Aesthetics in the Modern World

Aesthetics underpins a vast amount of the reality we have created for ourselves in the 21st Century. Often overlooked as a niche branch of philosophy, of interest only to a few solitary intellectuals, I believe that the subject of aesthetics involves almost all of us today – and more, it demands an opinion from us.

Aesthetics is generally considered to concern the function of beauty and art (read here, the arts). It became of interest to me after reading Nietzsche’s text on art, ‘The Birth Of Tragedy’. In it, he explained the Greek myth of Silenus, a Satyr who was captured by King Midas and forced to divulge the secret of what is best for man: “Miserable, ephemeral race, children of chance and toil… The very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: Not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is – to meet an early death.”  This rather gloomy conclusion – the wisdom of Silenus – is representative of the suffering thought to be at the heart of existence. This suffering may not be immediately apparent in the largely superficial and banal existence of the 21st century – the complete vacuum of the real world, which we have exchanged for our self-constructed urban lives, is perhaps the artificial heart of human existence). However, not even an onslaught of instant entertainment can save us from occasional bouts of profound sadness or loneliness, and this is when the function of art becomes apparent.

Nietzsche dictates the purpose of art as “to seduce the living into living on”. The ‘perfection of existence’ in art, as the embodiment of the joy that we take in the beauty of form and appearance, is what makes life worth living. However, art is in essence an illusion. It is not real. Does this lessen its value?

Plato notoriously despised most of the arts for their illusory nature, yet many great minds in history have argued that this is of little or no importance. At first sight this may seem to conflict with the indoctrinated search for truth which defines philosophy – although in what is perhaps a double-standard, Plato saw nothing wrong in creating a myth to keep the lower social classes in line – but I divert myself. Is the corollary of this thought, then, that the best life can hope to be is an imitation of art, as previous references have suggested? Then the best we can do is to take pleasure in the order, unity and beauty of art; to which the randomness and meaningless of life would appear to be nothing

To me, the intrinsic beauty of art does give it some inherent value regardless of function, yet nothing compared to the vast influence it has had on every culture and the very formation of human history. Art is incredibly powerful as an ethical device and a major factor in the formation of perceptions. It is primarily a depiction of viewpoint (rather than, for example, empirical deduction of fact), and effective in every one of its forms in expanding the narrow confines of individual perception – there lies the fallacy of the science vs. art confrontation which is popularised in the media today: one is searching for truth in the environment, and one for truth in human experience. This is to echo Nietzsche’s statement: “Perhaps there is a domain of wisdom which excludes the logician? Perhaps art is even a necessary correlative of and supplement to science?”

However, I would have to oppose the hard fact that it is needed to ‘seduce the living into living on’. I believe that, as with many other psychological and philosophical dilemmas about the nature of man, the cause of the suffering which art claims to ameliorate is the removal of man from the ecosystem – in a Satrean sense, the abandonment of nature, echoing constantly in the corner of our minds. Art is so important in modern society because we have removed from ourselves the forms which we have evolved to live and associate with. Instead we choose to use the harsh rectangular blocks which constitute the urban environment to become our habitat – thus the importance of the beautiful and the sublime in art, which allows modern man to glimpse perfection. It is all too easy, however, to associate that beauty with a higher realm, instead of realising that we have merely lowered our own ‘realm’ to the harsh landscape of the city.

A few problems may arise from this entirely optimistic view, of which I shall admit openly only one: it is far from an all-encompassing theory of art, because whilst attempting to talk about the arts, I have ended up focussing almost entirely on immediate aesthetic beauty, and thus miss the point of postmodernist art (the stimulation of thought and self-reflection, perhaps), music (the expression of intuitive emotion), and many types of narrative, to name but a few. In trying to find a function for ‘art’, one will inevitably succumb to this naivety, as it seems there are a multitude of different reasons which justify the existence of each form of art. This may not be a comprehensive essay, then, but hopefully it facilitates thought on what is arguably one of the most important subjects for the understanding of human desire, will and action, the eternal drives in human nature.

Contributed by Ben Gibbons

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