Magic or Amusement?
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 9 - Aesthetics
R. G. Collingwood, from The Principles of Art
Kem Stone - 27 July 2008
There are those, such as the author of this text, who believe that we apply the term “art” too broadly, and that a
distinction ought to be drawn between
real art and that which is only meant for amusement.  The presupposition is
that the function of art is not to amuse but to enlighten, and anything created purely for the purpose of discharging
emotions is therefore not really art.  R. G. Collingwood does not make an explicit argument as to why we ought to
make this distinction, but merely clarifies what he believes should be removed from the category of “art proper”
and labelled “amusement art”, and considers the consequences for art criticism.  Although Collingwood makes
many good points, his ideas seem disorganised and often drawn from beyond the scope of his main thesis.  This
text therefore reads more like the rant of a frustrated art connoisseur who resents the term “art” being applied to
things he doesn’t like than a serious philosophical examination of the function of art within human culture.  
Collingwood’s problem is essentially a matter of semantics, and his opinions can not be logically contradicted but
merely shared or disagreed with.  I share his opinion that some art has less value than other art, but do not agree
that we can divide art neatly into the two categories he suggests.

Collingwood begins by defining amusement art.  “If an artefact is designed to stimulate a certain emotion, and if
this emotion is intended not for discharge into the occupations of ordinary life, but for enjoyment as something of
value in itself, the function of the artefact is to amuse or entertain….The discharge of an emotion is some act done
at the prompting of that emotion, by doing which we work the emotion off and relieve ourselves of the tension
which, until thus discharged, it imposes upon us” (581).  The distinction has to do with whether or not the emotion
that a given work of art evokes is meant to be discharged simply for the sake of the discharge, or whether it is
meant to carry over into the affairs of practical life.  In amusement art, emotions are treated as ends in themselves,
while in “art proper” they are treated as the means to an end, usually the awakening of some previously
unconsidered idea that will serve as a lasting influence on a person’s life.  This is why Collingwood also refers to
this “higher” type of art as “magical art” because magic is meant to have a practical function in every day affairs as
well.  In amusement art, a “make-believe” situation is created in which the emotional discharge can take place
without affecting practical life.  Both types of art evoke emotions through representation, but the element of make-
believe or theatrical illusion is what distinguishes amusement from magical art.  For instance, it is amusement art if
the antagonist in a play is meant to be loathed because the audience’s hatred is confined to the character whom
they understand is fictional.  But if the antagonist is meant to represent an actual person or group of persons in
order to inspire genuine hatred in the audience toward that group, it rises to the level of art proper.

Because many comparisons have been drawn between art and play, Collingwood wants to make it explicit that
this comparison is only valid when considering amusement art, as there is no important resemblance between play
and art proper.  However, he writes that the games children play in their imagination may be more closely related
to magical art than amusement art.  This is a curious digression, but an interesting idea.  Collingwood cites
Giambattista Vico, an authority on poetry and children, who has said that children are “sublime poets”.  
Collingwood allows for the possibility that this mysterious activity engaged in by children almost universally may be
directly related to the creation of art, but admits that too little is known about it to shed any serious light on the

The next distinction he draws between the two types of art is the different ways in which we must measure their
value.  “The experience of being amused is sought not for the sake of anything to which it stands as means, but for
its own sake.  Hence, while magic is utilitarian, amusement is not utilitarian but hedonistic.  The work of art, so
called, which provides the amusement, is, on the contrary, strictly utilitarian.  Unlike a work of art proper, it has no
value in itself; it is simply means to an end” (583).  This is not to be confused with his assertion that the emotions
generated by amusement art are meant as ends in themselves.  The actual work of art that evokes these emotions
has no intrinsic value but can only be evaluated in terms of how successfully it evokes these emotions.  This is the
only meaningful way in which we can speak in terms of skill when discussing amusement art.  Collingwood
believes that many disagreements about the value of a given work of art or the skill of the artist may simply be due
to applying the same measurements to amusement art as we do to art proper, when in fact their values must be
evaluated on different scales.

For Collingwood, the two different functions of magical art and amusement art are mutually exclusive.  “You
cannot arouse in your audience a certain emotion (say, hatred of the Persians) and arrange at one and the same
moment for its discharge in an amusement form, by raising a laugh at their expense, and in a practical form, by
burning down their houses” (583).  But emotional reactions are a complicated thing; there is never only one simple
emotion but rather a stream or pattern of different emotions that need not be provided with the same kind of
discharge.  The representational artist must take care to evoke only those emotions he wishes to inspire, and if his
work is intended for amusement he must be careful not to let the emotions spill over into practical life.

