A Certain Seriousness


Recently I discussed the views of Alexander Nehamas on beauty. I decided to look around more broadly and picked up a book of essays entitled Phenomenology and Art by José Ortega y Gasset (translated from the Spanish by Philip W. Silver in 1975). I like the following passage from the first section of "An Essay in Esthetics":

Reading poetry is not something I do very often. Generally speaking, I cannot conceive that reading poetry could be anyone's regular occupation. Just as we demand a certain seriousness for creating poetry, we should also demand a certain seriousness for reading it. Not a seriousness that is all show, but rather that feeling of inner awe that invades our hearts at very special times. Contemporary pedagogy is beginning to have a deplorable influence in the cultural realm of esthetics by making art a usual, normal, regulated thing. This way we lose the feeling of distance; we lose our respect for and our fear of art; we approach it at any time in the dress and mood we happen to be in, and grow accustomed to not understanding it. The real emotion to which we refer when we speak of esthetic pleasuure these days is -- if we truly wish to own up to it -- a pale delight, lacking in vigor and depth, produced in us by the merest brush with the work of art.

One of the men who has most dismally affected our view of beauty is probably Ruskin.... Ruskin manages to give an interpretation of art that takes from art only what can easily be converted to everyday experience. His gospel is art as usefulness and convenience. Naturally, such a view can only recommend to the intellect those arts that, to be exact, are not really art: the industrial or decorative arts.... I am not saying that the decorative or industrial arts are entirely without beauty; I am only saying that their beauty is not solely beauty -- it is utility varnished with beauty, touched with beauty: water with a touch of Dionysian flavoring in it. As it happens, contemporary man has grown accustomed to not asking of art deeper emotions than those born of the decorative arts. If he were sincere he would admit that his esthetic pleasure is no different from the pleasure that derives from things when they are well tended and put in their proper order.

It would be wisdom to free the sword of beauty from that decorative sheath in which it has been kept for so long and let it flash dangerously again in the sunlight.

To me, Ortega captures more of the essence of aesthetic experience than does a self-confessed aestheticist like Nehamas, because he realizes its sharp edge of dangerous passion, the inner awe that is evoked within one's heart when encountering a work or act or person of great beauty. (And no I don't refer to mere surface beauty, to things or acts or people that merely appear beautiful in the conventional or popular sense of the term.)

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