What is at stake in our relation to the aesthetic? Probably very little, we’d say. Art, once a very serious matter, has lately become trivial, and it’s hard for us today to think that anything great lies at the heart of it. Beauty is, we are told, in the eye of the beholder, so any effort wasted contemplating the essence of art can only result in a biased, incomplete picture of what is known by all to be a fleeting and relativistic phenomenon. But urbane niceties such as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” immediately strain credibility, and it’s doubtful whether the originator of the phrase took it seriously herself. I’m willing to wager that anyone who has undergone a genuine artistic experience instinctively knows it to be false. Art has too potent an impact upon the mind and soul for it to be exclusively a matter of taste; we cannot chose what affects us so violently. If so, Plato would have had no reason to ban poetry from the republic. That we are in fact so hopelessly susceptible to art is what distinguishes it as a subject warranting investigation. What can our sensitivity to art say about our human nature and the world around us?
There are two possible ways of conducting an investigation into our artistic orientation. The one now favored by leading theorists and scientists treats artistic sensibility as a survival adaptation and the product of natural selection. Under this approach, our capacity to appreciate art functions as a palliative providing sensual enjoyment and psychological affirmation that countervails the meaninglessness of existence. Artistic faculties offer a survival advantage, scientists claim, because they distract us from the crushing emptiness of life, and are therefore retained by those members of the species who survive on account of the benefit. Reduced in this way to a vulgar biological function, naturalists strip art of its noble qualities. They unwittingly displace the traditional notion of the Romantic genius, who partakes part and parcel of God’s creativity, with the image of a hapless manipulator who labors, not to elevate humankind to higher moral awareness, but to titillate nerve endings and deceive the brain into enduring life’s hardships. To the naturalist, the artist is a fraud, a peddler of cheap, empty thrills. There can be no genuinely redemptive value to art for the naturalist, only the appearance of meaning reinforced by a biological stimulant. This is a terrifically cynical view, but sadly the only one available to those who reject the metaphysics of religion.
The religious account of art permits of grander possibilities. Once the existence of an extra-material realm of reality is granted, art takes on remarkable implications. Our instinctive suspicion that works of art reflect something greater than ourselves, something not wholly contained in the work itself, is vindicated by this more generous metaphysical worldview. It then becomes possible to imagine art as mediating between the material realm and the ineffable, and as bearing significance beyond what we are capable of accounting for in our coarse empiricism. What is more, art testifies to this immaterial realm and invites contemplation of it. Heidegger, an atheist, believed poets gestured toward the immaterial by providing evidence for Being’s withdrawal into absence. We remain unfamiliar with the true nature of art, he argued, because we know nothing of its origins in Being. Discussing the poetry of Rilke, he writes, “We are unprepared for the interpretation of the elegies and the sonnets, since the realm from which they speak, in its metaphysical constitution and unity, has not yet been sufficiently thought out in terms of the nature of metaphysics.” Ignorant of its metaphysical nature, Heidegger believes we fail to interpret art’s deeper significance.
Heidegger’s theory might easily be adapted to a Christian theory of aesthetics by substituting God for Being. For Heidegger, art implicates Being, a non-thing which never discloses “itself” in presence. For Christians, art implicates God, who is not currently among us in physical, bodily form. This notion of art acting as testimony is completely foreign to naturalists. Yet I believe, with Heidegger, that art’s powerful affect upon us should give us pause, should force us to consider whether our response to art is merely the result of biological impulses or attests to something more. If one chooses the former, the decision must radically alter the way she thinks of art, and cannot help but attenuate the enthusiasm and passion with which she engages it. The latter possibility, or the religious account, credits art with the full range of qualities that we naturally feel inclined to grant it, and gives art the formal theoretical justification that our already persuasive experience implies.