How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music

by C.S. Lewis


This article is Chapter Three of An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis.

Larger Work

An Experiment in Criticism

Publisher & Date

University Press, Cambridge, 1961

I grew up in a place where there were no good pictures to see, so that my earliest acquaintance with the draughtsman's or the painter's art was wholly through the illustrations to books. Those to Beatrix Potter's Tales were the delight of my childhood; Arthur Rackham's to The Ring, that of my schooldays. I have all these books still. When I now turn their pages I by no means say 'How did I ever enjoy such bad work?' What surprises me is that I drew no distinctions in a collection where the work varied so vastly in merit. It now stares me in the face that in some of Beatrix Potter's plates you find witty drawing and pure colour, while others are ugly, ill-composed, and even perfunctory. (The classic economy and finality of her writing is far more evenly maintained.) In Rackham I now see admirable skies, trees, and grotesques, but observe that the human figures are often like dummies. How could I ever have failed to see this? I believe I can remember accurately enough to give the answer.

I liked Beatrix Potter's illustrations at a time when the idea of humanized animals fascinated me perhaps even more than it fascinates most children; and I liked Rackham's at a time when Norse mythology was the chief interest of my life. Clearly, the pictures of both artists appealed to me because of what was represented. They were substitutes. If (at one age) I could really have seen humanized animals or (at another) could really have seen Valkyries, I should greatly have preferred it. Similarly, I admired the picture of a landscape only if and only because, it represented country such as I would have liked to walk through in reality. A little later I admired a picture of a woman only if, and only because, it represented a woman who would have attracted me if she were really present.

The result, as I now see, was that I attended very inadequately to what was actually before me. It mattered intensely what the picture was ‘of’; hardly at all what the picture was. It acted almost as a hieroglyph. Once it had set my emotions and imagination to work on the things depicted, it had done what I wanted. Prolonged and careful observation of the picture itself was not necessary. It might even have hindered the subjective activity.

All the evidence suggests to me that my own experience of pictures then was very much what that of the majority always remains.

Nearly all those pictures which, in reproduction, are widely popular are of things which in one way or another would in reality please or amuse or excite or move those who admire them—The Monarch of the Glen, The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, Bubbles; hunting scenes and battles; death-beds and dinner parties; children, dogs, cats, and kittens; pensive young women (draped) to arouse sentiment, and cheerful young women (less draped) to arouse appetite.

The approving comments which those who buy such pictures make on them are all of one sort: 'That's the loveliest face I ever saw'—'Notice the old man's Bible on the table'—'You can see they're all listening'—'What a beautiful old house!' The emphasis is on what may be called the narrative qualities of the picture. Line or color (as such) or composition are hardly mentioned. The skill of the artist sometimes is ('Look at the way he's got the effect of the candlelight on the wine glasses'). But what is admired is the realism—even with an approximation to trompe-l'oeil—and the difficulty, real or supposed, of producing it.

But all these comments, and nearly all attention to the picture, cease soon after it has been bought. It soon dies for its owners; becomes like the once-read novel for the corresponding class of reader. It has been used and its work is done.

This attitude, which was once my own, might almost be defined as 'using' pictures. While you retain this attitude you treat the picture—or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture—as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you 'do things with it'. You don't lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you.

You are thus offering to the picture the treatment which would be exactly right for two other sorts of representational object; namely the ikon and the toy. (I am not here using the word ikon in the strict sense given it by the Eastern Church; I mean any representational object, whether in two dimensions or three, which is intended as an aid to devotion.)

A particular toy or a particular ikon may be itself a work of art, but that is logically accidental; its artistic merits will not make it a better toy or a better ikon. They may make it a worse one. For its purpose is, not to fix attention upon itself, but to stimulate and liberate certain activities in the child or the worshipper. The Teddy-bear exists in order that the child may endow it with imaginary life and personality and enter into a quasi-social relationship with it. That is what 'playing with it' means. The better this activity succeeds the less the actual appearance of the object will matter. Too close or prolonged attention to its changeless and expressionless face impedes the play. A crucifix exists in order to direct the worshipper's thought and affections to the Passion. It had better not have any excellencies, subtleties, or originalities which will fix attention upon itself. Hence devout people may, for this purpose, prefer the crudest and emptiest ikon. The emptier, the more permeable; and they want, as it were, to pass through the material image and go beyond. For the same reason it is often not the costliest and most lifelike toy that wins the child's love.

