Sunday, November 21, 2010

Aesthetic Thinking II

The other day I noticed a young child dragging his fingers along a chain-link fence. Touching it, as if to get to know it. That sight made me think more about how we, as children, acquaint ourselves with the world. Johann Jakob Bodmer, following John Locke, wrote that we come into the world knowing nothing, possessing only our senses to make "sense" of things: "Die Welt ist eine Academie, und der Mensch ein Schüler, welcher bey dem ersten Eintrite in dieselbe von aller Wissenschafft entblösset ist, und allein darin von todten Wercken der Natur sich unterscheidet, daß er Instrumente besitzet, welche ihn tüchtig machen etwas zu fassen und zu erlernen, nemlich die fünf Sinnen" (The world is an academy, and the human being a pupil who, with his first entry into it is denuded of all science and is only distinguished from other dead works of nature by the possession of instruments that make him industrious to grasp and to learn, namely, the five senses).

He continues: "And an attentive avariciousness (Wundergierigkeit), in addition to a love for everything that is new, excites us to employ these tools of knowledge (Werkzeuge des Wissens)."

The senses are our first "instructor," and through them we are moved by what we touch or see or taste and form concepts of things. But our knowledge of the world would be quite narrow if we only had the senses. After all, we spend half of our days asleep. How would it be if every evening, with the departure of light, we put aside everything we had experienced during the day and had to start again anew in the morning? The Creator, however, having a special purpose for humans, endowed the soul with a special capacity: the imagination, which allows us, at will, to recover all the concepts and sensations we felt in our original contact with the objects. He goes on to say that attention and practice help us to cultivate our imagination. Indeed, poets must have a great store of imagination and make readers forget that they are reading only words and to believe instead that the objects are before their eyes.
The senses are something that we have in common as humans, and we all seem to agree on the pleasure associated with certain experiences (or the converse): most small children like to run through puddles. With time and experience we develop our individual taste for things and, indeed, probably set aside many of the things that gave us pleasure as children. I remember when I first went to college about half the girls in my dormitory had a copy of a painting by Margaret Keane (although back then everyone thought the artist was her husband).

Something about those big-eyed girls moved us, which is, according to Bodmer, the purpose of art. Of course, back in my college days our professors were trying to draw us away from our appreciation for the Keane paintings, to develop better judgments about art, but that initial reaction of pleasure was a first step. And for Kant, it is our ability to respond subjectively, whether to the beauty of sunsets or even to the Keane paintings -- that make our other cognitive accomplishments possible. In other words, because we feel, we can think. That is aesthetics, in a nutshell.

(By the way, a movie is currently being made about Margaret Keane, appropriately titled Big Eyes.)

1 comment:

Zentrist said...

Interesting that the so-called "contemplative life" of prayer and meditation (or even yoga and nirvana) cannot really do without images. Only when the practice lands the consciousness in "no images, no mantra"--some kind of "zone"--is there literal transcendence from vestigial sensation. And "that," I'm told, does not last very long for most people. Anyhow, it occurs to me that the contemplation of art is a wonderful form of meditation! A literal elevation of consciousness. The devotee's attachment to the sacred icon, in Russian or Orthodox practice, also comes to mind. In any event this "unitive consciousness" ideally would lead us right back to those "things of this world" that poets like Richard Wilbur manage to find words for.