In the next section, Collingwood provides examples of things that can only be considered amusement art,
beginning with the most obvious example, which is pornography.  Erotic pictures and films are meant to evoke a
kind of discharge (whether this can be called an
emotional discharge is unclear) through make-believe depictions
which ideally will not influence people in their actual lives.  Collingwood enters into another interesting digression
with respect to how pervasive this kind of “art” is in today’s culture.  “The extent to which this make-believe
sexuality has affected modern life can hardly be believed until the fact has been tested by appeal to the circulating
libraries, with their flood of love-stories; the cinema, where it is said to be a principle accepted by almost every
manager that no film can succeed without a love-interest; and above all the magazine and newspaper, where
cover-designs, news-items, fiction, and advertisement are steeped in materials of the same kind…pornography
homeopathically administered in doses too small to shock the desire for respectability, but quite large enough to
produce the intended effect” (585).  It is not only the kind of materials that we would clearly label pornography,
but anything that intends to arouse sexual desire that falls into this large subcategory of amusement art.  
Collingwood comments that the fact that it is so pervasive is evidence that sexual passion has been degraded from
its depiction as a god for the Greeks or a devil for the Christians, and is now only a toy.  Our society is one
“where the instinctive desire to propagate has been weakened by a sense that life, as we have made it, is not
worth living, and where our deepest wish is to have no posterity” (585).  This strikes me as the most brilliant
quote in the entire text, but it has little to do with the central idea.

Other types of amusement art are less pervasive but still quite common.  Because much pleasure can be derived
from the emotion of fear, the “thriller” or stories of terrible adventure are very popular.  The detective story, which
was once the most popular form of amusement, evokes both fear and a rich medley of other emotions.  Among
these are a delight in power—the element of the story that invites the reader to identify himself with a successful
criminal—the intellectual excitement of solving a puzzle, and finally a desire for adventure.  These stories are meant
for amusement, as Collingwood notes that there is no evidence that criminals get their impulses from crime
literature, and that by arousing and discharging the emotions of these make-believe situations, they actually make
less likely to commit crimes in real life.

Much amusement can also be derived from malice, or the desire that others—in particular one’s betters—should
suffer.  This was common in Shakespeare, but when a society has lost the habit of overt bullying it turns to a
literature of cattishness.  “Our own circulating libraries are full of what is grandiloquently called satire on the social
life of our time; books whose popularity rests on the fact that they give the reader an excuse for ridiculing the folly
of youth and the futility of age, despising the frivolity of the educated and the grossness of the uneducated, gloating
over the unhappiness of an ill-assorted couple, or triumphing over the feebleness of a henpecked merchant prince”
(586).  In contrast with the bully temperament of Elizabethan literature, Victorian literature could be characterised
by the gratification of the social ambitions of readers who liked to imagine themselves sharing in the life of the
upper classes.

The only type of literature that Collingwood cites which he believes can be considered
either amusement art or
art proper is the literature of sentimental topography, in which travellers write about the charm and glamour of the
places they have been.  “Are these intended merely to recall the emotions of returned travellers and to make
others feel as if they had travelled, or are they meant as an invocation—I had almost said, to call fools into a
circle?  Partly the one and partly the other; if the choice had been decisively made, literature of this kind would be
better than it is” (587).  Collingwood believes that works of this kind are capable of rising to the level of art
proper, but only if there is no ambiguity in its intentions.  If it is meant to provide the emotional discharge of feeling
as though one has been to the place described, it is amusement art.  If it is meant to inspire its readers to embark
on adventures of their own, it is magical art.

The final section of this text deals with the implications of this framework of thinking for art criticism.  Collingwood
writes that it is the business of an art critic to establish a consistent nomenclature by which some things can be
judged as art, and others deemed to not be art.  While the critic knows that in principle he is dealing with
something objective—the question of whether a piece of verse is a poem or a sham poem ought to be considered
a matter of fact as opposed to opinion—but he finds that critics frequently disagree on these matters, that many of
their verdicts are later reversed by posterity, and that the public almost never welcomes their opinions or
considers them useful.  One may be tempted to attribute this to the tendency of groups of people to disagree on
things, even on matters of fact such as one we might see in a jury trial.  However, although jurors often disagree it
is rare that an impasse is reached, and a unanimous verdict is almost always delivered.  What separates this kind
of disagreement from an aesthetic disagreement is that in the former, the judge provides the jury with the principles
by which to make the decision, while in the latter the critics even disagree over the principles by which to make
their judgments.

The divergence of principle arises before the formation of any theory whatsoever.  “The critic is working in a
world where most people, when they speak of a good painting or a good piece of writing, mean simply that it
pleases them, and pleases specifically in the way of amusement.  The simpler and more vulgar make no bones
about this: I don’t know what’s good, they say, but I know what I like.  The more refined and artistic reject this
idea with horror.  It makes no difference whether you like it or not, they retort; the question is whether it is good”
(588).  The refined often dismiss art that appeals to the “vulgar” simply because they believe it can not be good if
amuses the masses.  Collingwood dismisses this as simple snobbery, insisting that it is only because they are
brought up differently that they are amused by different things.  The refined may believe that what pleases them is
art proper, but it is usually merely amusement art that is designed to appeal to them.  The critic is therefore in the
difficult position of treating their likes and dislikes as though they actually indicated the merits and demerits of a
given artist’s work.  He is expected to dislike what pleases the vulgar and to like what pleases the refined, but the
former is often disliked by the refined simply
because it pleases the vulgar, while the latter is often disdained by
the vulgar
because it pleases the refined.  Collingwood writes of the critic’s position with great sympathy, saying
that he is despised when he ought to be pitied.  The real villains, he contends, are the self-styled artists who assure
the critic that they have done something of value and force him to study what he would otherwise not bother to
give an hour’s thought.

