characteristic of emotion. They claim that feeling is always conscious and that the concept of unconscious feeling is a contradiction in terms. Freud, the great champion of the unconscious, says, “The essence of emotional feeling is that it is felt, that is, consciously realized. Emotions, sensations, and affects can therefore never be unconscious.”[3] At the same time, he tries to establish whether such a paradoxical term as unconscious fear is meaningful. He finds out that, although psychoanalysis speaks of unconscious affects, these differ from unconscious perception, since an unconscious affect corresponds to an affective embryo and a possibility of action left undeveloped. “Strictly speaking ... unconscious affects, similar to unconscious (or subconscious) concepts, do not exist.”[4]

The aesthetic psychologist Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii holds the same view. He differentiates between feeling and thought, in part because feelings cannot be unconscious. His solution of the problem is similar to James’, but very different from Ribot’s. He asserts that we have no memory for feeling. “First we must decide whether unconscious feeling exists, for there exists unconscious thought. I feel that a negative answer to this question is almost automatic. Emotional feeling, with all its nuances, remains such only as long as it is felt, or consciously realized. ... It seems to me that the expression ‘unconscious feeling’ is a contradictio in adjecto, like black whiteness – there is no unconscious area in feeling.”[5]

We seem to run into a contradiction here. On the one hand, emotions are necessarily deprived of conscious clarity, but on the other hand they cannot possibly be unconscious. This contradiction, established in empirical psychology, seems to reflect reality; but we must also apply it to objective psychology and attempt to find its true meaning. We will try to describe emotions in general terms as nervous processes and specify the objective characteristics of these processes.

Many writers agree that in terms of nervous mechanisms, emotions must be regarded as an output, or discharge, of nervous energy. Orshanskii states that our psychic energy can be expended in three ways: “First, by the motor nerves, in the form of a concept or a will stimulus of motion, amounting to a higher psychic activity. Second, by internal discharge. If this takes the form of irradiation, or the passage of a psychic wave, it forms the basis for an association of concepts. If it amounts to a further release of live psychic energy in different nervous waves, it represents the source of emotion. Finally, inhibition pushes part of the psychic energy into the hidden, the subconscious ... this is why energy transformed by inhibition into a latent state becomes the basis for any function of logic. Thus, the three aspects of psychic energy, or work, correspond to the three aspects of nervous work; emotion corresponds to discharge, will corresponds to working energy, and intellectual energy, especially abstraction, is associated with inhibition or the economy of nervous and psychic strength ... In higher mental activity, the transformation of live psychic energy into reserve energy prevails.”[6]

Most authors agree with this view (according to which emotion is the output of energy). Freud says, for instance, that affects and feelings are expenditures of energy, the final expression of which is perceived as a sensation (feeling). “Affectivity is essentially expressed by motor energy outflow (secretory, regulating the cardiovascular system), that results in an (internal) bodily change unrelated to the external environment; motor activity is expressed by actions, the purpose of which is to change the external environment.”[7]

This view is shared by many art psychologists, including Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, who considers the principle of the economy of energy as the fundamental principle of aesthetics, even though he makes an exception for feeling. He says, “Our sensate soul can truly be compared with the proverbial cart of which it is said ‘whatever falls from it, is lost forever.’ Our thinking soul, however, is like a cart from which nothing can fall. Its load is well-packed and hidden in the unconscious ... If the feelings we experience lived and worked in our unconscious, continuously breaking into our conscious (as does thought), our emotional life would be such a mixture of heaven and hell that even the strongest constitution could not withstand the continuous succession of joys, sorrows, resentment, wrath, love, envy, jealousy, fears, regrets, hopes, and other emotions. No, feelings do not enter the unconscious; there is no such region in the feeling soul. Feelings, as all conscious psychic processes, expend rather than save psychic energy. The life of feelings is the expenditure of the soul.” [8]

