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From The Hudson Review, Vol. II, No. 4, Winter 1950, 515-534.  This was followed a few months later by “The Primary Illusions and the Great Orders of Art.”

Posted June 26, 2008


The Principles of Creation in Art

Susanne K. Langer

In the study of music as a form of expression1 I came to the conclusion that music “expresses” feeling as words express ideas, rather than as tears and laughter express emotions; that it is a symbol whereby we understand the characteristic forms of sentience, because the symbolic structure of sound articulates with great precision the structure of feeling in its passage; and that it is not necessarily a symptom showing that the performer has a certain feeling, or that the composer had it when he invented the expressive form.

The problem of symbolism and significance involved in such a thesis is, of course, still open to debate, but I do not wish to re-iterate my views on it here.  Let us accept, for the moment, the notion that any logical form, even other than what is known as “discursive” form, may symbolize factors in experience wherein the same pattern can be detected, and that music presents to us the life of feeling because music and sentience have a similar structure, a common pattern.  The purpose of this essay is to set forth some ideas about art in general, which follow from that assumption.

A theory of music is one thing, a general theory of art is quite another.  It is plausible enough to call musical form a direct presentation of feeling, but what of the forms created in painting and sculpture, which throughout the ages have been copied from animate or inanimate nature, and thus appeared to present objects rather than feelings?  Furthermore, if we do extend the theory of “non-discursive symbolization” to cover plastic art as well as music where does that leave us in regard to literature, whlch uses the discursive medium of language as its prime, if not sole, material?  Shall we, like Schopenhauer, interpose a realm of Platonic Ideas to overcome the particularity of depicted objects, and make music an exception to the scheme because it sets forth its vital import directly?

The best approach to all these problems is, I believe, a consistent pursuit of the central idea of non-discursive symbolic form; and a general solution results if we consider any and every art as the making of the symbol.  This is the principle of generalization, which I propose to apply undistrac-tedly to the consecutive questions that arise in the course of any complex problem.  Most people can recall the distress they suffered in school when faced with mathematical questions, until they learned the most important lesson of elementary mathematics—to trust the general principle, and always seek a transformation of apparently recalcitrant instances that will make them amenable to its use—in other words, make them “examples” of a known and negotiable form.  The principle here proposed is really very powerful to distinguish and yet relate the several arts, and show them all equally creative, equally important and original, equally intellectual, emotional, and moral, yet each independent, and ultimately self-sufficient.

A work of art is essentially an appearance, a “form” in the broadest sense of that very broad word.  I do not say a sensuous form, as most aestheticians would, because in some arts, e.g. literature, the sensuous element is variable and sometimes even negligible.  But every art-work is a perceptual form, addressed to some phase of direct perception: sight, hearing, or their combination, or to that less-known organ of direct intuitions, imagination, whereby we perceive separate events, each under its own Gestalt, in the fluid welter of experience.  It is only by virtue of form that a work can have emotive import, because its form is what makes it a possible symbol; so the artist’s first aim is, necessarily, to make a form apparent, and indeed to make the impression of form paramount.

In practical life we are only vaguely aware of perceptual forms while we are dealing with real objects.  Sensory impressions are mixed up, abbreviated, half-noted, as we pass with the least possible effort from them to our beliefs and interests in the object, or objects, which they signify. It really is only when their pragmatic functions fail—that is, when the expectations we normally base on them go unfulfilled—that we note sense-data as sheer appearances instead of properties of things; and then we call them “illusions.”

Every work of art has an air of being somehow an illusion.  This is most obvious, of course, in works that simulate the form of real objects or events, like pictures or stage actions, which show us an image of familiar experience even while we know that the scene exists only for our contemplation and not for practical purposes.  The fictitious nature of such images is so striking that it has led many people to regard art as essentially “make-believe,” escape from distasteful reality into a better world of dream, a playful self -deception.

