Spiritual Dimension of the Aesthetic Essence of Art

Only art of high-quality (i.e., highly aesthetic) is capable—by purely artistic means—of effectively performing non-artistic functions that society assigns to it. Therefore, the high artistic (read: aesthetic) quality of the artwork is its essential characteristic. It is clear that historically not everybody, and not always (and for the most time hardly anybody and infrequently), understood why art functioned so effectively in religion, politics, and so forth. At the same time, most felt very strongly that it would be difficult to manage those areas of culture without the support of art, no matter how unclear the reasons of its effectiveness were.

It is precisely for this reason that, from ancient times onward, art has been so tightly wedded to religious practices all across the world. Moreover, those historical forms of art that we have known from time immemorial all the way to the mid-twentieth century have been created by human beings with religious mentalities, who believed in the existence of the Great Other, or God.

One would be well advised not to ignore this fundamental fact when one thinks about the essence of art today. Now, this high artistic quality, i.e., the aesthetic “matter” of art, is so subtle and beyond the grasp of reason that humanity is yet to say something convincing about it despite persistent attempts to understand this quality throughout time. This is all the more surprising given that this high artistic quality of artworks is strongly felt intuitively—and with some degree of agreement—within communities of professional artists, art critics, and aestheticians, i.e., people with a highly developed aesthetic taste who are steeped in aesthetic experience on a regular basis.

However, let us return to the definition of art as an event. Is Leonardo’s Gioconda that simply hangs on a wall in the Louvre not art? No, it is not. Art is called an event precisely because it is a specific, unique process of communication between the recipient, the artwork, and something else that stands behind the latter.

Art is an event

in the sense of “happening” of an expression (which is most fully given in history and perceptible by the senses) of aesthetic experience; this event is most fully realized in the spiritual world of a subject who has been prepared aesthetically and has a stance to perceive an object aesthetically; this subject is adequately situated to perceive artistically significant artworks. The latter include works that have been created following the principles of imagistic-symbolic representation or expression of any reality (metaphysical, spiritual, natural, material, artificial, social, psychic, etc.) and that help the recipient to plumb the depths of meaning of the reality that is being expressed, of the object that is being represented, or of the artwork itself—the depths that are inaccessible by any other means of cognition and that often extend far beyond the limits of what is being represented or the images that are used to represent it.

In the course of this event, the recipient acquires new knowledge, is elevated to alternative levels of being beyond our day-to-day existence, and is ideally harmonized with the Universe and feels the fullness of being. The aesthetic pleasure that the recipient experiences serves as a witness to the realization of the event of art.

If one understands and treats art—and, broadly speaking, aesthetic experience as a whole—in this way, it becomes, perhaps, the most adequate and effective way of elevating the contemporary person to the highest rungs of the spiritual world.

It is clear from what has been said, that in order to have proper aesthetic experience—especially the experience of art—the recipient must spend many years and apply a considerable spiritual effort preparing for it, constantly honing their spiritual (aesthetic, in this case) abilities. There is nothing unexpected here. The proper way to have a spiritual experience requires this sort of preparation and training. However, unlike other spiritual disciplines, aesthetic experience in culture remains the most universal, accessible, and historically possessed—to some extent and in some elementary form, which can always be developed further—by the majority of average people.

Contemporary art practices, including various non-artistic experiments with classic art, can be called anything but art in its classic interpretation that is laid out in this essay. In any case, one thing is certain: they contain, in themselves, no spiritual-aesthetic potential (or, at most, merely primitive elements or simulacra of spirituality) that could satisfy the spiritual cravings of the people.

At the same time, people have faith in life, in its spiritual foundations, in humanistic ideals, and in the ability of human rationality to go beyond its human boundaries. And aesthetic experience—provided one calls on it—can effectively assist them with this attitude.

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