Aesthetic Bearing: Self-Awareness through Cultural Integration

Essay by R.Cronk

The work of hundreds of artists is available to gallery and museum audiences in every major city in the United States and Europe. Few pieces trigger significant appreciation and this is how it should be. Everything else is so much hoopla. We have always searched the galleries for the solitary glimpse into the transcendent nature of art. The experience is distinguished by feelings of elation and by a heightened sense of awareness and objectivity. This infrequent encounter, while perceived as significant by the viewer, remains more or less unknown to critical inquiry and is a continuing source of debate in the fine arts.

Art capable of evoking a response greater than the objective appraisal has been traditionally interpreted as supporting philosophies dependent on intrinsic value, eternal ideals and the belief in a knowable world. These are no longer tenable concepts. The Kantian concept of transcendent knowledge implies an ultimate reality to which the heightened aesthetic experience allows access. The dismantling of Western philosophies by the deconstructivists has shown that the ‘transcendent signified’ (to use Derrida’s term) is not absolute. The semiotic nature of perception does not permit a ‘true’ knowledge of the phenomenal. The transcendent experience does not reveal the essential nature of reality as Kant had determined.

In recent decades, art theorists abandoned transcendental idealism and restricted their attention to reductive approaches for assessing value in art. The shift in emphasis from the perceptual gestalts of Formalism to the propositional logic of structural and deconstructive aesthetics has proven to be both enlightening and disappointing. While freeing the artist from the erroneous assumptions of Occidental philosophies, post-modern aesthetic theories have relegated personality development to the acquisition of language with little or no regard for the central issues of propensity and ontological knowledge. In their rejection of traditional psychological models, they have failed to adequately consider the phenomenology of the aesthetic experience. They recognize the gulf existing between convention and knowledge but fail to acknowledge the vital nature of cultural mythology that incorporates the two.

The nihilistic trends of post-modern aesthetics have done little to revise the brittle myths and oppressive ideologies that structure art into society. Nor have they inspired art with the potential to integrate the disenfranchised population. While the negation of outmoded philosophic principles has opened new horizons in art, the devaluation of the art experience has effectively reduced art to economic and academic priorities in a scheme that further empowers elitism and entrenches the status quo.

The ineffable content of the art encounter cannot be written out of the script. Value in art is not grounded on intent or historical context or reductive aesthetics without first accounting for the role of the viewer. As a morphology, art can be studied as a set of objects and concepts independent of the viewer. But for art to be seen as inspiring a sense of truth, whether that of aesthetic symbolism or mathematical idealism, requires an hypothesis that accounts for the ontological nature of knowledge and defines art’s role in the generation of culture.

While the jargon of post-Kantian aesthetics no longer rings true, Modernism’s concept of presence did recognize the cognitive nature of art that has been largely dismissed or ignored by subsequent aesthetic theories. Although their explanation of presence misinterpreted the meaning of the numinous art experience, it did identify art as a source of experiential knowledge relevant to our assimilation into culture.

Because presence will always carry the Occidental baggage of eternal ideals and intrinsic value, the concept of ‘aesthetic bearing’ is introduced to interpret the significance of the art experience in a post-modern context. While aesthetic bearing keynotes the same attribute of perception advanced by the Formalists, it acknowledges the art encounter for its role in the cultural integration of the viewer, and ties the acquisition of knowledge to the individual’s incorporation into cultural mythology.

In its new context, the numinous aura of the aesthetic experience is identified as a psychological phenomenon that assures assimilation into active cultural mythology. Like the recognition of presence, aesthetic bearing implies a participation mystique. The art encounter is imbued with the heightened awareness of aesthetic bearing by the empathetic involvement of the viewer. The viewer experiences an anthropomorphic projection that instills a sense of relevance to the experience, and a sense of truth to the belief system of art.

