Essays and Other Non-fiction


James Harbeck Home Page

institute Sesquiotic



Art for Whose Sake?

There is a fundamental aesthetic aspect to everything in the realm of human perception and action. Nothing passes through our minds without some feeling tone, and the moment experiences pass into memory we are already abstracting information from them to clarify it and to match it with the schemata and scripts we have already developed. In our planned and executed actions as well as in our interpretations, we proceed according to our cognitive contents (the aforementioned schemata and scripts) – we can't do otherwise – and thus even while ramifying our understandings we are conforming our existence to them. These understandings have a fundamentally aesthetic aspect, as they contain feelings and evaluations which have been metacognized and abstracted. In our actions, thus, there is always the potential and to some degree the inclination for being what might be called "artistic."

How did art qua art evolve? The most "primitive" artifacts available to us are elaborations of functional objects for the purpose of beautification – of conforming them to our more aestheticized schemata. Naturally, not everything is equally aestheticized. Those actions which permit of the most deliberateness in execution are those which are most prone to being deliberately aestheticized. Moreover, there is the most motivation to aestheticize when one is trying to impress – one's superior, one's god(s), one's lover, or even oneself. Actions are in this case conformed deliberately to the most strongly feeling-toned schemata in order to be appropriate to an object which is itself strongly feeling-toned and occupying a significantly symbolic position in the actor's cognition (as evidenced by the need to impress – though when one aims to impress oneself, it is more on the order of proving one's worth, an act of self-ennoblement as one attempts to approximate one's being to the abstractions of value one holds). To the extent that there is always some degree of this (though it's often small, or so usual as not to be noticed), we may speak of life as being "for art's sake," although of course the mainstream definitions of "art" refer more specifically to its institutionalized, or ostended qua "art," instances.

When we are doing "art for art's sake," trying to get down to the most basic act of producing aesthetic objects without any aim other than the production of the object – or even just the doing or making of it – we are in a most basic and thoroughgoing way conforming our behaviour as exclusively as possible to the abstractions that guide us (and, though I haven't mentioned this, to the cognitive underpinnings of those abstractions, the "operating system" of our mental "software," as it were). It is art, as always, for our reality's sake, and also for the sake of those aspects of our cognition which are the most strongly valuated – our guiding lights, as it were. One might toss in that these most powerful nodes (one might even make a comparison with the gravity of physical objects by saying that these loaded abstractions are stars – or black holes), poles perhaps even (or complexes of poles), are in the realm of the numinous, unavoidably related to whatever is – or most approximates – the divine in one's cognitive universe, and so we could say, in a not entirely flippant way, "art for god's sake."



All contents © 2000–2004 James Harbeck