Active Artistical Capacities Of The Mind

The active artistical power possessed by the mind, to which I referred in the first section of this chapter, consists in the faculty with which it is endowed of combining together in several modes, by its different capacities hereafter specified, ideas of different kinds, and thus forming compounds of great variety by this means, whereby it creates at its will numberless images and figures and compositions. Of the above capacities, that which I may here term origination, which effects through its exercise both invention and imagination, and that which we commonly call taste, are the principal. But the mind also possesses another capacity, similar in its nature and operation, although different in its results, which we call wit. The extensive coexistence of these several capacities in the same individual constitutes what we ordinarily term genius.

By the operation of these capacities different ideas and objects are compounded together in the various modes hereafter pointed out. A preference is also exhibited for particular ideas and compositions, whether existing in nature or arbitrarily formed in the mind.

Thus, by the aid of the originative capacity, we combine various ideas together, and so form new and original ones out of them. The mind is utterly unable absolutely to create any new idea or object, except by this means,—by effecting new combinations of simple ideas or objects,—and so constituting fresh ones; and we shall find that all the most imaginative descriptions of the most celebrated painters and poets have been accomplished alone by thus combining and uniting together different ideas into one subject or object.

By the aid, and through the exercise of the capacity of taste, the mind is both enabled to exhibit a preference for certain ideas and objects and combinations, and also to select, and to form-such ideas and combinations as are agreeable to it.

The grand principle of taste is the apt and suitable combination together into one composition of different ideas or objects. One colour or one sound by itself is seldom agreeable or beautiful, nor are several colours or several sounds inharmoniously and irregularly united together; but it is the apt and harmonious and suitable combination of them which alone can render their effect pleasing, or the composition which they constitute beautiful as a whole. Colours the most brilliant, when lying together in the paint-box of the artist, fail to produce any picturesque effect whatever; and the same words which in a passage in Homer or’ Virgil excite the noblest emotions, occasion no such results when arranged in the dictionary in alphabetical order.

The power to effect the agreeable sensations and operations alluded to, which we may, therefore, call taste, is consequently that capacity by which the mind is enabled, with the utmost nicety, to combine together those ideas which most suitably harmonize one with another, and to select those only so to combine which are best fitted to be thus united, and by a con-sequence also to prefer those combinations of ideas which are so formed. This leads to the preference of ideas which constitute pleasing and beautiful combinations.

Every compound subject—and of this kind are nearly all those which admit of any character being given to them as regards their tasteful qualities, those of an entirely simple and uncompounded nature not allowing of such a designation, —is made up of several distinct and independent ideas, which are there united or combined. According as these are suit-able, or harmonize well together, will the subject as a whole be characterized as beautiful or ugly, as conformable with or contrary to taste.

By the operation of the capacity of wit, distinct ideas which, although exactly agreeing in some trivial points, are in their general nature altogether different, and vary greatly from or contrast with each other, are combined together into one description or composition, without regard to their natural connection or relation one with another, or to their deficiency in this respect, which is the means of forming a striking and heterogeneous and ludicrous union as a whole, such as we see effected in satirical productions. The operation of this capacity may, indeed, be observed to be of a twofold nature, the one of a light and pleasing kind, which we ordinarily term humour ; and the other of a grave and occasionally indirectly painful nature, which we call satire.

But although these powers or capacities of the mind, which I have before described, are what are exerted and employed when it is engaged in artistical studies, whether in the composition of or during the examination of works of art ; yet they are in most cases, perhaps in all, aided and directed by the reason or judgment which points out errors of different kinds, and causes the mind to revolt at them as contrary to nature or propriety, independent of its purely tasteful criticism concerning them. Thus, incorrectness in proportion may not be directly displeasing or contrary to taste ; but the reason at once detects the error, and induces the mind to condemn it. Reason will enable a person to criticize a work of art with the utmost accuracy, so far as mere imitation and resemblance are concerned, and is, probably, indeed, necessary to enable him perfectly to accomplish this end. But taste only can adapt him to criticize a work of art as regards its higher qualities, and to appreciate the grandeur, or beauty, or poetic feeling with which it is endowed.

