The Good & The Beautiful: Aesthetic Concepts & Expressive Arts Therapy

by | January 30, 2013 | Articles, Spiritual Leaders and Educators

Lausch Light of Isis 4by Joan Forest Mage

Note: This essay was published as a chapter in the edited book Healing With Art and Soul: Engaging Ones Self Through Art Modalities


Expressive Arts Therapists are led to several questions regarding the relation of aesthetics to our work. “What is art? What is the purpose of art? What is beautiful? What is beautiful art?” Is art to be produced only for its own sake, its inherent “beauty”? Or, if art’s purpose is to produce a beneficial social result, do we define that art that produces such a “good” result as beautiful?

Should Expressive Arts Therapists even be concerned with aesthetics? Some would define Expressive Arts Therapy in terms of its purpose: it is a form of healing which may include related purposes such as teaching, community-building, personal growth, spiritual expression, etc. Why don’t we simply define Expressive Arts Therapy in terms of producing good social purpose, rather than producing beauty?

A final question is whether we need to separate the good from the beautiful. A central debate in the history of Western aesthetics is whether the purpose of an artistic activity should be considered as part of that art form’s aesthetic. In this paper, we will look at various opinions on aesthetics. We will also discover cultures that include art and aesthetics as part of larger cultural activities such as healing or community bonding. We will see how Louis Sullivan’s theory of “form follows function” and Ellen Dissanayake’s theory of the common basis of play, ritual, and art provide a link between good purpose and beauty. I believe that Expressive Arts Therapy can find a home in such an aesthetic theory.

This paper is an overview of aesthetic concepts that I see as relevant to the field of Expressive Arts Therapy. It is not an exhaustive research paper in the fields of philosophy, art history, or anthropology. I hope it will be of value to Expressive Arts Therapists as we continue to develop individual and collective approaches to our work, and to explore the ways Expressive Arts Therapy can contribute to society.

Aesthetics: What’s Included?

One of the big debates in the field of aesthetics is whether the purpose or “reason” for art should be part of what constitutes the beauty of that art form. Webster’s dictionary (1993) defines “aesthetics” as:

A branch of philosophy dealing with beauty and the beautiful, especially with judgments of taste concerning them.
The philosophy or science of art, specifically the science whose subject matter is the description and explanation of the arts, artistic phenomena and aesthetic experience.

“Taste” is defined as:

The power or practice of discerning and enjoying whatever constitutes excellence, especially in the fine arts and belles letters: critical judgment, discernment or appreciation.
Aesthetics, therefore, is a philosophy of beauty and the arts, and especially a discernment or judgment regarding what constitutes beauty and art.

Peter Abbs (1991) points out that the word “aesthetic” derives from the Greek aisthe, meaning “to feel, to apprehend through the senses.” The opposite is our word “anesthetic”, meaning “loss of feeling or sensation.” Anesthetic commonly refers to the drugs given during surgery to create numbness to pain. To increase the aesthetic sense implies increasing and sensitizing one’s feelings and awareness.

The word “aesthetic” is associated with the feeling or sensation created from experience, more than with our intellectual understanding of experience. To have an aesthetic sense means that a person is alive, feeling, and conscious of experience.

Beauty Separate from Purpose

In aesthetics, different authors vary greatly on what should even be included in the topic.

Some say that aesthetics is about beauty as separate from purpose. This viewpoint was brilliantly articulated by Immanuel Kant (trans. 1951). In Critique of Judgment, Kant draws a distinction between the good, the pleasant and the beautiful. He says that “pleasant” has to do with the sensation an individual feels; it is an individual’s reaction that a thing that is enjoyable and delightful. “Good” means that a thing serves a useful purpose. For example, Kant says that if we asked the 18th century thinker Rousseau if the king’s palace is beautiful, Rousseau, the champion of the common people, might say the palace was not beautiful because it was built by heavily taxing the poor. Kant says that this is a question of good, not beauty. One can say that the palace is not good, because it causes suffering for the people. But whether the palace is beautiful is an entirely different question, according to Kant.

