Monday, December 13, 2010

The Aesthetic Movement

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines the Aesthetic Movement as a "doctrine associated with late 19th-century writers and artists, including Walter Pater, James McNeill Whistler, and especially Oscar Wilde. It holds that the appreciation of art and beauty is the highest aim of human life, and especially that the pursuit of such experience is not constrained by ordinary moral considerations. Art itself serves no ulterior moral or political purpose. The ‘Aesthetic Movement’ was a useful reaction against the didactic religious and moral art of the time and helped artists and critics to concentrate upon the formal and internal qualities of works of art."

The well-known maxim "Art for art's sake" was birthed during this period. The movement was, in part, a reaction against the de-humanizing influence of science and utilitarianism, which places value on things according to their usefulness.

Friday night at our philosophy club Professor Daniel Robertson (on a CD lecture we listened to) used the following example to illustrate the difference in perspectives between the aesthetics and the scientists. What is the best way to understand what a radio is? Scientists would break it open and study its components. The aesthetic philosophers would say that you will never understand a radio that way. The only way to really understand a radio is to turn it. Once you hear a Schubert symphony (choose your passion here) you will understand what a radio is.

So it is with the human spirit. A man or woman is not the sum of its component parts. We are more than muscle and bone and fluids and ectoplasm. By that measure how could you ever comprehend a Shakespeare? The Aesthetic movement was an attempt to counteract the ideological forces that were boxing people in, treating persons as if they were simply gears in a machine.

In the 1960's the same forces were at odds, striving to define us. The utilitarian view was that we have value only if we were producing something of value. The measure of value was in our wages. Materialism said that more goods would make us happier. But there was something within us that said life was more than that. Maybe the hippie ethos went too far in rejecting everything Western modernity had invented. But there was something to be said for this deeply human longing to aspire to something more, to dream impossible dreams.

Carpe diem. Reach for the stars.

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