Appreciating Aesthetics

The effect of beauty
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Presented at The Developing Group 8 Oct 2016

The topic for this workshop came out of two events each which resulted in a realisations for Penny. This is what happened:

An epiphany

While wandering through the earliest era in the Museum of Russian History in Moscow I looked at the cabinets displaying items for the survival of early humans. Then I came upon a cabinet that had something very different. 

There, in the midst of the primitive utilitarian pieces were small colourful stones laid out in the shape of a necklace. I stared at this for some time, and began to wonder what was happening in the internal world of the person who searched and gathered these stones, who must have spent an enormous time fashioning them to a similar size and shape, and who found a way to drill a hole in each one for a piece of vine or gut, or something to hold them together.

I figured that in their struggle to survive there must have been a desire to create something they could wear that was pleasing, attractive or beautiful. I have often said “Symbolic Modelling works with the structure of desire” and I wondered, is the desire for the aesthetic as old as human kind – is it as primitive as our earliest ancestors?

Where’s my inner artist?

Earlier this year I attended a two-day art course in Devon where participants were loosely guided to create abstract paintings using simple methodologies. I had never attended a course like this before and I fully expected to come home with a picture I could hang on my kitchen wall. I knew the colours I wanted, and was confident I would be able to let my inner artist loose to make something beautiful. I painted picture after picture, and by mid-afternoon of the second day I had not come anywhere near completing a single thing that I liked.

I realised I was unable to create a picture which met my own standards of beauty. I may not have found my inner artist, but I certainly connected with my inner art critic. I enjoyed the two days tremendously, and I am still wondering what I was assessing that let me know I would have to start looking elsewhere for a picture for my kitchen wall.

Penny’s musings and artistic explorations prompted several discussions which we realised could be explored and enriched by creating a Developing Group day in honour of beauty and aesthetics.

What is an ‘aesthetic sense’? How do each of us perceive, feel, sense beauty (and that which is not beauty)? What difference will knowing more about this make to our worldview – to that aspect of our self that humankind can trace back at least 82,000 years? (The oldest firmly-dated example of ornamentation are the Nassarius snail shells found in Morocco that are pierced and covered with red ochre. Wear patterns suggest that they may have been strung beads – see figure.)

In anticipation, we asked members of the Developing Group to bring along something that was aesthetically pleasing for them – not something that has sentimental value but something they appreciated or moved them for its own sake. For me (Penny) it would be the Flower Duet (Lakmé): youtube.com/watch?v=8Qx2lMaMsl8

And finally, below are a few quotes to stimulate your thinking about this fascinating, and seldom explored (at least in the way we’re going to do it) topic.

David Lewis-Williams on where our aesthetic sense came from

The Mind in the Cave

[A] transition took place between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago. [It] has been called the ‘creative explosion’ – that time when recognizably modern skeletons, behaviour and art seemed to have appeared in western Europe as a ‘package deal’. (p.71)

Some of the tool types, such as the finely made and highly standardized Solutrean points go well beyond functional necessity. During the Middle Palaeolithic, tool forms were much more uniform, and their function seems to have been paramount. It is as though, in the upper Palaeolithic, the shape of the tool, not simply its function, began to matter. … It seems that Upper Palaeolithic people had a clearer, more precise mental picture of what they wanted their tools to look like, and that picture was linked to the social groups to which they belonged. … If so, it is important to notice that human creativity and symbolism was linked to social diversity and change, not to stable, history-less societies. Change stimulates; homeostasis anaesthetizes. (pp.75-77)

In contrast to an explanation that sees art as an inevitable part of a symbolic package, I argue that art – let alone an ‘aesthetic sense’ – should not be seen as a simple result of something else, be it ecological stress occasioned by expanding ice sheets or social stress consequent upon the onset of glaciation. … On the contrary, I argue that an aesthetic sense (if there is such a thing) was something that developed after the first appearance of art in the sense of image-making; it was a consequence, not a cause, of art-making, a consequence, moreover, that real people living in specific times, places and social circumstances constructed, not one that they inherited in the make-up of their brains. (p.73)

Gregory Bateson on aesthetics and its connection to systemic process

“When we find meaning in art, our thinking is most in sync with nature”

Steps to an Ecology of Mind:

