An Untroubled Liberty


Last month I posted about the views of both Alexander Nehamas and José Ortega y Gasset on beauty. Recently I revisited several essays by Jacob Bronowski on the same topic. Here are some quotes that interested me from his essay "The Shape of Things":

I do no regard aesthetics as a remote and abstract interest. My approach to aesthetics is not contemplative but active. I do not ask, "What is beauty?" or even, "How do we judge what is beautiful?" I ask as simply as I can, "What prompts men to make something which seem beautiful, to them or to others?"

This is a rational question and it deserves a rational answer. We must not retreat from it into vague intuitions, or sidestep it with hymns of praise to the mystical nature of beauty. I am not talking about mystics: I am talking about human beings who make things to use and to see. A rational aesthetic must start from the conviction that art (and science too) is a normal activity of human life.


To my mind, the cave painting as much as the chipped flint tool is an attempt to control the absent environment, and both are created in the same temper; they are exercises in freeing man from the mechanical drives of nature.

In these words, I have put the central concept of my aesthetic: evolution has had, for man, the direction of liberty. Of course men do at times act from necessity, as animals do. But we know them to be men when their actions have an untroubled liberty -- when children play, when the young find pleasure in abstract thought, when we weigh and choose between two ambitions. These are the human acts, and they are beautiful as a painting or an invention is beautiful, because the mind in them is free and exuberant. And you will now see why I framed my opening question so oddly; for it is not the thing done or made which is beautiful, but the doing. If we appreciate the thing, it is because we relive the heady freedom of making it. Beauty is the by-product of interest and pleasure in the choice of action.

Elsewhere, Bronowski discusses the status of art-works as artifacts and the fact that all artifacts have a double aspect: we experience what they are but also how and why they were made. So we can ask two questions about any artifact: what was its creator trying to do, and why did he do it quite that way? The answers to these questions usually fall under the headings "content" and "style", but Bronowski emphasizes that content and style are separable only in analysis, not in reality. By trying to answer these questions about an artifact or more particularly a work of art, you can "relive the heady freedom of making it" and thus experience aesthetics from the producer's point of view. And after all, we wouldn't have art-works if creative individuals didn't produce such works in the first place.

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal