Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Moments of intense aesthetic awareness are often portrayed in metaphysical terms. One becomes lost in a brushstrokes of a painting, swept away in a symphony’s swelling harmonies, lifted outside of oneself by the grandeur of an architectural edifice. These sensations are available to multiple parties: the makers, the gazers, the performers, the audience. They are suggestive of an artwork’s perceived independence: its capacity to rise above the material domain and take us along with it. But when the mystical surface is scratched and emotional influence is separated from the equation, what remains are human beings reacting to the handiwork of other human beings.
The ideal of “art for its own sake” (“l’art pour l’art”) has roots in the early nineteenth century, when works of art were conceived as disembodied objects removed from utilitarian purposes and moral concerns. Artists were depicted as channelers of divine inspiration and transmitters of the muse. Art was separated from life; artist was separated from art. What distinguished the master from the ordinary person was the possession of some supernatural gift.
Lost in this view is the essential humanness of the artistic endeavor—a process best described as the expression and application of human creative skill and imagination to produce something that is appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotional effect (Merriam-Webster, adapted). Our reactions to visual and performing arts are fundamentally empathetic. We stand in awe of the work (or are repelled by it) not because it exudes otherworldly energy, but because we instinctively place ourselves in the artist’s shoes. We admire those whose skill and creativity exceed our own because we know what it means to have skill and creativity. We are mesmerized by the difference in degree between a Di Vinci sketch and our own scribbles, a verse from Chaucer and our own babbling, a passage from Bach and our own noodling. Moreover, our interactions with specific artworks are heavily shaped by culture: learned sets of ideas and behaviors acquired by people as members of a society. There is a human history underlying our reception of artistic creations and our appraisal of them.
The argument can be made that, because art is made by and for human beings, it can never fully be experienced as independent or absolute. It bears the inextricable imprint of human consciousness and manipulation. Perhaps the only way to achieve a pure aesthetic experience is via encounters with nature. It is in wild places that beauty detached from human meddling truly exists. Unlike art, which is representative, a natural landscape is simply itself. Its beauty is derived from its autonomy and apartness. While human artwork can display the highest human potential, nature conveys something greater. Its beauty, as philosopher Roger Scruton has written, has the “capacity to show us that the world contains things other than us.”