If this is how the many use pictures, we must reject at once the haughty notion that their use is always and necessarily a vulgar and silly one. It may or may not be. The subjective activities of which they make pictures the occasion may be on all sorts of levels. To one such spectator Tintoretto's Three Graces may be merely an assistance in prurient imagination; he has used it as pornography. To another, it may be the starting-point for a meditation on Greek myth which, in its own right, is of value. It might conceivably, in its own different way, lead to something as good as the picture itself. This may be what happened when Keats looked at a Grecian urn. If so, his use of the vase was admirable. But admirable in its own way; not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art. The corresponding uses of pictures are extremely various and there is much to be said for many of them. There is only one thing we can say with confidence against all of them without exception: they are not essentially appreciations of pictures.

Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli's Mars and Venus, or Cimabue's Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)

It is not only our own 'ideas' about, say, Mars and Venus which must be set aside. That will make room only for Botticelli's  'ideas', in the same sense of the word. We shall thus receive only those elements in his invention which he shares with the poet. And since he is after all a painter and not a poet, this is inadequate. What we must receive is his specifically pictorial invention: that which makes out of many masses, colors, and lines the complex harmony of the whole canvas.

The distinction can hardly be better expressed than by saying that the many use art and the few receive it. The many behave in this like a man who talks when he should listen or gives when he should take. I do not mean by this that the right spectator is passive. His also is an imaginative activity; but an obedient one. He seems passive at first because he is making sure of his orders. If, when they have been fully grasped, he decides that they are not worth obeying—in other words, that this is a bad picture—he turns away altogether.

From the example of the man who uses Tintoretto as pornography it is apparent that a good work of art may be used in the wrong way. But it will seldom yield to this treatment so easily as a bad one. Such a man will gladly turn from Tintoretto to Kirchner or photographs if no moral or cultural hypocrisy prevents him. They contain fewer irrelevancies; more ham and less frill.

But the reverse is, I believe, impossible. A bad picture cannot be enjoyed with that full and disciplined 'reception' which the few give to a good one. This was borne in upon me lately when I was waiting at a bus stop near a hoarding and found myself, for a minute or so, really looking at a poster—a picture of a man and a girl drinking beer in a public house. It would not endure the treatment. Whatever merits it had seemed to have at the first glance diminished with every second of attention. The smiles became waxwork grins. The color was, or seemed to me, tolerably realistic, but it was in no way delightful. There was nothing in the composition to satisfy the eye. The whole poster, besides being 'of' something, was not also a pleasing object. And this, I think, is what must happen to any bad picture if it is really examined.

If so, it is inaccurate to say that the majority `enjoy bad pictures'. They enjoy the ideas suggested to them by bad pictures. They do not really see the pictures as they are. If they did, they could not live with them. There is a sense in which bad work never is nor can be enjoyed by anyone. The people do not like the bad picture because the faces in them are like those of puppets and there is no real mobility in the lines that are meant to be moving and no energy or grace in the whole design. These faults are simply invisible to them; as the actual face of the Teddy-bear is invisible to an imaginative and warm-hearted child when it is absorbed in its play. It no longer notices that the eyes are only beads.

If bad taste in art means a taste for badness as such, I have still to be convinced that any such thing exists. We assume that it does because we apply to all these popular enjoyments in the gross the adjective 'sentimental'. If we mean by this that they consist in the activity of what might be called 'sentiments', then (though I think some better word might be found) we are not far wrong. If we mean that these activities are all alike mawkish, flaccid, unreasonable, and generally disreputable, that is more than we know. To be moved by the thought of a solitary old shepherd's death and the fidelity of his dog is, in itself and apart from the present topic, not in the least a sign of inferiority. The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures is that you never get beyond yourself. The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there. You do not cross the frontier into that new region which the pictorial art as such has added to the world. Zum Eckel find' ich immer nur mich.

In music I suppose that most of us, perhaps nearly all of us, began life in the ranks of the many. In every performance of every work we attended exclusively to the 'tune '; to just so much of the total sound as could be represented by whistling or humming. Once this was grasped, all else became practically inaudible. One did not notice either how the composer treated it or how the performers rendered his treatment. To the tune itself there was, I believe, a twofold response.

First, and most obviously, a social and organic response. One wanted to 'join in'; to sing, to hum, to beat time, to sway one's body rhythmically. How often the many feel and indulge this impulse we all know only too well.

