- Art and Organicism:Sensuous Awareness and Subjective Imagination in Herbert Read’s Anarchist Aesthetics
Art names reality, describes reality, and creates reality. For British modernist Herbert Read, nature itself is the creator of forms, so—in terms of creation—art and life are indistinguishable. Artistic forms, as words, sounds, images, or movements, symbolize our individual experiences of being human; they materialize our subjective versions of reality, and they contribute to new social forms by communicating our inner worlds to other members of society (Read, Origins 8, 17).
Herbert Read’s contribution to political, art-historical, and cultural analysis was enormous. He was an immensely influential art critic—in Key Writers on Art, Chris Murray calls him “the most significant figure in the world of modernist criticism” (234). Read’s unique historical role stems from his central position within a nexus of avant-garde European artists whom he befriended and wrote about. His aesthetics derive from his practice as a writer, his conversations with artists and writers of his time, and his personal reactions to art and literature. Read was a literary figure of note, he had a considerable impact on English poetics, and his support for modern art changed the European artistic landscape. My discussion of Read’s organic aesthetics draws on a close reading of his major publications to describe the central aspects of his theory, rather than reviewing some of the recent publications on him (Goodway 350). Read’s conception of the roles of nature and human nature in artistic imagination and practice was closely tied to his faith in organic freedom and transformation at the individual and social levels. In particular he emphasized organic aspects of artistic creativity: sensory perception, subjective consciousness, and the social freedoms needed to support individual communication.
Read stated that the “facts of art” themselves created his aesthetic theory (Forms 28, see also 49). Using a Jungian-inspired distinction between signs and symbols, Read described his aesthetics as pertaining to that art that symbolizes and conveys sensations and other experiences of being human, and not to those images that are mere “signs” of consciously known concepts. What Read meant was that art is not a mere decorative [End Page 81] embellishment. On the contrary, it is “a unique mode of discourse,” connecting people with knowledge that would otherwise be inaccessible (Forms 37, see also 57; see also Nutting 24). In Read’s view, this kind of art is a vehicle for understanding oneself and others, and for communicating with the larger society.
Because Read believed that art is an organic outgrowth of the imaginal and material processes of nature and human nature, he was convinced that art creates reality. Sensing and perceiving are concurrent with creating, and creation is communication: objective realities come into existence in the act of artistic creation. These key roles for sensation, imagination, and communication make Read’s aesthetic theory applicable not only to the artist who makes art, but also to the person who is moved by it. Making art, or connecting with it as a reader, listener, or viewer, fosters a lived experience of our own subjective perceptions, sensations, and thoughts that are newly emerging into consciousness (Forms 28).
Read explained how reality naturally gives rise to art and to aesthetics, while the practice of art comprises subjective, sensuous activity (Anarchy 44). Creating or experiencing art is a natural function of being human. Art represents the coming together of the instinctual, the sensual, the imaginational, and of conscious and unconscious knowledge and ideation. Read described art as the unifying of all feelings and desires, and as the crystallization of the instincts in a process that can only take place through the senses, in what he called “a celebration of the flesh” (Forms 63; Education through Art 14). Art is more like a mechanism than a metaphysical principle, and it is inherently related to human action, perception, thought, and imagination. Art is physical, emotional, psychological, and social, because it is experienced through an individual who naturally has all these material and human aspects.
Life in its most secret and essential sources is aesthetic. Life only is in virtue of the embodiment...