The Therapeutic Value Of Aesthetic Experience by Donald Kuspit

Albrecht Dürer, Studies on the Proportions of the Female Body.

By DONALD KUSPIT, March 2022

Aesthetic experience is usually understood as the result of an appreciative perception of or serious engagement with an extraordinary work of art, whatever the mode of art, although the philosopher John Dewey argues that it can occur in response to any ordinary object, more broadly, anything in nature or society.  He describes it as “a distinctive kind of experiential condensation within the general stream of experience,” more particularly “experience in its integrity,” suggesting that it is what the psychologist Abraham Maslow has called a “peak experience,” an altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria, occurring when an individual is in harmony with the environment, and with that himself or herself.  It is a holistic experience, a conflict-free experience, an experience in which subject and object seem to merge, converge to the extent of seeming inseparable, even one and the same, the subject so completely identified with the object that it experiences the object as an extension or attribute of itself.  The external object becomes what psychoanalysts call an internal object, a good one because it is aesthetically satisfying.  It is what religious thinkers call “introvertive mysticism,” an experience in which the ego of the true believer becomes imaginatively one with the superego that is God, and with that has a sense of being at peace with himself or herself and with the world as a whole, experienced as a creation of God, an all-good object, and therefore an ideal object.

Marble statue of the so-called Apollo Lykeios, A.D. 130–161.

I think that Dewey is wrong in arguing that any object can afford an aesthetic experience—an aesthetic epiphany, as it has been called.  It has to be a work of art, an extraordinary object calling special attention to itself rather than an ordinary object in the everyday world—an object made to be contemplated, as philosophers say, rather than to be used.  A work of art has no everyday purpose however accurately it may represent an everyday object, to refer to Plato’s and Aristotle’s theory of art as mimesis.  But to imitate, or as I would say memorialize, a perceived object by meticulously describing it is to transcend it, without denying its objectivity—its givenness.  Similarly, to memorialize the material medium by dramatizing it, as so-called non-objective art does, is to transcend it, without denying its materiality—its givenness.  Making whatever it represents or presents transcendentally resonant is to give it aesthetic presence, and with that announce that it exists in a mental world apart, whatever it may physically be.  More pointedly, it has to seem perfect in itself to be experientially convincing, offer the perfection that doesn’t exist in the imperfect world to make aesthetic sense.  And when it does, when we experience it as an oddly transcendental aesthetic phenomenon, it changes our lives, to refer to the last line of Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a “torso suffused with brilliance from inside,” the revelatory brilliance that a perfect work of art has when it is experienced aesthetically.  Aesthetic experience of perfection enables us to emotionally endure and cognitively transcend everyday experience of the world’s imperfection.  It is a profound change of attitude, even of Weltanschauung, catalyzed by the aesthetic experience of perfection, a self-transformation spontaneously generated by the intuitive recognition of artistically realized perfection.  I dare say, to use the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s distinction, it lifts one out of the false selfhood of everyday experience into the true selfhood of lived experience.  

Ancient Greek sculptural masterpiece “The Boxer at Rest,” dated from 330-50 BC. National Museum of Rome/ Palazzo Massimo alla Terme Credit:Livioandronico2013 /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0.

Aesthetically experienced the perfect art object stands out of the general stream of mundane experience, be it social experience or experience of nature, replacing them with an ideal experience, that is, an experience that transcends both.  Transcendental experience—of which aesthetic experience, that is, the experience of beauty and sublimity, analyzed by Kant, and the varieties of religious experience, analyzed by William James, are the prime examples—is a sort of saving grace in a graceless world.  One can have what seems a “peak experience” with LSD or peyote or any other psychedelic drug, but the “high” it affords tends to end in the “low” of paranoia, which is hardly a conflict-free experience, certainly not an integrative experience.  I am arguing that an authentic aesthetic experience—an aesthetic experience with a positive effect on life—is possible only by identifying with a work of art experienced as ideal or perfect and with that eternally present—sufficient unto itself, a sort of thing in itself.  When the work of art is perfect, and with that experienced aesthetically, it has a therapeutic effect, which is what a peak experience is; otherwise it is unconsciously experienced as a sort of memento mori, and with that fraught with death anxiety.

