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Art and aesthetic character

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Isadora Duncan (Wikimedia Commons)

Art is popularly conceived of as a finished work: the art object. People look at a painting or sculpture, read a poem or hear a piece of music and call it art. The products of artistic activities are indeed valuable independent entities in the spirit of Friedrich Schiller’s “art for art’s sake.” However, in order to understand and appreciate art broadly, one must go beyond the art object to consider the process of artistic creation that brought the artwork into being. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger argues that the artwork conveys the world from which it was born. That world—the inspiration, passion, hopes, and fears of a particular time, place, and condition—provides the emotional kindling for aesthetic activity, which is a distinct enterprise requiring certain qualities in order to engage in it. The world is constantly offering up inspiration, but human capacity to interact aesthetically with it varies from one person to the next and one moment to the next. What is the nature of this interaction between woman or man and the world that engenders art? By looking at the aesthetic character—the dispositions or ways of being that foster the pursuit of aesthetic activities—one can more fully understand the nature of art. Three key aesthetic qualities are openness and seeking, dedication, and expressiveness.

Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden.

Many philosophers have defined art as a medium through which man is connected to a higher truth. In Enneads, Plotinus characterizes beauty as the soul recognizing the “higher realm of being” in earthly forms. Clive Bell describes the state that art arouses as “aesthetic emotion,” an ecstatic response that is unearthly and sublime. Leo Tolstoy, who argues for moral aesthetic judgment, insists that art originates in honest inspiration, new and “dimly-perceived feelings,” which are directly connected to the artist’s heart. Whatever the source of aesthetic insight—the soul, truth, love, or genius—people must be open, receptive and seeking in order to connect to it.

The first dispositions required in the process of art are perceptiveness and reflectiveness, through which the artist or the viewer of art must search for something beyond the material, the obvious, and the everyday. Art often results from a momentary lucidness—an answer to a question of the soul. The open and seeking aesthetic character finds something in the world that resonates, often in a frequency that is beyond logic or reason. Plotinus describes how “sense-perception … gathers into one that which appears dispersed and brings it back and takes it in, now without parts, to the soul’s interior.” Man’s aesthetic eyes, heart, and lungs must be open, beating, and breathing in order to “gather” inspiration from the world.

The second challenge of art then follows: The artist takes that tenuous insight and makes with it something real. Therein lies the next important aesthetic disposition—dedication. In Art as Experience, John Dewey asserts that aesthetic value is directly correlated to the magnitude of vitality with which any object is made. In her autobiography, Isadora Duncan, one of the founders of modern dance, describes how she stood in an empty and silent dance studio with her eyes closed, perfectly still, waiting for an answer to the question: What moves me? When the answer came, she didn’t stop questioning. She worked for years to find, sculpt, and perfect her own dance facing down significant obstacles. Every artist acquires the skills of his trade, and he goes to work each day to turn inspiration into substance, to make the intangible tangible. Artworks may be described as divine, but they do not drop from the heavens. They are the result of human work done creatively and passionately. R. G. Collingwood argues that art lives in complete form in the mind, but art is never realized without physical effort. Art is a process and product of the mind, soul and body working in the material world—using matter to bridge the immaterial world of thought, emotion, and being. Art may well be connected to the higher-self—the soul—but it is more than prayer; it is creation.

To truly appreciate art, the art enthusiast must also invest her time and attention in a manner that requires devotion. She, too, must have an open, seeking mind and heart to embrace the worlds that art open to her—and while many people are content to appreciate art in the manner of Kant’s “free play,” making the effort to contemplate the artwork over time and learn about the artist, culture, and time period it was created in gives the beholder of art a deeper understanding and a richer experience. In “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume expresses the importance of exercise in the art experience: “In a word, the same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means in the judging of it.” It is one thing to fall in love with an artwork and another to do the hard work of seeking understanding and discovering unseen nuances in the familiar.

What begins inside the artist’s heart, mind, and soul and develops in her studio is ultimately meant to be shared. The final aim of artistic creation is communication. Therefore, the third essential disposition of aesthetic character is expressiveness. Only through expression is the artist able to fully realize her work. Tolstoy frames the creative act of art as a struggle in which the artist attempts to build a bridge of understanding to his fellow man. For Tolstoy, successful art reveals the artist’s inner awakening sufficiently enough to bring about a similar feeling in all who receive his message. In Poetics, Aristotle proposes that drama serves man in his efforts to learn through affinity with tragedy, which imitates life. Art is essentially a cycle of giving and receiving: The artist gains insight through receptivity; he gives his time, talent, and effort to creation; he presents his work to his fellow man; the viewer receives and interacts with the work; and the artist gains new knowledge through the synergy. Without expression, the circle of art is broken.

Through receptivity, engagement and interaction with the world, aesthetic character facilitates perpetual discovery, development, and achievement. Heidegger argues that by bringing to light the constancy of being surrounding and inherent in substance, art illuminates the world in the entire context of its being. Art has the power to reveal truth, even the mutating truth of changing constants, because it is a creative act. Knowledge is a constant process of building understanding and letting go of old ideas to make room for new.

Art is a human activity and occupation. It demands certain human qualities. Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden. It struggles to bring knowledge from the murky depths of being to the surface, so that man can understand himself and others. The fact that artists and art enthusiasts exist and share a common aesthetic character demonstrates that human beings are intrigued, impassioned and propelled by self-examination. Through art man learns about his spirit and its connection to the material world.

In his Berlin lectures published in Introduction to Aesthetics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel emphasizes that self-reflection is the essence of the human spirit. Art philosophy approaches man’s contemporary sacred needs and allows art to maintain its spiritual relevance, he argues. Through self-reflection, aesthetic experience provides what Aristotle refers to as catharsis: feeling, sensing, but also knowing about the self and the world. By understanding and nurturing aesthetic character, man can secure and augment the important endeavor of art, the value of artworks, and the interactions of art maker and viewer—a worthy conversation toward understanding and appreciation of the precious subtleties of life.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. Liberty Online. Jawaid Bazyar. 1995-1999. Web. 20 January 2013. http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Aristotle/Poetics.htm.

Bell, Clive. “The Aesthetic Hypothesis.” Art. New York: Chatto & Windus, 1981. 15-34.

Collingwood, Robin George. The Principles of Art. Chap. 7. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1938. 125-152.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree, 1980. Chap. 1-2. 3-27.

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Chapters 1-3.” Introduction to Aesthetics (Berlin Aesthetics Lectures of 1820s). Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. 1-14.

Heidegger, Martin. ”The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. A. Hofstader. Lectures 1 & 2. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 32-48.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965. 231-255.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. Trans. J. C. Meredith. Sections 1-14, 16, 23-24, 28. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

Plotinus. Enneads. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Vol. I. Section 6. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. 229-263.

Schiller, Friedrich. “Letters.” On the Aesthetic Education of Man. 26-27. Trans. E. Wilkinson & L. Willoughby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. 191-219.

Tolstoy, Leo. “On Art.” What is Art? and Essays on Art. Trans. A. Maude. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. 46-61.