On the Nature of Aesthetic Experience
It is on the face of it peculiar that human beings, agglomerations of mineral and protein that we are, descendants of timid chordates that once swam the Cambrian Sea, should experience aesthetic feeling. And yet we do. We are moved by the meter of poetry, transfixed by the timbre of music, awed by the majesty of art. How did this unlikelihood, this paradox, come to be?
The ancient Greeks (and Plato particularly) – the first, perhaps, to wonder deeply about these things – had an answer, or at least a part of an answer, to this question. It had to do with our mixed natures: for although we are physical beings, at some point in our journeys we acquired a metaphysical component. Indeed, the metaphysical component was in some sense prior to our physical nature: it represented someplace we had been before, someplace to which we yearned to return after our earthly lives were over.
But our mortal existence was not, the Greeks believed, at all devoid of transcendence. Material things were, after all, shadows of the immortal, and so they were sometimes capable of awakening memories in our souls of things in that higher world. Such was the nature of aesthetic experience, then: it was a remembering, or intimation of the transcendent forms, triggered by the baser, imperfect forms of earth. Each touch or trace of beauty here represented a glimpse of that eternal beauty for which we longed, and somehow dimly knew.
But where, exactly, does this boundary between materiality and perfection lie? And how is it crossed? Let us skip forward to Immanuel Kant for perhaps a clue.
First, Immanuel Kant philosophized, we must understand the prerequisites of our experiences here on earth. These experiences do not materialize ex nihilo; they must occur in a context, within a categorical framework. And what are the prerequisites of experience and causality within materiality? To begin with, they must include space and time, for without these, earthly experience is not conceivable.
But space and time are special conditions, not necessarily universal conditions. We on earth are so accustomed to these conditions that we take them for granted. They constitute our prison, so to speak. But is it possible to conceive of reality unconstrained by these categories? Yes it is. We do so whenever we enter into our metaphysical selves – into the world of the mind, mathematics, and yes, aesthetics.
And so the essence of the aesthetic experience, I believe, is the removal of the elements of space and time, to whatever degree is possible, from the context of our ordinary experience. This is the key to what makes the arts so appealing. The visual arts exist in space without time; music in time without space. Does not the genius of, say, Vermeer, consist in the freezing of a moment of time, such that our eye may scan a scene at our leisure, taking in essences that motion and the passage of time would blur or totally hide? Or alternately, cannot some art encompass the passage of time into a single frame, and thus transmute an evolving essence into a single moment? And does not music, though it occurs in time, transport us to a place where there is no space, merely the flow of essence?
But of course art does not merely take away; it also infuses. As it removes our earthly impediments to true experience it also reveals something of the eternal, the noumenal. One essence of the noumenon that art is capable of capturing is that which so intrigued Schopenhauer – the will; that metaphysical omnipresence which bursts forth onto our causal tableaux not in time, but in the interstices of time. Some of our greatest art is that which captures the exact frame of time in which will has imposed itself into the flow of causality: Bernini’s David, for example, whose expression depicts the exact moment of will when he realizes he can defeat Goliath.
I believe that time does not flow. It pulsates. This is not proven, of course, but physics speculates on the concept of quantum time; and given the finite, quantum nature of matter, stripped of its grosser manifestations, it seems reasonable to assume a similar character for the framework within which matter exists – i.e., time. Thus our entire lives are attuned to pulsations, perhaps of many variant sorts, which express themselves in such earthly manifestations as rhythm, rhyme and meter, and thus add another primal element to our aesthetic natures. Each beat of music, each step of dance, each poetic foot, symbolizes for us a timely infusion of the eternal into our existence, and thus is beautiful.
The aesthetic experience is thus stimulated by external phenomena, but does not culminate there. Indeed, the final stages of experience are purely metaphysical. They occur in the mind, not outside of it. Take color, for instance. Science will concur that color is not a property of physical objects, but of the mind. All that physical objects do is to reflect or absorb certain wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. It takes an eye to capture these reflected wavelengths, and a brain to create color from the impressions these radiations stimulate onto optic nerves. Thus, color is neither external nor physical. Nor is there any reason to think that we all perceive color in the same way. This is obvious in the case of the color-blind, but more subtly true for the rest of us. And so we know nothing of the ultimate nature of color, only the externalities of its propagation. As Goethe said so long ago, science can tell us everything about color, except what it is.
And so it is with all aesthetic experience. As the medieval scholastics used to say, one cannot conclude the higher from the lower. It can only be speculated upon. Nor shall inductive reason be our panacea, as David Hume argued and Karl Popper advanced – for there is no logical reason to believe that because something has happened a million times in the same way, that it will happen that way always. We are thus doomed in our material existence only to hypothesize and disprove – never to prove. But what we can do is to accept our state and enjoy it – amor fati. Even if we never know the ultimate nature of reality, we at least achieve some taste of what we believe to be eternal through our aesthetic endeavors; and moreover, we do so through our will, which is from any perspective a marvelous thing, be it as unfree as the dourest Calvinist would deem, or as free as the wildest Romantic could dream.