Art making was once a sacred practice—a spiritual “profession” rather than a mundane activity.  More pointedly, it was once a way of turning the profane into the sacred, the natural into the supernatural, the banal into the transcendental.  To do so the artist had to be inspired and inventive—an ingenious idealist—like the legendary classical painter Apelles.  Unable to find any mortal woman with a body beautiful enough to serve as a model for the immortal Aphrodite, he looked at a variety of female bodies, finding good enough parts—more or less fine-looking arms on one woman’s body, more or less lovely legs on another woman’s body, a more or less alluring torso on a third woman’s body, a more or less attractive face on a fourth woman’s body—and put them all together to create a picture of the goddess of love, her body perfectly beautiful, that is, ideal, and immortal, that is, transcendental, by definition.  Using a variety of parts from a number of natural bodies, Apelles created a supernatural body, an ideal figure—an unreal figure made of parts from real figures, parts that seemed good enough however imperfect to be used to construct a perfect figure.  Such a flawless transcendental figure is aesthetically arousing, experienced as an aesthetic phenomenon, a sort of aesthetic thing-in-itself, and with that peculiarly sacred.  Such a work of art is emotionally resonant—dare one say lovable—because it invites us to worship the goddess of love, and intellectually engaging, because it seems so flawlessly—miraculously—constructed.  It is doubly perfect:  a perfect work of art and a perfect depiction of a perfect being.  It gives perfection presence—or at least makes it seem possible.  

The great sculptor Pygmalion did something similar to what Apelles’ painting did:  “with wonderful skill he made a statue of ivory so beautiful that no living woman came anywhere near it.  It was the perfect semblance of a maiden that seemed to be alive….His art was so perfect that it concealed itself and its product looked like the workmanship of nature.”  Similarly, the sculptor Praxiteles, “the first to sculp the nude female figure in a life-size statue,” used the beautiful Phryne as his model for a sculpture of the nude Aphrodite for the temple of Knidos.  Statues of Aphrodite—Pygmalion’s ivory statue was implicitly one, ivory, being a symbol of purity, conveys the purity of the goddess, and her immortality, for ivory is virtually eternal, certainly a harder substance than marble, the material Praxiteles used to make his immortal goddess—were meant to be worshipped in sacred spaces.  They were regarded not simply as effigies of her, but informed by her living presence.  Aphrodite epitomizes “the eternal feminine that draws us on,” to use Goethe’s famous phrase.  She draws the classical artists on, hoping she will inspire them to make art as eternal as she is, as beautiful as her body.   

Marble statue of Aphrodite, 1st or 2nd century A.D.

Albrecht Dürer, known in his time as the German Apelles, was, like the Greek Apelles, concerned to reconcile the ideal and the real.   He was more of an empiricist than Apelles, for he made “empirical observations of ‘two to three hundred living persons’,” and more of a theorist than Apelles, for he used them to construct a perfectly proportioned body based on Vitruvius’ concept of the ideal figure.   Moreover, Dürer ingeniously reconciled the empirically real and the theoretically ideal using what he called a “selective inward synthesis,” in sharp contrast to Apelles’ more superficial “selective outward synthesis.”  The classical ancient artists Apelles, Pygmalion, and Praxiteles and the Renaissance artist Dürer—as well as other Renaissance artists, whether Italian or German, whose art is informed by classical idealism—use a number of different natural bodies to create a singular supernatural body, a body that doesn’t exist in nature but looks natural.  In a creative act of devotion, they cannily created an ideal—unrealistic—body out of real—naturally given—parts.  It is a lifelike body that only can live in artistic heaven.  It is no accident that Venus, the beautiful goddess of love, is the major object of their creative attention, for their worship of her carries with it the wish that their art be as beautiful and worshipped as she is—that it also stand outside of time, or at least survive the test of time, and with that become eternally present, and they be worshipped, certainly idolized, as she is—thus the notion of the “divine artist.”  Like Keats’ Grecian Urn, the Grecian sculptures show that beauty and truth are inseparable--that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” as Keats writes.  More particularly, they show what Nietzsche called the “beauty of ‘illusion’,” that is, the ideality of art.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504. Pen and brown ink, brown wash, corrections in white.

The question arises:  why do I need to know that beauty is truth, truth is beauty?  What good does it do me when I have to live in a bad world?  Why do I have to care about a beautiful illusion when I have to deal with ugly reality?  Isn’t the truth ugly rather than beautiful?  We live “in the midst of woe,” and “old age will waste” us, as Keats writes, that is, we will suffer and die.  So what’s the point of a beautiful illusion apart from the transient pleasure it can give me?  I suggest that the aesthetic experience a beautiful illusion affords--by way of the illusion of perfection the artist has ingeniously created (for only an artist who can create an illusion of perfection is a genius)--is what phenomenological philosophers call an “epoché.”  And I suggest that the artist must him or herself perform an epoché on his or her subject matter, that is, reduce it to a phenomenon and with that transcendentalize it, to make a perfect work of art or, if one wishes, a work of art that seems natural and ideal at once.  As John Cogan writes in The Phenomenological Reduction, “we live our lives in terms of what Husserl calls a ‘captivation in acceptedness,’ that is to say, we live our lives in an unquestioning sort of way by being wholly taken up in the unbroken belief-performance of our customary life in the world….The epoché is a procedure by which we no longer accept it….The epoché is the name for whatever method we use to free ourselves from the captivity.…The most important point to be made in reference to the phenomenological reduction is that it is a meditative technique.”   As Maurice  Merleau-Ponty writes, “phenomenology is a transcendental philosophy which places in abeyance the assertions arising out of the natural attitude, but it is also a philosophy for which the world is ‘already there’.”  

