Ed Cell’s Discussion Paper
8. Art: The Esthetic Dimension
The quality of our lives depends on being able not only to think effectively but also to feel effectively. Effective feeling is the esthetic dimension of our mental activity. It requires competence in a language of feeling just as thinking depends on our ability to use conceptual language. The arts give us some of our languages of feeling. Literature and poetry provide others. What these esthetic forms of expression offer us, fundamentally, is not an escape from life into vivid feelings but an ability to live more adequately and rewardingly.
The arts can be used for escape, as can poetry, literature, drugs, sex, religion, and a whole range of feeling-related activities, and all of us need this from time to time. But, far more, we need to renew and enrich our lives and this is a matter not simply of feeling but of feeling effectively. To make this a part of our educational goal we need to formulate questions about educating our feelings to help us deal realistically with our own nature and with our environment. Some of these questions concern transcendence, some wholeness, and some immediacy of awareness. We turn first to consider transcendence.
8.1 Effectiveness as Creative Transcendence
Developing our esthetic sensibility deepens our appreciation of wholeness, authenticity, and beauty. But it also increases our ability to transform life accordingly. We can transform life because we can transcend the present. We can step back from it, appraise it, imagine it changed, determine how that change can be accomplished, and act accordingly. It is imagination, then, that lifts us out of confinement to the present and gives us some say about our individual and collective lives. Transforming life effectively in terms of deepened awareness and appreciation of wholeness is imagination become creative.
It is the power and importance of creative imagination that makes the esthetic dimension so vital to our lives. The understanding and development of this creativity can be done through art but it also has a place in virtually everything that marks us as human. Esthetic sensibility is at work in the whole range of creative activity that extends from science and math to creating our personal identities and empathically touching the lives of others. To focus on this wider significance, we shall consider more than the artistic aspects of esthetics.
Our education will develop our creative awareness insofar as we learn to bring feeling and reason into a cooperative relationship. To get at this, let's consider three ways that we process things mentally, which we shall term our rational-individuating mind, our emotional-connecting mind, and our existential-creating mind. We can think of these mentalities roughly as grounded in our brain's left-hemisphere, right-hemisphere, and combined-hemispheres, respectively. As we proceed, however, let's bear in mind that this is at best a useful system of classification, one among a number of systems we might use, and that the world does not come in such neat divisions.
Our rational-individuating mind deals with order, predictability, logic, rules, sequential reasoning, means, facts, and, above all, conventional language-use. This way of experiencing and processing tends to be dominant in our society and especially in our work organizations. Indeed, throughout history we can see a protest against the excesses of this tendency by romantics, existentialists, mystics, surrealists, and others who attend more fully and seriously to our feelings.
When we use this rational mentality, we orient ourselves outwardly and attend to our separateness from others. We ask how things work--what rules are followed--in nature and in society. In knowing how things work, we are able to determine the likely results of our actions and thus not to act on sheer impulse. By discerning what makes sense in the social game we guard our sanity. Our rational mind, then, makes possible both self-control and the power to carry out our intentions. The liberal studies category of "tools" aims at strengthening the skills of the rational mind.
Our emotional-connecting mind is concerned with feelings, values, sexuality, meanings, ends, network, synergy, and, above all, expressive language-use. When we use this mentality, we orient ourselves inwardly, seeking what is pleasurable, accessing messages from our genetic endowment, and also attending to our connectedness with others. Through this mind, we relate to nature as something pulsing in our bodies whose rhythms we can join rather than as something we can observe and control. We become responsive to the cycles of nature rather than to the linearities of a social-life deeply shaped by technology. We locate ourselves not in the real or objective world but in a surreal or subjective one, a world that we construct in terms of our concerns and desires.
We may think of our rational and emotional minds as concerned with form and vitality, respectively. Sometimes we appropriately by-pass the emotional as does a surgeon while operating or a manager when analyzing data. At other times, we rightly dismiss the rational, as in moments of reverie, fantasy, or acting in freedom from enduring consequence. But, fundamentally, we need to function as whole persons, uniting pleasure and reality, genetic needs and social expectations. Form without energetic aliveness is empty. Vitality without effective form is irresponsible and chaotic.