Kant says that beauty is not based in either logic (like the good) or sensation (like the pleasant.) Beauty is based in subjective reflection on an object, which is beyond mere sensation: it originates in reflective judgment, which is a deep, underlying sense of the rules and principles of “beauty” which the observer perceives in the object. Kant says that reflective judgment is a priori, meaning that it is an inherent faculty in each person. In other words, each person has a “sense of beauty” that it is not possible to explain further.

Even though beauty is subjective, it often has the characteristic of universality. It is not limited to the sensation that a particular individual has. Rather, many people using their reflective judgment will agree that a certain object is beautiful.

Kant’s ideas were very influential throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. A group called the aesthetes took these ideas to a logical extreme. Their philosophy was “art for art’s sake” – they believed that art need serve no purpose outside of its own existence.

Philosophers such as Bullough (1912/1984) with his concept of “psychical distance” also built on Kant’s idea. In psychical distance, the observer must contemplate the artwork or other aesthetic experience in a detached way in order to truly understand and appreciate its beauty. The observer should not be influenced by other factors, such as fear or distaste of the situation itself. This holds true whether the other factors are based on personal opinions, cultural tradition or even biological imperative, such as the safety of the observer. For example, Bullough says that passengers on a ship in foggy weather who were truly cultivating their aesthetic sense would focus on the beauty of the fog’s mysterious, misty grayness, rather than worrying that the ship may run aground because of the lack of visibility.

Kant’s Critique has its critics. Several authors (Dissanayake,1992; Leuthold, 1998) point out that separating the good from the beautiful encourages the idea of aesthetic detachment, which has not been the norm in most cultures throughout history. It is peculiar to our modern technological society, where people learn to take an objective stance towards many aspects of life. Dissanayake (1992) quotes Jane Ellen Harrison as saying that, if we stick to this meaning of aesthetics, then if you are in a boat and a fellow passenger falls out and begins to drown, instead of going to the rescue you would merely admire the play of light and color on the waves created as the person flails about! I believe Kant would say that this situation requires a different branch of philosophy: it calls for ethics, which is about evaluating morality, rather than aesthetics, which is about evaluating beauty.

What constitutes aesthetics differs from one writer to another. Some writers are concerned with how the sense of the beautiful arises within the human being; some talk about what constitutes an ideal of beauty within a specific art form; others try to find an overriding principle which can serve as an assessment tool for the “success” of art. Leo Tolstoy addresses the question of artistic success in his essay What Is Art?:

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced and…then by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms….to transmit that feeling that others experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art….
If a man is infected by the author’s condition of soul, if he feels this emotion and this union with others, then the object which has effected this is art; but if there be no such infection, if there be not this union with the author and with others who are moved by the same work – then it is not art. And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree if infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art. (Tolstoy, trans. 1930)
Comparing Kant’s and Tolstoy’s views, we come to a central question. Is aesthetics about beauty, or is it about art? For example, should beautiful natural phenomena, like sunsets, be included in the study of aesthetics? Or is the study of aesthetics limited to those things and experiences crafted by humans? Again, we find differing opinions. Hofstadter (1965) states his belief that any object in nature can be aesthetically beautiful. Art is not the aesthetic object, but rather a statement of the aesthetic experience that the object brings forth in the observer. “It [the art work] is, in the strict sense, not an aesthetic object at all, but rather an aesthetic symbol, part of whose content is an aesthetic object, since it articulates aesthetic experience.” (Hofstadter, 1965, p. 184). In other words, the artwork is art because it comments on the human reaction to the aesthetic impact of a natural object.

