enhance LIFE Aesthetics and History, by Bernard Berenson. (Constable. I5s.)
Reviewed by MICHAEL DE LA BEDOYERE
ALL who are interested in art- indeed all who are interested in life-would do well to buy a copy of Mr. Berenson's life-time meditations on his philosophy, experience and study of art as a driving force in our civilisation.
It is not really a book to read straight through, except perhaps once to get the general argument; but rather to have by one and dip in, for. as he himself admits, it it somewhat discursive and repetitive.
Yet every page and every paragraph can be read again and again in order gradually to be able to share wmething of his fine and exceedingly mature outlook after some fifty or sixty years, I suppose. of the study of art and constant conversation about it with men and women who share his passion and possess something of the civilised outlook which is so essentially his.
Early on in his Introduction, he gives the key to his whole approach: " Art is not actual life. it is true, but it is ideated life and perhaps as important. What distinguishes us from the other higher mammalia is precisely the capacity for this ideated life."
He points out that the "actual" or " real " for men generally is some• thing from which to defend our to find our way through in our struggle for existence, so that it is seen utilitarianly.
Only scientists and artists really escape from this view of the "actual "-the scientist to study the constitution of the " actual "; the artist to reanimate it and sec it for itself, unique. irreplaceable. with its position in the whole pattern. In a word, perhaps, to love it. and in loving it to enable others to love it.
In doing this, the artist increases, enhances, or rather perhaps fulfils our appetite for life.
" To be life-enhancing, visible things --with which we are here concerned-must be presented in a way, to make us feel that we are perceiving them more quickly, grasping them more deeply than we do ordinarily."
The life-enhancing value or criterion of true art, which deals with the realm of ideated sensations, is in its " form "-or as Berenson prefers, its " decoration."
" Decoration comprises all the elements in a work of art that distinguish it from a mere reproduction of the shape of things ; tactile values tad movement of course, proportion, arrangement, space composition, in short everything in the field of visual 7epresentation that is made life!.nhancipg of means of ideated sensations," " Decoration " is distinguished from " illustration," which is the "content" or representative part of a work of art.
I am afraid that these few points will hardly help the reader to under stand Berenson, and I have dealt with them for a different purpose. They should at least make it clear that Berenson will have no truck
with the army of critics and sistorians whose one interest is not art. but everything that is just not the art to he enjoyed within the pattern of living.
" Eor them the work of art is not an object to be enjoyed, loved and consumed, an enrichment for ever. but an occasion offered to professional thinkers for delighting in their own acumen. their own subtlety and dialectical skill."
In other words, Berenson is a humanist in life and art. seeing art as a means to higher and better life which it projects, as it were, into the realm of the good, the true and the beautiful. Art deals with, sees into, the ideal order always round our material, " actual " corner.
Surely this is absolutely correct. Yet the mystery of Berenson's philosophy lies in his refusal to make the supreme step-the step that really makes sense of his whole position. I have rarely read a book which so often leaves the reader at a loose end, just because the whole of Berenson's pattern is a mass of loose ends in other words. as it stands. a pure illusion. It could only he real, it could only make sense, if the threads, that make the pattern, hung together behind the pattern, and they can only hang together if we have the courage to make the
great leap and declare that there is an Absolute, a God, who holds them together and in whom is Truth, Goodness and Beauty.
And so much follows from this
leap I Not man alone, but man made by God. the Supreme Value, is the valuer who can he trusted.
Almost every paragraph in the book points to this conclusion; but Mr. Berenson insists on remaining within the realm of his actual experience. which of course includes the realm of ideated sensations float ing above, mysterious, incomprehensible, in the end illusionary. un less ideals rest in the living, existent, absolute Ideal, which is God. Mr. Bcrenson makes no sense without the pattern; but the pattern makes no sense without its Author.
It is extraordinary that he cannot sec it. At least others will, and they
will thank Mr. Bcrenson for affording them so remarkable a demonstration of the supreme truth of which he himself professes to remain ignorant.