Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Aesthetics - Why we appreciate art

I have always begun my Introduction to Scene Design lectures with an introduction to aesthetics- or "why we appreciate art". I use James Joyce as a model because Joyce makes understanding the aesthetics of art very clean and easy to understand.

In his book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce defines a theory of art which forms a structure for all of his later writings. This theory of art is a classic and well realized theory of aesthetics.

Proper vs. Improper Art

Proper art has to do with the aesthetic experience. Joyce's formula for an aesthetic experience is that it does not move you to want to possess the object. The aesthetic experience is simply the beholding of the object. Proper art is static. It is not moving you to do anything. You are immobilized in what Joyce calls "aesthetic arrest". Joyce uses the word aesthetic in its prime sense i.e. having to do with the senses. The actual apprehension or moment.

Definition: aesthetic arrest - “a spiritual state very like to that of a cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani called the “enchantment of the heart”
Portrait pp376

The mind in that mysterious instant that Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal.
Portrait pp375

Improper art is art in the service of something that is not properly the function of art. Improper art is kinetic. It moves you either with desire or with loathing or fear for the object represented. You are moved into action. You are NOT in aesthetic arrest. The meaning and sense of the object is not delivered in its formal organization. Art that moves you, moves you with either desire for the object or with loathing (or fear) away from the object. Art that moves toward the object, Joyce calls pornographic. ex: advertising, TV, magazines. You are not enchanted by the object you are beholding.

What of Proper Art and the static? What moments of experience can be defined? For this, Joyce turns to St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas gives us a definition of beauty. Beauty is what pleases. There are three moments to be recognized:

Qualities of Universal beauty:

Integritas- Everything within a picture frame is to be looked at as one object, not an assortment of objects.
Consonantia- Within this frame, what is important is the relationship of part to part, part to whole, whole to each of its parts, etc. These parts include the basic principles and elements of design: color, mass, form, texture, line, shape. The instrument of art is rhythm.
Claritas- When the rhythm of the art is fortunately achieved or rendered you are held in aesthetic arrest and experience a radiance. This is the mystery. This is what holds you. This is the mystery of art and as we will later learn, the mystery behind the Theatre Experience. A rhythm out there establishes within you a resonance of a corresponding rhythm within you and you are fixed in a harmonious rhythm of relationships.

If there is a rhythm and radiance that does not totally overwhelm you we call it beauty.
If it is something that so diminishes your ego that you are in a transcendent rapture; this is the sublime. What renders the sublime is immense space or immense power. Very little art handles the sublime. One has to experience the sublime. It is the diminishment of ego where your own inner self opens out. All orientation is just blown.

Integritas- Wholeness, integrity.
Consonantia- Harmony, consonance
Claritas- radiance.

These are the basic principles of non objective art. You are not move by desire or loathing, your are held in aesthetic arrest (held by a beautiful accord). Joyce calls this "the rhythm of beauty which stills the heart". What this represents is a breakthrough. You have passed through the object and experience a kind of transcendence which has manifested itself in you by the object represented. Pure object turns you into pure subject. You are beyond desire and loathing and are suspended in a beautiful accord: aesthetic arrest.