Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, October 02, 2015

ROGER FRY: An Essay in Aesthetics (Why Art?)

In the past couple of weeks we read about two different ways to look at life.  Claude Bernard showed us how to look at life scientifically through observation and experiment.  Flannery O’Connor showed us how to look at life through the experience of literature.  Now Roger Fry wants to tell us how to experience life by looking at art.  Who?  According to the introductory notes Roger Fry “abandoned the scientific career for which he had been trained and resolved instead to devote himself to painting.”  Can a mind trained in science use the same skills to analyze art?  Fry himself admits “I have never believed that I knew what was the ultimate nature of art.”  Plato would approve of this statement.  But he would go on to ask: then what makes you qualified to write an essay on it?  Please share with us this wisdom you have gained.

Fry may not know everything about art but he knows more than most of us.  He begins by quoting “an eminent artist” who defines the subject this way: “the art of painting is the art of imitating solid objects upon a flat surface by means of pigments.”  This is a very objective definition that should appeal to Fry’s scientifically trained mind.  And it does.  But not totally.  Fry responds that the definition “is delightfully simple, but prompts the question; is that all?”  No, it’s not.  The art lover in Fry is searching for something more, a deeper meaning of art.  Why would people flock to art museums merely to look at colored pigments on a flat surface?  There must be more to it than that.  Fry turns to philosophy and finds “Plato, indeed, gave a very similar account of the affair, and himself put the question; is it then worth while? …he decided that it was not worth while, and proceeded to turn the artists out of his ideal republic.”  So much for philosophers and art.  But in spite of Plato’s opinion Fry still thinks art is worthwhile.  He says we have to start “with some elementary psychology, with a consideration of the nature of instincts…”  When we see a wild bull in a field we set off the nervous mechanism which results in fight or flight… which sets off another emotion which “we call the emotion of fear.”  Fear can be a good thing.  It helps us survive in a dangerous world.  

We should be afraid of wild bulls because they’re bigger and stronger than we are and can kill us.  But in addition to the survival instinct Fry thinks we also have a kind of natural “instinct” for art.  He says “man has the peculiar faculty of calling up again in his mind the echo of past experiences of this kind, of going over it again, ‘in imagination’ as we say.  He has, therefore, the possibility of a double life; one the actual life, the other the imaginative life.”  Looking at a painting of a wild bull isn’t the same thing as meeting a wild bull in a field.  This is one reason people flock to art museums; it’s safer there.  Fry claims when we look at art “we become true spectators, not selecting what we will see, but seeing everything equally, and thereby we come to notice a number of appearances and relations of appearances, which would have escaped our notice before.”  If we’re busy running away from a real bull, for example, we won’t notice (or much care about) all the delicate details.  But if we’re looking at an imaginary bull in a painting we can stand and look all day if we want.

So Fry says there’s a big difference between “actual life” in the world and the “imaginative life” of the artist.  This is his own definition of art: “art is an expression and a stimulus of this imaginative life… (it is) the chief organ of the imaginative life.”  Art brings the imagination of the artist to the surface so other people can see it too.  And Fry thinks “it is only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen that we really look at it.”  People go to art museums precisely to look and experience the rich imaginative life of the artist.  Fry thinks these shared human emotions are the key to appreciating fine art.  Scientists work hard to keep their emotions out of the picture.  Not so with art.  Fry says “art appreciates emotion in and for itself.” 


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