To corroborate this idea, Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii shows that the law of memory prevails in our thinking, while the law of oblivion prevails in our feeling. He bases his observations on the strongest and highest manifestation of feelings – affects and passions. “Affects and passions are an expenditure of psychic force – there is no doubt about it. If we take all the affects and passions in a given period of time, their expenditure will be enormous. Which components of this expenditure can be considered useful and productive is another question; indeed, most passions and some affects are a waste leading to bankruptcy of the psyche. Thus, if we take the higher processes of scientific and philosophical thought on the one hand, and the strongest affects and passions on the other, we will be fully apprised of the antagonism between the thinking and the feeling psyche. We will realize that these ‘two souls’ are inharmonious, and a psyche consisting of them is badly organized, unsteady, and full of internal contradiction.” [9]

A fundamental problem for the psychology of art is whether emotion is only a waste of psychic energy or whether it has some value in an individual’s psychic life. This problem is of basic importance for the psychology of emotion. On its solution depends the solution of another basic problem of the psychology of aesthetics, the principle of the economy of energy. Since Spencer’s time we have based our understanding of art on the law of the economy of psychic forces, a law which Spencer considered the universal principle for function of the psyche. This principle was adopted by art historians, and in the Russian literature it was best understood by Veselovskii, who devised the well-known rule that “the merit of a style was the formulation of as many thoughts as possible, in as few words as possible.” This view is also held by Potebnia’s school, and Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii similarly reduces artistic feeling (as opposed to aesthetic feeling) to a feeling of economy. The formalists opposed this view with a series of quite convincing arguments which contradict this principle. Yakubinskii, for instance, showed that poetic language lacks a rule for the distribution of flowing sound; other scholars showed that poetic language is characterized by a combination of sounds difficult to pronounce, that one of the techniques used is that of hampering perception to deprive it of its customary automatism, and that poetic language is governed by Aristotle’s rule that it should sound like a foreign language. The contradiction that exists between this principle and the theory that feeling is an expenditure of psychic energy is obvious. As a matter of fact, it induced Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, who wanted to preserve both rules in his theory, to divide art into two completely distinct areas, the figurative arts and the lyrical arts. He quite correctly separates artistic feeling from other aesthetic feelings, but for him artistic emotion is emotion derived from thoughts, that is, emotion from a pleasure based on the economy of strength. Conversely, he regards lyrical emotion as an intellectual emotion, fundamentally distinct from the form. The distinction lies in the fact that lyrics actually call forth real emotions and must consequently be set apart in a special psychological grouping. But since emotion is an output of energy, there arises question of how the theory of lyrical emotion accords with the principle of the economy of energy. Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii is correct in separating lyrical emotion from any “applied” emotion caused by lyrics. Unlike Petrazhitskii, who claims that military music is intended to stir bellicose emotions, and church singing functions to arouse religious emotions, he points out that it is impossible to mix these emotions, because “if we admit the possibility of such a mixture, we find that the purpose of erotic poems is stimulation of the sexual appetites. The idea of ‘The Covetous Knight’ is to prove that avarice is a vice ... and so on.” [10]

If we accept this distinction between the immediate and secondary, or “applied,” effect of art (its direct result and consequence), we will have to formulate two separate questions concerning the economy of strength: does the economy of strength (considered by many to be essential for experiencing and understanding art) occur in the secondary or primary effect of art? On the basis of the critical and practical studies we performed in the preceding chapters, the answer appears obvious. We have seen that everything in the primary, or direct, effect of art indicates difficulty with respect to nonartistic activity; consequently, the principle of the economy of strength, if at all applicable, should be applied to the secondary effect of art – to its consequences, but not to the aesthetic response to a work of art. This is the way Freud explains the principle of the economy of strength, as he points out that this economy is quite different from Spencer’s naive version. It reminds Freud of the petty economy of the housewife who is ready to travel for miles to a distant market in order to save a few pennies on a purchase. “We have abandoned long ago this naive interpretation of economy,” says Freud, “according to which it represents the desire to avoid the expenditure of psychic energy, with the economy occurring when there is a maximum limitation in the use of words and the construction of associations of thought. We have already said that a short, laconic statement is not necessarily a witty one. Brevity of wit is something special, it is ‘witty’ brevity ... we may liken psychic economy to a commercial enterprise. So long as the volume is small, general expenses are small and overhead is low. Thrift can be applied to the absolute magnitude of expenditure. But as the business expands, the importance of overhead becomes secondary. Now it is important to increase the volume and the profits, rather than worry about the extent of costs. It would be risky and stupid for the enterprise to economize on costs now.”[11]

