Sacramental Aesthetic: Part II

II. ‘Meaningful Experience’ in the Real World

i. ‘Meaningful Experience’ as ‘Aesthetic Experience’

For the human person, it seems that ‘meaningful experience’ can accurately be associated with ‘aesthetic experience.’ In fact, it seems not only that the two can be associated but that they can perhaps also be equated in many ways, so that the meaningful experience of man always in some way manifests a sort of aesthetic character. To make such an allegation one must first, however, be intensely aware that the definition of the word, “aesthetic,” has been shown to elude philosophers’ grasp for centuries. Rather than assume a pre-established definition of “aesthetic” here, it would serve us well to examine the issue in some depth, coming to an autonomous yet plausible realization of aesthetic experience as it relates to the meaningful.

First, let us begin with the elemental definition of “aesthetic” as being concerned with the beautiful; this assertion is a safe one (inasmuch as we can see, and with the intention of avoiding a protracted and meticulous discourse on the topic), and provides a necessary platform upon which to erect a subsequent conception of the word. If this holds, that authentic aesthetic experience is therefore essentially an experience of the beautiful—or perhaps more plainly, an experience in some way concerned with the beautiful—then we have already completed a considerable portion of our work; we have identified that insofar as man is interested in the beautiful, he is interested and involved in aesthetic experience. Thus, we have ascertained a definition of “aesthetic” that is strongly correlative with our understanding of ‘meaning,’ insofar as meaning is concerned with the beautiful, itself a viable expression of the truth. What is left is to distinguish the degree to which meaningful and aesthetic experiences find equivalence in human understanding. In other words, we must come to know if meaning per se (i.e. the subjective fact which conveys truth) can be transmitted by way of beauty, for only if this reality holds can we justly equate ‘meaningful’ with ‘aesthetic.’

ii. Three Forms of Aesthetic Experience

Here, it will be helpful to examine three types of aesthetic experience that occur in human world-interaction. Each of the three forms communicates a different level of beauty and truth, and each is bound to a respective matrix of functionality, within which it must be seen and interpreted for fear of mistakenly generalizing ‘aesthetic experience’ as being something universal and mathematically quantifiable.

The first application of the word, “aesthetic,” to which we will pay attention has already been assumed in our discussion to be a misappropriation of the term, but nevertheless it must be included as a popular and oft-exercised understanding thereof. This basic and colloquial perception of an aesthetic experience as something completely subjective—that is to say, as an experience whose complete and total value arises as a result of the application of value on the part of the experiencing subject—vastly overlooks the profound depth of meaning present in any experience of the beautiful. In this proposed type of aesthetic encounter, the object of experience itself is attributed its ‘aesthetic’ or ‘meaningful’ quality not by virtue of the character of the experience (i.e. a transmission of truth in a manner conditioned by human perception), but rather by the acting subject, who himself deems independently to ascribe to the encounter some level of value. Here, there is a circumvention of the experience itself, which is replaced instead by an exaltation of the knower and the known; as such, a void remains where the nexus of the experience should have been, and we are left with an encounter that in itself retains no worth, not even on the ontological level. Bankrupt of significance, this application of the term, “aesthetic,” is quite obviously unconcerned with the relationship we first established between fact and meaning, and might therefore be considered inconsequential in further considerations.

A second conceivable application of the term in question is located at precisely the opposite end of the spectrum as the first; that is, in an ‘aesthetic experience’ ontologically constituted as such and totally uninterested in the existential aspect of the human experience. In other words, in this instance the object of the experience—the ‘aesthetic object’—is not attributed the substantially augmenting characteristic of aesthetic value, but rather possesses it, as it were, as part of its own composition. In such a conjecture, the import of the human experience is utterly irrelevant; no subjective encounter with such an object could alter or add in any way to the pre-existent value inherent therein. However, taking into account our earlier reflection on ‘fact’ and ‘meaning,’ we realize that the transmission of truth is never a completely a priori reality, and must inevitably occur within the framework of human experience. As with the first example, the point of convergence for fundamental truth and subjective interpretation in this model is bereft of significance. Whereas in the previous example absolute subjectivism precluded further serious reflection, here a sort of metaphysical absolutism—one which may rightly be called realism, but in the most extreme sense—presents an entirely new yet equally debilitating obstacle.

A third probable function of the term, “aesthetic,” seems to articulate best what most likely occurs in an ‘aesthetic experience’ as it has been constructed here. While the two abovementioned investigations have uncovered either a markedly subjective or exceedingly objective template for aesthetic experience, it should be clear to see that a more reasonable solution lies somewhere in between. Calling to mind what should therefore already be obvious, in this last understanding the phenomenon we mean something where the experiential nexus itself is finally found to possess value in and of itself; i.e. the value of the aesthetic experience is no longer imposed by the objective or subjective element of the event, but rather is formed upon the convergence of the two in the experience per se. Here, the aesthetic object is not such before being experienced, but instead is ascribed (rightly, it would seem) the substantial attribute of ‘aesthetic’ only once it is encountered by the subject. Similarly, the subject does not compel this value upon the object by any power of its own but, on the contrary, permits the object to be augmented in meaning by submitting it to active experience. Therefore, the objective and subjective elements of the experience work reciprocally to provide one another with value. What is more, this third treatment of the ‘aesthetic experience’ also provides a most reasonable account for the aim of all such experiences: the transfer of fundamental truth by way of the subjective fact (i.e. in a manner conditioned by human experience). In the end, this understanding provides evidence in answer to our primary inquiry in this section—namely whether or not the ‘meaningful’ and the ‘aesthetic’ can be somehow equated—since such a model of ‘aesthetic experience’ appears to rely heavily upon ‘meaning’ for final recognition of its basic yet communicable truth.

Thus, it seems we can once again step forward with confidence, this time into the final consideration of our topic and the one toward which we have been aiming all along: the fundamental relationship of the ‘aesthetic experience’ and the reality of knowing in the sacraments of the Catholic Church.