Art and Aesthetics: One Soul to Another
Someone once said, “The opposite of art is not ugliness, it is indifference.” We can learn a lot from a word by studying its antonym. Why would the opposite of art be indifference? If someone is indifferent then they have no feelings one way or the other. They don’t care. Art is a medium for expression, and someone who is indifferent has nothing to express; art cannot be created. But what is art?
I believe that art is an expression of the human capacity to create something original that is appealing in a skillful, aesthetic, or emotional way. I am an artist, and my chosen medium is dance. Painters create art on canvas, singers create art with their voices, but I create art with the movement of my body.
My mom is a musician and I grew up to her playing classical piano pieces all day. This may be the reason I fell in love with the classical arts when I took the humanities general my first semester at college. Over the next three years, I collected quite a repertoire of classical music. Needless to say I was obsessed. The love for that style of music transferred into dance when I first started dancing right after my mission. I was taking social dance, and for some reason my friend also talked me into taking beginning ballet. A class with 30 girls and just myself sounded fun. But I’ll never forget the moment we went to the barre and I did my first plies. The music started and emotion swelled up within me as I started moving to music I already knew and loved. I think I audibly gasped out, “Mozart Piano Concerto Number 21! I love this song!”
As I continued to train in ballet I developed a love for the technique and the beauty of the dance. I turned to YouTube and would watch all the famous pas de deux’s over and over by different dance companies. I started to gain a small bias for dance that was all about rules, lines, and aesthetic shapes. More recently I have come to love modern dance for reasons deeper reasons than visual beauty.
Recently I saw a recording of a performance choreographed my modern dancer Martha Graham. In her piece Lamentation, the dancer moves within a tube of cloth through the duration of the piece. I will tell you though, that I am not a fan of this piece. Personally, I don’t like the movement or the music. But I will not turn a blind eye to the technique, the emotion, and the originality of the piece. Martha Graham herself told a story concerning the dance. She said, “One of the first times I did it … a lady came back to me afterwards with a very white face, and she’d obviously been crying, and she said, ‘You will never know what you’ve done for me tonight, thank you.’ And left. I asked about her later. It seemed that she had seen her 9-year-old son killed in front of her by a truck. They had made every effort to make her cry. And she was not able to cry, but when she saw Lamentation, she felt that grief was honorable, and that it was universal and that she need not be ashamed of crying for her son.” That is beautiful. It is beautiful in a way that classical ballet never can be. That is aesthetic to the soul. That is art. And it doesn’t matter that I may not like it; who am I to put it less than the Grande Pas de Deux from Don Quixote? I may (and am entitled to) feel that way but that in NO way makes Lamentation any less artistic or aesthetically powerful.
A person walking through the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC may see Number 1 by Jackson Pollock and say, “I could do that.” Whereupon the curator would say, “Yeah, but you didn’t.” That is the beauty of art. One of its many aspects is originality. Paul Taylor and his partner Toby Armour in the performance of Seven Dances at Kauffman Concert Hall in 1957 made a similar contemporary statement to that of Pollock when they merely stood on stage and stared at each other for their entire piece. The beauty behind this is that those dancers spent decades of their lives developing their bodies to move it in aesthetic and artistic ways, yet they just stood there. Anyone could have done that. But they didn’t.
I stated above that we could learn a lot from a word’s antonym. I got this idea from a speech that was given at BYU-Idaho. Matthew J. Geddes made this insightful connection in his lecture, “Aesthetics Vs. Anesthetics.” He said, “What does that word, aesthetic, mean? Often it is defined as the study of or the philosophy of beauty. This definition is not incorrect, but it is somewhat incomplete. It is not until we consider the opposite of the word aesthetic that a better understanding becomes apparent. And, by the way, its opposite is a word that most of us are much more familiar with. The opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic. Anyone who has ever been to the dentist understands what an anesthetic is, and what it does. In the context of a dentist’s office, an anesthetic is a beneficial thing. But, most of us have also had the misfortune of leaving the dentist’s office before the effects of the anesthesia have worn off. In that condition of being numb, if you are not very careful you can bite down and damage the inside of your mouth without feeling it; at least not right then. In that context, an anesthetic can be a frightful thing. It can put us in a state wherein we can repeatedly damage ourselves without feeling anything.” Once again, being indifferent in any way puts you in a place where nothing original or aesthetic can be fabricated.
Aesthetics and art go hand in hand. If art is the physical medium of expression then aesthetics is that conduit that makes that expression moving to us. Aesthetics is different for every individual. Art will always be art, and mankind’s originality and creativity will always continue to be stretched, but aesthetics will forever touch different people in different ways, and that is why it is so important. This is a truth that is so important because art can, and needs to speak to all of us through aesthetics, because art can touch the human soul in ways nothing else can.
After all, since art is expressed from the soul, and aesthetics carries that expression into another’s soul, this may be the one of the most sacred forms of communion we can enjoy as one human being to another.