We shall show that poets usually resort to an economy different from the trivial one proposed by Veselovskii. In fact, were we to retell a tragedy in a short and concise manner, as is done in theater program notes, the economy of words would be even greater than that proposed by Veselovskii. The poet, however, uses a different technique, which is essentially uneconomical with respect to the distribution of our mental forces. The poet intentionally attenuates the cause of the action, arouses our curiosity, plays with our ingenuity, makes our attention run to and fro; in other words, he wastes our strength and energies to the extent required by his work of art. An absolutely faithful and precise narration in prose of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov saves much more psychic energy than the actual works of art. Dostoevsky, for instance, at one of the most climactic moments in his novel, inserts several dots rather than disclose who killed Fedor Karamazov – he lets our thoughts run in circles of suppositions, suspicions, and surmises, seeking the answer. It would have been far more economical (as regards the expenditure of psychic energy) to put down the facts, as in a court investigation or a scientific report. We must conclude, therefore, that the principle of the economy of strength, at least in its Spencerian interpretation, is inapplicable to art forms. Hence Spencer’s reasons and arguments are useless here. He assumes that the English language is economical (i.e., that it saves psychic energy), because adjectives usually precede substantives: “a black horse” is more economical for our attention than “a horse black,” because we meet with trouble concerning the kind of horse we are dealing with if its color is not previously specified. This psychologically naive argument might possibly be applied to a prosaic distribution of thoughts[46]. In art, however, the expenditure and utilization of nervous energy are governed by a completely different and opposite rule. The greater the expenditure of nervous energy, the more intense is the effect produced by the work of art. We must remember that an emotion is an expenditure of psychic force; we must also remember that art is indissolubly associated with a complex play of emotions; thus, we shall see that art violates the principle of economy of strength, at least insofar as its immediate effect is concerned, and obeys an opposite principle in the construction of artistic forms. Our aesthetic response, above all, is a response that annihilates our nervous energy; it is an explosion, not a penny-pinching economy.

It may be that the principle of the economy of strength can be applied to art in a completely different manner. To determine this, we must have a clear idea about the nature of aesthetic reaction. There are many views on this subject, but these are difficult to organize because no generally accepted system, psychological or otherwise, exists to deal with this problem. Every investigator is concerned with a specific problem, and there is no comprehensive psychological system to explain all aesthetic behavior and response on a total scale. A theory usually deals with but one aspect of this response; hence it is difficult to determine whether it is true, because it may well solve a problem that had not been hitherto formulated for investigation. In his systematic psychology of art, Müller-Freienfels closes his theory of aesthetic response with the remark that the position of the psychologist in this case resembles that of the biologist who can decompose an organic substance into its chemical components but is unable to reproduce the whole from its parts.[12]

The psychologist may, at best, reach the stage of analysis; he has absolutely no access to the synthesis of an aesthetic response. The best proof of his inability is his attempt to synthesize the psychology of art. He can find sensorial, motor, associative, intellectual, and emotional factors for a reaction, but he can say nothing about the relationships among them nor about how a complete psychology of art may be constructed from these factors, each of which can be found outside of art. He may obtain results which are a step beyond the “dead sea of abstract concepts,” but which are of little importance for objective psychology.

These results could be expressed in many pages but, in essence, they are as follows: this author firmly believes that artistic enjoyment is not pure perception, but that it requires the highest psychic activity. Artistic emotions are not collected by the psyche as if they were a handful of seeds thrown into a bag. They require a process of germination and growth, and a psychologist may be able to discover the auxiliary and secondary needs of this process, such as warmth, moisture, chemical additives, and so forth.[13] But after his investigation, the psychologist will know no more about the process of germination than before he began.