The viewer’s identification with the art object is the symbolic experience of an actualization process. A leap of faith occurs as the participant assumes the values of the incorporating culture. Aesthetic and ethical ideals and values are generated as the initiate aligns his priorities within the cultural environment through self-recognition; that is, through the anthropomorphic realization of aesthetic bearing. The art object becomes a symbol that ‘speaks’ active cultural mythology. It has meaning by virtue of the encounter. When the viewer relates aesthetic bearing to life, or the theorist relates the experience to the historical dialogue, it is a secondary procedure. While the experience does not circumvent the perceptual veil of the ego as it was once believed, the myths we live by are recast during these experiences.

Aesthetic bearing is inspired by a catalytic symbol. The symbol incorporates an unknown, an enigma, a mystery on the verge of resolution, recognized as the ineffable content of the experience. The event transcends the class of symbol recognition utilized in discursive language and becomes the latest entry in a complex set of integrating experiences that shapes the individual and gives culture its ontological ground. Aesthetic bearing provides substantiating truth and subjective experience as foundations for abstract knowledge. It is irrelevant for art’s purposes that the perception of truth is not absolute.

The logocentric mind exists in a profane world. Language, as the medium of the intellect, serves the mechanistic material world view. By contrast, the revelations of aesthetic bearing are experiential and symbolic, and subvert the objective view with subjective truths that forge new perspectives. In diachronic mythology, works that work as art are sacred elements. In its sublimity, art synthesizes historical circumstance and archetypal determinants, and establishes nodal points in developing cultural mythology.

There is a transpersonal quality to the encounter with art that lends support to the concept of universality. But the existence of ‘great’ art does not imply universal content. It does indicate content that inspires subjective realizations collectively experienced within the incorporating culture. However unlikely, art conveys transpersonal values.

Within diachronic culture, the defining mythologies are in a continual, but often imperceptible, state of change. They require an influx of new symbols to ensure their ability to adapt society to changing conditions. The art object maintains its status as an active symbol of culture for as long as the experience it inspires is relevant to the development of the individual and his orientation into society, and for as long as the context of art inspires a participation mystique.

Aesthetic bearing presents a conceptual framework that can be applied to the entire class of symbolic experiences responsible for the integration of the individual into the cultural myths and beliefs of society. Aesthetic bearing is a function of culture, not just art. In addition to the numinous response to art, similar significant cultural events would include the experience of the sublime in nature, the metaphysical revelations of mathematical idealism, the heightened awareness of being and the religious experience. These are all examples of the inspired state of aesthetic bearing. Each in its own way reflects our limitations as it defines our world and who we are. And each provides the bonding experiences and subjective alliances of culture. Aesthetic bearing is the validating experience of active mythology.

Aesthetic bearing plays an initiating yet subjugated role in the development of personality. The participant actualizes his own personality and is integrated into society through empathetic identification with the signifiers of culture. Through aesthetic bearing the individual experiences aspects of culture as his own and through these experiences is incorporated into the social setting. Culture implies a tillage of the soul as well as the intellect. It is a cultivation that imparts the ideals and values of society.

Paradoxically, the autonomous self is dependent on immersion into the rituals and sign systems of culture. Self-image is learned in a process that develops throughout our lives. Whether the epic poem of the ancient Greeks or the paintings of the Modernist, art is a symbol of the self in transition. The artist searches for the hypothetical image that best fits the needs of individuation. Art is good, that is, it has positive ethical value, because of the role it plays in realizing the potential of the participant within a cultural context.

Content in art has always acted politically to shape the individual in society. Aesthetic experiences and ethically responsible acts de-alienate the individual from, and delineate the individual in, society. The symbolic knowledge acquired during the meaningful art experience is sublimated to the search for a relevant code of ethics -- for a meaningful ‘way to be’ and for ‘meaning in life.’ These are euphemisms for ethical values derived from the integrating experience of aesthetic bearing.

Copyright © R. Cronk 1996 - All Rights Reserved

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