We are so used to looking at the world and laying claim to it that our ideas about experience are predictably narrow. Nothing seems unreasonable about the notion that we use our thinking and our senses as best as we can to understand the world and to navigate it. Yet by considering only this arrangement we may be limiting what is available to us.
One of the assumptions in the development of any skill is that attention improves performance. The more we develop our attention, the more attention we have to bring to the task, and in the deeper ranges of attention we can feel so connected to our materials that the usual separation of subject and object does not seem to exist. Wonderful surprises can emerge from such states. A painting, a piece of music, a chair, a poem, each of which has a startling presence and indefinable aliveness, is born, and we know that such work is not attributable solely to our cleverness. How lucky, how blessed we feel! Isn’t this experience what the artist cherishes? Other people respond favorably and validate our experience. Certain values become clarified: creativity, meaning, beauty. Always surrounded these days by cultural apologists and sombre theoreticians, beauty is still the term people use to describe the fundamental quality of a work of art they see as moving and well composed. In the confusion and embarrassment of using words like beauty in today’s cultural climate, we lose sight of the intimate relationship between beauty and attention.
There are some very good reasons why beauty in art has fallen into disrepute. Reasons mostly to do with the narrowness of gendered, consumerist, and imperialist frames we’ve imposed on the art-making. All of that is a discussion for another day. Hypothetically, we can indulge in a bit of speculation, a metaphorical construction of how reality might operate if we just allowed ourselves to see.
The relationship I am considering is not the same as subject and inclination (“beauty is in the eye of the beholder”), nor is it the same as the idea that our concept of beauty changes from society to society. Both of these ideas still proceed from the self that controls all the action and that predicts the nature of outcomes: I think, I know, I do; You think, you know, you do; We think, we know, we do. Soon we start imitating each other, at which point some of us insist on difference, and so forth–until we get dizzy. So, too, the relationship between beauty and attention could be deconstructed to see the various cultural elements within beauty and within attention. It could go that way. Instead, let us consider beauty as a condition separate from us.
What does it mean to say that we exist in beauty’s gaze? Clearly, there is some reversal in this expression from the conventional way of thinking. We say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or that “we create beauty,” or that “beauty is a cultural concept.” All three phrases express the idea that beauty is a product of something we do, and, inherent in that idea is the control we ascribe to ourselves over our psychological and emotional lives. On the other hand, the phrase “in beauty’s gaze” gives no acknowledgment of our creativity, control, or insight. In a sense, we don’t figure in the phrase at all, except as passive objects. Beauty has become animated, even personified, beyond a concept to some figurative state of deity. “Beauty gazes at us” is the full translation of “in beauty’s gaze,” and put as a declarative sentence, the statement is somewhat intimidating.
When it comes to art and philosophy, the ancient Greeks had an easier time of it. Abstractions like beauty did not exist except as an aspect of a particular formulation of divinity, in this case, Aphrodite. Aphrodite is beauty as god-like power, and she is also love in its sensual form. Aphrodite is also connected to a spectrum of other formulations called Zeus, Ares, Hephaestus, Cupid, and so on. The richness and complexity of the Greek polytheistic view is such that psychologist James Hillman, among others, has used the ancient Greek view of the world to explore our modern soul. Hence, Aphrodite becomes for Hillman a way of looking psychologically at “the soul of the world,” a way that validates for the modern imagination the beauty of appearances. Hillman discusses such ideas with a clarity that illuminates the Greek imagination for us moderns and re-presents our own experience as simultaneously contemporary and ancient.
Hillman’s ideas about Aphrodite as the soul of the world provide us with a context to examine the relationship between beauty and attention a little deeper. Accepting even momentarily the personification in the discussion, let’s ask what Aphrodite sees if we are beheld in her gaze. When we are feeling particularly good about ourselves, we might say she sees us as we are. That sentiment is meant to indicate that in essence we are beautiful. But can we so easily identify ourselves with essence? For isn’t it a given that our pretensions, fantasies, insincerity, lies, utterly empty, consumer-driven enthusiasms are not aspects of essence? In essence, we are beautiful, but do we live in essence? And, if the answers are not obvious, then what is left of us on a given day that we can bring to our relationships and to our creative work, that is, what do we experience of ourselves that we can identify as really us?
While it is pleasant to think that the spirit of beauty sees us in essence as beauty, the thought can have terrifying implications for some. Whatever is not essence—for example, most of our daily pre-occupations—has to be sacrificed for us to exist in the gaze of Aphrodite. And so the popular contemporary view of what it means to be a person does not exist at all in the gaze of the divine. Such is the meaning, in part, of the destruction of mortals in Greek mythology who become involved with the gods, either accidentally looking upon the gods or else being the objects of amorous escapades. Only the divine in us or the truly human in us survives the contact with the god. Most of us are just not prepared to live with such intensity, such purity, such ardent presence.
There are many stories of artists who have come to grief comparatively early in their careers: alcoholism, drugs, madness. We tend to toss them onto the pile of noble failures, who were either too neurotic to survive or too weakened by poverty to withstand material and social pressures.
Might any of them have been ruined not by indulgence but by the rigors bestowed by their muse? A little too precious? Sure, the drinking and the fighting and the drugs were really there. But you can have an experience of beauty, a moment so exquisite and clear that your breath stops easily, a sojourn in the garden, so to speak, and then you are cast out. And nothing you do brings back anything like that moment. And if that moment of beauty is of the duration on the ordinary level of a month or a year before the desert manifests, such a change can destroy anyone.
These somber intimations of abandonment and loss are usually the result of being struck by divine lightning. The artist hasn’t done anything extraordinary, but one day lightning flashes through his inner world and his cells dazzle and sound unceasingly. Not quite unceasingly, because one day the fire burns out, the music stops, and the artist goes crazy with grief. Of course, the behavior may not look like grief; it may be the drunkenness of a Pollock or the retreat of a Rimbaud that we see. It is difficult to see past the obvious when we are not required to make the effort.
Most of us don’t get struck by lightning, so the question is whether we can hazard a glimpse of Aphrodite’s realm without consequences. We can be reassured by the memory of our most intense moments in wilderness when nature has been a balm. Neither then nor in recollection is there any sense of threat. For those who want to extend themselves and the way they work, then the key is how to amplify insight and impression and carry them into an operational mode.
Allowing ourselves to be accepted into a realm of beauty that is related to nature and to humanity simply through our clarity and surrender is the same as existing in Aphrodite’s gaze. Our willingness to act as channels for beauty and meaning is also the resurrection of inspiration in its classic sense. Inspiration is taking in the energy of a god, and it is for those who aspire to create beyond themselves, beyond their limitations, for those who are willing to be present in the gaze of the divine.