While a majority of the readings we have encountered this semester deal with the difficulty of justifying aesthetics values, Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard offers another perspective of what he defines as the aesthetic realm in relation to the ethical and religious realms. His distinctions explain for the abundance of and attraction to the visual arts, and why it leaves us ultimately begging for more. I believe that his assertions help articulate how one participates in the aesthetic realm, but how it fundamentally is linked to anxiety, which is a fairly relatable experience.
In a move reminiscent of Plato, Søren Kierkegaard does not place a large stake in aesthetics. His conception of the aesthetic realm focuses solely on pleasure and the escape from the boredom of a monotonous existence. Kierkegaard calls boredom the “root of all evil. Strange that boredom…should have such power to set in motion” (8). The boredom has the ability to repulse the individual into action, which he would attribute for the abundance of artworks that we have discussed in class. The need to escape from boredom permeates the individual’s existence, and the participation in the sensually pleasing only reinforces how motivating boredom can be. One needs to look no further than the large body of visual representation in order to prove the extent of humans to escape boredom. The most heinous product of the aesthetical realm stems from the glory placed on possibility instead of actuality. This possibility arises when an artist speculates what to draw on the blank canvas or even in the interpretation of a completed artwork. The attention that possibility receives in relation to actuality infuriates Kierkegaard, because it would lead to anxiety.
The anxiety that Kierkegaard highlights differs from the medical sense; here anxiety deals with “freedom’s possibility” (30). The possibilities constitute an educative role in the individual’s existence, as possibilities inform the individual about his own notions of infinitude. The infinitude helps to educate one to the reality beyond the lowly aesthetic realm, only when it coupled with faith. Faith, without invoking a strong religious influence, regards the certainty that anticipates infinity (31). Anxiety of the limitless possibilities, which serve as an escape from boredom, can only be thwarted when the individual applies a faith of an infinity that transcends the finite. The challenge of man therefore is to cope, through faith, with the seemingly limitless extent of human freedom. We see the artist as fundamentally trapped in this freedom when approaching the blank canvas, as the possibilities of creation are endless. This causes anxiety, which Kierkegaard would believe the artist to leave unresolved, primarily because they are participating solely at a sensuous level concerned with finitude. Kierkegaard’s discussion of the anxiety appear similar to the Kantian sublime, which would allow for its appeal to emotion, but ultimately doesn’t correspond because of the role of the God and the value of realms Kierkegaard’s system.
Throughout his works Kierkegaard is critical of the aesthetic realm and how it differs from the ethical and religious realms. He explores the ethical realm in his analysis Isaac’s near sacrifice in the Bible (I offer a brief summary: Abraham is called upon by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham agrees. As he is going to slay his child, God intervenes and ultimately rewards Abraham’s faith in God despite the unethical request that he was initially burdened with). The ethical realm dictates how the individual interacts with other individuals in a universal manner (15). The solely product and end of the ethical realm is to foster universality, in which individuals can harmoniously exist without infringing upon another. The ethical realm does not necessary oppose the aesthetic realm, as they coexist but are both ultimately subordinate to what he coins as the religious realm. The religious realm, like the aesthetic realm, relies on a temporary departure from the ethical realm in order to engage the subjects within the realm appropriately. For the aesthetic realm this would constitute art creation or interpretation, because it brings the individual closer to possibilities grounded in finitude and ultimately can be explained as an escape from boredom. Kierkegaard values the religious realm over all others, because it can transcend what is merely universal, and moves us closer to the possibilities involved with infinitude (To continue the relationship with the Isaac story: Abraham transcends the ethical realm by complying to sacrifice his son and is rewarded by God, which is infinite and transcends the ethical realm. This is why we regard Abraham as a hero and not a murderer, because he had faith in something infinite outside the ethical realm and successfully learned from anxiety). If we recall, these are the possibilities that he deems the most educative.
The gripping aspect of Kierkegaard’s works is his firm belief of a higher participation that in a merely aesthetic realm, which I tend to agree with. I side that one of the appeals of the aesthetics stems for its function as an escape from the boredom of the ethical realm. As the utilitarian will agree, the natural inclination of man is to pursue pleasure, thus reinforcing why the aesthetical realm’s large body of visual representations that indulge the senses. The struggle for me throughout this semester has been in the prioritization of aesthetics among the other aspects of life. I find Kierkegaard’s work refreshing, yet questionable at the same time. While it seems intuitive to me that aesthetics, or things dealing purely with sensation are below morality (ethical realm) or some type of religious realm (here I will just assert an infinitude and not favor Christianity), Kierkegaard own personal motives may cloud his judgments. His justification for faith and anxiety stem from a need, specifically his own, to participate with God in a manner that transcends the universal, and participates with infinity. This would almost inherently discredit the aesthetic realm, as it deals with finitude and it is incapable of applying faith to anything beyond itself. The downplaying of the aesthetical realm coincides with my own thoughts, but I am weary of an appeal to religion because of its seemingly tenuous position in relation to rational thought. Therefore, I take these readings with a grain of salt, but ultimately agree in the system set forth by Kierkegaard, as it accurately reflects the nature of anxiety in terms that relate to visual artistic representation and the aesthetic realm and why it is possibly inferior to an educative anxiety born out of a faith in an infinite.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Existentialism. Comp. Robert C. Solomon. Second ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 17-23. Print.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/Or. Existentialism. Comp. Robert C. Solomon. Second ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 8-14. Print.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Until Death. Existentialism. Comp. Robert C. Solomon. Second ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 15-17. Print.
Kierkegaard, Soren. "The Concept of Anxiety." Existentialism. Ed. Robert C. Solomon. Second ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 29-31. Print.