Saturday, January 13, 2018

Sound, Color, Melody, Harmony: Ernst Cassirer on Benedetto Croce's theory of aesthetics

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), in his papers kept at Yale that were published several decades posthumously, argued against the opinion of Benedetto Croce that all language is lyrical and aesthetic, and that we are all, therefore, in a sense, artists.

"Every man who succeeds in expressing his thoughts or feelings is, according to Croce, a sort of poet; we are all lyricists in our measure." (Cassirer, p. 158) Cassirer argues that "Croce is wrong when thinking that lyricism (liricità) is the proper and essential root of language." Language's sense of the lyric is "always counterbalanced by another element, by its inherent logicism." (Cassirer, p. 190) Cassirer believed it important to be able to "speak of different kinds of expression," that which is aesthetic and that which is not. On Croce's interpretation, in which all expression is lyrical: "A letter, for instance, in which I succeed in expressing my thoughts or my feelings, is, therefore, just as much a work of art as a painting or a drama." (Cassirer, p. 207)

Emotion alone does not make language artistic, Cassirer insists:

"But to my mind this theory fails in a double respect. The mere fact of expression cannot be regarded as an artistic fact. If I write a letter destined for a practical purpose, I am, in this act of writing, by no means an artist. But a man may even write a most passionate love letter in which he may succeed in giving a true and sincere expression to his deepest feelings without, by this fact alone, becoming an artist. Without doubt the great artists are capable of the deepest emotions. They possess a rarity and intensity, a scale of feeling that we do not find in the average man.

But this strength and multiformity of feeling is in itself no proof of a great artistic capacity and it is not the decisive feature of the work of art. The artist is not the man who indulges in the display of his emotions and who has the greatest facility in the expression of these emotions. To be swayed by emotions means sentimentalism, not art. (Cassirer, pp. 207-208)

Rather, what makes something lyric is a special quality of the word choice. He objected that "verbal expression, expression by linguistic symbols, is not the same as lyrical expression. What impresses us in lyric is not only the meaning, the abstract significance of the words; it is also the sound, the color, the melody, the harmony, the concord and consonance of the words." (Cassirer, p. 158)

L'art pour l'art

Cassirer also wrote:

"I do not wish to defend here the device l’art pour l’art — art for art’s sake. Art is not a display and an enjoyment of empty forms. What we intuit in the medium of art and artistic forms is a double reality, the reality of nature and of human life. And every great work of art gives us a new approach to and a new interpretation of nature and life.

* * *

Every sort of aestheticism, every variant of the theme l’art pour l’art, is unsound and dangerous. To speak of a purposeless art, or of an art that has its end in itself, is a mere juggling with words. Art has a very definite purpose; the purpose not only to describe or express, but to improve our feelings. If it forgets this purpose it forgets itself; it becomes as futile and meaningless play." (Cassirer, pp. 157, 200)

Donald Phillip Verene, ed. Ernst Cassirer. Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935-1945. (1979) New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.


Croce's name was also mentioned by Merold Westphal:

"A second model which may be helpful is the notion that aesthetic perception is essentially ‘disinterested.’ This idea takes its rise in eighteenth-century England with Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Burke, and Alison; it is central to the aesthetic theories of Kant and Schopenhauer, and in our own century no less so to Croce’s famous Encyclopedia Britannica article, ‘Aesthetics,’ Edward Bullough’s influential concept of ‘psychical distance,’ and C. S. Lewis’s gem, An Experiment in Criticism, where the idea is ever so succinctly summarized: ‘the many use art and the few receive it.’ Shaftesbury, who stands at the fountainhead of this tradition, uses four examples to make his point... The desire to touch sexually, to eat, to own, and to command — each of these is an instance of what Shaftesbury means by interest. ... a genuine appreciation of the beauty at hand must be disinterested, free from the dominance of those desires or interests." (Westphal, p. 131)

Shaftesbury "seeks to refute the Hobbesian claim that ‘interest rules the world,’ that we are machines fueled solely by self-interest. Hobbes’ is a general theory of human behavior, not an aesthetics, and Shaftesbury is especially eager to dispute it in relation to moral and religious behavior, to show that self-interest is ‘an obstacle to piety, as well as to virtue’ and that there is more to be found in them than just another ‘bargain of interest.’" (Westphal, p. 135)

Merold Westphal. God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion. (1984) Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1987.

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