It is the existential-creative mind that bonds the rational and the feeling mentalities. This mentality is existential in enabling us to function as whole persons. It is creative in uniting form and vitality.
In creativity, both the rational and emotional minds bring to the creative process what has been learned from earlier collaborations. On the rational side, we must achieve not only skilled technique but a deftness in matching form to meaning. On the emotional side, in working with the requirements of reason, the imagination takes on a sense of what it means to be effective in real life. As Henri Poincare has put it, "To create consists precisely in not making useless combinations [but] in making those which are useful and which are only a small minority. Invention is discernment, choice." We become more creative, then, as we develop this sensibility, this power to discern in which direction our imaginings are likely to enhance our understanding, power, and awareness.
Such educated discernment is a tacit recognition that the patterns formed by some of our fruitful combinations in the past appear applicable to the present. A few of these function as what we have earlier termed paradigms. We may think of our repertoire of these remembered patterns as our creative guidance system or our heuristic, as it is sometimes called after the Greek term for "discover." Becoming an effective practitioner of any discipline--say art, history, or physics--or, indeed, any other socially defined activity of inherent value and standards of excellence--such as friendship, parenting, basketball, or chess--is not so much a matter of gaining knowledge as of learning the heuristic involved.
Jerome Bruner discusses three kinds of guidance system we develop depending on the basic area of creativity--or achievement of "effective surprise"--in which we work. The first is the "formal effectiveness" of mathematics, logic, and, possibly, music. The discernment operative here is described by Poincare as "the feeling of mathematical beauty, of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance."
Second is the "predictive effectiveness" of the sciences. Here Bruner speaks of "a kind of 'intuitive familiarity' . . . that gives [the creating scientist] a sense of what combinations are likely to have predictive effectiveness and which are absurd." "Intuitive", as we have suggested, may be thought of as a recognition in the present of a previously experienced pattern of pragmatic combination.
Finally, and more closely related to our concern in this discussion with the personal quality of our lives, there is the "metaphoric effectiveness" of the playright, the poet and the artist. In this mode of creativity, Bruner contends,
The artist must speak to the human condition of the beholder if there is to be effective surprise. . . . [He] must be close enough to these conditions in himself so that they may guide his choice among combinations, provide him with the genuine and protect him from the paste.
The existential conditions that the artist is called to address, Bruner believes, are the eternal tensions between good and evil. It is only in facing what is life-negating that we are able to create a life-affirming response to it. Think, for example, of that quintessentially American music, the blues. In giving creative expression to our human troubles, the musician says yes to life in spite of its dark side.
Because art and literature deal with the antinomies of good and evil, life and death, affirmation and negation, our study of them can tell us much about the society in which they are created and, as Boyer says, they can be a "means by which the quality of a civilization can be measured." Ultimately artists must make use of whatever ways of seeing make social life possible in the culture that nurtures them.
That we must learn to use our emotional-connective powers effectively--learn to use them in ways that coordinate with the requirements of rational understanding--applies to two other forms of creativity, namely, our capacities for dialogue and for holistic self-awareness. Dialogic effectiveness depends upon our ability to listen to the other in terms of her way of experiencing life, especially her sense of the human condition and the mythology or vision of things by which she articulates a meaning for her life. We must use reason and feeling together to construct a sense of how she engages life.
Our capacity for dialogue depends, in turn, upon the quality of our own self-understanding, especially, echoing Bruner's basic criterion for metaphoric effectiveness, how close we are to the human condition as we ourselves live it and how attuned we are to the role of metaphoric vision in making sense of life.
Effective self-awareness is the counterpart of dialogic effectiveness. It is through the way we experience ourselves in dialogue, or genuine, caring encounter, that we gain our deepest understanding of what it means to be a person. These conditions enable us to look openly at our immediate experience of life's problems and fulfillments and to explore, with the other, the soundness of our judgments of what we should fear and turn away from, on the one hand, and what we may hope for and profitably embrace, on the other. Self-awareness becomes sound and effective as we learn to distinguish the mature from the infantile, the natural from the conditioned, and the universal from the idiosyncratic.