Our purpose consists in leaving aside systematic analysis and the exhaustive absolute components of aesthetic responses in order to study the germination itself rather than the conditions which cause it. With the aid of synthetic theories of aesthetic emotions, we can group all that has hitherto been said on the subject around two basic arguments. The first was developed by Christiansen in a thorough but ordinary way. He claims that any action of the external world entails a special sensorial and moral effect. According to Goethe, this is the emotional impression, the differential in the mood we experience, which psychologists of the past called the sensorial tone of perception. The color blue calms us, yellow excites us, and so forth. Christiansen claims that art is based on these mood differentials; hence, aesthetic reaction can be represented as follows: an aesthetic object consists of different parts and comprises impressions of material, object, and form which are essentially different but have in common the fact that each element corresponds to a specific emotional tone. “The material of the object and its form are not comprised directly in the aesthetic object, but in the form of the emotional elements added to it,”[14] which can be fused into what is generally known as an aesthetic object. The aesthetic response therefore reminds us of piano playing; each element of a work of art strikes a corresponding emotional key in our organism which produces a tone, and the entire aesthetic reaction is made up of emotional impressions arising in response to the “keys.”

In a work of art no element is important in itself. it is merely a key. It is the emotional reaction it generates that is important. Such a mechanical concept, however, is in the end incapable of solving the problem of artistic response, because the emotional portion of an impression is quite small compared with the strong affects that make up an aesthetic response. In addition to the emotional impression generated by the individually existing elements of art, an aesthetic response consists also of certain emotional experiences which cannot be included among these mood differentials. Christiansen distinguishes his own theory from the banal theory of art as a mood; this distinction, however, is quantitative rather than qualitative, and in the end we retain the concept of art as a mood arising from various differentials. We cannot understand why there exists a connection between the aesthetic experience and the course of our everyday life, and why art is so important to us. Christiansen finishes by contradicting himself and his own theory when he determines art as embodied desire and an extremely important life activity. His psychological theory is unable to explain how, by the emotional nature of its elements, art can accomplish the tangible realization of the fundamental desires of our psyche. Given such a psychological interpretation, art becomes a very shallow matter that affects only the surface of our psyche because its sensorial tone cannot be separated from the emotion itself. This theory opposes sensualism and demonstrates that enjoyment of art does not occur in the eye or ear; it fails, however, to tell us precisely where it does occur, but places the experience at the approximate level of the eye and ear, closely associating it with the activity of our perceptive organs.

The other theory, known in the psychological literature as the theory of Einfühlung (empathy), is therefore more effective. This theory harks back to Herder and was developed by Lipps. It proceeds from an opposite concept of emotional feeling. According to this theory, emotions are not produced in us by a work of art, as are sounds by the keys of a piano. An artistic element does not introduce its emotional tone into us. It is we who introduce emotions into a work of art, emotions arising from the greatest depths of our being and generated not at the shallow level of the receptors but in the most complex activities of our organisms. “Such is the nature of our psyche,” says F. T. Fischer, “that it insinuates itself into physical phenomena, or into man-made forms, attributing certain moods to these phenomena, moods which, by means of an unconscious act, enter into the objects. Aesthetics deals with this addition, this Einfühlung into inanimate objects.”

Lipps has developed a brilliant theory of Einfühlung into both linear and three-dimensional forms. He showed that we rise with an ascending line, fall with a descending line, bend with a circle, and so on. If we take only the empirical facts uncovered by Lipps’s theory, we can say that it will certainly become part of the future objective psychological theory of aesthetics. From an objective viewpoint, Einfühlung is a response to a stimulus. Lipps, who asserts that we introduce our responses into a work of art, is closer to the truth than Christiansen who believes that an aesthetic object introduces its emotional properties into us. But Lipps’s theory has as many drawbacks as Christiansen’s. First, it offers no criterion by which to distinguish aesthetic responses from other responses unrelated to art. We cannot deny that “Einfühlung is an omnipresent part of our perception; hence, it cannot have any specific aesthetic meaning. ...”[15]

Equally convincing are Meiman’s two other objections, that Einfühlung, such as generated by Faust’s verses, sometimes moves to the fore but at other times is completely concealed by the content, and that in the interpretation of Faust it is a subordinate element of the aesthetic reaction, rather than its core. If we consider such complex artistic works as novels or architectural structures, we see that their main effect is based on different, very complex processes associated with our perceiving the whole, performing difficult and complicated intellectual operations, and so on.

