208. Art and Understanding

The instrumental approach to art emphasizes art’s functionality. Art can certainly have many functions. But many argue its ability to help us understand things is among its most important (perhaps the most important). Such people usually embrace aesthetic cognitivism or the theory that the value of art comes from the understanding it brings rather than the amusement, pleasure, emotional catharsis, escape, or expression it offers. But what kinds of understanding can art bring? There are many interesting answers to this question. Here are a few: (1) it can teach us what to feel in response to certain things rather than teach us that something is the case or how to do something; (2) it can help us make us make connections between things that open up new meanings and possibilities; (3) it can help us access rich and dense understandings of things that will elude the necessarily abstract expressions of prose and mathematics; (4) it can give us insights into the universal types of things, for example certain types of people and how they think and act; and (5) it is a means of communication through which we learn about others and come to see that we are not completely alone in the world. Let’s take a brief look at these candidates with the help of some quotations.

(1) In his book The Aesthetic Understanding (St. Augustine’s Press, 1998) philosopher Roger Scruton points out that science is factual knowledge that something is the case. Technological knowledge is about how something works. And aesthetic understanding is about what we are to feel in various situations. He writes:

“Knowing what to do, Aristotle suggested, is a matter of right judgment (orthos logos); but it also involves feeling rightly: the virtuous person ‘knows what to feel’ spontaneously feeling what the situation requires: the right emotion, towards the right object, on the right occasion, and in the right degree.  Moral education has just such knowledge as its goal. And it is a curious fact, which may be held forth as a partial confirmation of Aristotle’s view concerning the place of emotion in virtue, that we use the idiom ‘knowing what’ not of actions only, but of feelings too.  The world is full of people who ‘do not know what to feel’—whether in response to their personal situation, or in response to the events and non-events by which they are surrounded.  To understand what it is to ‘feel in ignorance’, you need only observe the habits engendered by pornography and the uncritical display of violence and destruction on the movie screen.” (248)

When reading a novel or watching a movie we often encounter characters who act in ways that, intellectually, strike us as far too stubborn, cruel, cowardly, etc. This is certainly one of the ways art can bring understanding: it gives us a space to critically reflect on actions, feelings, ideas, and so on. But we may also come to feel that something just isn’t right. Such feelings can help us understand that we should not act like that when confronted with a similar situation – that it wouldn’t be appropriate. 

Many great minds have explored this form of aesthetic understanding. For example Plato, in his dialogue Republic, had his character Socrates argue that children must be raised with proper aesthetic experiences if they are to be correctly disposed to be just souls in a just state. Such dispositions need to be in place before the capacities of reflection are activated. Herbert Read argued in a similar fashion in his Education Through Art:

“[T]he aim of imaginative education…is to give the individual a concrete sensuous awareness of the harmony and rhythm which enters the constitution of all living bodies and plants, which is the formal basis of all works of art, to the end that the child, in its life and activities, shall partake of the same organic grace and beauty. By means of such an education we instill into the child that “instinct for relationship” which, even before the advent of reason, enables it to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly, the good from the evil, the right pattern of behavior from the wrong pattern, the noble person from the ignoble.”

And Adam Smith, in his classic work Theory of Moral Sentiments, wrote:

“Human society, when we contemplate it in a certain abstract and philosophical light, appears like a great, an immense machine, whose regular and harmonious movements produce a thousand agreeable effects. As in any other beautiful and noble machine that was the production of human art, whatever tended to render its movements more smooth and easy, would derive a beauty from this effect, and, on the contrary, whatever tended to obstruct them would displease on that account: so virtue, which is, as it were, the fine polish to the wheels of society, necessarily pleases; while vice, like the vile rust, which makes them jar and grate upon one another, is as necessarily offensive.”

Is it possible to cultivate in ourselves and others an aesthetic sense for social, political, psychological, intellectual, and environmental harmony? Can we learn to not just intellectually acknowledge the aspects of life that don’t fit but also feel them as “necessarily offensive” like our car making grating sounds to which we feel compelled to respond with immediate action?  Perhaps with such a sense, cultivated throughout life, we will know all the more what to feel and when something in our world just isn’t right. We would have Read’s “instinct for relationship” as a form of aesthetic understanding.

(2) A lot of understanding is a matter of grasping statements that just describe the facts. For example, in biology we learn facts about the body, in psychology facts about the mind, and in history facts about the past. However, art seems to offer a different type of understanding, one that allows us to not just see what is but what could be. The American philosopher John Dewey, in his book Art as Experience (see Vol. 10 of The Later Works of John Dewey 1925-1953), observed that “The first intimations of wide and large redirections of desire and purpose are of necessity imaginative. Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistics, and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition.” And he notes that these possibilities can have important political and cultural consequences: 

“The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art. The impregnation of the characteristically new art of a period with a sense of different values than those that prevail is the reason why the conservative finds such art to be immoral and sordid, and is the reason why he resorts to the products of the past for esthetic satisfaction.” (342) 

In art things are seen in a new light through the creative imagination with all its juxtapositions, analogies, metaphors, allegories, similes, symbols, innovations, syntheses, and so on. In this light we come to understand new ways of seeing the world that empower us to act more freely, creatively, and intelligently.

(3) Many Enlightenment philosophers, such as G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716) and Christian Wolff (1679-1754), had argued aesthetic experience was potentially intellectual.  They argued that the sole difference between sensation and thought is that thought is distinct and sensation is confused. In order to make something distinct, we need to distinguish all its parts through a process of abstraction and definition. The task in approaching aesthetic experience rationally is to take a confused sensation, sort out its parts, and transform it into a clear thought or set of thoughts. But many subsequent thinkers were influenced by Alexander Baumgarten’s (1714-62) claim that sense perception can have a standard of perfection all its own. This standard should be one that emphasizes what individuality and singularity sensations have. The standard of perfection should be richness and vividness of detail in the perception. But this implies that the perception must be indistinct or confused to some extent. After all, all perceptions are fused with many other elements in the continuity of experience.

