A Theory of Aesthetics: Great Art Affects One on a Level Beyond Simple Understanding

As I showed you with that song by that German gothic band earlier, it often doesn’t even matter if you can understand the words to a song.

A great song can be sung in a foreign language and it matters not. Because the glory and beauty of music goes far beyond the pure meaning of whatever lyrics are being sung. Often the words are beautiful even if you can’t understand a word!

How does that work? I suppose you don’t have to understand any particular work of art for it to be great. I had no idea at all what was happening most of the time in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, but it didn’t even matter! I read along anyway, and the fact that I had no idea of a plot took away nothing from my feeling that that was one of the greatest novels ever written in English. It was a great story! Who cares what the confounded plot was?

Perhaps the best way to see this is to posit that art and its beauty (for art is nothing without its beauty) and its affect on one’s mind and soul goes far beyond a simple understanding (which we can call “intelligibility”) of the work. It’s affecting you on a whole different level than ordinary intelligibility, perhaps on a higher level of perception where meaning and intelligibility doesn’t even matter. All that matters instead is what I might call “pure perception” and the experience of such. All that matters is the emotional reaction to the work of art.

By the way there is a whole subfield of philosophy dedicated to the study of art and its beauty called Aesthetics. It’s pretty interesting stuff. Even the Greeks had a lot of interesting things to say about Aesthetics. James Joyce deals with this subject in Portrait of an Artists as a Young Man, (highly recommended – the easiest Joyce novel to read) quoting St. Augustine, the great Christian mystic as part of his argument.

Augustine (City of God) was far more than a theologian. He was an incredible philosopher, and both philosophy and theology advanced dramatically after his thinking was published.  Pretty good for a guy living in the 1200’s. I need to check out Augustine some time. I heard it’s great stuff, especially City of God.

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