Müller-Freienfels holds that a work of art generates two kinds of affect in us. Experiencing Othello’s jealousy or Macbeth’s terror at Banquo’s apparition is a coaffect on our part; fearing for Desdemona before she realizes she is in danger is our own affect and should be distinguished from the coaffects.[16]

It is obvious that Christiansen’s theory explains only our own, “the viewer’s,” affects and ignores the coaffects, because no psychologist will define the coaffect of Macbeth’s terror or Othello’s emotional pains as the emotional tone of these images (their emotional tone is different, and consequently Christiansen’s theory ignores coaffects). Lipps’s theory, on the other hand, deals exclusively with coaffects. It explains how, by means of Einfühlung, we can experience Othello’s or Macbeth’s passion, but it is unable to explain how we experience a feeling of fear for Desdemona while she still is unconcerned, suspecting nothing. According to Müller-Freienfels, the Einfühlung theory cannot explain the different kinds of affect. At most, it can be applied to coaffects, but for our own affects it is inadequate. Only in part do we experience the affects as they are given to the characters in a drama; most of the time we experience them not with, but because of, the characters. Compassion, for instance, is a very inappropriate term, because we very seldom experience a passion with someone. Usually, we experience a passion on account of someone else’s feelings.” These remarks are fully corroborated by Lipps’s theory of tragic perception. He introduces the law of the “psychic dam” according to which “a psychic event ... held up in its natural course ... forms a block, or dammed-up area,” that is, it rises exactly to the point at which the impediment or interruption occurs. Thus, tragic delays increase the value of the suffering protagonist, and Einfühlung increases our own value. “When we see psychic sufferings,” says Lipps, “what is heightened is the objective feeling of self-value; I feel, to a more intense degree, myself and my human value as reflected in someone else; I feel and experience to a more intense degree what it means to be a human being ... The means to this end is suffering... .” The understanding of the tragic proceeds from the coaffect, while the affect of the tragedy itself remains unexplained.

We realize that none of the existing theories of aesthetic emotion can explain the intimate connection between our feeling and the objects we perceive. To arrive at this explanation, we must resort to psychological systems based on the association between fantasy and feeling. I am speaking here of the review of the problem of fantasy performed by Meinong and his school, Zeller, Meyer, and other psychologists in recent decades. This new approach can be described approximately as follows: The psychologists proceed from the irrefutable association that exists between emotion and imagination. We know that every emotion has a psychic expression in addition to a physical one. In other words, a feeling “is embodied, fixed in an idea, as is evidenced in cases of persecution mania,” according to Ribot. Consequently, an emotion is expressed by the mimic, pantomimic, secretory, and somatic responses of our organism. It also requires some expression of our imagination. We find the best evidence for this view among the so-called objectless emotions. Pathological phobias, persistent fears, and so forth, are always associated with specific ideas, most of which are absolutely false and distort reality, but in so doing find their “psychic” expression. A patient who suffers from obsessive fear is emotionally sick, his fear is irrational; and so in order to rationalize it, he imagines that everyone is pursuing and persecuting him. For such a patient, the sequence of events is exactly the opposite of that of a normal person. For the latter, persecution is perceived first, then fear; for the sick man, it is first the fear, then the imagined persecution. Zenkovskii aptly called this phenomenon the “double expression of feelings.” Most contemporary psychologists would agree with this view if it is assumed to mean that an emotion is serviced by imagination and expressed in a series of fantastic ideas, concepts, and images that represent its second expression. We might say that an emotion has a central effect in addition to a peripheral one, and that in this case we are discussing the former. Meinong distinguishes opinions from assumptions by establishing whether or not we are convinced of their correctness. If we accidentally take someone we meet for an acquaintance and do not realize our mistake, then this is a judgment (albeit a mistaken one); but if, knowing that the person is not our acquaintance, we persevere in our misjudgment and continue to take him for an acquaintance, we are dealing with an assumption. Meinong holds that children’s games and aesthetic illusions are based on assumptions, which are the source of the “feelings and fantasies” that accompany both these activities. For some, these illusory feelings are identical to the real ones. It is quite possible, they say, that the differences (known to experience) between actual and imaginary feelings are based on the fact that the former stem from judgments and the latter from assumptions. We can illustrate this by the following example: If at night we mistake an overcoat hanging in our room for a person, our error is obvious, the experience is false and devoid of real content. But the feeling of fear experienced at the instant the coat was sighted is very real indeed. This means that, in essence, all our fantastic experiences take place on a completely real emotional basis. We see, therefore, that emotion and imagination are not two separate processes; on the contrary, they are the same process. We can regard a fantasy as the central expression of an emotional reaction. We now come to an extremely important conclusion. Psychologists of the past have pondered the relation between the central and peripheral expression of emotions, whether the external expression of feelings is enhanced or weakened by imagination. Wundt and Lehman gave contrasting answers to this question; Meyer postulates that both may be correct. Two distinct cases could well he involved. First, when the images of our fantasy function as the internal stimulus for our new response , they enhance the basic response. A very vivid imagination increases our amorous excitation, but in this case the fantasy is not the expression of the emotion it enhances but rather the discharge of the preceding emotion. Whenever an emotion finds its solution in images of fantasy, this “dreaming” weakens the true manifestation of the emotion; if we expressed our doubts in our fantasy, its external manifestation would be quite weak. We feel that, with reference to emotional responses, all those general psychological laws established with respect to any simple sensory-motor response remain valid. It is an irrefutable fact that our reactions slow down and lose intensity as soon as the central element of the emotion becomes more complicated. We discover that, as the imagination (the central element of the emotional reaction) increases, its peripheral part loses intensity. This has been established by Wundt’s school with regard to time, and also studied by Kornilov. We think that it is applicable here. The law can be formulated as follows: It is a single-pole energy outflow characterized by the fact that nervous energy is expended at one pole, either at the center or at the periphery, and increases in energy outflow at one pole lead to a decrease at the other. This same law has been discovered, in a somewhat scattered fashion, by other investigators of emotion. The novelty that we introduce amounts to gathering these diverse thoughts into a single concept. According to Groos we are dealing, both in play and aesthetic activity, or response, with a delay, but not with an inhibition of the response. “I am more and more convinced that emotions as such are in extremely close connection with physical sensations. The internal organic state on which psychic motions and emotions are based is likely to be impeded to some extent by the tendency toward continuation of the initial concept, as it might be in the case of a child who plays that he is fighting, but delays the motion of his arm ready to strike.”[17]

