Aesthetic Theology

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Aesthetics and Morality

The earliest reference I can find to the relationship of the two is from that 5th century BC Greek philosopher, Plato, who made the following comments:

"Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything."
"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue."


Moving on to more modern times we find that one of the principle expositions of the place of morality in aesthetics is to be found in that 18th century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant's 'Critique of Judgement'. He reasoned that judgment of beauty demanded a universal validity which in turn involved an appeal to morality. Some argue that Kant's argument for the universal validity of such judgments depends on an appeal to morality, while others see his interpretive judgements of beauty not as grounded in morality, but rather, along with judgements of the sublime, as contributing to an account of moral feeling, and hence of how morality is possible for human beings. In his work one reads comments like:

"The beautiful prepares us to love something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, to esteem it, even contrary to our (sensible) interest”
An interest in the beauty of nature indicates “a good soul” and a “mental attunement favourable to moral feeling”
Beauty is a “symbol” of morality in that a judgement of beauty “legislates for itself” rather than being “subjected to a heteronomy of laws of experience”
.

This I take to mean that recognition of beauty is a universal inner 'happening', not one which is taught or which one gains from experience. Equally feelings of pleasure in the beautiful are analogous to moral consciousness. For me the importance of Kant's claims rests on the concept of beauty (i.e. aestheticism) having a universal and independent validity. In its purest form it is not subject to cultural, educational or other influences for it to have an effect upon an individual.

Colin McGinn, in 'Ethics, Evil, and Fiction', talks about the nature of aesthetic experience, adhering to a principle he terms 'panaestheticism'. He maintains:

"We are aesthetic beings through and through; we apprehend the world through aesthetic eyes". He also states: "The true aesthete must be a moralist, since he cares about the beauty of his soul". "Virtue may well not co-inside with outer beauty, but it is identifiable with inner beauty - beauty of soul or character." Having certain aesthetic properties is therefore a necessary and sufficient condition for goodness: "The Aesthetic Theory of Virtue has considerable intuitive appeal . . . By being good, it suggests, we can be beautiful, and in contemplating virtue we contemplate beauty . . . so - beauty puts us into contact with moral ideals."

Using Oscar Wilde's work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, (in which Dorian Gray, enamoured with the physical value of beauty, makes a pact with the devil that his appearance will never become ugly (rather, his portrait grows ugly)) he argues that aesthetic properties of a soul are closely linked to its moral properties in that beauty of soul coincides with virtue, and ugliness of soul coincides with vice. He also draws on fairy stories, many of which depend upon the distinction between outer, physical, and inner, spiritual aesthetic properties. In Snow White, for example, he sees that "The face of the good soul is visually beautiful, that of the bad soul visually ugly . . . The fact that we choose an aesthetic representation of the moral state of a soul when we render it visible shows that we were already conceiving of it in aesthetic terms. Why is the face of the soul seen as beautiful or ugly? Because the goodness or evil of the soul is an aesthetic matter."

It would thus appear the we are hard wired not only to appreciate beauty but also to link it to morality. Yet there is also a more universal truth hidden within us. In the examples used above beauty is only skin deep. Dorian Gray may remain physically attractive whilst leading an evil life. The wicked witch in Snow White might remain beautiful while trying to eliminate Snow White. But in both, the evil is always there, eventually to destroy them. To be truly aesthetic is not merely presenting one attractive facet, be it physical beauty, emotional stability or helpful actions. Rather it is something deeper (all three authors I have quoted use the word 'soul'), something at the core of our being, which links to the universality of creation and which needs to nurtured and developed in ways of beauty, truth and goodness.

And that means education. The UNESCO report of 2006 stated:

Philosophical arguments could also stress the intrinsic value of the aesthetic experience and show what immeasurable long-term outcomes the arts may have on individual development and also the well-being of society. The arts may be seen not as a means, but ends in itself; not just as an alternative form of literacy, but as offering "experiences that are uniquely human and inherently worthwhile". (Condliffe Lagemann).
An association is also often made between arts education and the promotion of universal values and in fostering peace, cultural understanding, and skills of cooperation and learning to live together. Aesthetic education is seen to have great value for the building of cross-cultural understanding, thus contributing to a harmonious coexistence of different artistic and cultural backgrounds and knowledge, within local and global contexts.

As we experience global pressures on finance for the arts, why, I wonder, are so few governments and educators listening? If it is so beneficial why is there an increasing cry for the arts to be privatised and so subject to the wishes of private corporations who finance them? Perhaps we live in an age when Dorian Gray and the Wicked Witch do win.