Secondly, there was an emotional response. We became heroic, lugubrious, or gay as the tune seemed to invite us. There are reasons for this cautious word 'seemed '. Some musical purists have told me that the appropriateness of certain airs to certain emotions is an illusion; certainly that it decreases with every advance in real musical understanding. It is by no means universal. Even in Eastern Europe the minor key has not the significance it has for most Englishmen; and when I heard a Zulu war song it sounded to me so wistful and gentle as to suggest a berceuse rather than the advance of a bloodthirsty impi. Sometimes, too, such emotional responses are dictated quite as much by the fanciful verbal titles which have been attached to certain compositions as by the music itself.

Once the emotional response is well aroused it begets imaginings. Dim ideas of inconsolable sorrows, brilliant revelry, or well-fought fields, arise. Increasingly it is these that we really enjoy. The very tune itself, let alone the use the composer makes of it and the quality of the performance, almost sinks out of hearing. As regards one instrument (the bagpipes) I am still in this condition. I can't tell one piece from another, nor a good piper from a bad. It is all just 'pipes', all equally intoxicating, heartrending, orgiastic. Boswell reacted thus to all music. 'I told him that it affected me to such a degree, as often to agitate my nerves painfully, producing in my mind alternate sensations of pathetic dejection, so that I was ready to shed tears, and of daring resolution, so that I was inclined to rush into the thickest part of the battle.' Johnson's reply will be remembered: 'Sir, I should never hear it, if it made me such a fool.'1

We have had to remind ourselves that the popular use of pictures, though not an appreciation of the pictures as they really are, need not be—though of course it very often is—base or degraded in itself. We hardly need a similar reminder about the popular use of music. A wholesale condemnation either of this organic, or this emotional response is out of the question. It could be made only in defiance of the whole human race. To sing and dance round a fiddler at a fair (the organic and social response) is obviously a right-minded thing to do. To have 'the salt tear harped out of your eye' is not foolish or shameful. And neither response is peculiar to the unmusical. The cognoscenti too can be caught humming or whistling. They too, or some of them, respond to the emotional suggestions of music.

But they don't hum or whistle while the music is going on; only in reminiscence, as we quote favorite lines of verse to ourselves. And the direct emotional impact of this or that passage is of very minor importance. When they have grasped the structure of the whole work, have received into their aural imagination the composer's (at once sensuous and intellectual) invention, they may have an emotion about that. It is a different sort of emotion and towards a different sort of object. It is impregnated with intelligence. Yet it is also far more sensuous than the popular use; more tied to the ear. They attend fully to the actual sounds that are being made. But of music as of pictures, the majority make a selection or precis, picking out the elements they can use and neglecting the rest. As the first demand of the picture is 'Look', the first demand of the music is Listen'. The composer may begin by giving out a 'tune' which you could whistle. But the question is not whether you particularly like that tune. Wait. Attend. See what he is going to make of it.

Yet I find a difficulty about music that I did not find about pictures. I cannot, however I try, rid myself of the feeling that some simple airs, quite apart from what is done with them and quite apart from the execution, are intrinsically vile and ugly. Certain popular songs and hymns come to mind. If my feeling is well-grounded, then it would follow that in music there can be bad taste in the positive sense; a delight in badness as such just because it is bad. But perhaps this means that I am not sufficiently musical. Perhaps the emotional invitation of certain airs to vulgar swagger or lacrimose self-pity so overpowers me that I cannot hear them as neutral patterns of which a good use might possibly be made. I leave it to true musicians to say whether there is no tune so odious (not even Home sweet home) that a great composer might not successfully make it one of the materials of a good symphony.

Fortunately the question can be left unanswered. In general the parallel between the popular uses of music and of pictures is close enough. Both consist of 'using' rather than 'receiving'. Both rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them. As a result, a very great deal that is really visible on the canvas or audible in the performance is ignored; ignored because it cannot be so ' used '. And if the work contains nothing that can be so used—if there are no catchy tunes in the symphony, if the picture is of things that the majority does not care about—it is completely rejected. Neither reaction need be in itself reprehensible; but both leave a man outside the full experience of the arts in question.

In both, when young people are just beginning to pass from the ranks of the many to those of the few, a ludicrous, but fortunately transient error may occur. The young person who has only recently discovered that there is in music something far more lastingly delightful than catchy tunes may go through a phase in which the mere occurrence of such a tune in any work makes him disdain it as 'cheap '. And another young man, at the same stage, may disdain as 'sentimental ' any picture whose subject makes a ready appeal to the normal affections of the human mind. It is as if, having once discovered that there are other things to be demanded of a house than comfort, you then concluded that no comfortable house could be ‘good architecture'.

I have said this error is transient. I meant transient in real lovers of music or of painting. But in status seekers and devotees of culture it may sometimes become a fixation.


1. Boswell, Life of Johnson, 23 September 1777.

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