26. Aesthetic Objectivity and the Organ of Consciousness
by Culture and Anti Culture
(For context see post 1)
“What is art” is a perennial question with innumerable answers. We all know the maxim ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Taste in art is most often thought to be a personal, subjective matter. Then there is the world of art criticism and art theory, which have objective elements, but they rarely touch upon the reality of immediate aesthetic experience. (See Post 3 – Aesthetic Forces are Real.) How can one speak of objectivity in the arts, of aesthetic truth? The claim that aesthetic forces are real seems to be contradicted by the predominant culture of our time. Are aesthetic forces woven into the fabric of reality and part of the human constitution?
One way to understand this is through the lens of neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Any understanding of consciousness must take note of the findings of these domains of science. The brain is the organ of consciousness (i.e.-no brain, no earthly awareness). It is the most complicated object we know of in the universe* and it has a vast evolutionary history from older, simpler forms.
*(There are trillions of synapses in the brain – possibly more than the number of stars in the universe and many times the binary switches in all the computers in the world.)
There is clear evidence that aesthetic responses correlate with changes in the prefrontal region of the cerebral cortex (the uppermost and most recently evolved part of the brain) and that these responses are not arbitrary. An entire discipline, neuroaesthetics, is devoted to the study of this relationship.
Aesthetic responses vary across a vast spectrum; from repulsion to ecstasy, harmony to dissonance. Remember that the central nervous system of humans is the most complex, integrated object in the universe, and this will help in understanding the richness and subtlety of our reactions. This organ in all its complexity not only creates language and culture but is, in turn, constantly influenced and molded by its own creations – whether a Greek temple or a personal computer.
The brain does not secrete consciousness like a gland – a widespread, but deeply un-philosophical prejudice (only a gross dogmatic materialism maintains such a view). The brain is not consciousness and the changes in it are not the causes of our reactions: they are correlative. What is most important is to realize that our responses to color, tone, form, words, and rhythm are not merely subjective or cultural, but have lawful, universal elements. Aesthetic forces are deeply woven into the very fabric of our being. For example, images embodying the proportions of the Golden Ratio and Fibonnaci Series are inherently satisfying to the human soul. These proportions are found everywhere in nature and in great art.
Golden Ratio superimposed on the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal
Fibonacci spirals in nature
The intensity of the aesthetic response can vary due to age, character, temperament, and biography, but its power and specificity can be greatly augmented by exercising the aesthetic faculty, as described in earlier posts.