Sep 16, 201312:00 PMPoint of View
The METROPOLIS Blog
A New Humanism: Part 31
(page 1 of 4)
The potential for aesthetic experience is latent in the languages of any built environment, and in essentially all human interactions are the extraordinary pleasures we tend to call excellence, art, beauty, truth or greatness. Rather than try to trace out definitions of those words, though, through all their shifting contexts – others have done that well – or distinguish between “art” and “not-art,” I’m trying to understand the personal experience “in-here” – the spontaneous feelings of recognition, enlightenment, reward and fulfillment – that causes us to say them. In a sense, I’m exploring “the eye of the beholder” – what the translators of Vitruvius call “delight.” And in this perspective, a study of aesthetics is a study of how a human mind and body respond when we catch sight of ideals perfected and realized – of enhanced survival, prosperity, and mastery – and how we put that perception to work in practice.
The actual range, details and intensity of a person’s aesthetic experience – the breathtaking, spellbinding lucidity or surging warmth – necessarily depends on levels of both an innate sensitivity and cultivated personal skills and memory. Multiple parts of a brain and whole body systems are involved, and each individual’s back-story of experience necessarily varies in breadth and passion. Trained professionals and educated elites enjoy the pleasures of reading more languages in more depth and dimensions, but they are not alone. Fluency itself is not required to speak or read a language; we all share, in some measure, a parallel awareness. As a result, the artistry we cultivate and the arts we invent to trigger an aesthetic response pervade built environments; the feeling we call beauty is not something outside daily life. Instead, our species assembles and dedicates immense human resources – in terms of time, wealth, and committed lifetimes – to create, experience and honor aesthetic pleasures.
The sacred precinct of Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Thailand – stories of the Buddha, beliefs and transcendence, expressed in a timeless beauty-for-its-own sake.
Courtesy Albrecht Pichler
The full potential tends to be realized when we’re free from anxiety or bitterness, feeling informed and oriented, nourished and safe – an underlying sense of security – even if only for an instant. Then with a receptive body state and a mind cleared, opened, and attentive, a sequence of sensations – a new context – can set the stage. It may be a sense of arrival and awe when intentions and expectations are realized climbing the Athenian acropolis in the blinding Aegean sun, or flow of spaces, light and air, like the natural setting of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, or the choreographed, colorful promenade into a box at a Grand Opera house, or the change in sounds from a hush into music in a performance hall. And often most important, is being comfortable with the mix and “distance” away of other people around us. In this sense, aesthetic experience typically has an underlying social component.
Naturally, any number of distractions or puzzling ambiguities can enter the mind, divert mental resources, and subvert the mood as well. But when a sequence of first-impression perceptions prepare a mind to be focused, expectant, and unconfined, then a blend of body chemistry can intensify the instant of response. And it seems to happen spontaneously in the kinds of interactions and places explored here.