The Humanist Life is the Aesthetic Life
March 30, 2009
Yes, we know the truisms. Much of art is humanistic. And much of humanism is expressed in the arts. We humanists well appreciate how important the arts are for life. But I wonder if we really do understand the deep importance of art for the humanistic life. Aesthetic enjoyments can be found everywhere in life, and art is its broadest sense might be essential for the humanist life itself.
I was reminded of this issue by Paul Kurtz’s essay “Humanism and the Arts: Do The Arts Convey Knowledge?” Kurtz quotes the humanist philosopher John Dewey, who proclaimed our “need to integrate art and aesthetic enjoyment into all aspects of life.”
Kurtz and Dewey are not telling us that we must all become artists to be humanists. Of course, we should all try our hand at one or another of the creative arts, and becoming an amateur artist or performer is valuable for its own sake. Rather, these leading humanists are getting at something deeper about leading a meaningful and beautiful life. Aesthetic enjoyments enhance every the life of every person who pays attention to them. But too often we think of art as a mere adornment to life, gilting the edges of our otherwise drab and utilitarian surroundings. But we choose our environments, more than we know.
Start with the beauty of nature. Is the beauty of nature confined to the parks, the beaches, the mountains? We can have more natural beauty surrounding us all the time. Incorporate nature into your environments—animals, plants, earth, water, sky—and think organic when making choices about food, clothing, and energy use.
Is the beauty of art confined to the museums? Having a few paintings or sculptures around for the eye, or some ambient music for the ears, are concentrated artistic forms, of course. Don’t forget the beauty of design, infusing all the artifacts, architectures, and technologies around us. Whatever grabs at you, “speaks” to you, go for it! Don’t let any critic or “fashion” expert decide. And don’t let anyone tell you that art or design isn’t practical. Only you know what really makes a positive difference to your enjoyment of life.
As Kurtz says, “for the humanist the aesthetic dimension of life is perhaps the most eloquent expression of human creativity.” Your creative choices for your environments aren’t just ways of surrounding yourself with beauty. Your refinement of the beauty of your surroundings is an essential part of your artistic creativity, your aesthetic expression, something uniquely and specially yours. By controlling your experiences of your world, are you not making one the greatest practical differences of all?
Kurtz concludes his essay by saying that art is a kind of knowledge, providing “an eloquent dimension to experience by rendering humanist truths and humanist values in aesthetic form.” We must leave for another posting an exploration of the way that Kurtz and Dewey suggest that living the humanist life can itself be a creative process of self-expression. For now, please comment on this idea that humanism encourages aesthetic enjoyment in every aspect of life. Can you suggest books or websites that explore ways that humanistic ideas and ideals might receive expression through the arts and design?
#1 Personal Failure (Guest) on Monday March 30, 2009 at 11:24am
I have noticed, with great sadness, that religious fundamentalists rarely seem to enjoy the beauty of the world around them. Their homes, their clothes, their choice in art and music, is all centered around religious doctrine rather than personal enjoyment.
I bother to dress nicely because it makes me happy. I put huge amounts of effort into fixing up my house because it makes me happy. I choose paintings that delight me, music that leaves me unable to sing (or whitedance) along, writing that leaves me changed.
How can you not appreciate, and embrace, how wonderful life can be?
#2 Life coach (Guest) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 at 5:32am
“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away”.
#3 Peter (Guest) on Thursday April 16, 2009 at 7:47am
Well said. But sometimes I think What is the meaning of life and why are we here?
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