Twentieth century artists further questioned the aesthetics of human-formed vs. natural objects. By displaying common objects as artworks, artists raised the issue of whether simply displaying an object in certain contexts transmuted it into a work of art. Arthur Danto presents an interesting idea: it is the artworld itself, as a community with particular beliefs and concepts, that makes an object art:

To see something as art requires…an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.
Suppose a man collects objects (ready-mades), including a Brillo carton: we praise the exhibit [and the collector] for variety, ingenuity, what you will…True, we don’t say these things about the stockboy. But a stockroom is not an art gallery, and we cannot readily separate the Brillo cartons from the gallery they are in…
What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art….It could not have been art fifty years ago. But then there could not have been, everything being equal, flight insurance in the Middle Ages, or Etruscan typewriter erasers. The world has to be ready for certain things, the artworld no less than the real one. It is the role of artistic theories, these days as always, to make the artworld, and art, possible. It would, I should think, never have occurred to the painters of Lascaux that they were producing art on those walls. Not unless there were Neolithic aestheticians.(Danto, 1964/1984)
Art As Human Behavior: Purpose as Part of Aesthetic
Danto’s comment about Neolithic painters leads us to the other side of the debate of whether art should serve a purpose beyond creating “beauty”.

Architect Louis Sullivan created the famous maxim “Form follows function”:

…shapes express the inner life, the native quality, of the animal, tree, bird, fish….Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things, and this unspeakable process we call birth and growth….…Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function…. It is the pervading law of all things…that life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. (Michel, 1997)
Here we see an aesthetic that connects purpose and beauty. For Sullivan, each thing born or created strives to reveal itself in a form corresponding to its very essence. The task of the artist is to follow and manifest this form. As Expressive Arts Therapists helping our clients to develop their individual potential, we can embrace Sullivan’s aesthetic that art’s purpose is to manifest the inner being.

Victor Turner was an anthropologist who studied the connections between play, ritual and art (Ashley, 1990). He created a new field called performance studies, which looks at human activities such as religious ritual, civic ceremonies and performing arts as all arising the human need for symbolic action (Schechner, 1993).

Steven Leuthold and Ellen Dissanyake focus on the reasons humans make art. Both of them discuss art in indigenous cultures. An indigenous culture is a traditional way of life – language, religious beliefs, economy, social structure, arts – that has developed in a specific group of people over hundreds of years. Both Leuthold and Dissanayake comment that debating whether the purpose of art should be included in aesthetics is peculiar to Western culture. In his book Indigenous Aesthetics, Leuthold points out that the term aesthetics originated in the West, with its autonomous view of life:

In an autonomist view art has several attributes: artworks are “unique,” non-utilitarian, ego-identified (with the artist’s intention), self-validating in a psychological sense, innovative, “without rules,” and for sale or exhibition as a commodity or an independent object that extends beyond a community. These attributes of art are tied to other experiences and problems in the West such as the nature of materialism versus spirituality, the development of capitalism, the value placed on individual freedom, and so on.
Many of these attributes of art run counter to the attributes associated with art in indigenous cultures…many indigenous cultures did not identify their traditional expressive works as “art”; natives often believe there are social rules or guidelines for expression that must be followed and guarded; expressive objects and events are community-oriented; art is both useful and beautiful (its functioning is a part of beauty); the artist is not above or separate from society (not “different” or “eccentric”); and there is no pressure towards innovation for its own sake. (Leuthold 1998, p. 6 – 7)
Leuthold argues that we need a systems approach to understand the aesthetics of indigenous cultures:

How is art integrated into or a part of a total system of belief and actions?…A difficult assumption for many Euro-Americans to question is that the artist’s intention is the basis of aesthetic experience, a central element of autonomist views of art. A systems approach shifts the focus from the private intention of an artist to an environment of information and experience: the entire environment as ready to become a work of art. (Leuthold 1998, p.7)
Leuthold states that “art is both useful and beautiful (its functioning is a part of beauty)… Aesthetic experience is bodily, sensory; it is not just abstract and theoretical. Our value systems are rooted in our experience of the world….beliefs and values are lived and embedded in social relationships.”

Strange: doesn’t this idea of “value systems embedded in social relationships” and “the entire environment as ready to become a work of art” sound a lot like Danto’s idea of the “artworld”? In designating objects from the environment (such as Brillo boxes) as art, contemporary artists seem to be coming full circle to the larger, integrated concept of indigenous cultures, where art is often about creating ritual consciousness of relationships to the entire environment.

Danto says that a Brillo box would not have been art fifty years ago, but progressions in the theory of art now identify it as art. Whether an indigenous tribe or the modern artworld, communities express their beliefs and values through their art.

