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
Works, Part Two - Content Becoming Form in Six Scenes
Summary : The Artist's Identity and the Work of Art

The following are discussed in the text: To define Blake's ideas of the artist, then of the work of art, and finally of the audience; and thus . . . . - The rudiments, structure, and implications of Blake's artistic theory in its most informative contexts - Line: the locus of a point having one degree of freedom - Classical Outline and Romantic Identity - Line is the fundamental dynamic principle in Blake's artistic theory - Minimally, making a line draws a boundary, and the result is a merciful "limit." - Mediately, making a line expressed identity, and the result is identical form, activating the image with inward life. - Ultimately, making a line signals readiness for relation, and the result is the opening of a line of communication - Protogenes "making himself known" to Apelles - Blake's demand that art be the paradigm of authentic communication based on comprehensive human relationships potentially capable of expressing the shape of gratified desire - ƒmile Zola - Expression and Character - Integrity and Originality - Blake the firm line is the visual sign of firm intention - Romanticism - 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" - 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 - Jonathan Richardson, The Theory of Painting - If mental things are alone real, than all objects, including art objects, are absorbed into the subject - Integrative Rhetoric - substituting an integrative for the separative analogues most frequent in earlier rhetoric - Abrams - Virtually every idea fundamental to expressive theories can be translated into the idea of form and content - 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 - Worker-technicians - Blake's idea of an audience for art as a way back into the wider world - The cause and the clarified form of social developments -Northrop Frye - 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 - 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 - Shelley: "A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sighs to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds." - Frank Kermode discusses the romantic origins of the postromantic separation between the artist and society -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 - The expressive metaphor of art - "Mental Things are alone Real" - Ultimately external reality becomes a projection that must be recovered - The Audience Feared "Orbed Void" we customarily call the human skull - The Contrast between these romantic attitudes and the attitudes of an earlier generation - Reynolds, the public provides essential verification - The public offers a "union of minds" that authenticates the perceptions of its members, including its artists, who are thus warned when they verge on singularity - No romantic manifesto with which I am acquainted actually uses the metaphor of expression to describe the relationship between the artist and the audience. What we find instead are metaphors of personal relationship - Keats I wod be subdued before my friends, and thank them for subduing me - Lewis Mumford - the desire for individuation and self-expression--a desire that needs for its fullest satisfaction the warm-hearted attention and loving cooperation of others - Alexander Pope - the public interest in poetic matters is entrusted to the critic-thus long succeeding Critics justly reign'd. Licence repress'd, and useful laws ordain'd; /Learning and Rome alike in Empire grew - Careless of Censure, nor too fond of Fame - Jonathan Richardson describes an ideal spectator who is hard to distinguish from the judge whom an innocent person in the dock prays to find on the bench. The primary requirement is logical turn of mind - Shelley identifies imagination with "love; or a going out of our own nature." The good man is the man of intense and comprehensive imagination, who can "put himself in the place of another and of many others." - The Themes of Blake's illuminated works - the battle to reintegrate the disintegrating identity of the artist - to reunite the artist and the work with the audience of art - Blake is thinking of his art as a way of finding the true "Public Voice" of his audience as opposed to "their Error," very much as the Gospels are a way of finding the true form of the Christian community - A public with no imagination that it can call its own is a public asleep - Wordsworth describes his potential audience as "grave, kindly-natured, worthy persons, who would be pleased if they could - Reciprocality is a theme of "To the Public" - Complete human relationships are also imaginative acts - If mimetic arts, tending toward the condition of performance, envision an audience of spectators and judges, expressive arts, tending toward the condition of personal relations, envision an audience of loving friends - Visions of individual, social, and universal coherence - "And they conversed together in Visionary forms dramatic which bright . . . . " - Epilogue - Blake's artistic principles - Coleridge's formula: multeity in unity, unity in multeity.

Introduction [pp. 3-7]
I began--more than a decade ago--by trying to explain the medium that Blake calls "illuminated books" in "illuminated printing." Quickly I was out of my depth in problems of poetry, art, commerce, technology, and science. Moving against those original problems by digging deeper, I found that progress came only with simultaneous retrogression--what Blake's scientific contemporary Gauss must have experienced if he said, as reported, that he had the solution but did not yet know how he was going to arrive at it. Sailing backwards, I regressed from context to context so far that I landed where this book begins--on the shore where devouring classicisms encounter prolific romanticisms--with a goal almost too clearly set: to define Blake's ideas of the artist, then of the work of art, and finally of the audience; and thus to establish with some system and documentation what had previously been established piecemeal, the rudiments, structure, and implications of Blake's artistic theory in its most informative contexts.

