Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 9, No. 2, 2010
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
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Sylvain Richard
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Serge Gamache
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Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




In every man's heart
there is a secret nerve
that answers to the vibrations of beauty.
Christopher Morley


Beauty is the shadow of God on the universe.
Gabriela Mistral

In Critique of Pure Reason (1781), the philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed that the mind is endowed with attributes or categories of perception that allow the senses to meaningfully encounter the real world. In his Critique, the writing of which consumed one third of his intellectual life, he went to extraordinary length and detail to demonstrate that without the categories of unity, quantity, totality, extension, cause and effect, possibility and negation, we would not be able to conceptualize the perceptual world.

Before and after Kant, philosophers have 'informally' posited the existence of metaphysical categories, without which man's inclination to assign meaning and teleology to life would be severely tested. Without exception, from the most primitive to advanced cultures, there is overwhelming evidence that suggests we all possess an innate understanding of right and wrong, which makes for a moral category. We are all disposed to love and hate, which gives rise to the category of value: we embrace what we love and refuse what we hate. There also exists a spiritual category through which we posit the existence of a deity or first cause, which allows for a tentative accounting of life’s origins as well as the freedom to question the meaning and purpose of existence. And while these metaphysical categories are directly implicated in the practical considerations of daily life, they are distinguished from the categories of perception in that the senses are not required to mediate between the mind and its objects of thought, with perhaps one exception -- the category of aesthetics, which bears on both the perceptual and metaphysical. For this reason alone, aesthetics is the most enigmatic and elusive of the metaphysical categories, but one that Kant deemed of such critical importance -- despite acknowledging the impossibility of rationalizing aesthetic judgments (we can’t prove the Mona Lisa is beautiful) -- that he made it the primary focus of Critique of Judgment (1790), his reflections on the meaning and implications of beauty (rendering aesthetic judgments).

The argument for the inclusion of aesthetics as a metaphysical category rests on the universally observed phenomenon that when circumstance allows, we are all, in our fashion, sensitive and responsive to the presencing of beauty in both entities and ideas, and that we all prefer the beautiful to its opposite. In the many large and small decisions we make on a daily basis, we are constantly and often unconsciously rendering aesthetic judgments. Like heliotropes that follow the course of the sun, both our senses and understanding are attracted to the beautiful, which we provisionally designate as a quality that inheres in, hovers around and vibrates its objects much like “thought moves through language” or “a gesture goes beyond the individual points of its passage.” (Merleau-Ponty)

What distinguishes the aesthetic category (that provides for the discernment of beauty) from the others is its apparent lack of a pragmatic basis: much of what is beautiful in life we can do without. On the other hand, without a moral category, life would quickly descend into chaos, which is why it is necessary.

In the selection of a mate, for example, women, in general, are attracted to men for their status and power to better optimize their chances of survival. But, men, in their choice of the opposite sex, are initially attracted to a potential mate’s beauty, and not her skills and intelligence, where the latter demonstratively bear more fruitfully on survival than the former, especially as it concerns the transmission of genes from one generation to the next. So if our attraction to the beautiful sometimes beguiles us to act or choose in a manner that is not necessarily in our best practical interest, why has natural selection vouchsafed that innate capacity? Is the appreciation of beauty simply an adventitious attribute that Nature wasn’t required to deselect, or is there a biological justification for its advent?

Prior to the highly schematized world order we take for granted, early man (code for tentative man, reduced to the sum of his fears) fabricated and then situated himself a highly elaborate, compensatory, mythopeic cosmos in order to account for and explain his contingency in a largely inscrutable and indifferent world. Where the only certainty of daily life was the insecurity of life, man was drawn to any sign or activity that disclosed the idea of order (as opposed to chaos) in the universe. He was possessed of what Wallace Stevens characterized as the “blessed rage for order,” which back then might have manifested in conjunction with the domestication of of wild edible plants, where a crop or vineyard’s rows and their deliberate spacing would have conferred -- beyond the practical -- an aesthetic component that would not be found in the untamed vegetative world. Agriculture presences as one of man’s first comprehensive responses to both his physical and metaphysical hungerings. And if during that critical juncture of man’s evolution there was a variant of himself that lacked an aesthetic component, it didn’t survive for reasons which bear directly on the physiological benefits derived from the aesthetic experience.

Preliminary scientific studies reveal that after listening to uplifting music our stress levels fall off, antibodies appreciate and, more significantly, the immune system enjoys a boost. Who among us has not experienced an improvement in mood or disposition after listening to a favourite music? It is almost beside the point whether all aesthetically agreeable experiences will generate verifiable, life-enhancing effects, since the attentive individual, through his innate ability to encounter beauty in both entities and ideas, has already enjoyed the psychological and physiological rewards.

That we are primordially predisposed to seeking out and creating order to satisfy our aesthetic wants seems beyond dispute. This was once memorably brought to my notice during an evening of dance, where an apparently untrained, untalented dancer was called upon to execute movements and gestures that struck me as unconscionably unrehearsed and offensive, but when four other dancers joined the lead and performed the exact same movements, the whole suddenly appeared choreographed (ordered) and deliberately conceived for my aesthetic contemplation. In a moment of epiphany, I recognized that even though movements were identical in both the solo and ensemble renderings, the latter introduced the notion of order, which is an aesthetic value, which in turn produced an agreeable physiological response.

Has there ever been a time when man has not been actively engaged in the appreciation or production of order and beauty? If his hunger for order was once satisfied by the rhythms and cycles of Nature, he later learned to provide the same through the invention of song and percussion instruments. Today, the extraordinary monies we dedicate to the arts and their institutions speak to the measurable salutary effects that derive from our innate capacity to discern beauty.

Concerning slighted theists for whom the appreciation of beauty obtains from God, secularists and rationalists must grant that your belief in no way compromises nor diminishes the effects of the beautiful on the senses and understanding. That God, in His infinite wisdom and invention, has seen fit to endow His creation with the capacity to love and surrender to the beautiful is surely proof of -- if not His existence -- the existence of the ineffable.

also by Robert J. Lewis:
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene





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