Albrecht Dürer, Standing Male Nude Holding a Bow ("Poynter Apollo"), 1501–3.

But why free ourselves from captivity in acceptedness, place in abeyance the lifeworld that is already there, replacing it with an artworld, meditate on works of art rather than make the best of our lives in the everyday world?  Can having an aesthetic experience or epoché induced by meditating on a work of art make our lives seriously better?  Epoché is an ancient Greek term for “cessation.”  It came to mean, in the words of the Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus, “a state of the intellect in which we neither affirm nor deny anything” in order to induce a state of ataraxia, freedom from worry and anxiety.  More broadly, the Stoics used it “to describe the withholding of assent to Phantasia (impressions),” and for the Stoic Epictetus it meant to withhold assent to feeling, in effect suspending belief in it—transcending it without denying its reality, accepting the fact that it naturally occurs.  Ataraxia is not the “peculiarly mild intoxicating quality of feeling” that Freud said “the enjoyment of beauty affords,” adding that there is no “obvious use” or “cultural necessity” for it, but it offers more than the “little protection against the threat of suffering” with which Freud dismissed it, for it affords a great deal of protection from suffering if one aesthetically experiences it.  It is why “civilization could not do without it,” as Freud said.  “Beauty is derived from the field of sexual feeling,” as he said, but it was not sexual feeling that motivated the classical artists to imagine Aphrodite’s beautiful body—a perfect ideal body rather than an imperfect real body—but spiritual ambition.  It is in the service of religion, worshipped because it is sacred rather than desired because it is profane, for its refined beauty affords what Cogan calls an “experience of astonishment” or what Merleau-Ponty calls “wonder” rather than raw lust.  Performing an epoché—meditation (or contemplation)--is not merely an intellectual exercise, but a therapeutic procedure, for it frees us from suffering, or gives us a perspective on—or what the aesthetician Edward Bullough called psychic distance or detachment from—suffering, more particularly from woe, as Keats said, which along with “old age will waste us” emotionally as well as physically until we die.  To be free from worry and death anxiety—and, I would add, emotional folly, attachment to what psychoanalysts call bad, hateful objects, external as well as internal--is no small gain for life, which is why “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” the opening line of Keats’ Endymion.  Or, to say it another way, an aesthetic experience of artistic perfection is an antidote to the poisonous sickness unto death that Kierkegaard called despair, bringing with it a sense that life is meaningless.  Dare one say that the beautiful artistic illusion gives one the illusion that life is meaningful, if not as perfect as the artistic illusion?      

One might add that the classical artist essentializes, that is, conveys what Husserl calls the “essential necessity,” “essential universality,” “essential truthfulness” of an object, and with that idealizes it.  Its appearance becomes its essence.  In contrast, the romantic artist existentializes, that is, subjectifies an object, or, if one wants, uses it as a springboard for self-expression, and with that tends to distort its appearance until it becomes almost unrecognizable.  As the psychoanalyst Michael Balint writes in “The Dissolution of Object Representation in Modern Art,” the romantic artist “degrades the dignity of the object into that of a mere stimulus,” a mean of conveying “the artist’s subjective mental processes,” that is, his feelings, romanticism being a “mode of feeling,” as Baudelaire wrote,” rather than concerned with “exact truth,” that is, objective truth, as realism is.  Romanticism is concerned with what psychoanalysts call internal reality at the expense of external reality.  Avant-garde art is romantic to the core, as Kandinsky makes clear when he writes, echoing Baudelaire, “the only judge, guide, and arbitrator should be one’s feelings”—the feelings of the spectator as well as the artist.  The romantic avant-garde artist is opposed not only to realism, with its insistence on the hard facts, and the triumph of consciousness over unconscious, empirical precision rather than fantastic expression, but to classicism, that is, idealism.  There is “the necessity to put an end to idealism,” André Breton, the exponent of Surrealism, writes.  In a similar vein, Pablo Picasso declared that “the beauties of the Parthenon, Venuses, Nymphs, Narcissuses are so many lies.”  Echoing them, with greater destructive zeal, the abstract artist Barnett Newman declared that “the impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty.”  This brings to mind the philosopher and critic William Gass’ remark that “in a world which does not provide beauty for its own sake, but where the loveliness of flowers, landscapes, faces, trees, and sky are adventitious and accidental, it is the artist’s task to add to the world’s objects and ideas those delineations, carvings, tales, fables, and symphonic spells which ought to be there, to make things whose end is contemplation and appreciation; to give birth to beings whose qualities harm no one, yet reward even the most casual notice, and which therefore deserve to become the focus of a truly disinterested affection.”  I am arguing that classical art, more than romantic art or realistic art, arouses truly disinterested affection, as the ideal that is beauty always does. WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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