I feel that this delay and weakening of inner organic and external manifestations of emotions should be regarded as a particular case of the general law of single-pole energy outflow due to emotions. As we have seen, energy flows out from one of two poles, either at the periphery or at the center; and an increased activity at one pole leads immediately to a decrease at the other.

It seems to me that only from this viewpoint can we approach art which appears to stir very strong feelings in us, which feelings are not specifically expressed. The enigmatic difference that exists between artistic feeling and ordinary feeling may be explained as follows: Artistic feeling is the same as the other, but it is released by extremely intensified activity of the imagination. The contrasting elements of which any aesthetic response is composed are thus joined into a unit. Psychologists have up to now been unable to establish a mutual relationship between contemplation and emotion. They could not establish the place of each element in the framework of artistic emotion, so much so that the most consequential art psychologist, Müller-Freienfels, suggested the existence of two kinds of art and two kinds of spectators. One attaches greater significance to contemplation, and the other to feeling, and vice versa.

Our assumption is supported by the fact that until now psychologists have been unable to determine the difference between feeling in art and conventional, or ordinary, feeling. Müller-Freienfels suggests that the difference is merely quantitative, and says, “... aesthetic affects are powerful, that is, they are affects which do not strive toward action, but which nonetheless can attain the highest intensity of feeling.”[19] This statement agrees with what we have just stated. It also comes close to Munsterberg’s psychological theory, according to which isolation is an indispensable condition for aesthetic experience. In the last analysis, isolation is nothing but the condition in which it is possible to distinguish the aesthetic stimulus from other stimuli; this condition is indispensable because it guarantees a strictly central release of the affects generated by art and ensures that these affects are not expressed by any other external action. Hennequin recognizes the same difference between real and artistic feeling in the fact that emotions in themselves do not lead to actions. “The purpose of a work of literature,” he states, “is to cause specific emotions that cannot be directly expressed in action. ...”[20]

It is the delay in the external manifestation which is the distinguishing characteristic of an artistic emotion and the reason for its extraordinary power. We can show that art is a central emotion, one that releases itself in the cerebral cortex. The emotions caused by art are intelligent emotions. Instead of manifesting themselves in the form of fist-shaking or fits, they are usually released in images of fantasy. Diderot states that an actor weeps real tears, but the tears come from his brain; thus, he expresses the essence of his artistic reaction. But, we must realize that a similar central release is quite conceivable with conventional or ordinary emotions. Consequently, a single characteristic does not yet establish, or define, the specific distinction of aesthetic emotion.

