Aesthetic Experience & Ethical Reflection

And from the solicitude of the sublime act we are led directly to its communicability by a pre-reflective and immediate grasp of its relation of agreement with the situation: in this given case, here and now, we are certain that this is exactly what had to be done, in the same way that we consider a given painting to be a masterpiece because right away we have the feeling that it realizes the perfect adequation of the singularity of the solution to the singularity of the question.[1]


A Singular Experience

There is a shared singular experience with the artist and the spectator, the writer and the reader, and the composer and the listener, when the listener suddenly hears music in the silence between the notes, when the reader unknowingly begins reading the text between the lines, and when the spectator falls silent and is drawn deep into a painting. The artist, the writer, and the composer on one hand; the spectator, the reader, and the listener on the other—at one point they all experienced a shared singular moment with the configured work: they were drawn into it, began gazing into space, and began seeing images coming together in their minds. And they knew exactly what to do next.

A unique, singular moment has been captured through an artistic genius, encapsulated in a work of art and is left on its own, no tricks, no hard-selling. Then somebody comes by and picks it up from there. Suddenly, it explodes—bursts of colors and images of a singular moment come flooding out into his imagination, losing him in thoughts, drowning him. Just then, it becomes too large to be left unnoticed, and too deep to be left forgotten. Then it begins to talk, communicating, passing on that “unique gesture to be done.”

In one singular moment, those at the either side of the configuration share a unique experience with it. It doesn’t matter if it is only an adequation, but they both know, and in that same moment meditate on a singular question, and agree, though without yet a language for it, on a singular solution.


An Implied Intention

             No one knows exactly what the intention of the artist is, usually not even the artist himself. In the same way, no one also knows what exactly is the intention of the spectator before walking in to a gallery, or when just passing by a painting, and exactly what happens when his gaze falls upon it for the first time and almost immediately recognizes it as a masterpiece.

In “Aesthetic Experience,” Ricoeur talks about the great difficulty of reflections on art:

For the aesthetic experience involves each time a spectator, a listener, a reader who is also in a relation of singularity with the singularity of the work; but at the same time, it is the first act of communication of the work to others and, virtually to all. The work is like a trail of fire issuing from itself, reaching me and reaching beyond me to the universality of humanity.[2]

There really is a great difficulty because art in this sense broadly includes all art. From the classic and high-class art to graffiti and protest materials, even perhaps to furniture pieces, mass produced articles, the little stamps, or even trinkets: one could never know, nor perhaps imagine, which of these would turn out to have more people being drawn to. Of course there are pieces which have been intended explicitly for a specific purpose, such as the books in a bookstore’s inspirational shelf which one could just grab for inspiration, rave music and laser lights set up in bars so the party could sweat out a dance in an electric beat, or a protesters’ ugly effigy which is obviously going to be burned to actualize its end. However, we cannot also say that one is just confused when he gets inspiration from the mystery fiction shelf, feels stillness in rock music, or experiences tranquilizing peace while running his fingers on some carvings on an armchair, not finding it crude or artless, but just beautiful.

When the work finds itself being looked into and not just being seen; listened to, not just being heard over; and read closely, not just being leafed through—that singular moment becomes a complete aesthetic experience. It is when the Ricoeurian three panels overlap, as though a Venn diagram: it becomes the meeting point of the artist, the artwork, and the spectator. Perhaps, despite each of them existing in different time, space or dimension, they meet in a unique, single instance. With the drawing of the three elements, a spark ignites, a trail of fire is set forth, reaching, sharing the experience to the universality of humanity.[3] The previously unseen and unheard of artistic expression interpreted roughly in a mere adequation gets communicated, gets understood, and gets grasped immediately, and also, with surprisingly perfect eloquence, immediately becomes the perfect solution to the one great problem at hand.


The Ethical Aim

            Thus far, we have not yet fathomed deep into the elements’ individual intentions before the convergence took place. At either side of the completed, but still non-thinking, art piece, we have the artist and the spectator. Both, at different times, with the same pace, taking two, three steps back: one finally seeing it completed and is satisfied, while the other seeing it for the first time and is fascinated; both immediately recognizing it as a masterpiece, both straight away declaring that this is just the way it is to be done.

Whatever their previous intentions were, they now have become unnecessary, or, at the least, secondary. Now, they turn around, armed with a purpose, with a single ethical aim, to do good, i.e., with and for others in just institutions.[4]





Ivan Richard F. Deligero

January 26, 2013

[1] Paul Ricoeur, “Aesthetic Experience,” in Critique and Conviction: Conversations with François Azouvi and Marc de Launay, trans. Kathleen Blamey (1998), Cambridge: Polity Press, 182.

[2] Ibid., 180.

[3] See quotation above.

[4] See further Paul Ricoeur (1994), Seventh Study: “The Self and the Ethical Aim” in Oneself As Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 169-202.

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