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Adrian Stokes



What is the essence of the aesthetic mode in recording experience, in reconstituting or restoring the object or—to use the terms of the earliest psycho-analytic investigation—in stabilising the day-dream?
          Following the example of the Berenson of even some fifty years ago, many visual art critics speak of formal qualities as ‘life-enhancing;’ the stimulus of art has been attributed primarily to the formal qualities: aestheticians, such as Roger Fry, proclaimed them to be the focus of interest in art whether from the side of the creator or of the spectator. Whatever we think of this judgement, we all know that meaningful suggestions of mass, movement, repose, texture, volume as we find them harmoniously interrelated and magnified in an economic manner by painter or sculptor at the service of the subject-matter, are ‘life-enhancing.’ Such attributes combine in what we call a composition whereby each interacts with others and with further aspects of itself. I have used the word ‘economic’ because of the need for a prodigal relevance in the detail, for generative potentiality, for nuances that bring in their train precise effects owing to their power within the context. The use of the word makes a link with the aesthetic means employed by dramatist and novelist, who must convey character and situation through the inter-acting of a few evocative confrontations, just as in ballet a story may be told by means of a string of movements and gestures. Poetry suggests a great deal more than it says. But I will not labour the starting-point of much aesthetic discussion since the time of Aristotle: we all know that the work of art, more especially when we contemplate the mighty interaction between formal values and subject-matter, suggests an organism whereby the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Constructions outside art can often claim this virtue, and thereby suggest aesthetic quality.
          I tried to show in a recent paper¹ that many simple words and clichés contain a corporeal meaning the ages do not stamp out. The effect of even so cursory an examination of popular expressions was, and always will be, whatever the extent of collection and research, the unavoidable corporeal reference. Words are symbols, all our mental constructions are symbols based in the last analysis, as we well know, upon parts of the body. Now, in the previous study of words, my main point was concerned with implied judgements concerning the conscious ego whose situation, I found, was described in references to balance, position, substance, tension, shape, in sum, to a degree of stability and indeed to those very formal elements that are considered to be ‘life-enhancing’ in art; I myself would add, in all art. Thus, discussion of poetry is centred today on what is called the texture of words: it means the suggestiveness of the composite sounds and rhythm of several words in enhancing their composite senses; it means the provocation in the process of abstract as well as particular images, images of substance and of stress recognised not only by the eye or ear but by touch and kinaesthetic or haptic sensations. Obviously a very complicated subject: yet where such analysis is successful and the fragments may be amassed, a figure emerges, the ‘organic’ line which has already said it all. We speak of the texture, the feel, the shape of this line, using words that should not be judged fanciful if in the poetry we are confronted by a representation of the body, a framework by whose closeness the sense and series of particular images have been communicated. I do not think the matter differs in regard to the texture of music: furbishing every cry from the heart is the sculptured pulse of the body’s fabric. Perhaps we come near to hallucinating an aspect of the body wherever we look, more distinctly in the case of art. There would be no other general framework for post-infantile experience, just as there are no prime experiences which are not concerned with parts of the body.
          Are we dealing with only one mode by which systematic symbolisation through substance takes place, or will the material to be adduced call for an invariable image, for a body-image as has sometimes been suggested in other, and predominantly physiological, contexts? My contention in regard to art will be for a body-image, though I shall not call it that, since I pay far more attention to tactile and kinaesthetic attributes, as did J.O. Wisdom in The Concept of the Phantom-Body, than to the visual. I shall use the term ‘body-emblem,’ ignoring entirely the alleged physiological aspect. Briefly, I think the ego’s ceaseless desire for reassurance in regard to stability involves the projection, the enlargement by means of projection, of a primitive image of itself (compacted also from the incorporated mother’s body and other internal objects), a primitive emblem, tactile, kinaesthetic, inseparable from the function of the body-ego which can be contemplated only in this way, in the terms of a construction.
          Freud wrote in The Ego and the Id: “The ego is first and foremost a body-ego.” I shall not be treating the body-ego merely as a construction based upon the perception of our own bodies and their sensations, though the activity is the ground. I regard the body-ego as also a pre-conscious amalgam fed selectively by unconscious fantasy, a fabrication in tune with the holistic character of perception. Freud tells us in the same book that “perception consciousness alone can be regarded as the nucleus of the Ego;” and that “anything arising from within (apart from feelings) that seeks to become conscious must try to transform itself into external perceptions.” I submit that the contemplation of a pre-conscious body-ego must rely upon a projection (body-emblem) whereby it is perceived, providing, in terms of art particularly, an enhanced feeling of ego-stability. This projection is more succinct as well as more ‘real’ than the pre-conscious material.

¹ ‘Listening to Clichés and Individual Words,’ collected posthumously in A Game
That Must Be Lost
(Carcanet, 1973).

ADRIAN STOKES (1902-1972) was an English art theorist, painter, poet and the author of over twenty books, of which Michelangelo (Routledge Classics, 2002) and The Quattro Cento/Stones of Rimini (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) are presently in print.

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