dance & aesthetics, mostly
On the bus home last night I was sat upstairs, right at the front. A combination of condensation on the inside of the window and rain on the outside made the lights of cars and streetlamps appear as soft glowing circles, like miniature suns in yellow, red and green. It was a beautiful sight. Naturally, I knew in my head that the effect was produced by the refraction and dispersion of light as it passed through water droplets and glass. But something in my head registered these little mini-suns with a sense of pleasure and even delight, as if I were a dancer, and the optical effect of the circles the steps, in a little dance called beauty. Then I got off the bus, and stopped being a dancer, and things were just cold and wet and dark again.
To talk about beauty in this way makes it sound like something that emerges out of the interaction between the object perceived and my subjective impression of it, rather than just a property of the former or a feeling arising from the latter; or maybe the culmination of many perceptions and impressions. As if beauty is something that happens. As if subject and object were brought together by a third thing, which could be understood as a practice of looking and listening and thinking and feeling that somehow makes beauty happen in and through the very act of experiencing it.
A nice little thought experiment, but perhaps one that raises questions I think might be important. The attitude of the majority of people in the UK would seem to be that the value of art, taken in itself, is more or less subjective, a matter of personal whim and opinion. But if the way I’ve described the experience of beauty is anywhere near the vicinity of accurate (which is a big ‘if’), then the question of whether the value of art is subjective or objective becomes more or less meaningless, and we have to rethink a lot of what we’re used to thinking about why we hold the arts to be of value to society and therefore worthy of public funding. Of course, not all art aims to be beautiful, but perhaps the same process works to produce other types of aesthetic experience as well, if such experiences are understood as the ways in which works of art become intelligible to the viewer, and seek to elicit a response.
If beauty is not subjective or objective, but rather what can happen when subject and object, audience and artwork, get together, how might that change how we talk about art? How might that change how we make and share art?