Yet this theory soon reaches its limits; for, although every work of art is essentially an appearance, not every appearance is deceptive.  A vase does not make us believe in anything but a vase.  A building does not pretend to be a tree or a rocking-horse.  Nevertheless, in so far as the vase or the building is a work of art, it stands before us as an image, because it addresses itself so forcibly to our vision that this appeal makes all its practical properties and relations irrelevant; and in receiving it as a completely visual thing we abstract its appearance from its material existence.  It does not need to fool us.  It only has to dissociate itself from the actual world (the world of our actions), and present a coherent and entirely perceptual form to become, for the beholder, an image.

The word “image” is almost inseparably wedded to the sense of sight because our stock example of it is the looking-glass world that gives us a visible copy of the things opposite the mirror without a tactual or other sensory replica of them.  But some of the alternative words that have been used to denote the virtual character of so-called “aesthetic objects” escape this association.  Carl Gustav Jung, for instance, speaks of it as “semblance.”  His exemplary case of illusion is not the reflected image, but the dream; and in a dream there are sounds, smells, feelings, happenings, intentions, dangers—all sorts of things invisible—as well as sights, and all are equally unreal by the measures of public fact. Dreams do not consist entirely of images, but everything in them is imaginary.  The music heard in a dream comes from a virtual piano under the hands of an apparent musician; the whole experience is a semblance of events.  It may be as vivid as any reality, yet it is what Schiller called “Schein.”

Schiller was the first thinker who saw what really makes “Schein,” or semblance, important for art: the fact that it liberates perception—and with it, the power of conception—from all practical purposes, and lets the mind dwell on the sheer appearance of things.  The function of artistic illusion is not “make-believe,” as many philosophers and psychologists assume, but the very opposite, disengagement from belief—the contemplation of sensory qualities without their usual meanings of “Here’s that chair,” “That’s my telephone,” “These figures ought to add up to the bank’s statement,” etc.  The knowledge that what is before us has no practical significance in the world is what enables us to give attention to its appearance as such.

Everything has an aspect of appearance as well as of causal importance.  Even so non-sensuous a thing as a fact or a possibility appears this way to one person and that way to another.  That is its “semblance,” whereby it may “resemble” other things, and—where the semblance is used to mislead judgment about its causal properties—is said to “dissemble” its nature.  Where we know that an “object” consists entirely in its semblance, that apart from its appearance it has no cohesion and unity—like a rainbow, or a shadow—we call it a merely virtual object, or an illusion.  In this literal sense a picture is an illusion; we see a face, a flower, a vista of sea or land, etc., and know that if we stretched out our hand to it we would touch a surface smeared with paint.

The object seen is given only to the sense of sight.  That is the chief purpose of “imitation,” or “objective” painting.  To present things to sight which are known to be illusion is a ready (though by no means necessary) way to abstract visible forms from their usual context.

Normally, of course, semblance is not misleading; a thing is what it seems.  But even where there is no deception, it may happen that an object—a vase, for instance, or a building—arrests one sense so exclusively that it seems to be given to that sense alone, and all its other properties become irrelevant. It is quite honestly there, but is important only for (say) its visual character.  Then we are prone to accept it as a vision; there is such a concentration on appearance that one has a sense of seeing sheer appearance—that is, a sense of illusion.

Herein lies the “unreality” of art that tinges even perfectly real objects like pots, textiles, and temples. Whether we deal with actual illusions or with such quasi-illusions made by artistic emphasis, what is presented is, in either case, just what Schiller called “Schein”; and a pure semblance, or “Schein,” among the husky substantial realities of the natural world, is a strange guest.  Strangeness, separateness, other-ness—call it what you will—is its obvious lot.

The semblance of a thing, thus thrown into relief, is its direct aesthetic quality.  According to several eminent critics, this is what the artist tries to reveal for its own sake.  But the emphasis on quality, or essence, is really only a stage in artistic conception. It is the making of a rarefied element that serves, in its turn, for the making of something else—the imaginal art—work itself.  And this form is the non-discursive but articulate symbol of feeling.

