6. Aesthetic Exercises

by Culture and Anti Culture

For a fully formed adult, aesthetic awareness demands the lifting of the everyday fabric of conscious and latent ideas that subconsciously overlay our sense impressions.  Healthy children have this capacity spontaneously, manifested as unselfconscious awe and wonder, simply as part of daily life.

‘There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparell’d in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.’

‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ – William Wordsworth

This capacity tends to be spontaneously lost in adulthood, most spectacularly in post-modern humanity and even now in small children:

‘It is not now as it hath been of yore;–

Turn whereso’er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.’

‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ – William Wordsworth

The task for the adult in search of aesthetic experience is, through practiced play and repeated improvisation, to re-establish this freshness.

A few suggested exercises:

#1 Imagine going about an ordinary day when, caught unawares, your attention is suddenly re-directed and riveted by a loud or unfamiliar sound, or a flickering fleeting image at the corner of one’s vision.  Now undertake to induce and sustain for a time such a state of rapt attention, innocent of any thought or judgment, while gazing intently at an image – a painting, a landscape, a face.  With practice, one will begin to see even the simplest phenomenon through fresh eyes.  If the object of attention is a painting, pure observation will, for a time, know nothing of the history of this object, who painted it, when, the opinions of others – most especially those with ostensible expertise and authority, any notion of what one should or should not think or feel.  So, for example, an historical portrait or religious depiction will lose all references to personage, myths or dogma, Lord So and So, the crucifixion, the Adoration, any school or period of pictorial art; in short, anything other than the image itself.

Repetition and patience comparable to learning to play an instrument are critical to achieving genuine results with this and subsequent exercises.  The key to aesthetic practice is the principle of genuine play, in the child’s sense, most especially, and not in the Philistine adult pretense of play that is all around us.

#2 Another exercise is to undertake the inverse of the first.  That is, to stare vaguely at an image until one loses visual focus through inattention.  This exercise is generally weaker and constitutes an effort to induce something akin to a trance, but it can be useful in inviting aesthetic impression.

#3 Gaze at an object and meet it with a corresponding related concept.  Look intently at a singularly straight fir tree, for example, and with simplicity and intensity bring to it the concept of uprightness.  Conversely, gaze at a solitary, expansive, mature oak or maple, which has generated a leafy dome at its periphery through the repeated iteration of a different concept – branching.  In purity of contemplation, let the concept permeate the image.

Through this exercise many outworn metaphors begin to disclose their real origin.  With the fir tree, the strong uncompromising rising up from the generic, horizontal realm of the forest floor, the striving to emerge into the full light of day expresses individuality, integrity and strength coming forth from the dark, chaotic, nutritive potential.  This is objective yet not definitive.  Aesthetic forces are a fabric, a dynamic weaving.  When you achieve results with an exercise, they will express their own spontaneous forces.

The characteristic features of aesthetic experience are: strangeness, an apartness from the everyday, intensification, and often refinement and subtlety.  Feelings that rarely break in upon ordinary waking consciousness and which do not easily lend themselves to opinion and judgment, to simple liking and not liking, to approval and disapproval.  They also do not lend themselves to simple definition or expression in words.

We will return to the question of aesthetic exercises and their results in future entries.





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