Another concept is that art should serve to teach positive values in society. Many indigenous cultures have storytelling and songs that explain the history of their people, and the proper relation of humans to the spirit realm (Abram, 1996). Clothing, adornments, tattooing, piercing and other body decorations are used to advertise or to signal changes in social status or membership in particular groups, thus ensuring the stability and safe transitions of status within the community. In Zambia, boys practice the mukanda dance, which helps them develop relationships with their peers to replace their childish dependence on their mothers (Dissanayake, 1992).

While art in ritual contexts can have a positive effect in building relationships and communication among community members, some say that too much focus on conveying traditional values through the arts can have a stifling effect on society. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote in The Republic that the purpose of art is to instill virtue in the young, and he recommended a type of censorship so that the arts would encourage young people to be virtuous (Plato, trans. 1892). Karl Marx felt the arts should reflect the realities of society and show how to win the class struggle, thus creating the ideal society (Marcuse, 1978/1984).

Marcuse says artistic aesthetics should not demand the demonstration of a particular system of social values:

A devaluation of the entire realm of subjectivity takes place…of inwardness, emotions and imagination. The subjectivity of individuals…tends to be dissolved into class consciousness. Thereby, a major prerequisite of revolution is minimized, namely, the fact that the need for radical change must be rooted in the subjectivity of individuals themselves, in their intelligence and passions, their drives and their goals. (Marcuse, 1978/1984, p.521)
Expressive Arts Therapists perform their work in contexts such as healing, education, social development, civic and religious ceremony, rather than in an “art for art’s sake” environment. In that way, Expressive Arts Therapy is part of an ancient tradition found in many cultures, in which purpose – creating positive social value – is considered part of art’s aesthetic.

Art As Energy Work

Many Expressive Arts Therapists ground their practice in the concept of healing through transforming energy. This concept of energy healing is shared by many indigenous cultures, as well as the Asian world. For example, the acupuncture and herbs of Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine are based in balancing energy.

In healing from an energetic standpoint, we focus transforming the energy to a positive, healthy state. Peter Abbs (1991) proposes a similar line of thinking in his aesthetic field model:

Art should not refer to a series of discrete artifacts or what some critics call “art objects” but to a highly complex web of energy linking the artist to the audience, and both artist and audience to all inherited culture. (Abbs, 1991, pp.247- 248)
We may also recall Sullivan’s statement “Form follows function.” According to Sullivan, everything in existence has an inner essence that strives to become manifest in a form peculiar to that essence. If we think of this inner essence as energy, “Form follows function” is a wonderful statement of an energetically-based aesthetic.

Art in indigenous cultures is often intertwined in spiritual ceremonies. From the Hawaiian hula to the Kung healing dance of Africa to Indian dancing of the Shiva mythology, dance is used as a means of channeling spiritual energy. Song and chant are used from Australia to North America to invoke the gods and spiritual power, as are visual art forms such as costumes, masks and sand painting (Dissanayake, 1992).

Throughout history, writers on aesthetics have talked about art as being inspired from a spiritual or energetic source. In his work Ion, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (trans. 1925) differentiates between the training and skills needed for the technical aspects of one’s art, such as learning techniques of singing or dancing, and the inspiration for the art, which Aristotle says comes from possession by the spirits. The artist receives the inspiration from the spirits and then passes it on to the audience. Aristotle gives the analogy of a magnet (spirit) magnetizing one piece of iron (an artist), which in turn attracts many other pieces of iron (the audience.)

Anthropologist Victor Turner said that both art and ritual are liminal. Liminality is a state of changing structures and identities, “of ambiguity, even paradox, outside or meditating between customary categories” (Ashley, 1990). Just as a tribe might employ a ritual as a liminal process to create the shift from boyhood to manhood, so art is often a liminal experience, helping the audience and artist make energetic shifts to new perceptions and even identities.

Lev Vygotsky (1971/1984) was a 20th century Russian psychologist who spoke of art as energy work. For Vygotsky, art creates catharsis, or transformation, through awakening contrasting affects (emotions) in the observer. He relates emotions to rhythms.