To achieve this goal I have drawn some boundaries. I emphasize artistic theory largely to the exclusion of practice, or perhaps I should say that I use artistic practice only to illustrate theory. The result is a predictable gain in concentration offset by a certain loss of potential richness. I have been willing to pay that price because, in my opinion, previous studies have often sacrificed some useful theoretical coherence by preferring richness to sharpness. Whatever richness there may be in the following pages comes not from the interplay of Blake's theory with his practices but from the interplay of his theory with allied and competing theories. Furthermore, even within the realm of Blake's theories about art, I have relied primarily on his direct statements rather than on the conceptual content that can be mined [p. 3] from his poems and designs. Certainly, may of his poems and design are about art in one way or another, but I believe that progress in understanding how to read his work has been so slow that we presently know little about the meaning of even The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, much less Jerusalem. My skepticism is reflected in my conservative selection of documents for this book.

I argue that Blake reestablishes Enlightenment principles on romantic grounds; that he replaces the assumptions of mimetic theory, on which the dominant Enlightenment ideas about art are based, with the assumptions of expressive theory; and that the new theory requires a redefinition of the time-honored meanings and a reorientation of the traditional relations of artist, art, and audience. I approach these meanings and relations primarily not as abstract concepts but as controlling metaphors with the power to generate plots, which, If poetic, become stories, if conceptual, become theories. I look for the coherence of such theories in metaphors arranged as trains of thought or association. Because this procedure is frequently employed in many kinds of analysis but rarely described, the reader will find my practice more conventional than my description of it. Nothing more complicated must be said than that this book was written with the idea of providing a context in which Blake's artistic ideas can reveal their coherence. What they chiefly require to make them understandable is sufficient scope.

The three parts of the argument--the discussions of artist, work, and audience--follow the logic of expressive theory outward from the artist, as a book on mimetic theory might start with nature or society. This simple framework may be rescued from the worst of conventionality and reduction by, first, my concentration on its radical aspects and, second, the pressure applied to the conceptual spaces between the three elements. Most theories of art differ, that is, not only in their conceptions of artist, art, and audience but also in their conceptions of the relations among them, as revealed in the form of key metaphors. While the elements almost never occur outside their relations, elements and relations have to be separated analytically in order to be clearly defined. Commentators who confuse metaphors of identity with metaphors of transaction inevitably fail at explaining theories of art such as Blake's

As for key metaphors, one finds them by systematically [p. 4] ignoring the sound presumption of the artist James Barry, "that reasonable men look for nothing further than mere information in the writings of artists." But of course an isolated metaphor, no matter how potentially significant, does not want to show its significance out of context, which is to say, out of action. The primary context is usually a counter metaphor from an opposing theory. Played out in theory and practice, the dialectic of metaphor and counter metaphor becomes one dynamic component in the history of the arts. When discussing an artist's place in the history, critics customarily look to the past and the present rather than to the future. But I have often found it clarifying to consider not only Enlightenment classicism, and English romanticism, but also the fin de siècle and the modern period. It seemed useful, for example, when discussing phases of decorum, to define Blake's attitude and [ ?] implications by surrounding them with alternative possibilities from twentieth-century screenwriters as well as eighteenth-century artists.

While my chief aim has been to explain Blake's artistic theory by putting it into significant contexts, I have also tried occasionally to clarify the contexts by putting Blake into them. For someone making that attempt, at least two features of his ideas about art are especially advantageous. His unusual access to esthetic traditions is a major advantage that has been, however, a persistent source of confusion as well. The issues he raises are typically those raised by the history of painting and printmaking rather than by the history of literature, and the basic metaphors of his theory come from the visual arts. A reader coming to Blake from his poetry will have more difficulty figuring out Blake's objections to generalization than someone who thinks of it as Blake did: as a blurred line unable to decide its own identity. The complication is that Blake, who did not think of his principles as visual rather than literary, applied them to both arts and implicitly to all arts. Because art historians have a clear view of one aspect of the history behind Blake's theory, they have tended to conclude that the theory is simpler than it is. Because literary historians see it in a distorted context, they have tended to conclude that it is more bizarre than it is, or no proper theory at all but some kind of "apocalyptic humanism" that "can hardly be pressed into literary or even general aesthetic service." Since in this view Blake is more gnostic than artist, he "connects less with the literary tradition than with cabalistic and visionary [p. 5] theories of knowledge." [W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History [New York: Random House, 1957], p. 424] I attempt to show the way to the broader view that Blake, although working most of the time with critical oppositions from the history of art, creates an expressive theory that brings him finally into the orbit of English romanticism.