We learn to use our rational and emotional minds cooperatively, and so to develop each in relation to the other, by learning to use the esthetic languages. We can see this most clearly in the case of metaphoric and symbolic language. Metaphors or symbols can be employed by both minds and, so, can be media of communication between them, enabling us to act as whole persons. To take one example, if we say, with the jungle fighter, "life is war", the rational mind can point to many actions that clearly have to do with conflict, aggression, dominance, and the like and can make a logical case that other actions are similiar in their underlying motivation. At the same time, the emotional mind can bring out the personal meanings of these conflicts and antagonisms in terms of fear, anger, rage, jealousy, resentment, envy, contempt, and the like. The emotional mind supplies the metaphors while the rational mind judges how realistically they can be applied--whether the meanings they suggest can be made real in social and natural transactions.
For a second example, we might consider our dreams. They provide us with metaphorical material but their application to everyday life requires interpretation. Such interpretation brings the left brain into play, another instance of the two spheres working cooperatively.
Summary: What learnings have made your capacity of self-awareness, empathic understanding, and creative activity more effective? To what extent does this involve your understanding of the human condition? In what areas of life, including your course work, do you see each of the three mentalities dominant and how do you appraise this dominance? Does it vary among social groups including those of gender?
8.2 Effectiveness as Achieving Wholeness
The quality of our lives ultimately rests on the wholeness we achieve. Wholeness is life-enhancing connection. We discern and express this relatedness, whether actual or potential, through effective feeling. The feeling of life, beauty, and belongingness is our sense of connection or harmony, while that of death, ugliness, and alienation is our perception of disconnection or discord. Compare, for example, our response to a living tree and our reaction to a pile of brush. Thus, the esthetic experience enlivens, the anesthetic (as in anesthesia) deadens. It is, let's recall, our sensitivity to and appreciation of wholeness or vital aliveness that is basic to our creative imagination.
The study and practice of art and of literature, then, can tutor our feelings so that we better understand the wholeness we need and are more deeply motivated to achieve it. Concerning the first point, James Ogilvy has contended that
Esthetic education not only educates the student to man-made products of his cultural tradition; it also quickens his sensititivy to his own felt need for a balanced and whole human existence. Wholeness is an elusive standard when the parts of human existence keep changing with the flux of history. . . . We need an esthetic sensibility to tell us whether man's most recent creations of himself cohere in a healthy pattern of wholeness or fall apart into schizoid decadence.
What it means to be whole, then, will vary according to the conditions which must be accomodated and the vision of the human that is being served. This means that each culture, and each period of time within that culture, will have its own esthetics. Thus in the West, since the Rennaissance, wholeness has been conceived in terms of the uniqueness of each individual. This is especially striking, for example, in the portraits painted by Rembrandt. Contrast this with Buddhist cultures in which wholeness is understood as a quality of the whole system of nature and not of individual persons. Human beings occupy inconspicuous places in their representations of the vastness of nature. Consider, too, the contrast of the three dimensional art of the Rennaissance with the two dimensional art of the Middle Ages in which individuals were seen as transparent to, and thus utterly dependant on, the one true realilty, namely, their divine ground.
At the same time that esthetic experience sensitizes us to the question of wholeness in our time, it can illuminate our desire for life so that we feel more compellingly our need for that wholeness. Consider, for instance, a turning point in the life of the great Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The occasion was an encounter in which Michangelo's sculpture "David" said to him "change your life."
There is reason to believe that the quest for personal wholeness is tied to achieving greater wholeness in our world--a world of greater justice and union. The idea here is that self and world are intimately connected. We must define ourselves in terms of our world and our world in terms of ourselves; wholeness in ourselves and wholeness in our world are deeply interrelated. Thus, Colleen Triplett speaks of "the intersection between art and social change" and also of that between art of personal healing.
Our feelings are the bridge between body and mind, our way of responding as whole persons. They combine bodily sensations with evaluations of an event or situation in terms of our well being as persons. Thus anger involves a state of bodily arousal but it is also more than that. It includes a judgment that an action is both detrimental to ourselves or to those about whom we care and also is wrong. Esthetics educates us to the kind of emotional judgments that are rational in the sense of enhancing life. It enables us to discern the irrationality of those emotions, such as envy or resentment, that are generated by a sense of a lack of personal worth and connectedness, and the effectiveness of those feelings, such as joy or friendship, that find fulfillment in our creative powers and their drive toward wholeness.
