Thursday, February 18, 2016

Developing one's aesthetic capacity

Humans, far more than any other species, invest time and resources in creating and experiencing beauty. Cave dwellers decorated cave walls; even the most ancient human implements reveal aesthetic as well as functional design elements. Evolutionary biologists suggest that early humans more fully developed the aesthetic sense because it contributed to the survival of the fittest. Through an expanded aesthetic capacity, these individuals enriched interpersonal communication, strengthened communal bonds, and attracted potential mates.

Most narrowly conceived, the aesthetic sense thus denotes an individual's experience of beauty. Beauty is present in the created world and all species, in humans and in one's self, in some ideas, and in some created things. Contemplation of beauty draws the observer into the observed, which may promote self-awareness or self-transcendence, be a motive for loving or being loved, or a catalyst for creativity. Medical research indicates that performing music can help to reduce the likelihood of dementia, suggesting the value of further exploring the potential spiritual and physical benefits derived from cultivating one's aesthetic sense.

More broadly, art denotes an intentional effort to create beauty by employing one's own aesthetic sense or attempting to affect another person's aesthetic sense. Art may be visual, aural, tactile, or moral, i.e., art finds expression in a wide variety of genre and media including painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, literature, music, and human interaction. The act of creating art entails utilizing multiple facets of the human spirit: the aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy, and perhaps self-awareness, linguistic capacity, and loving/being loved.

Among spiritual disciplines that may develop one's aesthetic sense are:
  • Daily strolling in nature, taking time to observe the flora, to watch the fauna, to feel the warmth of the sun (or cool of the wind or precipitation), perhaps walking the same path every day so that the landscape becomes part of one's spiritual landscape
  • Weekly visiting an art gallery, spending 5 or 15 or more minutes in front of a work, to notice both details and the entirety, to ponder the feelings and thoughts experienced as one is present with the piece
  • Spending twenty minutes every day to listen to music of a genre that one finds interesting and conducive to relaxation.
  • Taking lessons to learn to play an instrument or to sing.

Knowledge frequently invites a deeper experience of beauty. The person walking in nature may delve more deeply into creation's beauty by acquiring some knowledge of plants, animals, geology, and the weather. The visitor to an art gallery may experience the art more powerfully by learning about artists, styles, and media. Hearers may find music's beauty more potent as s/he becomes educated about instruments, compositional structure, and styles. In short, spiritual disciplines that develop the aesthetic sense may also include expending the effort to inform one's aesthetic sense, thereby enriching one's experience of art.

Similarly, sharing the experience of beauty with one or more other persons can enrich one's aesthetic sense by expanding the spectrum of observations, feelings, and thought that the beauty triggers. Spiritual disciplines, in other words, do not have to be solitary endeavors.

Culture shapes human perceptions of beauty. Cross-cultural aesthetic experiences can thus helpfully fracture the paradigm or set of lenses through which one typically views life. Deeper grammatical or structural elements of beauty and art, such as harmony and proportionality help to make cross-cultural aesthetic experiences meaningful.


Lastly, the aesthetic sense will benefit from daily attention. Integrating beauty and art into one's daily life is perhaps the optimal way in which to achieve this aim. Actively listening to music, living in a place you make as aesthetically pleasing as possible, making an effort to radiate beauty, and seeking, then pausing to enjoy, beauty in others and the world are practices through which a person can daily nurture the aesthetic sense.

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