Here is I believe the clear statement of what Clive Bell dealt with rather confusedly in a passage that identifies “significant form” (not, however, significant of anything) with “aesthetic quality.”  The setting forth of pure quality, or semblance, creates a new dimension apart from the familiar world.  That is its office.  In this dimension, all artistic forms are conceived and presented.  Since their substance is illusion or “Schein” they are, from the standpoint of practical reality, mere forms; they exist only for the sense or the imagination that perceives them—like the fata morgana, or the elaborate, improbable structure of events in our dreams.  The function of “semblance” is to give forms a new embodiment in purely qualitative, unreal instances, setting them free from their normal embodiment in real things so they may be recognized in their own right, and freely conceived and composed in the interest of the artist’s ultimate aim—significance, or logical expression.

All forms in art, then, are abstracted forms; their content is only a semblance, a pure appearance, whose function is to make them, too, apparent—more freely and wholly apparent than they could be if they were exemplified in a context of real circumstances and anxious interest.  It is in this elementary sense that all art is abstract.  Its very substance, quality without practical significance, is an abstraction from material existence; and exemplification in this illusory or quasi-illusory medium makes the forms of things (not only shapes, but logical forms, e.g., proportions among the degrees of importance in events, or among different speeds in motions) present themselves in abstracto.  This fundamental abstractness belongs just as forcibly to the most illustrative murals and most realistic plays, provided they are good after their kind, as to the deliberate abstractions that are schematic representations or entirely non-representative designs.

But abstract form as such is not an artistic ideal. To carry abstraction as far as possible, and achieve pure form in only the barest conceptual medium is a logician’s business, not a painter’s or poet’s.  In art, forms are abstracted only to be made clearly apparent, and are freed from their common uses only to be put to new uses: to act as symbols, to become expressive of human feeling.

An artistic symbol is a much more intricate thing than what we usually think of as a “form,” because it involves all the relationships of its elements to one another, all similarities and differences of quality, not only geometric or other familiar relations.  That is why qualities enter directly into the form itself, not as its contents, but as constitutive elements in it.  Our scientific convention of abstracting mathematical forms, which do not involve quality, and fitting them to experience, always makes qualitative factors “content”; and as scientific conventions rule our academic thinking, it has usually been taken for granted that in understanding art, too, one should think of form as opposed to qualitative “content.” But on this uncritical assumption the whole conception of form and content comes to grief, and analysis ends in the confused assertion that art is “formed content,” form and content are one.  The solution of that paradox is, that a work of art is a structure whose interrelated elements are often qualities, or properties of qualities such as their degrees of intensity; that qualities enter into the form and in this way are as much one with it as the relations which they, and they only, have; and that to speak of them as “content,” from which the form could be abstracted logically, is nonsense.  The form is built up out of relations peculiar to them; they are formal elements in the structure, not contents.

Yet forms are either empty abstractions, or they do have a content; and artistic forms have a very special one, namely their import.  They are logically expressive, or significant, forms.  They are symbols for the articulation of feeling, and convey the elusive and yet familiar pattern of sentience.  And as essentially symbolic forms they lie in a different dimension from physical objects as such.  They belong to the same category as language, though their logical form is a different one, and as myth and dream, though their function is not the same.

Herein lies the “strangeness” or “otherness” that characterizes an artistic object.  The form is immediately given to perception, and yet it reaches beyond itself; it is semblance, but seems to be charged with reality.  Like speech, that is physically nothing but little buzzing sounds, it is filled with its meaning, and its meaning is a reality.  In a “presentational” symbol the symbolic import permeates the whole structure, because every articulation of that structure is an articulation of the idea it conveys; the meaning (or, if that word is to be reserved for the assigned signification characteristic of words, let us say “the import”) is the content of the symbolic form, given with it, as it were, to perception.

A work of art differs from all other beautiful things in that it is “a glass and a transparency”—not, in any relevant way, a thing at all, but a symbol.  Every good philosopher or critic of art realizes, of course, that feeling is somehow expressed in art; but as long as a work of art is viewed primarily as an “arrangement” of sensuous elements for the sake of some inexplicable aesthetic satisfaction, the problem of expressiveness is really an alien issue.

