(845) 246-6944 · info@ArtTimesJournal.com

A Theory of the Aesthetic

June, 2003

I DEFINE THE "aesthetic" as that particular quality inherent in a work of art that gratifies the sensitive viewer. In Freudian terms it may be referred to as the "pleasure principle." While the aesthetic is usually equated with beauty, there is a major difference. Beauty in itself, while attractive, may be no more than "skin-deep." That is, it penetrates no deeper than the eye. A work of art that is merely beautiful is either sentimental or decorative and may safely be classed as "kitsch." The pleasure derived from the aesthetic is penetrating and motivational. It evokes those drives that arise from the deeply embedded instincts of the viewer. While focusing on painting (my forte), the theory I am about to present also applies to other art forms as well.

It is not the eye that sees…but the mind! The eye simply directs light into the brain. The mind must then make sense of it. Our perception of the outside world is therefore primarily subjective. We gain a mind-imposed image accordant with our "programmed" mental structure when we gaze upon the outside world. This is nature's way of helping man to adapt to his environment so that it will be possible for him/her to survive. The proclivity of the mind to distort reality in the way that is conducive to the ability of an organism to survive is called "instinct." Logic and reason are overlays which were to enable us to control our instincts so as to prevent them from running amok and for allowing us to create environments which are beneficial to human existence.

Given this understanding as a prerequisite, I now posed two questions whose investigation forms the crux of my thesis. One, why does the human psyche experience pleasure when it perceives certain kinds of configurations, but not others? Two, and correspondingly, what special quality do the pleasure stimulating configurations contain, which the others lack? We call the pregnant configurations "aesthetic." What is the aesthetic in itself? Trying to clear up this enigma, arising from the perennially shared emotions of humanity, is the goal I set for myself. I believe that this theory is a relevant generalization, but by no means all that there is to this topic.

Whenever we perceive shapes, colors, sounds…any sensorial pattern, it acts as a stimulus. Our minds automatically associate it with psychological experiences, good or bad. Random formations are associated with a lack of control and therefore with chaos. Chaos produces anxiety because unconstrained elements are assumed to clash, which is connected with conflict, insecurity and discord. These cause anxiety, a bad emotion. Ordered formations are associated by the mind with control. The diverse elements are manipulable and regulated by the systematic application of the proper reinforcements so that they fit together amicably. This grants the psyche security which replaces anxiety with an agreeable feeling which we call "harmony." We much prefer harmony in our lives to chaos. Harmony and the tranquility it engenders is a good emotion. Our minds are not static, but dynamic. The mind associates rhythmic patterns, curved lines, softly rounded shapes and some types of symmetrical forms with sex. This associative response, which we call "sensual," causes a very pleasant feeling. The aesthetic in itself is formed by the synthesis of harmony and sensuality once their associative factors (pleasure) are merged by the mind. The associations formed by the mind are deeply imbedded within it and we are not consciously aware of them. But their connection (i.e. harmony with sensuality) can be reinforced by the mind to a greater degree via development. The connoisseur, for example, enjoys art far more than the casual observer. The ability of the artist to rouse the viewer is dependent upon his/her own level of aesthetic appreciation and development and is the measure of greatness. Beginning with one's own innate competence, development in the arts can be fostered by regular viewings and an effort toward cognizance. Every interested individual can accomplish this to a degree. Let us briefly examine some germane examples.