Summary: In what ways does life today support and in what ways does it undercut "a healthy pattern of wholeness"? Why are some of our emotions life-enhancing and others self-defeating? What does this say about "the human condition"? What is the role of society in this?
8.3 Effectiveness as Experiential Openness
Wholeness in ourselves and our society depends on openness to experience or, more precisely, responsiveness to a full range of sensation and feeling. If we routinely shut off awareness of certain aspects of life, whether genetic or environmental, then the identities we construct cannot represent them and so lack wholeness. At the same time, the actions we engage in are then motivated without regard to part of our nature and/or to some of the social meanings of being human and so lack freedom. They are carried out in the face of an inner resistance from our excluded side and so are deprived of spontaneity and authenticity. The opposite end of freedom and spontaneity is compulsion and is represented by actions serving a single drive or impulse. Thus, acting with a sole concern for success we will compromise all competing interests such as those of family, fairness to others, and health. Most of us act sometimes with relative freedom, sometimes with a degree of compulsion, and sometimes, perhaps most commonly, with a half-hearted, compromised freedom.
The orientation of esthetics toward wholeness, then, goes hand in hand with its invitation to an immediate awareness of sensation and feeling or to a "cleansing" of perception, to borrow from Aldous Huxley. But, awareness asks for understanding and, as a result, the esthetic dimension commonly generates controversy and resistance. One of the reasons for this is that awareness carries a price. It not only heightens our appreciation and transcendence but also sensitizes us to the dark side of life and to our inadequacies and vulnerabilities as persons. Consequently, we both welcome awareness and resist it. We may educate our feelings in some areas of life but turn away from them in others. Only with courage can we live with reasonable openness.
It is this function of inviting fuller awareness that makes the esthetic dimension the prime target of control in repressive societies. In Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China, art was even less free than religion. Expressionistic painters were especially singled out for harsh suppression as degenerate because they drew attention to the inhumanities of their time.
Those who oppose freedom deeply fear the tutuoring of our feelings not only because this develops our capacity for transcendence and wholeness but, even more fundamentally, because it puts us in touch with our human nature. Some of what we feel is largely the result of social conditioning but some, while not free of social influence, is expressive of our genetic endowment. If we are to distinguish true from false needs--needs which are compatible with our basic nature from those which are not--we must become sensitized to the difference in these feelings. Ultimately, we must assess feelings in terms of the consequences of living by them. The history of western humanism is the history of this determination of which feelings point the way to an enhancement of life and which lead to its impoverishment.
An important question, then, in our study of those who have highly developed their existential-creative minds is how they discern the relative difference between the natural and the artificial, the genetic and the conditioned. Whatever their errors and points of blindness, we can find important insights of this sort in the humanistic side of such visionaries and myth-makers as Isaiah, Jesus, Socrates, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Spinoza, Hawthorne, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Dickenson, Tillich, Van Gogh, Ghandi, Ellington, Levi-Strauss, Rachael Carson, and Simone de Beauvoir.
We may think of our study of these prophetic genuises as a kind of dialogue in which we seek to apply their insights to our own world and to our unique individuality within that world. Few thinkers today conceive of the natural as something entirely unconditioned and unchanging. As Ogilvy has put it, "Wholeness is an elusive standard when the parts of human existence keep changing with the flux of history." This puts a deep burden on our own capacity for esthetic judgment. Our humanistic heritage can educate this judgment but cannot substitute for it by giving us absolute beliefs.
We began this exploration of liberal studies with Boyer's view that "Ultimately, the aim of common learning is the understanding of oneself and a capacity for sound judgment [that] brings purpose and meaning to human life." We have now come full circle in presenting effective feelng, tied as it is to effective thinking, as the essence of such judgment. It is only in developing our capacity for effective feeling that education meets real needs and arms us against whatever in ourselves or in our society--forces of cowardice, greed, oppression and the like--induces those which are false.
Summary: Which of the thinkers/creators you have studied have you found most insightful about wholeness and authentic feeling? In what ways have you found societies promoting, and in what ways obstructing, their peoples' "capacity for sound judgment [that] brings purpose and meaning to human life"?