The critic’s job is impossible as long as art is identified with amusement.  The fact that the practice of art criticism
has endured for so long, Collingwood believes, is a remarkable sign of the tenacity with which the European
consciousness clings to the idea that there is such a thing as art, and that it can in principle be distinguished from
amusement.  But Collingwood warns against treating false objectivity as true objectivity, and empirical generality
as strict universality.  “A matter of fact, as that this person did this act, or that this thing is a poem, is valid for
everybody at every time and place.  The ‘goodness’ or ‘beauty’ of a ‘work of art,’ if goodness or beauty means
power of exciting certain emotions in the person using the word, has no such validity; it exists only in relation to the
person in whom these emotions are aroused” (589).

The most important point to keep in mind is that certain works of art will arouse the same emotions in a majority
of people, but only in societies of people with similar constitutions.  This can be interpreted in two ways.  On a
biological view, the uniformity of the psychological organisation of the people as due to a shared heredity will
cause a stimulus of a certain kind to evoke a similar reaction in all members of society.  On a historical view, it is
the fact that each person feels his interests bound together with the interests of society that will lead him to react
like all others to whatever forms or challenges the common way of living.  On either view, it can be said of any
society that there will be certain established forms of “corporate magic” whereby certain stimuli evoke certain
standard responses from all members.  “But this agreement is only an empirical generality, holding good within the
society because the society just consists of those persons who share it.  Enemies without, or even more foreigners,
and traitors within, will just as necessarily disagree.  So long as magic is taken for art, these agreements and
disagreements will be taken for criticism; and in any given society it will be thought the mark of a good critic to
insist that the common magic of the society is good art” (590).

My initial reaction to Collingwood’s text is that his ideas seem scattered all over the place, and although on closer
inspection I can understand how everything fits in with the general thesis, I still believe that the argument as a
whole lacks the kind of coherence that would lend itself to serious evaluation.  As it stands, I have only a
smattering of loose and vaguely defined concepts to which I have mixed reactions if any.  For instance, what
exactly does Collingwood mean when he speaks of the “discharge” of an emotion?  I understand what it means to
feel an emotion, but I find the concept of an emotional discharge unclear, unless he means this in the same
sense that Aristotle speaks about a
purge of emotions through catharsis.  Furthermore, his distinction between art
proper and amusement art rests on whether it is
meant to bring about this discharge in such a way that it will
either spill over into practical life or be contained in a make-believe situation without any actual consequences.  
Just how can one determine whether a work of art is
meant to have consequences or not?  It would seem the
only way to determine this would be to ask the artist himself whether he wanted to influence people’s actual lives,
but not only would this almost always result in the affirmative answer and therefore be useless, but the verdict of
an art critic should in principle never rest upon the stated intentions of the artist.

This leads to my biggest objection to Collingwood’s central thesis.  The distinction he makes between art proper
and amusement art can never be as sharp as it would need to be in order to bring about the intended consequence
of eliminating disagreements within art criticism.  Not all art—in fact a vast minority—can be classified as
for amusement or
strictly for the purpose of influencing people toward a more enlightened approach to life.  Most
art has elements of both functions, and as the line between art and entertainment continues to be blurred further
and further in the information age, this distinction grows continuously more meaningless.  To take the obvious
example of film, almost every film I have ever seen that has had a meaningful influence on my life has also been
highly entertaining.  Amusement and enlightenment are not mutually exclusive, despite what Collingwood says to
the contrary.

Collingwood’s position essentially boils down to semantics.  It is an opinion that an art connoisseur can adopt if he
does not wish to use the same word—“art”—to indicate something he considers to have true aesthetic value and
something he considers to be a mere tool with the function of producing amusement.  But the entire debate is
completely frivolous.  If you and I are looking at a colourful painting that contains no artistic depth but is
nevertheless pleasing to the eye, and you react by saying, “That is
not art” and I say, “That is bad art” exactly
what is the difference between these two judgments, and how important is that difference?  The only real
difference lies in how the two of us use and interpret the word in question.  You may only wish to grant the term
“art” to what you consider to have artistic value.  I may be willing to grant the term “art” to everything and
consider its value afterwards.  As a result, there will be very little “art” in your world but what is there will always
be good, while my world will be packed with “art” yet only a fraction of it will be good.  As for the critic, I do not
care which approach he takes, because I believe the specific evaluation of the merits of a work of art is more
important than the label he attaches to it.  There is enough disagreement when it comes to simply considering these
merits that to disagree over a linguistic point only unnecessarily augments the difficulty.