But there is more. Psychologists frequently claim that mixed feelings exist. Although some authors, such as Titchener, deny their existence, others maintain that art always deals with mixed feelings, and that emotions, in general, have an organic character. This is why many authors regard an emotion as an internal organic response, which expresses the agreement or disagreement of our organism with the neural response released by an individual organ. The unity of our organism expresses itself in the emotion. Titchener explains, “When Othello is harsh toward Desdemona, she excuses his rudeness by saying that he is upset by affairs of state. ‘... Let our finger ache,’ she says, ‘and it induces our other healthful members even to that sense of pain.’”[21] Emotion is taken here as a general global organic response to events occurring in an individual organ. This is why art (which, rather than repelling us, attracts us even as it provokes unpleasant feelings) is bound to be associated with mixed feelings and emotions. Müller-Freienfels refers to Socrates’ opinion, as stated by Plato, that the same person should write both comedies and tragedies[22] because the contrast of feelings is essential to an aesthetic impression[47]. In analyzing tragic feeling, he points out duality as its basis and shows that the tragic is impossible if taken objectively and without any psychological background, because this background is the contrast between inhibition and excitation. [23] Despite the depressing nature of the tragic emotion, “on the whole it is one of the loftiest heights to which human nature can attain, since the spiritual conquest of deep pain or sorrow generates a feeling of triumph which has no equal.”[24]

For Schilder also, this emotion is based upon the duality of the tragic impression.[25] Indeed, every author has made some comment concerning the fact that a tragedy always involves contrasting feelings. Plekhanov cites Darwin’s views of the principle of antithesis in our expressive emotions and attempts to apply them to art. According to Darwin, some moods cause certain habitual movements which may be regarded as useful; in an opposing intellectual mood there exists a strong, involuntary tendency to perform movements of an opposite nature which seem useless. This appears to be due to the fact that any voluntary movement invariably requires the action of certain muscles; by performing a diametrically opposite movement, we put opposite muscles to work (movement right or left, pushing or pulling, lifting and dropping, and so forth). Since the performance of opposite movements under the influence of opposing impulses has become habitual in us as well as in lower animals, when movements of one kind are closely associated with an emotion or feeling, it is perfectly natural to assume that movements of an opposite nature are performed involuntarily, as a consequence of a habitual association.[26]

This remarkable law discovered by Darwin is applicable to art, and it is no longer surprising that the tragedy which simultaneously generates in us opposing affects acts according to the principle of antithesis and sends opposite impulses to opposing muscle groups. It forces us to move simultaneously to the right and left, simultaneously to lift and drop weights, simultaneously to move one group of muscles and their opposites. This is how we can explain the delay in the external manifestation of affect that takes place in art. And this is where we may find the specific distinguishing marks of the aesthetic response.

We have seen from the foregoing that a work of art (such as a fable, a short story, a tragedy), always includes an affective contradiction, causes conflicting feelings, and leads to the short-circuiting and destruction of these emotions. This is the true effect of a work of art. We come now to the concept of catharsis [48] used by Aristotle as the basis for his explanation of tragedy, and repeatedly mentioned by him with regard to the other arts. In his Poetica he says that “tragedy imitates an important and finished action of a certain magnitude, with a speech whose every part has a different ornament, or with action, not narration, that performs a purification of such affects by means of pity and fear.”[27]

