chapter  5
3 Pages

Meditations on a hobby horse or the roots of artistic form: Ernst Gombrich


The subject of this article is a very ordinary hobby horse. It is neither metaphorical nor purely imaginary, at least not more so than the broomstick on which Swift wrote his meditations. It is usually content with its place in the corner of the nursery and it has no aesthetic ambitions. Indeed it abhors frills. It is satisfied with its broomstick body and its crudely carved head which just marks the upper end and serves as holder for the reins. How should we address it? Should we describe it as an “image of a horse”? The compilers of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary would hardly have agreed. They defined image as “imitation of object’s external form” and the “external form” of a horse is surely not “imitated” here. So much the worse, we might say, for the “external form,” that elusive remnant of the Greek philosophical tradition which has dominated our aesthetic language for so long. Luckily there is another word in the Dictionary which might prove more accommodating: representation. To represent, we read, can be used in the sense of “call up by description or portrayal or imagination, figure, place likeness of before mind or senses, serve or be meant as likeness of . . . stand for, be specimen of, fill place of, be substitute for.” A portrayal of a horse? Surely not. A substitute for a horse? Yes. That it is. Perhaps there is more in this formula than meets the eye. [. . .]

Can our substitute take us further? Perhaps, if we consider how it could become a substitute. The “first” hobby horse (to use eighteenth-century language) was probably no image at all. Just a stick which qualified as a horse because one could ride on it. The tertium comparationis, the common factor, was function rather than form. Or, more precisely, that formal aspect which fulfilled the minimum requirement for the performance of the function – for any “ridable” object could serve as a horse. If that is true we may be enabled to cross a boundary which is usually regarded as closed and sealed. For in this sense “substitutes” reach deep into biological functions that are common to man and animal. The cat runs after the ball as if it were a mouse. The baby sucks its thumb as if it were the breast. In a sense the ball “represents” a mouse to the cat, the thumb a breast to the baby. But here too “representation” does not depend on formal similarities, beyond the minimum requirements of function. The ball has nothing in common with the mouse except that it is chasable. The thumb nothing with the breast except that it is suckable. As “substitutes” they fulfill certain demands of the organism. They are keys which happen to fit into biological or psychological locks, or counterfeit coins which make the machine work when dropped into the slot.