There is much connection certainly between scientific truth, on the one hand, and beauty and morality, on the other: that if a man entertain false opinions regarding his own nature, he will be led thereby to courses of action which will be in some profound sense immoral or ugly. … The mystic “sees the world in a grain of sand,” and the world which he sees is either moral or aesthetic, or both. (p. 270)

Mary Catherine Bateson suggests:

Any kind of aesthetic response is a response to relationships. … The experience that you take from the reading of a poem or looking at a painting is an unconscious exploration of the many different relationships that the artist has managed to capture. naturearteducation.org/AnEcologyOfMind.htm

Noel G. Charlton, in Understanding Gregory Bateson, says:

The last ten years of Gregory Bateson’s life were notable for two new emphases. Firstly, he was linking the aesthetic, the beautiful, in “nature” and in human arts, with the possibility of enlightening ways of living. Secondly, he was becoming much more aware of the urgency and seriousness of the ecological issues that faced humanity. Thirdly, and increasingly, he was beginning to link these two insights together. He asserted that aesthetic engagement was the tool that we can use in seeking ecological wisdom. … [‘Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Arts’, 1967] begins to stress our need for active engagement with beauty or the aesthetic in order to recover what he will refer to henceforth as the “grace” of evolutionary wisdom. (p. 101-2)

Arnold Berleant on aesthetic engagement


Aesthetic engagement rejects the dualism inherent in traditional accounts of aesthetic appreciation and epitomized in Kantian aesthetics, which treats aesthetic experience as the subjective appreciation of a beautiful object. Instead, aesthetic engagement emphasizes the holistic, contextual character of aesthetic appreciation. Aesthetic engagement involves active participation in the appreciative process, sometimes by overt physical action but always by creative perceptual involvement. Aesthetic engagement also returns aesthetics to its etymological origins by stressing the primacy of sense perception, of sensible experience.  Perception itself is reconfigured to recognize the mutual activity of all the sense modalities, including kinesthetic and somatic sensibility more generally.

The concept of aesthetic engagement, then, epitomizes a holistic, unified aesthetics in place of the dualism of the traditional account.  It rejects the traditional separations between the appreciator and the art object, as well as between the artist and the performer and the audience.  It recognizes that all these functions overlap and merge within the aesthetic field, the context of appreciation.  The customary separations and oppositions between the functions of artist, object, appreciator and performer disappear in the reciprocity and continuity of appreciative experience.

  Thus it is no longer necessary to maintain the fiction that turns different functions into opposed entities.  They become aspects of the aesthetic process rather than discrete objects or actions, and the appreciative experience becomes perceptually active, direct, and intimate.  Aesthetic engagement recognizes that beauty, or aesthetic value more generally, inheres not in the object or in the perceiver but is rather the leading feature of the reciprocal process of perceptual participation between appreciator and object.

Raymond Tallis on 'scientific' takes on aesthetics

Tallis makes his views clear when he calls scientists’ attempts to explain aesthetics by reference to neural networks and evolutionary psychology, Neuromania and Darwinitis. He judges them “the biggest piles of rubbish” within the secular world (p.12):

Art, that most distinctive of human activities, the most remote, one would have thought, from our organic being, has been a particular focus of attention. The aficionados of “Neuroasthetics” explained the impact of different kinds of art by referring to what can be seen on fMRI scans which show the different areas of the brain that light up when we engage with artworks. The creation of art itself is a neurally mediated activity by which the artist, unknown to himself, behaves in such a way as to promote the replication of his genetic material. The artist is a show-off.

Neuroarthistory” explains the emergence of different theories of art by the influence of the environment on the plastic brain of the critic. Sponsorship of the arts is a manifestation of the “reputation reflex”, by which, like the peacock whose useless tail advertises the health of his genes, the sponsor advertises the health of his firm. In short, every aspect of the aesthetic business can be explained by the function of the evolved brain. (Aping Mankind, pp.60-61)

Ethics and aesthetics are one.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Download a file describing three activities:  Appreciating_Aesthetics-ACTIVITIES.pdf


Five months later we visited the magnificant MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Tasmania. There we saw four fascinating exhibits on The Origin of Art, each one designed and annotated by a leading academic:

Steven Pinker, Geoffrey Miller, Brian Boyd, and Mark Changizi. Four bio-cultural scientist-philosophers working at the forefront, the cutting edge — or whatever other spatial metaphor you choose – asking the biggest and most exciting questions about the origin of art. These questions matter, because they go to the heart of what makes us human.

The MONA website is well worth investiagating.

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