What art expresses is not actual feeling, but ideas of feeling; as language does not express actual things and events but ideas of them.  Art is expressive through and through—every line, every sound, every gesture; and therefore it is a hundred per cent symbolic.  It is not sensuously pleasing and also symbolic; the sensuous quality is in the service of its vital import.  A work of art is far more symbolic than a word, which can be learned and even employed without any knowledge of its meaning; for a “presentational” symbol presents its import directly to any beholder who is sensitive at all to articulated forms in the given medium.

A purely perceptual form, however, must be clearly given and understood before it can convey any import, especially where there is no conventional reference whereby the import is assigned to it as its unequivocal meaning, but the congruence of the symbolic form and the form of some vital experience must be directly perceived by the force of “Gestalt” alone.  Hence the paramount importance of abstracting the form, banning all irrelevancies that might obscure its logic, and especially divesting it of all its usual meanings so it may be open to new ones. The first thing is to estrange it from actuality, to give it “otherness,” “self-sufficiency”; this is done by creating a realm of illusion, in which it functions as “Schein,” mere semblance, free from worldly offices. The second thing is to make it plastic, so it may be manipulated in the interests of expression instead of practical signification.  This is achieved by the same means—uncoupling it from practical life, abstracting it as a free perceptual figment.  Only such freed forms can be plastic, subject to deliberate torsion, modification, and composition for the sake of expressiveness.  And finally, it must become “transparent”—which it does when insight into the reality to be expressed, the Gestalt of living experience, guides its author in creating it.

“Expression” in the logical sense—presentation of an idea through a formal symbol—is the ruling power and purpose of art.  And the symbol is, from first to last, something created.  The illusion, which constitutes the work of art, is not a mere arrangement of given materials in an aesthetically pleasing pattern; it is what results from the arrangement, and is literally something the artist makes.  It comes with his work and passes away in its destruction.

To produce and sustain the essential illusion, set it off clearly from the surrounding world of actuality, and articulate its form to the point where it coincides unmistakably with forms of feeling and living, is the artist’s task.  To such ends he uses whatever materials lend themselves to technical treatment—tones, colors, plastic substances, words, gestures, or any other physical means.  If we look, first of all, to the plastic arts, we find from the very beginning the making of a semblance, more general and thorough-going than any counterfeiting of objects: the appearance of purely visual space, divorced from the space of actuality, which is largely tactual or even conceptual (geometrically constructed).  This is a more fundamental aim than imitation; picturing things is only one way of creating spatial forms for the eye alone, but the semblance of space thus created is involved in any plastic work whatever, from textile patterns to portraits and battle-scenes.  The patterns, indeed, have an interest of their own, because their motivation is primarily artistic, whereas representative forms hide their true  credentials under the cloak of another office.

In all folk art, savage or civilized, there is a heritage of purely decorative forms, two-dimensional, clear in outline, either in two tones, or painted with simple, solid colors that fill the outlined shapes.  The immediate effect of such devices is to simplify perceptual space by reducing it to only two dimensions.  This simplification is the primary education of artistic vision; it achieves the abstraction of visual space from the confused actual realm by making the plane surface paramount.  The aim of decoration is to deploy definite forms and colors in such a way that the eye is “satisfied,” i.e., that it accepts the established two-dimensional space as sufficient and has no tendency to go beyond it.  The flowing lines, complementary areas clearly divided, and contrasting, pure colors that are typical of decorative art all serve this main purpose.

Decoration is, above all, an invitation to pure seeing.2  It is, therefore, a natural preparation for drawing and painting, which—despite all common factors—are something different.  For graphic ornamentation aims merely to simplify, and thus abstract, the visual character of space, by projecting vision fully and freely in two dimensions; but genuine pictorial art seeks to fill the illusory realm with expressive forms, symbols of vital feeling, and often finds itself pushed far beyond the elementary stages of space creation.

Yet even in the motifs of pure decoration—zigzags and S-curves, parallels and spirals and loops—we find the basic principles of expressiveness, forms that seem to “have life” not because they represent anything living, but because they symbolize directly the sense of life, which underlies all our feelings.  In a little book on design3 I find the following statement, made by the artist-author with perfectly literal intent and evidently no consciousness whatever of using metaphor: “Borders must move forward, and grow as they move.”