The soundness and the cultivation of the reason materially influence the artistical powers of the mind; indeed, each faculty of the mind influences the turn and development and exercise of the other. Hence the variety of opinions on matters of taste. The reason may, indeed, in some cases, bias a person’s opinion in one direction, while his taste may direct his choice in another; nevertheless, although the conclusions of different persons as to the same topic of taste may be different, the principles of taste are as sure and as determined as are those of reason.

But the reason, although actively employed here, is engaged not as an originator or a director of the mind, but merely as a guide, and as a corrector of the efforts of taste and imagination. It is most serviceable as joined with these higher faculties ; yet its office is not to lead them, but merely to keep them from going astray. It is resorted to, not as the sail but as the ballast, to aid us on the artistical voyage.

The union of reason with genius is, therefore, on many accounts essential to constitute a great proficient in any of the arts; reason not only corrects the efforts of genius, but directs them aright in the invention of different compositions. A man’s character and feelings and appetites influence his taste, and every exercise of it in each avocation of life ; hence different persons will represent the same scene in a different manner. A man’s genius will be affected and modified by the character of his reason, and his reason will in like manner be affected and modified by the character of his genius. Each of the faculties of the mind are more or less dependent upon and modified by the nature and qualities of the senses, which supply ideas for their operation. Taste is also more or less affected by the sensibility or acuteness of the senses, and also by those of the feelings of the individual.

It is, indeed, probably but very seldom that one faculty of the mind acts alone by itself in any matter entirely independent of all the others. Thus, what is ordinarily termed the apprehensive faculty, by which we receive ideas into the mind, usually aids the reason; reason, in the way in which I have stated, assists and corrects taste and invention, and these in turn influence the judgment. It is, however, sometimes, and not unfrequently, difficult to discern which is really the leading directing faculty in any particular operation or conclusion of the mind.

Different persons vary essentially from one another in two important respects, as regards their notions of, and as regards their adaptation for the study of art. In the first place, their senses may be differently affected as regards the impressions which particular objects will produce upon them ; and, in the second place, even supposing them all to agree in the former respect, their minds may be differently affected by, and will in very various ways act upon, or apply the impressions they receive. This difference extends, however, to minor matters only, and not to the leading points and characteristics of the subjects criticized. All agree in admiring Raphael and Shakspeare, though about West and Wordsworth many will differ; and as to the relative merits of numerous works, the varieties of opinion will be almost infinite.

The excellence of taste does not, however, by any means depend upon, or consist in, its extreme susceptibility or liability to be excited, but in the correctness of its impulses, and its ability to effect its combinations and selections aright. A mind properly regulated and duly balanced should be neither too ex-citable on the one hand, nor too morbid on the other. A healthy tone of body exists when the physical organs are susceptible of ordinary impressions, without being liable to irritation from trivial causes ; a condition equally removed from insensibility and delirium. Cultivation, if judiciously adapted and duly followed, will conduce more than anything else to the attainment of this condition as regards taste.

Not only, however, do persons differ as to matters of taste, but on those of reason also quite as widely and as essentially. Perhaps, in reality, hardly any two men would act exactly alike under the same circumstances. The diversity of countenance and of handwriting alone proclaims the difference between minds. It might, therefore, with equal plausibility, be argued from this contrariety of opinion, that because there is no certainty with regard to the decisions of reason, there is consequently no certainty with regard to the selections of taste.

Although taste capacitates a person for all the arts alike, yet unless he cultivates them all, he cannot be expected to excel in them all. Or he may possess capacities suited for some of them, and not for others ; as a taste for the beautiful in form, but none for colour, and no correct ear for harmony. Pope, who was celebrated as a poet, followed painting without much success, and acquired no skill in music.

Artists, in like manner, may be wanting in certain endowments, independent of their intellectual qualifications which enable them to conceive adequately great works of art ; as, for instance, some may be deficient in colouring, others in drawing, others in light and shade.