n the preface to The Renaissance Walter Pater argues that that aesthetic criticism should be attuned to “seeing one’s object as it really is.” Instead of trying to abstractly define art or beauty, critics should instead focus on the effects the work itself provokes — admiring the “many virtues or qualities” aesthetic works possess. Pater lists a number of questions a critic should ask himself of a work — the effect it produces in “me,” the pleasure it gives “me,” the meaning it has to “me” — in order to establish an emphasis on the individual. While these questions all include the word “me,” so too do they repeat “it” — maintaining a connection between art and the viewer. Pater’s focus on “the object” itself suggests that artwork expresses certain sentiments that connect the work with the viewer, and the viewer with the creator. The reactions evoked by viewing art, therefore, represent the true meaning of the work’s abstract, indefinable “beauty.”
“To see the object as in itself it really is,” has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever, and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one's object as it really is, is to know one's own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly. The objects with which aesthetic criticism deals--music, poetry, artistic and accomplished forms of human life--are indeed receptacles of so many powers or forces: they possess, like the products of nature, so many virtues or qualities. What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence? The answers to these questions are the original facts with which the aesthetic critic has to do; and, as in the study of light, of morals, of number, one must realise such primary data for one's self, or not at all. And he who experiences these impressions strongly, and drives directly at the discrimination and analysis of them, has no need to trouble himself with the abstract question what beauty is in itself, or what its exact relation to truth or experience — metaphysical questions, as unprofitable as metaphysical questions elsewhere. He may pass them all by as being, answerable or not, of no interest to him.
“The Conclusion” seems to broaden Pater’s notion of viewership from the realm of art criticism into everyday life. The most profound and passionate occasions in life, Pater argues, are the instances when, like viewing artwork, we are bombarded with emotion and sensory overload in a mere moment.
For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion — that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake.
Aesthetics, then, become an opportunity for us to have a “quickened sense of life.” Pater seems to conclude that, when viewing art, time becomes a moment in which an “object,” a form of art, a human life, an entire historical period like the Renaissance, can be encompassed by the act of perceiving its effects — yielding a profound, “quickened, multiplied consciousness.”
1. Why does Pater include so many questions the critic should ask of themselves in the first passage?
2. Does Pater’s style change between “The Preface” and “The Conclusion?” Does his tone seem more didactic in “The Preface,” and more passionate in “The Conclusion?”
3. Published around the same time, a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, in which Dorothea experiences Rome for the first time, contains similarities to the final paragraph of “The Conclusion:”
The long vistas of white forms whose marble eyes seemed to hold the monotonous light of an alien world: all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion. Forms both pale and glowing took possession of her young sense, and fixed themselves in her memory even when she was not thinking of them, preparing strange associations which remained through her after-years.
Does this passage agree with Pater’s notion of an overwhelming, “multiplied consciousness” during aesthetic viewership? Is the emphasis here on Dorothea’s individual experience, or it is more so describing the general splendor of Roman architecture?
Last modified 7 March 2011