WHAT IS AESTHETICS?

Aesthetics can be defined as: philosophical speculation on the mysteries of the existence of beauty, the creation of art and the human mind set which enables us to have a rich and transformative ‘aesthetic experience’.  

But do we really need to study the theories of art in order to create art?  

No more than we need to know our body’s anatomy and kinesiology to be able to move.  I had used my body for a long time before studying these subjects, but once I began to understand kinesiological principles, how I used my body became illuminated with conscious awareness.  I could perceive the limits and signals of my body, therefore having more control so as not to meet injury and to train it in a more intelligent, effective way.  By studying aesthetics we contemplate the invisible value system of our artistic encounters and become more perceptive critics (as the audience) and more intentional creators.  The philosophy of aesthetics does not tell us precisely how to appreciate a work of art, rather it invites us to unravel ever deeper appreciation of art.

“Most people we meet have a natural appreciation of art and beauty, but few actually know why and how a philosophy is connected.  Though we do not need a philosopher to tell us why we should appreciate a work of art, an innate curiosity beckons us to unravel the mysterious magic of a work of art.  Art has a magical component which exists beyond the material plane.  It has the power to transform us, bring about revelations of profound truth, to haunt us, to heal sorrows we didn’t recognize we had, art can bring us peace and can express a longing in our soul which never had a voice!” – Art, Beauty and Creativity, Shamala Gupta

Aesthetics as a branch of philosophy deals primarily with the metaphysical aspects of art.   Metaphysical in the sense of the “magical component which exists beyond the material plane” – a transformative power which art can have on our senses and our perceptions of reality.  Metaphysics, in turn, is defined by wikipedia as: “the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality.”

Scientific fields of study like chemistry deal with the quantitative data of reality, while a field like philosophy deals with the qualitative aspects of reality.  We live in a world of polarities – objective and subjective truths.  We cannot quantify how much we love our mother, yet we can undoubtably verify that this love exists.  In philosophy we choose to undertake the study of ‘perceptible forms’.  However, it is inevitable when discussing the beauty of a perceived object and attempting to place, or quantify its ‘beauty value’ we immediately reduce the argument down to the perception itself rather than the form – the subjective, rather than the objective value.   The “relationship between mind and matter” from the field of metaphysics will be a familiar realm of study for students of classical Yoga (pancha jnanendriya and pancha karmendriya) which systematically details how we perceive reality through the sense organs.  (I have always recommended as top of my student book list: Ayurveda and the Mind, David Frawley for a wonderful introduction to this perspective)

“Art and metaphysics are alike, for observe (1) that on the one hand, the natural language of metaphysics is precisely symbolism and (2) on the other, that it is just the symbolic character of art which distinguishes the work of art from natural species. So what is meant by “aesthetic experience” and by “perfect understanding” are one and the same; each being the consummation of an act of non-differentiation, in which our consciousness identifies itself with an intelligible form.” – Coomaraswamy, 1981, pp. 156–157

Symbolism in art is a known specialty of India’s poetry, sculpture, dance, music and so on.  Our dances levy the power of symbol in its unique use of the language of mudra, geometry in our codified postures and the nuances of the stories which we depict.  Never has an art form been more layered with meaning and suggestion.  The power of suggestion… It is no wonder that Indian Aesthetics would have an entire theory based on this idea of Dhvani or suggestion.  (soon to be a topic in our online theory class series!)

“The word aesthetics in the context of Indian aesthetics means science and philosophy of fine art… which presents the Absolute in sensuous garb, and aesthetic relation, as distinct from the utilitarian, with a work of which gives rise or leads to the experience of the Absolute.” – Pandey, 1959, vol. I, p. 1

Never before have I heard such an apt description of what it feels like to be an artist, and a yogi… ‘the Absolute in sensuous garb’.  


Join me as we discover India’s rich Sanskrit heritage and literally thousands of years of cumulative theory on ‘Indian Aesthetics’ through a series of free online lecture classes during this lockdown period.  Links to classes will only be given to those on our mailing list!