Is There a Universal Esthetic?

Naifs, Innocence, Education, Esthetics


by Barbara Rosenthal
Contributing Columnist

NYC, Jan 1, 2018. It all comes down to the same question every time, doesn’t it? No matter where we start, even in the middle here like this. Always, communication, especially in the arts, comes down to the question of universal vs. specific — of whether what we are transmitting will reach the mind/heart/soul/psyche of its perceiver because

  1. a) we share a common human trait (or/and/but if so, in what measure)
  2. b) we share a common element of culture. (Certainly not limited to ethnicity, I mean everything experienced in groups, and in no measure do I discount art school. And keep an eye out for agendas, such as politics, and familiar — e. easily referenced — imagery, such as in “appropriation.” This column will explore these outer limits one day.)

Surely, every artwork/artifact is imbued with both, and besides these two, the products deemed most lasting, most “High Art,” are also imbued with a palpable degree of originality — which, of itself, particularly in its most extreme, can cause a work to fail as a communication medium, at least at the time of its creation: and this will be the subject of another future column. For this one, let’s postulate an originality of image/text/presentation that does elicit viewer receptivity, and does not rely on cultural familiarity. This brings us back to the central question: Can an image/text/concept unique to its artist instill the same (or at least concordant) feelings/moods/symbiosis in others, and especially, in others not acculturated to its abstractions (form) or iconography (content). In other words, is there a universal esthetic?

Disclosure: I’ll tell you that my works develop as if there are, and that I try to stay in a trance-state, similar I think to what athletes call “the zone” or “the flow,” in the case of art, activating deep places in hopes that what comes from there will reach equally deep places in viewers. But I’ve been wanting to find out what accredited philosophers and psychologists have to say about the topic, so I researched what they generated as papers and experiments.

Firstly, googling my term “universal esthetics” brought up almost nothing, with most of it linking to a branch of cosmetics. Trying more tries, I find that academics call this “Aesthetic Normativity.” Surprising to me, the field seems to break along the lines of the two groups, and it’s notable how each group formed seemingly opposite opinions. Philosophers such as Fabian Dorsch, posit that “aesthetic criticism is largely a matter of reasoning and, moreover, a collective undertaking”; they argue from platforms of logic and build upon previous philosophers, although from my reading of Immanual Kant, Kant seems to think there is, although offers no empirical evidence. Psychologists, however, have done some real experiments. A neurology search yielded “How Does the Brain Appreciate Art” (Brown and Gao, 2011), which linked further to the field of “neuroaesthetics,” indicates that brain centers relative to desirability in art overlap with those of other desirabilities, such as food; i.e. esthetics are not a separate consideration. But what do the psychologists themselves have to say? What have they discovered? Is there any empirical evidence for a universal esthetic?

What about any universal norms in spoken word / oral traditions? In dance? We can probably agree that in the art of music, all cultures share the commonality of rhythm, harmony, etc, which is a tip of the scales toward universality in other arts.

Psychologists Perret, Burt et al, in 1999, add agreement that there is a universal esthetic, by their oft-proved theory that facial symmetry is preferred universally in mate-selection, and that even infants look longer at images considered attractive than those not.

What about those art school lessons? For instance, the picture plane as recipient of marks to represent distance, speed, balance? Why are so many of these classical lessons of visual art being ignored now: receding space, overlap, contour, value and intensity as indications of atmospheric perspective, emotive color: cools, warms. Why are venues showing so much art that throws to the wind now everything taught? Technique, in art school, was meant to develop an optically universal construct. But currently, iconography, particularly of political and sexual themes, seems to be trumping form, particularly within NYC neighborhoods supporting local artists. Why is that? And how does widely exhibited “bad craftsmanship” inform our investigation of a universal esthetic? Particularly as few of such works exhibit originality either in form or content. Of these art school graduates, are the lessons of spacial communication, for example, just badly learned, or are they being ignored in favor of just the “I made this, and if you like mine, I’ll like yours.”

What shall we do to create art that reaches from the core of ourselves as artists to the core of viewers. Blind ourselves to  everything seen? Sink the lessons of our tribes and classrooms deep below the surface? Call up a deeper trance of access to our individual mind through the universal mind, the archetypal mind, the truly surreal mind?  Study the Masters to understand their hard-learned techniques, but then subsume them within contemporary media and concerns?   What about outsider artists, and enthusiastic unschooled viewers? Is such universal communication possible?

Admittedly not doing nearly enough scholarship on this question for me to resolve anything definitive, let’s say that I’m putting some ideas to you that have been important for my own over half-century of serious art manufacture and college paycheck-collection, so you can join in on thinking about them. And to some degree, recognizing quality of technical expertise when visiting exhibitions, whether or not you believe it is important. I may spend some column-time on reviewing what that expertise entails. For good or not, disclosure: my own very classical art school education began at The Brooklyn Museum at age 14, then The Art Students’ League, then Carnegie-Mellon, Tyler, and CUNY/Queens for MFA in Painting, 1974. It morphed me into an avant-garde media, writing, performance artist and art philosopher, not a classical painter. The lessons, they are adaptive.

This is now the third contemporary publication of this column. I think it’s beginning to shape up. Definitely Philosophy of Art: What is Art? What is High Art? What part does an artist play in making it? What is an artist? What is talent? What is originality/appropriation/furtherance? How does an artist translate life into art? How to consider art with an agenda: cultural/political/commissioned. We all think about these things, so here will be an attempt at thinking clearly. As I wrote for one of my Button Pins, “Put It in Writing. I don’t know how far this Crack in the Sidewalk will open to answers, but it looks like it will construct more than a few questions, putting into focus what all of us see in our Outlook Hazy Magic 8-Ball.

About the author:

Barbara Rosenthal is an idiosyncratic New York artist/writer/performer whose latest book, the novel, Wish for Amnesia (Deadly Chaps Press, 2017) explores themes of innocence, esthetics, dimensionality, thought and corruption. She is particularly interested in the intersection of art and life. About the novel: Calendar of events: To comment on this column, please message FACEBOOK: