Notebook, 1991-95

Themes, Topics, Issues


Eaves, Morris, [1944-]. William Blake's Theory of Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, c1982. [SERIES - Princeton essays on the arts]

William Blake's Theory of Art

Works, Part One - Artists Expressing Themselves As Works of Art
"For me--and I hope for many others, a work of art is rather a personality, an individuality. What I demand of the artist is not that he should give me tender visions or horrible nightmares, but that he gives himself, body and mind, loudly affirming a strong and individual mind . . . . what I seek in front of a picture above all is a man, and not a paintng." --Émile Zola

Expression and Character
A number of positive romantic metaphors describe the work of art as the direct projection of the artist's imagination . . . .

Integrity and Originality
. . . . Blake's assertion that "not a line is drawn without intention" is tautologous, because for Blake the firm line is the visual sign of firm intention . . . . p. 67

Thus Blake widens the range of the traditional critical term "expression" considerably beyond its conventional association with emotion to mean the expression of the whole identify of the person . . . . Expression in this full sense is part of the romantic artistic strategy that would restore integrity to personal identity. When he reads a dissociation of sensibility into European history, T. S. Eliot reads with the romantics, who offer repeatedly an ideal of wholeness in opposition, as they think, to a culture flying to pieces under the specialized pressures of industrialization

Earlier in this century a common criticism of romanticism was its overreliance on individual emotion at the expense of something like rational thought. Shelley's self-dramatization in Ode to the West Wind, where he falls sensitively on the thorns of life and bleeds profuse feeling, was a favorite example. The romantics have since been restored to critical favor, and romanticism is at the center of a major reinterpretation of the history of the modern arts. Even so, the romantic poets are still often seen as ineffectual mythopoeists, extraordinarily sensitive to revolutionary [p. 67] changes in modern life and to the deplorable social conditions around them, but better at crying out emotionally at the sight of such conditions than at thinking their way rationally toward solutions.

The argument against such objections turns partly on questions about the nature of art that are not particularly relevant here, especially the enduring suspicion that idle inventions of imagination are distractions from the proper business of real life. But one aspect of the argument involves expressive theories of art, which at every essential point, as we have seen, emphasize feeling rather than reasoning. Mimetic theories seem to do the opposite; the question is not what artists feel but what they see. Is expression then the emotive [or affective] theory of art that provides a foundation for romantic emotionalism in practice? Or, to state the question another way, is the romantic hero a sublime extension of the man of feeling from the previous age of sensibility? . . . . [p. 68]

. . . . Criticized on Enlightenment principles, romantic art would seem to be obsessed with trying to find new things to say and new ways of saying them, at the expense of abiding truths and what Reynolds calls "the world's opinion" [II, 38; W 32]..... But Blake's idea of originality is the deep originality of human personality expressed in works of art that perfectly unite conception and execution. Originality of personality is perfect integrity of personality, not feeling but wholeness. Artistic execution is "Physiognomic Strength & Power," the strength of identity, in [p. 77] contrast to "Imbecility" [PA; E 560], the weakness of nonentity, an empty container where personality should be. Original art is an act of imagination in a community where any one expression of individuality complements or coexists with many other expressions of other individualities. [p. 78]

Works, Part Two - Content Becoming Form in Six Scenes
"In all the works of art there is to be considered, the thought, and the workmanship, or manner of expressing, or executing that thought. What ideas the artist had we can only guess at by what we see, and consequently cannot tell how far he has fallen short, or perhaps by accident exceeded them, but the work like the corporeal, and material part of man is apparent, and to be seen to the utmost. Thus in the art I am discoursing upon, everything that is done is in pursuance of some ideas the master has, whether he can reach with his hand, what his mind has conceived, or no." -Jonathan Richardson, The Theory of Painting.

Closing Form and Content

Some Integrative Rhetoric

"There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it, but the Industrious find
This Moment & it multiply. & when it once is found
It renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed[.]
In this Moment Ololon descended to Los & Enitharmon

[Milton pl. 35:42-46; E 135]

. . . . If mental things are alone real, than all objects, including art objects, are absorbed into the subject. If the subject is the artist and the mental faculty the artist's imagination, then the idea behind the work of art is, finally, the work itself. [p. 79]

While relation of content to form is a significant issue in every artistic theory known to me, it is central in romantic expressive theories. [Abrams discusses the romantic need "to heal the cleavage between thought and expression, language and figure, by substituting an integrative for the separative analogues most frequent in earlier rhetoric." He emphasizes Wordsworth, who opposes "the body-and-soul of traditional philosophy to the body-and-garment, garment-and-ornament of traditional rhetoric" [The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953], pp. 290-91]. Abrams sees this integrative rhetoric developing out of an eighteenth century association of style [in our terms, execution] with the artist, content with cultural traditions. Abrams does not mention Blake. We shall come at the same idea in another way, better suited to Blake's own formulation of the problem. A number of sections in Lawrence Lipking's The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970] are relevant to the ideas in the present chapter, especially perhaps part 2, "The Ordering of Painting," and within that the chapter on Reynolds' Discourses, pp. 164-207.] Virtually every idea fundamental to expressive theories can be translated into the idea of form and content. If expressive theories tend to erase distinctions between artists and art--in fact to search for artists in their art, and in later extensions of the theory to study artists' lives as their most important works, and so on --then there is a parallel tendency to eliminate distinctions between the idea for the work of art and the work itself. Coleridge remarks that, measured against this standard, nature, which seems to be God's magnum opus, displays "co-instantaneity of the plan and the execution" in which "the thought and the product are one." When carried to the limit of artistic possibility, human works, however, are similarly able to "make the external internal, and the internal external, to make nature thought, and thought nature, --this is the mystery of genius in the Fine Arts. Dare I add that genius must act on the feeling, that body is but a striving to become mind, --that it is mind in its essence!" If all theories of art have their obsessions, the leading obsession of expressive theories is probably artistic unity, "the thought which is present at once in the whole and in every part," ["On Poesy or Art," Biographia Literaria [and Coleridge's "Aesthetical Essays"], ed. John Shawcross, rev. ed. [London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1954], II, 257, 258, 255] according to Coleridge. Shelley is measuring poetry on this scale even when he divides idea from execution in his famous metaphor of the poet whose fiery imagination is cooling off by the time the poem is being written down. The standard is the same: the best poem is the one closest to the original conception, the poem whose conception seems to contain its own execution.