Now, what does it mean to say a border moves?  The border is a mark on a contrasting ground, perfectly stationary.  When we draw it, the pencil moves, the line or series of forms actually grows in one direction.  But suppose it is not even made in this fashion; suppose it is made all at once, by block-printing.  And perhaps we do not see it made at all. Still the border “runs” along the edge of the tablecloth or around the margins of a page.  If it is supported by short tangential lines the apparent movement is very much enhanced.

There are, of course, classical explanations of this phenomenon in terms of eye-movements: the eye, it is said, is “carried” along a line as it is in following a moving object, such as a mouse running across the floor, and the association of our eye-movement with moving objects prompts us to impute movement to the line.  It is not unlikely that eye-movements do play some part in the illusion, but they do not account for it, for if they were always thus associated we could never appreciate as stationary anything too big to be seen at the focal center, i.e., without moving the eyes.  Everything else should appear to shift or mill around.  Quite to the contrary, however, we are just as likely to think of actual motion in terms of a fixed form.  The mouse running across the floor seems to cover a path that remains there, an imaginary line.

The real connection between lines and motion is, I believe, that an uninterrupted line serves us as a symbol of motion, and conveys the idea of it exactly as any symbol conveys its message.  In the direct, intuitive appreciation of what may be termed “natural symbols,”4 the import is received like something inherent in the symbol; therefore the running mouse seems to cover a path lying on the floor, and the still, painted line seems to run.  The reason is that both exemplify the abstract principle of direction, by virtue of which they are logically congruent enough to be symbols for one another; and in the ordinary, intelligent use of vision, we let them stand proxy for each other all the time, though we do not know it.  This is not a function that is first discursively conceived and then assigned a possible symbol, but is non-discursively exhibited and then perceived long before it is acknowledged in a scientific device (as it is in the language of physics, where vectors are conventionally indicated by arrows).  Motion, therefore, is logically related to linear form, and where a line is unbroken, and supporting forms tend to give it direction, the mere perception of it is charged with the idea of motion, which shines through our impression of the actual sense-datum and fuses with it in apperception.  The result is a very elementary artistic illusion (not delusion, for, unlike delusion, it survives analysis), which we call “living form.”

This term takes us back to Best-Maugard’s supposedly simple statement (it is addressed to children!) : “Borders should move forward, and grow as they move.”  What does “grow” mean in this context?  The border does not grow bigger in design. No, but it seems to grow longer, for in its seeming motion it does not vacate the places where it was before; like the imaginary path of the mouse, it covers the ground, but continues in one direction; and an ornamental border design appears to do this by a law of its own.

Artistically, all motion is growth; not growth of things or creatures, but of lines and spaces.  The spiral—one of the simple motifs—is a “dynamic” or progressing line, but what really seems to grow is a space, the two-dimensional area it defines.  This intimate relation between movement and growth is what makes design—the grammar of visual semblance—“living form,” in a perfectly intelligible sense.  It is also the surest refutation of any theory that reduces the experience of movement in design to motions connoted by stimulation of tiny muscular actions in the eye.  The term “living form” is justified by a logical connection that exists between a half-illusory datum—the “growing” line or space—and the concept of life, whereby the former is a natural symbol of the latter; for “living form” directly exhibits what is the essence of life—incessant change, or process, articulating a permanent form.

The path of a physical motion is an ideal line.  In a line that “has movement,” there is ideal motion.  In the phenomenon we call “life,” both continuous change and permanent form really exist; but the form is made and maintained by a complicated disposition of mutual influences among the physical units (atoms, molecules, then cells, then organs) whereby changes tend always to occur in certain pre-eminent ways.  Instead of a simple law of transformation such as one finds in inorganic change, living things exist by a cumulative process; they assimilate elements of their surroundings to themselves, and these elements fall under the law of change that is the organic form or “life.”  This assimilation of factors not originally belonging to the organism, whereby they enter into its life, is the principle of growth.  A growing thing need not actually become bigger; since the metabolic action does not stop when a non-living substance has been assimilated and become alive, but is a continuous process of oxidation, separate elements also resign from the organic pattern; they break down again into inorganic structures, i.e., they die. When growth is more vigorous than decay the living form grows larger; when they are balanced it is self-perpetuating; when decay occurs faster than growth the organism is decadent.  At a certain point the metabolic process stops all at once, and the life is finished.

