Psychological Aesthetics: Painting, Feeling, and Making Sense

By David Maclagan | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
Aesthetics, Beauty and Soul

For beauty is nothing
but the start of dread, which we can hardly bear,
and we are amazed by, because it so coolly disdains
to wipe us out (Rilke, First Duino Elegy, my translation).

In the last chapter we saw how Ehrenzweig explained that inarticulate form was subject to disqualification and repression. For the archetypal psychologist James Hillman the subject of repression is beauty itself: ‘. the most significant unconscious today, that factor which is most important but most unrecognised in the world of our psychological culture, could be defined as ‘beauty’, for that is what is ignored, omitted, absent’ (Hillman 1998, p.263).

Likewise, if the slackening of the barriers between depth and surface can produce effects that Ehrenzweig described as therapeutic so, as far as Hillman is concerned, the recovery of beauty, or rather of the repressed aesthetic need to experience it, is therapeutic. This is not only because it answers a fundamental need, but because beauty is a quality inherent in phenomena themselves, and ignoring or neglecting such aesthetic qualities—what he calls ‘anaesthesia’— results in serious problems on both an individual and a collective scale.

Hillman rejects the whole perspective of projective psychology, according to which beauty is a subjective response, in favour of one that acknowledges its objective presence in the world: ‘. suppose we were to imagine that beauty is permanently given, inherent to the world in its data, there on display always. This inherent radiance lights up more translucently, more intensively within certain events, particularly those events that aim to seize it and reveal it, such as art works’ (Hillman 1998, p.267). Here we find again the idea, mentioned in Chapter Two, that works of art can function as condensers of an aesthetic experience of the world.

For Hillman the apprehension of beauty (and ‘apprehension’ strikes an appropriate note of awe) is linked with aesthetic response in an absolutely fundamental way, that is not confined within some special preserve associated with

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