Art and Emotion – part 3

Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.   We’re all used to being told that it is –but, hey, not so!  The expression is catchy but it is seriously misleading.

Beauty is an experience that comes as a response to something encountered. There is the perceiver and there is the thing perceived. Both are needed, both contribute.  The senses are channels for this experience, which is felt by the whole being. The eye is often the principal channel because of the power of vision for humans, but beauty can be experienced in many different ways.  Perceiving is always an active process.  We interpret, we try to make sense, and making sense involves emotion as well as thought.

Here’s an experience of beauty as described in a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins. He is writing about a fine day during harvest time when he is out walking in a field.  He calls the stooks ‘barbarous in beauty’; he speaks of ‘wind-walks’ in the sky, of ‘silk-sack clouds’ and of ‘azurous hung hills’.  Then he writes the following lines:

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting; which two when they once meet,

The heart rears wings bold and bolder

And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

It is when they once meet– the ‘things’ and the beholder – that beauty comes into being.

It’s important, however, not to forget that the same beholder on another occasion might respond very differently to the same scene.  Hopkins was prone to episodes of dejection and despair during which he wrote a set of poems known as the ‘terrible sonnets’.   One of them contains the lines:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.  Hold them cheap

May who ne’er hung there.

So the mountains, often sources of soaring joy, now figure as images of dread, as indeed they did on at least one occasion for Wordsworth.  And likewise art deals not only with positive feelings but also with our darkest emotions, particularly with the great existential ones like the fear of death.

In a recent post, Jonathan Jones remarks that right now there is a spate of exhibitions on the subject of death, and he takes this a good sign, a sign that art is getting serious again.  I see why he says this and he’s right.

Art – by which I mean here visual art, poetry and music – can in principle communicate any of the human emotions, transmuting them from personal to universal concern.  So, if we become responsive to art in this deep sense, we join a vast fellowship of feeling.  Entry to this fellowship is open to everyone but most people need to be shown the way to the door. A few do discover it almost unaided.

Finding the way in and joining up does not imply responding in the same way as other members to all that’s on offer – not at all.  Our responses depend on our shared humanity but this is modulated by our uniqueness.  This uniqueness tends to maintain itself, but it is a growing thing and many influences affect it, especially certain early experiences.  Then later – throughout life, in fact – the extending of our scope owes a great deal to communicating and sharing.  No one doubts this in the case of knowledge.  What would our knowledge amount to if each person were left to find out alone?

The most fundamental learning, whether it’s about knowing or about feeling or – more usually – about both at once, comes direct from our interactions with other people.  That is certain.  But humans have developed many indirect ways of storing and passing on – and we have recent evidence that this process is speeding up, not slowing down.  In regard to knowledge we are keenly aware of the storehouse and we put a lot of social effort into giving people access.  That’s what most education is about.

When it comes to emotion, however, our attitudes and customs are very different.  The chief means that we have for passing on emotion indirectly is through the arts.  It is hugely important that we offer all children access to the emotion storehouse also, but this does not happen. Our educational systems traditionally give the arts too little space, too little time; and things don’t seem to be improving.  In some places worse is threatened.  Then, as always, it will be the children most deprived in other ways who will suffer most in this way also.  If you are an artist and you want to be a social activist you should consider directing your energies to this problem. It is where you have the greatest chance to get lasting change.

The deep reason for much of our present cultural failure is that, collectively, we do not properly understand and value emotion. We do not understand how it develops, how it relates to thought or how much it matters. The general belief is that emotion is an inferior function and that thinking can do as well or better without it.  For instance, judges may be heard urging jurors to set emotion aside in order to be able to think rationally about their verdict. But neurology has a surprise to spring.  It turns out that between thought and emotion there is fundamental interdependence to such an extent that, if the brain’s emotional capacities are seriously impaired, normal rational thought is impossible.

Please pause for a moment and take that on board:  A brain that can’t feel emotion normally can’t think normally.

The case for this conclusion was compellingly argued about twenty years ago in a brilliant book called Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. The author is Antonio Damasio.  His book has been very influential, but the influence has still not spread nearly far enough to change entrenched popular attitudes.  I hope that may yet come.

Here is a quotation from the book:

“Feelings form the base for what humans have described for millennia as the human soul or spirit.”

I’ll end on that note for now.

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