Permanence of form, then, is the constant aim of living matter; not the final goal (for it is what finally fails), but the thing that is perpetually being achieved, and that is always, at every moment, an achievement, because it depends entirely on the activity of “living.”  But “living” itself is a process, a continuous chance; if it stands still the form disintegrates—for the permanence is a pattern of changes.

Nothing, therefore, is as fundamental in the fabric of our feeling as the sense of permanence and change and their intimate unity.  What w call “motion” in art is not necessarily change of place, but is change made perceivable, i.e., imaginable, in any way whatever.  Anything that symbolizes change so we seem to behold it is what artists, with more intuition than convention, call a “dynamic” element.  It may be a “dynamic accent” in music, physically nothing but loudness, or a word charged above others with emotion, or a color that is “exciting” where it stands, i.e., physically stimulating.

A form that exemplifies permanence, such as a fixed line or a delimited space (the most permanent anchors of vision), yet symbolizes motion, carries with it the concept of growth, because growth is the normal operation of those two principles conjoined in mutual dependence.  Therefore Best-Maugard’s metaphorical statement: “Borders should move forward, and grow as they move,” is perfectly rational if we consider that, and why, they seem to do these things.  But why “should” they be drawn to seem like that?  Because this illusion, this seeming, is the real symbol of feeling.  The elementary pattern of feeling expressed in such world-accepted forms symbolizing “growth” is the sense of life, the most primitive “fulfillment”; and it is not mirrored in the physical lines, but in the created thing, the “motions” they have.  The dynamic pattern, which is actually an illusion, is what “copies” the form of vital feeling.  It is in order to be expressive that borders should move and grow.

Very early in the evolution of design we meet the great principle of graphic expression: the possibility of picturing things.  A simple circle decorated with surrounding secondary forms, half-circles, zigzags, or what-not, immediately yields a flower-shape—fantastic, schematic, but exactly the sort of flower pattern one finds in Persian shawls and French hour-books and on Mexican pots.  The astounding thing is that these shapes are so unmistakably flowers.  The same convincing representational function gives us birds, beasts, men, moon and stars.  The principle of representation serves to organize forms and makes much greater elaboration possible without confusing the eye.  The forceful implication in the essentially decorative character of primitive art and folk-art, and in the fact that naturalism grows with sophistication, seems to me to be that graphic representation does not spring from copying of direct visual impressions which are then “composed” into design but, on the contrary, arises from ornamental forms that are seen to have representative powers.  It is formulation, shaping, defining of the impressions themselves, and is not copying at all, but symbolizing from the outset. In short, form is first, and pictorial meaning is read into it.5

The higher principle of organization, however, becomes dominant as the artist’s imagination produces more involved, asymmetrical, and subtle forms, created not only by obvious means like outlines and pure colors, but also by illusions of receding space and the orientation of units of design toward each other.  The interpretation of such units as forms of objects is an inestimable aid in the creation of new spatial relationships, in distributing centers of interest and composing them into a visual unity.  For centuries art evolved mainly on representational guidelines; and, as in decorative design we speak of zigzags and circles as “motifs,” so now we apply “motif” to what is pictured in the forms.

But no matter how many possibilities are opened to the artistic imagination by the power of representing things, imitation is never the main device in organization.  The primary interest is always design, and the very measure of an artist is his instinct for transforming his actual perceptions into wholly plastic elements as he works with them. As we pass from the study of naive design to a more ambitious literature of aesthetics, dealing with the highest art-forms we meet almost at once the same fundamental principle—the primacy of form.  Adolf Hildebrand, for instance, in the first paragraphs of his brief but significant book, The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture, distinguishes between natural perception and artistic, or, as he calls it, “architectonic” perception, which “enables us to realize a unity of form lacking in objects themselves as they appear in Nature.”  What he calls the “architectonic process” is the transformation of natural appearances into pictorial ones, or design in a broad sense; and this process is as old as art itself.