No matter what interpretation we assign the enigmatic term catharsis, we must be sure that it corresponds to Aristotle’s. For our purposes, however, this is irrelevant. Whether we follow Lessing, who understands catharsis to be the moral action of the tragedy (the transformation of passions into virtues) or Müller, for whom it is the transition from displeasure to pleasure; whether we accept Bernays’ interpretation of the term as healing and purification in the medical sense, or Zeller’s opinion that catharsis appeases affect, – we will imperfectly and incompletely express the meaning we assign to this term. Despite the indefiniteness of its content, despite our failure to explain the meaning of this term in the Aristotelian sense, there is no other term in psychology which so completely expresses the central fact of aesthetic reaction, according to which painful and unpleasant affects are discharged and transformed into their opposites. Aesthetic reaction as such is nothing but catharsis, that is, a complex transformation of feelings. Though little is known at present about the process of catharsis, we do know, however, that the discharge of nervous energy (which is the essence of any emotion) takes place in a direction which opposes the conventional one, and that art therefore becomes a most powerful means for important and appropriate discharges of nervous energy. The basis for this process reveals itself in the contradiction which inheres in the structure of any work of art. We have already mentioned Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, who believes Hector’s farewell scene stirs in us contrasting and conflicting emotions. On the one hand, these are emotions we would experience if the scene were described by Pisemskii; they are anything but lyrical since the description is not a poem; on the other hand, the emotion is stirred by the hexameters and a lyrical emotion par excellence. But then, in any work of art there are emotions generated by the material as well as the form; the question is: how do these two kinds of emotion interrelate to each other? We already know the answer, for it derives from our preceding arguments. This relation is one of antagonism; the two kinds of emotion move in opposite directions. The law of aesthetic response is the same for a fable as for a tragedy: it comprises an affect that develops in two opposite directions but reaches annihilation at its point of termination.

This is the process we should like to call catharsis. We have shown that the artist always overcomes content with form, and we have found a corroboration of this statement in the structures of the fable and the tragedy. If we study the psychological effect of individual formal elements, we find that they fit precisely the requirements set by the task. Wundt has shown that rhythm in itself expresses only “a method of expressing feelings in terms of time.” An individual rhythmic form is the expression of a flow of feelings, but since the temporal placement of the flow of feelings is part of the affect, the representation of this method in rhythm causes the affect as such. “Thus, the aesthetic significance of rhythm is its function as a cause affect. In other words, rhythm generates the affect of which it is a part through the psychological laws of emotional processes.” [28]

We see, therefore, that rhythm itself, as one of the formal elements, is capable of generating the affects represented by it. If a poet selects a rhythm whose effect is in contrast with, or opposite to, the effect of the content of his work, we perceive this phenomenon of contrast. Bunin has described murder, shooting, and passion with a rhythm of cold, detached calm. His rhythm generates an affect opposite to the one generated by his story’s material. In the end the aesthetic response becomes a feeling of catharsis; we experience a complex discharge of feelings, their mutual transformation, and instead of the painful experiences forming the content of the short story, we experience the delicate, transparent feeling of a breath of fresh air. The same thing occurs in fables and tragedies. Such a contrast of feelings exists also in the case mentioned by Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii. Hexameters, if needed at all, and if Homer is at all better than Pisemskii, do enlighten and cathartically purify the emotions generated by the content of the Iliad. The contrast discovered by us in the structure of artistic form and that of artistic content is the basis of cathartic action in the aesthetic response. Schiller puts it like this: “The secret of a master is to destroy content by means of form; the more majestic and attractive the content, the more it moves to the fore, and the more the viewer falls under its spell, the greater the triumph of art which removes the content and dominates it.”

A work of art always contains an intimate conflict between its content and its form, and the artist achieves his effect by means of the form, which destroys the content.

Let us now make some final statements. We can say that the basic aesthetic response consists of affect caused by art, affect experienced by us as if it were real, but which finds its release in the activity of imagination provoked by a work of art. This central release delays and inhibits the external motor aspect of affect, and we think we are experiencing only illusory feelings. Art is based upon the union of feeling and imagination. Another peculiarity of art is that, while it generates in us opposing affects, it delays (on account of the antithetic principle) the motor expression of emotions and, by making opposite impulses collide, it destroys the affect of content and form, and initiates an explosive discharge of nervous energy.

Catharsis of the aesthetic response is the transformation of affects, the explosive response which culminates in the discharge of emotions.