An Essay in Aesthetics

by Elyse Graham

An early but significant article by Roger Fry, an art critic in the Bloomsbury Group, “An Essay in Aesthetics” (April 1909) attempts to describe what art is and why it matters. 1 Because Fry lived in a spirit of openness to new ideas (with attendant intellectual restlessness), it would be unfair to characterize the essay as a statement of doctrine, at least more than a provisional and temporary one. But it gives a glimpse of some of the particles of his thought, and it exerted strong influence on Clive Bell when he was writing his own statement of doctrine, Art.

Fry starts with psychology. Much of life runs on instinct: when we see a bull, we fly or fight.  But as humans we can take those sensations, the experiences and landscapes we pass through, and make them dimensions of ourselves. That’s why when we turn inward, we find another world there. The job of the artist is to elaborate and interpret that world, the imagination.

Because imaginative visions, however realistic, don’t demand action as reality does, we can look at them more carefully, notice the sensations they arouse, take the time to feel and taste those sensations. To handle the real world, the brain sweeps away a lot of information before it hits the radar; for instance, if a bull is running at you, you won’t notice whether all four hooves ever touch the ground at once. But you might notice while watching a bull on film. And if detachment weakens emotion, it compensates with clarity—horror may burn lower if you witness a murder onscreen than if you were in an alley, but the screen lets you give those feelings your full attention. In fact, because screens and frames prevent viewers from taking action, there is no moral responsibility in art. Art is amoral (18-20).

Religion also belongs to the imaginative life, according to Fry, since religion deals with affairs not of the solid world; and religion is moral insofar as it guides conduct. But religion must have more to speak for its value since, speaking historically, people acting from religious conviction haven’t always been fonts of good. Since the value of religion isn’t in question, it must be that the exercise of “certain spiritual capacities of human nature,” as Fry puts it, “is in itself good and desirable apart from their effect upon actual life” (21-22). On the same grounds, art is good for its own sake. If we run in daily life on a healthy fuel of envy and ambition, art reacquaints us with less useful but more important emotions (including what Fry calls “the cosmic emotion”) (27). Art exercises the soul.

From this, the features of a work of art: it must supply a frame to detach the viewer, and should have rich enough material to reward heightened perception. It should include order, so as not to bewilder the senses, as well as variety, for stimulation. Beauty is expendable as long as the artwork creates a certain fullness of experience. Finally, we need what makes it all pop: “the consciousness of purpose, a peculiar relation of sympathy with the man who made this thing” (30).

1 Fry, Roger. “An Essay in Aesthetics.” New Quarterly, 2 (April 1909), 171-90. Reprinted in Vision and Design (London: Chatto and Windus, 1928), pp. 16-38. Hereafter cited by page number only.