“Reviewing the artistic production of earlier times,” he says, “we find that the architectonic structure of a work of art stands out everywhere as the paramount factor, whereas mere imitation is a thing which has only gradually developed.  Its is, in fact, instinctive with us to combine the piece-work of perception into an ideal whole.”

The great difference between the common form of perception and the “architectonic” or artistic is that the former is a product of all our senses working together, and aided, furthermore, by memory and inference, whereas the latter must be achieved solely by one organ, the eye.  If we want to make a semblance that shall address itself to sight alone we must, therefore, have visual substitutes for everything that other kinds of experience usually supply.  The “architectonic process,” then, is the construction and ordering of forms in space in such a way that they define and organize the space.  But a perceptually defined space is a shape: so the complete shaping of a given visual field is a work of pictorial art.  Design, therefore, is the essence of drawing and painting, and as simple decorative forms are its lowest terms, composition in color and depth is its highest evolution.  For the true aim of plastic art, as Hildebrand conceives it, is to make space visible, and its unity and continuity sensible.

Here we seem, however, to encounter a philosophical difficulty; for space, as we know it in the practical world, has no shape.  Even in science it has none, though it has “form.”  There are spatial relations, but there is no concrete totality of space.  Space itself is amorphous in our active lives and purely abstract in scientific thought.  It is a substrate of all our experience, but it is never an entity.  How, then, can it be “organized,” “shaped,” or “articulated”?  We meet all these terms in the most serious literature of aesthetics.

The answer is, I think, that the space in which we live and act is not what is treated in art at all.  The harmoniously organized space in a picture is not experiential space, known by sight and touch, by free motion and restraint, far and near sounds, voices lost or re-echoed.  It is an entirely visual affair; for touch and hearing and muscular action it does not exist. For them there is a flat canvas, relatively small, or a cool blank wall, where for the eye there is deep space full of shapes.  This purely visual space is an illusion, for our sensory experiences do not agree on it in their report.  Pictorial space is not only organized by means of color (including black and white and the gamut of grays between them), it is created; without the organizing shapes it is simply not there.  Like the space “behind” the surface of a mirror, it is what the physicists call “virtual space”:—and  an intangible image.

This virtual space is the primary illusion of all plastic art.  Every element of design, every use of color and semblance of shape, serves to produce and support and develop the picture-space that exists for vision alone.  Being only visual, this space has no continuity with the space in which we live; it is limited by the frame, or by surrounding blanks, or incongruous other things that cut it off.  Yet its limits cannot even be said to divide it from practical space; for a boundary that divides things always connects them as well, and between the picture space and any other space there is no connection.  The created virtual space is entirely self-contained and independent.

This is the fundamental reason why everything that is relevant and artistically valid in a picture must be visual, and everything visual serves “architec-tonic” purposes.  In the virtual space of a picture there are only images, and if these are to symbolize objects of our actual world we must have imaginal equivalents for the things that are normally known by touch, movement or inference.  That is why a direct copy of what we see is not enough.  The copy of things seen would need the same supplementation from non-visual sources that the original perception demanded.  The visual substitutes for the non-visible ingredients in space experience make the great difference between photographic rendering and creative rendering; the latter is necessarily a departure from direct imitation, because it is a construction of spatial entities out of color alone (perhaps only varying shades of one color), by all sorts of devices, in order to present at once, with complete authority, the primary illusion of a perfectly visible and perfectly intelligible total space.