While it is impossible to forget the romantic concern with unity, it is easier to forget the grounds on which the idea of unity rests: not primarily on the formal properties of the work but the expressive relation of artist to work. Of course the work will display formal unity, but that unity will depend upon its success in expressing the unit of the artist's imagination. Shelley can thus say that "a great statue or picture grows under the power of the artist as a child in the mother's womb" in one sentence and in the next say that "poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds." [A Defence of Poetry, in Shelley's Critical Prose, ed. Bruce R. McElderry, Jr. [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1967], p. 31.] [p. 81]

. . . . If conception may be so divided from execution in performance as in theory, the result is not only an artistic theory encouraging specialization and collaboration but also a rudimentary method of production, complete with the necessary conceptual and pedagogical underpinnings. We may see this in the example of Shaftesbury, who, as a literary man without the skills of a graphic artist, hires workers with the necessary skills to execute his conceptions. [See Edgar Wind, "Shaftesbury as a Patron of Art," Journal of the Aarburg and Courtauld Institutes, 2 [1938], 185-88]. On the scale of a cottage handicraft but with the methods of modern production, Shaftesbury appoints himself the think tank and makes worker-technicians out of his hirelings. It is in such applications as this that Blake's criticism of the state of the arts in his time becomes social criticism, and that he acquires his odd status as one of the first and best critics of modern industrial society comprising the new commerce and its support systems. One might think, from the frequency with which they are quoted, that Blake's comments on society were limited to those few memorable passages of elegiac poetry about labor in satanic mills. In fact the foundations of his social commentary appear in the context of the subjects he almost always chooses to discuss--his own trades, art and literature. Since society enters an artistic theory as audience, I shall end by suing Blake's idea of an audience for art as a way back into the wider world. [pp. 168-9]

"Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." -Matthew 7:6

I sing: --"fit audience let me find though few!" --Wordsworth, The Excursion, Prospectus; Blake, Descriptive Catalogue, Advertisement; Milton, Paradise Lost, Book VII

"In breaking with all forms of social organization, however, Blake is merely following the logic of art itself, whose myths and visions are at once the cause and the clarified form of social developments. Every society is the embodiment of a myth, and as the artist is the shaper of myth, there is a sense in which he holds in his hand the thunderbolts that destroy one society and create another." -Northrop Frye, "Blake after Two Centuries"

The Problem of the Romantic Audience
When art becomes expression, the importance of the artist increases. Artists, executors as always, are now the content as well; as their works are in a sense the creating of themselves, artists and works are thoroughly intervolved. In an expressive theory of art, one obvious tendency would be for the artist's personality, as it moves toward the center, to displace and even replace the audience. As M. H. Abrams puts it, "The poet's audience is reduced to a single member, consisting of the poet himself." He maintains that "there is, in fact, something singularly fatal to the audience in the Romantic point of view: and [p. 172] quotes to good effect Keats, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and, most memorably, Shelley: "A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sighs to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds." [Quoted in The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953], p. 25. Frank Kermode discusses the romantic origins of the postromantic separation between the artist and society in chapter 1, "The Artist in Isolation," of Romantic Image [New York: Random House, 1957]: "These two beliefs--in the Image as a radiant truth out of space and time, and in the necessary isolation of men who can perceive it--are inextricably associated" [p. 2]. "The 'difference' of some of the English Romantic poets is almost too well known; they were outcast because they had to pay for their joy and their vision. Sometimes they attributed their condition to some malady in themselves, but they also blamed the age in which they lived" [p. 7].] [p. 172]

. . . . To say that an expressive theory is singularly fatal to the audience is no truer than to say that a mimetic theory is singularly fatal ot the artist. Both assertions are true of their respective theories at one phase only, and for each phase there is an opposite extreme. Whatever difficulties the English romantics had with their audience were not a necessary product of their theories about art. My aim here is to show, first, that romantic expressive theories may, without self-contradiction, generate an idea of an audience for art. Then, because a theory of an audience is often a latent social theory, I show how an expressive theory may generate the idea of a social order. [p. 173]

Summary : The Artist's Identity and the Work of Art
"Mental Things are alone Real" [VLJ; E 555]: to put the human mind at the center of reality, Blake enacts the basic romantic strategy of internalization. Ultimately external reality becomes a projection that must be recovered . . . . [p. 174]


[Eaves, Morris, [1944-]. William Blake's Theory of Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, c1982. [SERIES - Princeton essays on the arts]



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