AESTHETIC WORKS: Ingres was a master of sensuality. The eloquent manner in which he painted rounded forms and the cleft appearing where two divided sections of the human body meet…as well as the vibrant shimmers produced by the light reflected from the luxuriant satin gowns worn by his female sitters is highly erotic. The sensitive viewer is pleasantly titillated by the respectable and socially acceptable paintings of this master. Dali, a surrealist, who was largely influenced by the psychoanalytical ideas of Freud, painted irrational and bizarre works in a polished, academic style. His work is less discreet than that of Ingres. It literally oozes orgasmic relief of tension through its unabashed sensuality. But art need not necessarily be figurative nor dexterously executed to be erotically charged. Picasso's work is a case in point. Many of his paintings restructure objects and the human anatomy in grotesquely distorted ways. But the "ugliness" of his work is more than offset by the erotic undertones which Picasso never fails to imbed into his paintings. In terms of sheer aesthetics, the works are sheer masterpieces. Corot was an artist of a different ilk. While open to new ideas, the striving toward the way-out is notably absent in his paintings. Corot preferred the idyllic peacefulness of nature. His landscapes are pictured in muted but luminous tones and they breathe a limpid ethereality. Corot was a kindly person and his paintings reflect his inclination toward the harmonious and tranquil. The viewer gains a pleasantly calm demeanor when gazing at a Corot. Mondrian evolved a highly personal style which completely eliminated representational references. He reduced all forms to basic geometric patterns using straight lines and flat color areas. The painted surface exuded a sensation of pristine order and perfect harmony and evoked a feeling of calm that eased anxiety. A very pleasant feeling indeed.

ANTI-AESTHETIC WORKS: Some artists have deliberately disconnected their work from any reference to the past by attempting to demonstrate that art need not be aesthetic to be valid. The Dada movement, with its focus upon destruction, is just such a school. The abstract expressionist, Pollock, created an explosive style that embodied an uncontrolled emotional release. This was achieved by gestural configurations which appeared chaotic. Pollock shattered every convention in the interest of total freedom, the hallmark of his style. This air of liberation was the precursor of conceptual art. Rooms were strewn with trash and then filled with cacophonous music to inculcate the idea that the true function of art is to represent an insight rather than the aesthetic. We also have the sensationalist movement. These artists believe that art is to shock, frighten and repel the viewer. Works featuring elephant dung as a medium and dismembered animal carcasses preserved in formaldehyde have been exhibited. These artists trample upon aesthetics.

Has the pleasurable authority of the aesthetic, which for so long nurtured and sustained art by touching a raw nerve within the viewer, and as an emotional outlet for the artist, run its course? Rather than enter into a running debate, which in my opinion cannot decisively settle this issue, I have sought other, outside sources of informative significance. Several years ago I chanced to read an article (and later several books) on the topic of chaos. I was gratified to learn that some mathematicians have started to make a specialty out of interpreting ordered forms into fluid and turbulent substances like flowing water and smoke. They call this harmonious effect a "strange attracter" and an organizing principle within nature. This bolstered my assumption that the human mind is "hot-wired" to discern order even when subjected to certain trying conditions. If the art-viewing public, perhaps aided by the critic, is able to find order and the sensual imbedded in the newer, bizarre idioms, they will endure as legitimate art formations. Otherwise, they will give way to other breakthroughs. Bona fide revolutions are grounded upon our psychic demands to channel our repressed emotions in an authentic way. If art is to continue to maintain its place as a major avenue, artists and viewers will go on putting a premium on the aesthetic…as artists strive to develop newer idioms that will buttress this ever more stunningly.

The pleasure afforded by the aesthetic is a "miraculous" phenomenon akin to that of the quality of vitalism that embues living organisms with life…entelechy. We cannot explain it by the physical laws that describe matter and energy. Here we have a situation where ordinary inert matter (paint, wood, stone, sound, etc.) is manipulated to form particular patterns that somehow take on the power to stimulate neural activity within the artist and viewer…prompting a state of profound satisfaction and pleasure. Somehow, using physical materials external to the viewer, entelechy is able to induce the atoms comprising the brain of the living organism to conform to the very quality entelechy promotes and fosters…the survival of said organism through finding order and thereby security, and sexual arousal which leads to the propagation of the species. It is an effect extending back in time to the Paleolithic age as evidenced by cave paintings, rock engravings and carved figurines.

As a final note to the reader, the theory elucidated here reflects my personal evaluation derived through years of painting, art appreciation and introspection. I do not claim it to be a final, infallible conclusion but offer it with the conviction that it is sufficiently structured to serve as significant model and suggestive enough to elicit further analysis by other philosophically minded aesthetes who wish to contribute toward a greater in-depth understanding of this intriguing, but yet esoteric topic…the aesthetic.

(Ralph N. Waldman is a retired graphic artist with 35 years of staff and freelance experience in the advertising sector and a Fellow of the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry (ISPE).)

Return to Speak Out Index

Art Times HomePage