Surprised by Beauty
by Joel Gn
An online discussion with a colleague on the value of aesthetic experience led me to wonder about the possibilities between art and meaning, and how the former leaves an impression on the one who beholds it. We often consider aesthetic works with either the maker or the audience in mind, but this one-sided view obfuscates the inextricable relationship between the maker and his/her audience. If we understand art to be a medium of representation, then we ought to acknowledge that the work seeks to communicate something, by denoting or pointing to that which is other to both the maker and the audience. If I may remix the claims of Sigmund Freud and Marshall McLuhan: The Other is hidden in the message, even as the message is the trace of the other.
To take a less cryptic approach, this idea is much aligned with Aristotle’s four causes (i.e. material, formal, efficient, final), which provides a holistic definition of what an aesthetic work is and is for. Current discourses in craftsmanship and modern art seem to display a stronger – and at times excessive – fixation with art’s material and efficient causes, while assuming the formal cause as a natural given and the final end as a political or counter-cultural statement. It is thus hardly surprising that there have been few attempts in art criticism to revisit the bridges between any two or even all four causes. This neglect leaves other questions of meaning and beauty in the speculative dust, where they are occasionally discovered by the non-specialist who cannot help but broach these questions whenever s/he apprehends the work.
This particular line of questioning brought me back to the bridge (or maybe, what’s left of it) between the formal and final causes in Aristotle’s treatise, and to the debate about the neutrality or indifference of art. Can art truly be Janus-faced? If the work is solely evaluated according to its material and efficient causes many labours and their fruits would by definition be artistic in some sense, but this is far from an actual description of the aesthetic experience; our world consists of more than brute objects, and our most elementary perceptions are brought about by the shapes or forms of things as they appear to us. In conveying these various sensibilities, objects direct our attention to concerns that lie within the spectrum of the banal and profound. Beauty, I argue, begins to emerge at the margins of the latter, even as these margins are at times incoherent.
Our appreciation of beauty is subjective and contextual, but the presence of a statement – especially an artistic one – is not. Some, myself included, would not be convinced Tracy Emin’s My Bed is beautiful, but it remains an objective recollection of a moment in the artist’s life. Struck by the massive mushroom cloud of the Manhattan Project, some scientists were reported to have claimed that the sight was ‘beautiful’, but even the most charitable witness of history would now deride them as naive navel-gazers. Through all its contrivances, art always makes a statement. Some are eventually understood to be no more than a shout or in less fleeting instances, Polaroid captures of thought; others may yet continue to whisper their stories, long after they are found.
Perhaps many of us are attracted to mathematical equations and elaborate philosophical systems not because of their apparent indifference, but that they are ordered for us in a messy plane of contingency. They are, by most accounts, a very comforting response to our need for a comprehensible universe. I do not refute the beauty in that order, but something is amiss when we reach out and attempt to bring this sheer indifference to the ground of relationality. Mastery, at best, is a paradoxical beast – it seeks to bring the novel within its judgement, only to make it predictably reasonable in the end. Algorithms are uncanny in this regard, for they can independently learn and reproduce what we have been doing and anticipating all along. No surprises there.
Prior to any critical distance is again this relation between maker and audience; author and reader. This relation marks our return to the pivotal moment of an encounter, where one affects and in turn compels the other to see and understand the experience differently. If beauty captures our senses, then I’d wager it likewise pertains to the transformation that occurs when we first grasp this novel and unforeseen sensibility. In contrast to the awe of the nuclear scientists, or the predictions of machine learning, a beautiful surprise is not the outcome of our own device; instead, we become caught, transfixed and even thwarted by the proposition of the other. As the lover in many popular texts would inquire with a soliloquy, ‘How did I not see that s/he is beautiful?’
In the essay, World of the Text, World of the Reader, Paul Ricoeur writes that ‘reading, is first and foremost, a struggle with the text’. Struggles are usually regarded as physical acts of confrontation (e.g. wrestling, sparring), but they are as intense and intimate as the embrace between a parent and child, or the lover and beloved. One may also observe the parallel between Ricoeur’s understanding of reading and the Hebrew patriarch Jacob’s struggle with the Angel in the Book of Genesis, and the biblical narrative becomes a more profound demonstration of this relation when one realises that Jacob had mastered the opponent, only to be suddenly thwarted (against the rules and ‘reason’ of the struggle) by a jab in the hip. What follows is a demand from the patriarch that would captivate the most foolhardy Romantic: ‘I will not let you go…’
We do not know if the patriarch got what he wanted at the end, but what remained of him was indelible – a different name and gait. Jacob’s struggle is an illuminating allegory of the potential of art, for aesthetic works are lenses crafted to either distort, reflect or lead us beyond our mundane situation. The first is seductive; it speaks of the beautiful in sentimental terms, but they are mere cliches or caricatures of structures that seek to regulate our affections; the second tends to disavow beauty and uses critique as its vantage point, but it is only a mirror that avails nothing once our faces are turned away.
What then of the third? Lest I descend the sordid path by claiming it resides in the eye of the beholder, I can only suggest art has endured as a witness to this element of surprise in the human condition, by sharing this relationship with us as writers and readers. The affections of the Muses are, after all, capricious – at times they descend with a passionate embrace, in others they haunt us with their fury. But more significantly, we are through their voices, struck by renderings of possibilities and re-ordered realities. A microcosm of creation has crafted a new song, and everyone there is enjoying the rave and looking quite fine.
Joel Gn is a thinker, writer, and lecturer, who is currently teaching at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. His work critiques the aesthetic of cuteness and its relationship to the configuration of desire within a technological space.