Virtual space—the primary illusion of pictorial art—is a creation, not a recreation.  There are no natural objects in it, but only semblances, which characterize it and make it an articulate total shape, free frm all practical functions, and therefore capable of functioning as a symbol.  There are no degrees of illusoriness or expressiveness among different art-genders, but only degrees of achievement among individual works.  From the first line of decorative drawing to the works of Raphael, Leonardo, or Rivera, the same principle of pictorial art is wholly exemplified: the creation of virtual space, and its organization by forms (be they lines, or volumes, or intersecting planes, or shadows and lights) that reflect the patterns of sentience and emotion.  The picture-space, whether conceived in two dimensions or in three, dissociates itself from the actual space in which the canvas or other physical bearer of it exists; its function as a symbol makes the objects in a picture as unlike normal physical objects as a spoken word is unlike the sounds of footsteps, rustlings, clatter and other noises that usually accompany and sometimes drown it.  The faint little sound of a speaking voice arrests the ear in midst of the medley of mechanical sounds and is something altogether different, because its significance is of a different order; similarly the space in a picture engages our vision completely because it is significant in itself and not as part of the surrounding room.  Just establish one line in virtual space, and at once we are in the realm of symbolic forms.  The mental shift is as definite as that which we make from hearing a sound of tapping, squeaking, or buzzing to hearing speech, when suddenly in midst of the little noises surrounding us we make out a single word.  The whole character of our hearing is transformed.  The medley of physical sound disappears, the car receives language, perhaps indistinct by reason of interfering noises, but struggling through them like a living thing.  Exactly the same sort of reorientation is effected for sight by the creation of any purely visual space.  The image, be it a representation or a mere design, stands before us in its expressiveness: significant form.

The primary illusion of any art-gender is the basic creation wherein all its elements exist; and they, in turn, produce and support it.  It does not exist by itself; “primary” does not mean first-established, but always established where any elements are given at all.  There are numberless ways of making space visible, i.e., virtually presenting it.

What are the “elements” of a work of art?

Elements are factors in the semblance; and as such they are virtual themselves, direct components of the total form.  In this they differ from materials, which are actual.  Paints are materials, and so are the colors they have in the tube or on the palette; but the colors in a picture are elements, determined by their environment.  They are warm or cold, rich or frugal, they advance or recede, enhance or soften or dominate other colors; they create tensions and distribute weight in a picture.  Colors in a paintbox don’t do such things.  They are materials, and lie side by side in their actual, undialectical materialism.

Choice of materials may, to be sure, affect the range of available elements.  One can not always do the same things with diverse materials.  The translucency of glass allows the making and use of special color elements that paint on a wooden ground could never create; therefore glass painting and wood painting set the artist different problems and suggest different ideas to be brought to expression. It is sometimes said that glass and wood have “different feelings.”  They permit, and even command, quite distinct forms, and perhaps equally distinct ranges of vital import.

All the discernible elements in a picture (that is, the factors analysis may reveal) are secondary illusions.  They support the primary illusion, which is invariant, while the forms that articulate it may vary indefinitely.  The primary illusion is a substrate of the realm of virtual forms; it is involved in their occurrence.

The whole problem of the unity and diversity of the arts hinges, I believe, on this concept of illusion, or created form.  The deepest distinction among them is that of having different primary illusions; this distinction obtains, for instance, between the visual arts and music, or between music and literature.  Between painting, sculpture and architecture the distinction is less radical, for it rests only on a difference among modes of virtual space.  With a really potent principle of analysis one need not defend the unity of art by belittling or denying the fact that there are several major art-forms, and insisting that between music and sculpture there is no “real” difference.  The method here used is to push all differences as far as they will go.  There is a definite point where, suddenly, no important distinctions can be made any more.  Everything we can say of anyone art, on that level, holds for all. There is the unity.  Knowing this, I shall set forth in a subsequent essay what gives the muses their individuality, and let their family solidarity take care of itself.

(The Hudson Review will publish a second related essay by Mrs. Langer, “The Primary Illusions and the Great Orders of Art,” in an early issue.)


1 See Philosophy in a New Key, ch. 8.

2 Cf. Albert Barnes: “The appeal of . . . decorative beauty is probably to be explained by its satisfaction of our general need of perceiving freely and agreeably.”  (The Art in Painting, p. 29).

3 Adolfo Best-Maugard, A Method for Creative Design.

4 See Philosophy in a New Key, ch. 4.

5 Leonardo, in his Treatise on Painting, advises students to look at chance forms like cracks in plaster and knots in boards and try to make figures out of them, i.e., to read shapes of people and things into them.  This, he says, is, very good for the painter’s imagination.  It sounds silly: but was Leonardo silly? Or did he also feel that visual “reality” is made out of basic organizing forms, as truly as scientific “reality” is made out of the forms of rational discourse?  

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