Throughout history there have been nebulous and grandiose conceptions of art and beauty, claiming that it gives us some type of focal point into existence that reason or experience cannot ground – this however is overly rationalistic and taking the experience of the aesthetic and grounding it in a false metaphysical reality. It seems that two philosophers that would agree with me here are Epicurus and Nietzsche.
Nietzsche is the most obvious, with his complete rejection of all metaphysical systems including those of Kant and Schopenhauer. These philosophers either in aesthetics (Schopenhauer) or in ethics (Kant) try to ground our understanding of it on something that is divorced from our senses, basic reasoning and essentially is based on not on what we can know but exactly what we cannot know. With Schopenhauer it’s the transcendental will that permeates and is the consistency of all reality – art and music in particular is some way of understanding it somehow. And with Kant though it seems we have a causal and materialist self, because there is a potential we have a soul and therefore radical free will, we must act as if such things were true because they theoretically make people act more morally – which is a notion that I would contend is false but even if it were we should never act in ignorance and under the presupposition that something should be considered true because it has utility, such would be surrendering to the most base forms of Utilitarianism.
Nietzsche rejects both and says that both in the realms of aesthetics and ethics, self-creation is what’s key. We all define our lives by a personal code and preference, though most of it say it is synonymous with a religion or common preference which it either in reality is not (Christians who believe that god’s will is synonymous with their own though when one reads the Bible one finds this is not the case. And everyone cannot agree on the slightest minutiae of everything like they are expected to in 1984.) and it is undesirable that such would be the case because then no coherent notion of individuality or individual expression could exist. Instead one’s life is about self-discovery and self-mastery, becoming who you are as Nietzsche puts it. Helping others and doing things of great social value can be a part of this, but it must come freely or authentically from the individual rather than the individual acting in subservience to a higher authority (e.g. God, the State, public whims, etc) which makes the action and the individual inauthentic and changes the nature of the action and the nature of the individual in relation to others radically. The true individual is the unencumbered self, no matter how impossible it is to have such individuality in entirety because of the nature of others and the individual’s own will to masquerade or show certain forms of the self rather than the whole self of fear of betrayal or rejection among other things. Still, though complete individuality both in unencumbered freedom and expression and exploration seems impossible in the realms of State and society, we must aspire to ever higher levels of these virtues and evaluate our level of freedom by the extent we have them.
Epicurus has a far-more basic truth, but it retains significance despite its simplicity if not has a certain value because of it. And that is that art (the aesthetic realm) is first and foremost an act in entertainment and enjoyment of life – that’s it. It’s not about opening up your third eye and comprehending the form of beauty and the Good by writing a shitty dialogue. Obviously Plato’s writings are first and foremost philosophy and the aesthetics come afterward, but philosophy isn’t first and foremost an aesthetic practice – it’s a practice in understanding. That’s why Kant is recognized as being a genius though he is incredibly difficult to read as are many philosophers. Most of them fail to the test of being readable let-alone enjoyable to read but that does not remove that they have important things to say and tackle essential aspects of human understanding, ethics and experience no matter how wrong or absurd some of them may be at-times.
Art however is first and foremost a practice in enjoyment and appreciation of life. Many brilliant artists put their theories of the world and humanity within their novels or movies; this is due-to the very nature of imagination being not a creation of fanciful worlds but a method of understanding this one – this is something that Hume and Einstein understood among others. However this is something that music and visual art is almost incapable of doing in the essence of its medium – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Punk music can be very political or even philosophical but this is only through the use of verse and lyrics; music however is fundamentally organized and stylized sound (which Punk music falls into the category of despite most of the songs in the genre have sounds that don’t seem organized at-all.) and therefore Punk music is more angst poetry to the extent that it has meaning rather than “purely music.” Music is fundamentally the aesthetic appreciation of sound; poetry is the aesthetic or intellectual appreciation of words and their meaning; novels are the aesthetic and intellectual appreciation of characters and their plots and settings. Is culinary technique not an art? I would contend that it is. However if we were to embrace Plato’s or Schopenhauer’s scheme of the ultimate function of art, we would have to concede that if such were the case we were delving into the fundamental aspects of reality simply by creating a Key Lime pie! Once again, the nature and function of cuisine is the appreciation of food, not a tool or trait of understanding anything except how to cook tasty food.
If we contrast Epicurus’ (and Kant’s to be more specific) notion of art to Aristotle and Plato’s we see that their vision of the purpose of art directly correlates to their politics. For Plato and to a lesser extent Aristotle Man is nothing more than a tool for the State which may dictate the expression of interests and forms of enjoyment whether it is discussing the Gods or what music we listen to. Aristotle is more open to the sentiments of Liberalism (both its benefits and errors) but still breaks the Non-Aggression principle and fails to comprehend that the individual first and foremost is an unencumbered self (to the extent that limitations are put on the self the self does not exist) whose life (Aristotle’s support of slavery) and aesthetics cannot be curtailed by force or dictation of the proper expression and function of art in-relation to depicting nature as it is. Art is just as-much about depicting things that don’t exist as it is things that don’t; as a function of creativity and enjoyment, it could be argued that depicting what does not exist is far-more in the realm of artistic expression then what can be simply replaced by photography – art first and foremost being a tool of expression and enjoyment however the two are equal, however I think it could be argued that for a great artist (particularly the visual) depicting what does not exist independent of the mind is far more of a feat and therefore a enjoyable and rare feat to the artist and treat to the viewer than simply recreating and mimicking what is independent of the mind.
Though we are tempted to ground the aesthetic realm into some grandiose dimension of higher purpose and ultimate reality when we are captivated by music or literature, we must remember that fundamentally reality is a mechanical entity that must be understood using the tools of Reason and the sensory faculties. And though they in no way are mutually exclusive (as some mystics claim) there is a rather fundamental distinction between staring up in the skies or deep with-in the self in awe and understanding what makes the stars twinkle or Man think and create.