Classification – As The Source Of Art Composition

Men generally—and possibly we may find the same true of artists—before they can master the materials about them, must do what is expressed in the old saying, ” Classify and conquer.” When the child first observes the world, every-thing is a maze; but, anon, out of this maze, objects emerge which he contrasts with other objects and distinguishes from them. After a little, he sees that two or three of these objects, thus distinguished, are alike; and pursuing a process of comparison he is able, by himself or with the help of others, to unite and to classify them, and to give to each class a name. . . . All his knowledge, and not only this, but his understanding and application of the laws of botany, mineralogy, psychology, or theology will depend on the degree in which he learns to separate from others, and thus to unite and classify and name certain plants, rocks, mental activities, or religious dogmas. Why should not the same principle apply in the arts? It undoubtedly does.

The factors classified and the results attained in science, philosophy, and art are different; but in essential regards, the method is the same. It is so because it is the same human mind that applies it.—The Genesis of Art-Form, I.

Just as the physicist classifies effects conditioned upon laws operating underneath phenomena of a physical nature, and the psychologist classifies effects conditioned upon laws operating underneath phenomena of a psychical nature, so the artist classifies effects conditioned upon laws operating underneath phenomena of an artistic nature.

So far as classification results from the conditions of mind, its function is to simplify the work of forming concepts, and its end is attained in the degree in which it enables one to conceive of many different things—birds or beasts, larks or geese, dogs or sheep, as the case may be—as one. Classification is, therefore, an effort in the direction of unity. It is hardly necessary to add that the same is true of art-composition. Its object is to unite many different features in a single form. Unity being the aim of classification, it is evident that the most natural way of attaining this aim is that of putting, so far as possible, like with like; and that doing this necessitates a process of comparison. Applying this principle to art-composition, and looking, first, at music, we find that the chief characteristic of its form is a series of phrases of like lengths, divided into like numbers of measures, all sounded in like time, through the use of notes that move upward or downward in the scale at like intervals, with like recurrences of melody and harmony. So with poetry. The chief characteristics of its form are lines of like lengths, divided into like numbers of feet, each uttered in like time, to which are sometimes added alliteration, resonance, and rhyme, produced by the recurrence of like sounds in either consonants, vowels, or both. In painting, sculpture, and architecture, no matter of what “style, ” the same is true. The most superficial inspection of any product of these arts, if it be of established reputation, will convince one that it is composed in the main by putting together forms that are alike in such things as color, shape, size, posture, and proportion. . . .

But classification is traceable not only to the conditions of mind but also of nature. It is in the latter that the mind is confronted by that which classification is intended to overcome, by that which is the opposite of unity—namely, variety. If there were none of this in nature, all things would appear to be alike, and classification would be unnecessary. As a fact, however, no two things are alike in all regards; and the mind must content itself with putting together those that are alike in some regards. This is the same as to say that classification involves, occasionally, putting the like with the unlike and necessitates contrast as well as comparison. . A similar fact is observable in products of art. One of the most charming effects in music and poetry is that produced when more or less unlikeness is blended with the likeness in rhythm, tone, and movement which, a moment ago, was said to constitute the chief element of artistic form. In painting and sculpture one of the most invariable characteristics of that which is inartistic is a lack of sufficient diversity, colors too similar, outlines too uniform. So, too, with architecture. Notice the conventional fronts of the buildings on many of the streets of our cities. Their accumulations of doors and windows and cornices, all of like sizes and shapes, are certainly not in the highest sense interesting. When we have seen a few of them, we have seen all of them. In order to continue to attract our attention, forms must, now and then, present features that have not been seen before. In “The Genesis of Art-Form ” (see the chart on page 89 of this volume), the suggestions derived from a line of thought similar to that just pursued, are developed into various methods used in art-composition.—Essentials of Aesthetics, XIV.


At first thought, classification, and anything resembling imitation appear to necessitate different processes. But, possibly, they do not. Suppose that the forms of nature themselves were found to manifest effects like those of classification? In that case, to imitate them would involve imitating this; and to add to them, as is usually done in art, and to add to them in such a way as to make the added features seem analogous to the imitated ones, and thus to cause the forms as wholes to continue to seem natural, would involve continuing the process of classification. Now, if, with this thought in mind, we recall the appearances of nature, we shall recognize that the condition, which has been supposed to exist there, really does exist. A man, when classifying rocks, puts together mentally those that are alike. So does nature, grouping them in the same mountain ranges, or at the bottoms of the same streams. He puts together leaves, and feathers, and hairs that are alike. So does nature, making them grow on the same trees, or birds, or animals. He puts together human beings that are alike. So does nature, giving birth to them in the same families, races, climates, countries. In fact, a man’s mind is a part of nature; and when it works naturally, it works as nature does. He combines elements as a result of classification, in accordance with methods analogous to those in which nature, or, “the mind in nature, ” combines them. Indeed, he would never have thought of classification at all, unless in nature itself he had first perceived the beginning of it. He would never have conceived of forming a group of animals and calling them horses, nor have been able to conceive of this unless nature had first made horses alike. To put together the factors of an art-product, therefore, in accordance with the methods of classification, does not involve any process inconsistent with representing accurately the forms that appear in the world. These forms themselves are made up of factors apparently put together in the same way, though not to the same extent.—The Genesis of Art-Form, I.