We can say that the basic aesthetic response consists of affect caused by art, affect experienced by us as if it were real, but which finds its release in the activity of imagination provoked by a work of art …[art delays] the motor expression of emotions and, by making opposite impulses collide…initiates an explosive discharge of nervous energy (Vygotsky, 1971/1984, pp. 518).
In Vygotsky’s description, we see the artist as creating a transformational container through the art work. This form becomes so powerful that it can transform the emotions (affect) of the audience.

Arts-Based Community Development (ABCD) is “arts-centered activity that contributes to the sustained advancement of human dignity, health and/or productivity within a community” (Cleveland, 2002). Cleveland’s article explains that arts-based community development encompasses many approaches to the arts, from artists creating murals about a neighborhood’s history, to using the arts to teach children conflict resolution. Cleveland has created a model for ABCD that shows its four fundamental purposes: educate and inform; inspire and mobilize; nurture and heal; build or improve the community. He says, “Historically, we see ABCD as a modern iteration of perhaps the oldest ‘field’ with a lineage that stretches back to prehistoric shamanism.” The shaman’s role is to heal through shifting energy, and shamans often have used the arts to accomplish this goal.

A Common Bond: The Imaginal World
Ellen Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus (1992) points out that though people are called Homo Sapiens (“thinking man”) art is as omnipresent a behavior for humans as thinking. Virtually every human being in every human culture for all of human history has participated in the arts.

Dissanayake says that art must have evolutionary survival value for the human species, because no behavior is universal in a species if it does not have survival value for that species. Dissanyake then asks what is the difference between three common types of human behavior: play, ritual and art. She gives a most profound answer: “other” worlds [are]…invented in play, invoked in ritual, or fabricated in the arts” (Dissanayake, 1992, p. 51).

Play, ritual and art all deal with the imaginal realm. But the purpose of play is to invent a non-ordinary realm; the purpose of ritual is to invoke its spiritual or energetic power; and the purpose of art is to fabricate the imaginal realm into physical form. The artist takes materials in the physical world – paint, movement, sounds, words – and causes them to manifest the energy the artist perceives.

Dissanayake’s theory has great potential as part of an aesthetic for Expressive Arts Therapy. It aligns with the way many Expressive Arts Therapists guide their clients from initial exercises (play) to energetic catharsis (ritual) through various media (art). Of all the theories about art and beauty, it answers the most basic question of how art is able to create transformation. It does not create an aesthetic in terms of defining which forms are considered more beautiful than others, but provides a fundamental definition of art’s purpose. Expressive Arts Therapy, which unites good purpose and beautiful form, can benefit from such an aesthetic theory.

Aesthetics, the philosophy of beauty and the arts, has engendered numerous theories throughout history and cross-culturally. Two major branches of aesthetics are those that include the purpose of the artwork as part of the definition of the aesthetic, and those that define beauty as separate from other purposes the art might have. Such Western authors as Kant, Bullough and the aesthetes define beauty as separate from good purpose. In contrast, the aesthetics of many cultures consider how well the art helps fulfill social, religious or other purposes.

Expressive Arts Therapy, which deals with healing and other social and spiritual purposes, may be considered as more aligned with aesthetic concepts that include good purpose and beautiful form. Such authors as Victor Turner, Steven Leuthold and William Cleveland explain the impact the arts have in fulfilling social purposes.

Many Expressive Arts Therapists define their work as healing through utilizing art to shift energy. This is similar to the spiritual healing practices of many indigenous cultures. Artists and thinkers from Aristotle to Vygotsky have included the spiritual/energetic component in their definition of aesthetics.

Louis Sullivan theory of “form follows function” and Ellen Dissanayake’s theory of play, ritual and art as having a common basis in the imaginal world have great potential to serve as the basis of an aesthetic for Expressive Arts Therapy.


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Joan Forest Mage is honored to serve as a shamanic artist, teacher and healer in her hometown of Chicago, where she is founder and executive director of Life Force Arts Center.

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