Blake's second advantage has to do with my approach, which is to scrutinize the root metaphors in the theory. Blake is able to clarify certain ideas because he tends to mold definitions in the form of metaphors of identity. As I point out in one of the chapters below, if the subject is imagination, Coleridge prefers the grammar of process that tells what the imagination does, Blake the grammar of identity that tells what the imagination is. Root metaphors are radical by definition, and Blake is thus essential to any account of romantic expressive theory that aims to formulate sine qua non theoretical extremes rather than eclectic moderate positions. In defining those extremes here, I am aware that I select from other poets and painters only what fits the context provided by Blake and that a more complex description of their views is possible. My aim is to follow one line of thought to its terminal point.

Toward the same end, I sometimes simplify in other ways. I use terms such as "romanticism" and "Enlightenment" and even names such as "Reynolds" and "Blake" as shorthand expressions. I occasionally treat important intellectual currents as if they were the entire stream with all its tributaries, and treat the most visible profile of some important ideas as if they could be interpreted from no other angle than mine. No one who reads this book must be told that there are other ways to see Joshua Reynolds [or Wordsworth, or Titian] than as Blake saw him. Yet I see no critical advantage in attempting to explain one of the great pugilists of intellectual history by appointing myself referee. On some of the ideas discussed, I have no opinion whatever; on others, I disagree with Blake; and on others, I agree with him heartily. But filtering Blake's ideas and opinions through my own world obscure rather than clarify the matters of most importance. Since the success of the effort actually depends more upon the separation of myself from Blake than upon the opposite, I trust that no reader will confuse real agreement with the empathic rhetoric demanded by critical pragmatism. By holding myself strictly to the task of explaining Blake's ideas about art--regarding them from his own point of view, even to the extent of taking Blake at his own estimation--I have intended to put readers in a better position to restore, by their own lights rather than mine, the balance and objectivity that they may feel is missing from Blake's account. [pp. 5-7]

"Line: the locus of a point having one degree of freedom."

Even the copy from Raphael's Cartoon of St. Paul preaching, is a firm, determinate outline. --Blake, on the drawings of Thomas Malkin [E 671]

A firm and determined outline is one of the characteristics of the great style of painting. --Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art [III, 75; W 52]

Blake . . . . created the last Enlightenment style to emerge in English poetry- - - a man of genius, but also something of a crackpot. Formally, neither his poetry nor his painting have much of the truly innovative about them. They are still, though for the most part created well within the nineteenth century, controlled by decisions derived from Enlightenment values. --Morse Peckham, Man's Rage for Chaos

Classical Outline and Romantic Identity
Although Blake's love of the line ranks with his hatred of generalization and his promotion of nudity as one of his most frequently discussed esthetic affections, his noisy advocacy of the "bounding line" and its inevitable companion, the "minute particular," has not been placed firmly in its contexts. While all who read Blake recognize that his idea of line is a key artistic principle, all who get beyond Blake's own statements discover immediately that he is only one of many artists who favor line and drawing over the painterly elements of tone and color . . . . p. 9]

. . . . Line is the fundamental dynamic principle in Blake's artistic theory--"Leave out this line and you leave out life itself" [DC; E 540] -- and the basic element in the fundamental artistic act. Making a line is outlining and containing. Lines become "lineaments," "receptacles," and, as human dwellings, even places of refuge: "For the Sanctuary of Eden. is in the Camp: in the Outline" [J pl. 69: 41; E 221]. Containing lines define images. Inward from the circumference of the image toward the center, bounding outlines become metaphors of satisfaction and completion. Circumferences enclose images in the "lineaments of Gratified Desire" [E 466, etc.]. But seen in a widened field, outward [p. 43] from the circumference, that initial integration of the line as an image is only a cornerstone of anticipated completeness, a required investment of artistic good faith without which "all is chaos again, and the line of the almighty must be drawn . . . before man or beast can exist" [DC; E 540]. Minimally, making a line draws a boundary, and the result is a merciful "limit." Mediately, making a line expressed identity, and the result is identical form, activating the image with inward life. Ultimately, making a line signals readiness for relation, and the result is the opening of a line of communication, Protogenes "making himself known" to Apelles. Here the theory moves beyond the artist to the position filled in most esthetic theories by what is called the work or the object of art. The following chapter begins to discuss the form the work must take to satisfy BlakeÍs demand that art be the paradigm of authentic communication based on comprehensive human relationships potentially capable of expressing the shape of gratified desire. [pp. 43-44]


[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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