Especially since the revival of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, practice in the arts has been accomplished by a running commentary of theory. The men of the Renaissance, having before them not merely numerous examples of Greek sculpture and the epics of Homer and Virgil, but also Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Horace’s “Art of Poetry,” and seeing in these products of antiquity the height of human achievement, attempted in various ways to apply the canons of ancient taste to the settlement of contemporary problems. Accordingly, we find in Italy and, following the Italians, in France, England, and Germany, many writers on æsthetics only gradually emancipating themselves from the constraint of certain axioms which, being ancient, are unhesitatingly received as authoritative. Thus, all of the fine arts are, with Aristotle, regarded as arts of imitation—imitation, not of real but of ideal nature, of beautiful nature, as the French call it; and this vague and elusive conception is usually left without any very illuminating definition. Similarly, a painting is thought of, after Simonides, as a dumb poem, and a poem as a speaking picture; and, repeating a misunderstood phrase of Horace, men confidently say, “Like picture, like poetry.”

The tendency is, then, to assimilate or at most to compare the several arts, and few observations penetrate beneath the surface. Artists calculated proportions and devised elaborate rules of technical procedure; writers of poetics discussed diction and rhetorical figures; but in treatises on painting and poetry alike, three “parts”—invention, disposition, and coloring—furnished the traditional subdivisions. Intelligence and industry seemed competent, if not to vie with the ancient genius, at least to follow the paths that the ancients had trod. With all their formalism, however, the critics seldom failed to insist that the end of art is to arouse emotion; to instruct, indeed, but also, as Horace had said, to please. Now pleasure is a personal reaction. We may ask what it is that pleases us in a work of art, or what there is in us that makes us sensitive to æsthetic pleasure; and the principal advance that modern theory has made beyond the point reached by the Renaissance consists in a better answer to the second question. In other words, our theory has, or seeks, a psychological foundation.

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