In Art as Experience Dewey follows in Baumgarten’s footsteps. Consider this passage about  William Wordsworth’s poem Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey:

“The poetic as distinct from the prosaic, esthetic art as dis­tinct from scientific, expression as distinct from statement, does something different from leading to an experience. It constitutes one. A traveler who follows the statement or direction of a sign-board finds himself in the city that has been pointed towards. He then may have in his own experience some of the meaning which the city possesses. We may have it to such an extent that the city has expressed itself to him—as Tintern Abbey expressed itself to Wordsworth in and through his poem. The city might, indeed, be trying to express itself in a celebration attended with pageantry and all other resources that would render its history and spirit perceptible. Then there is, if the visitor has himself the experience that permits him to participate, an expressive object, as different from the statements of a gazetteer, however full and correct they might be, as Wordsworth’s poem is different from the account of Tintern Abbey given by an antiquarian. The poem, or painting, does not operate in the dimension of correct descriptive statement but in that of experience itself. Poetry and prose, literal photo­graph and painting, operate in different media to distinct ends. Prose is set forth in propositions. The logic of poetry is super­propositional even when it uses what are, grammatically speaking, propositions. The latter have intent; art is an immediate realiza­tion of intent.” (91)

We see here that aesthetic experience is not a matter of propositions getting analyzed and verified. It is not a matter of quantities being measured, conceptualized, and symbolized. Rather, it is a matter of experiencing and feeling the rich qualities and relationships of a work in all their uniqueness. If this is the case then art can overcome, to some extent, the limitations of abstract, indirect descriptions that inevitably accompany the transference of information. It can bring us types of experiential understanding that more abstract modes of representation cannot achieve. 

(4) But we should also note that art can offer us an abstract form of understanding as well. For example, in his classic work The Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as follows: “Tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” A good tragedy will have a profound effect on the audience: it will generate both pity and fear.  In doing so, it will purge the audience of these emotions in a catharsis. Such a purging can have a beneficial effect on people’s character and thus on society as well. But this is not all. For tragedy also shows us universal truths and is thus more philosophical than history which gives us particular facts:

“Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.  By a universal statement I mean one as to what such and such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do—which is the aim of poetry, though it affixes proper names to the characters; by a singular statement, one as to what, say, Alcibiades did or had done to him.”

Aristotle thinks that tragedy can show us universals—types of people—that can transcend the particular historical context out of which they arise.  We can see how that type of person will act and this gives us some universal understanding through an aesthetically engaging presentation. 

(5) Art is obviously a powerful means of communication through which we make connections with other human beings – their feelings, ideas, cultures, concerns, fears, joys, and so on. In the space of all this expression we can see how art brings us an understanding of other humans that can expand our world. Moreover, this understanding can help us understand that we are not completely alone. In Art as Experience, Dewey observes that

“Expression strikes below the barriers that separate human beings from one another. Since art is the most universal form of language, since it is constituted, even apart from literature, by the common qualities of the public world, it is the most universal and freest form of communication. Every intense experience of friendship and affection completes itself artistically. The sense of communion generated by a work of art may take on a definitely religious quality. The union of men with one another is the source of the rites that from the time of archaic man to the present have commemorated the crises of birth, death, and marriage. Art is the extension of the power of rites and ceremonies to unite men, through a shared celebration, to all incidents and scenes of life. This office is the reward and seal of art. That art weds man and nature is a familiar fact. Art also renders men aware of their union with one another in origin and destiny.” (275)

And Friedrich Schiller claimed, in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man, that beauty alone confers on humans a truly social character and allows them to participate in universal bonds of solidarity. After all, “all other forms of communication divide society because they relate exclusively either to private sensibility or to the private skillfulness of its individual members, that is, to what distinguishes one man and another; only the communication of the Beautiful unites society, because it relates to what is common to them.” Schiller is building here on a tradition that sees the experience of beauty as having deep roots in our shared human nature.

But certainly non-beautiful art can convey solidarity as well. Terry Eagleton, in his book Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), points out that tragedies, despite their diversity, do have one shared essence, namely, the universal fact of suffering.  And this suffering is “a mightily powerful language to share in common, one in which many diverse life-forms can strike up a dialogue.  It is a communality of meaning” (xvi). This shared reality of suffering can create very powerful bonds between people—bonds that are not artificially fabricated by some ideology but are part of the human condition itself. Art can often reveal this fellowship of suffering in ways that extend our sympathy and compassion to one another.

To be sure, there are times when we doubt whether we can really make significant contact with other people and other cultures. We feel lost in the whirlwind of history with all its change, chaos, and diversity. But for many of us, art helps us understand that there are indeed continuities to be found that can connect us, however imperfectly, to each other in ways that reveal our commonality and offer, as Roger Scruton once put it in his BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters, “consolation in suffering and affirmation in joy.”


These suggestions for how art might give us understanding are certainly not the only ones and they are not necessarily convincing. All of them would require far more elaboration than this brief overview can provide. But they do at least show us that the aesthetic cognitivists are right: art need not be only a matter of expression of feeling, emotional catharsis, entertainment, pleasure, escape, and so on. Art may not give us the kind of understanding that comes by conceptually grasping propositions that represent the facts. But there are many ways to understand the world and art suggests some of those ways. Whether some forms of aesthetic understanding can rise to the level of knowledge is another topic for another post.

Please go here for more of my posts on aesthetics.

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