Summary of Chapter Four of Fearful Symmetry: A Literalist of the Imagination

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Here is Clayton Chrusch’s excellent summary of Chapter Four of Fearful Symmetry:

A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian.

1. Blake’s view of art: “proud and demonic”

In this chapter, Frye explains Blake’s views about art in general and specifically about visual art.

Blake was a practicing artist which distinguishes him from other thinkers who otherwise had similar views. His views about art are highly developed, central to his thought, and distinguish him as a thinker. For Blake, art stabilizes our experience by removing it from the world of time and space where everything is necessarily blurred. It does not seek to escape from reality but to perceive it clearly and recreate it as a permanent and living form.

Art is superior to abstract thought because it addresses the whole person, not just the conceptual intellect, and demands a total response, including a physical response. A generalization never has the vividness of an example or an illustration. Christ, in this sense, was an artist. Frye writes,

Christ brought no new doctrines: he brought new stories. He did not save souls; he saved bodies, healing the blind and deaf that they might hear his parables and see his imagery. He stands outside the history of general thought; he stands in the center of individual wisdom.

By wisdom, Frye means, “the application of the imaginative vision taught us by art.”

Some people have knowledge without wisdom, which means they possess an unorganized collection of information. Wisdom takes knowledge, abstract or otherwise, organizes it according to a grand pattern, and fits it into a universal imaginative vision. We cannot be satisfied by acquiring knowledge until we have a universal vision that it all fits in.

Here Frye turns to the relationship between art and religion. He recognizes that art cannot give the objective support to religion that dogma can be, but he prefers it that way. Frye claims this kind of objective support leads to a perpetual spiritual infancy and the worship of nature. It is okay to rely on dogma in our most difficult moments, but otherwise dogma must itself be treated as an art form, infinitely suggestive but also flawed and provisional. Frye writes,

The state of Eden [the free and exuberant creativity of an artist] to [dogmatic religions] is proud and demonic, a state in which one forgets God. But one forgets God in that state only in the sense in which one forgets one’s health by being healthy: one is merely released from the tyranny of “memory.”

And so Blake is clear that one cannot be a true Christian without being an artist.

2. Art builds up a permanent structure above time.

Culture or civilization is the totality of art, and art is every worthwhile task done well. Though culture supports society, society, being fallen, constantly resists and attacks culture. Art is ornament, it requires and manifests a freedom above the restrictions of necessity, but the fallen world attempts to eliminate all ornament and to bind people in the chains of necessity. People can only achieve happiness by being artists, that is, by living a free and creative life. Compulsion cannot result in order because it develops out of anarchy which itself develops out of Selfhood or self-absorption.

So divinity is the origin of inspiration; art arises from inspiration; culture and civilization are built up by art; and culture, being the totality of eternal imaginative acts, builds up a permanent structure above time called Golgonooza in Blake’s mythology.

3. Visual art: “the greatest imaginative effort in the clearest, most accurate form”

In this chapter, Frye discusses Blake’s theory of visual art, leaving literary art for chapter five. Frye describes the essence of Blake’s theory of art this way: “Art is the incorporation of the greatest possible imaginative effort in the clearest and most accurate form.” Eighteenth century aesthetic theory creates a false dichotomy between art that is great in conception and that which is fine in execution, but Blake emphatically insists on the oneness of conception and execution. The act of painting is an act of imagination, not of remembering a conception achieved earlier. And this imagination is possible because “the Human Mind [is] the most Prolific of All Things & Inexhaustible.”

The artist recreates nature. Nature is the material and the artist provides the form. Art that is just imitation is just a “smudged reminder” of nature. Art that shows what everyone already sees “evokes only the smug pleasure of recognition.” Compared to mimetic theories of art, Blake’s view implies an immense confidence in the creative power of the mind. Frye goes on to say that if the artist creates the form, he cannot be restricted by a Procrustean formula such as the use Dryden and Pope make of heroic couplets. The form exists to clearly and accurately reproduce the details of the content.

True artists will also be craftspeople and will practice their skill by engaging in imitation and repetition, but will do so with so much energy, that they eventually break out of imitation into creation.

4. “Striking out a line is a denial of all inertia […]: it expresses a triumph of imaginative energy over a fallen world.”

Blake considers a distinct outline to be the marker of good art: “The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art.” The sharper the outline, the more real and vivid the form, and the more free the imagination of the artist. But for the greatest themes in art, the line must be more than a recording from perception, it must be a creation from a mental vision. It must be a line that the artist can see only because his vision surpasses common perception.

Artists attempt to unite various things, but their attention must remain on the resulting vision, not on the individual qualities. The qualities of the work must be the unconscious by-product of the act of communicating vision.

Art in the more narrow sense, as opposed to science does not improve with time. The best art is already “an individual view of an eternal world”. As such it already defines “the extent of the human mind.”

5. Against vagueness

Blake has a low opinion of art where form is obscured by darkness or edges fade into the background. Hiding form in gradations of colour implies for Blake a bad theory of knowledge, one where “concealment, separation and mystery are fundamental data.” Vagueness of form for Blake is always associated with a commonplace mind, and obscuring what is already vague makes the mind more commonplace, not less. So Blake would disapprove of techniques such as chiaroscuro.

In visual art there are primary and secondary forms, for example the form of the body and the form of the clothing. Blake believed the primary forms ought really to be primary, which is why so many of his figures are nude or wearing flimsy nightgowns. His theory of visual art had little room for the kind of realism that emphasized furniture and starched clothing and obscured primary forms. There is also little room for still life where movement is abstracted away and where geometric rather than organic forms are dominant. Art, for Blake, should have more, not less, life than commonplace experience.

6. “Art is more comprehensive than any theory about it.”

Blake’s denunciation of non-line-oriented art is probably too extreme, and can be explained psychologically by the marginalization and poverty he experienced during his long career. Blake believed that art that focussed on a single aspect, such as color, eliminated the possibly of the unity that comes from genuine vision. Furthermore, such art can only be the manifestation of theory or “ism” that must be wrong since “art is more comprehensive than any theory about it.”

But as Frye concludes, Blake’s “rejections may be set aside: his defense of the dignity and importance of the art and of the responsibility of the posssessor of vision is of lasting value.”

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