What is the effect of certain forms of art on the psyche and the evolution of consciousness?


What effect does art have on the psyche and the evolution of consciousness? This question could lead down every path but I will chose one to follow. Owen Barfield expressed a marked concern over a question related to this issue in 1957:

We should remember this, when appraising the aberrations of the formally representational arts. Of course, insofar as these are due to affectation, they are of no importance. But insofar as they are genuine, they are genuine because the artist has in some way or other experienced the world he represents. And insofar as they are appreciated, they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world in that way, and, ultimately therefore, seeing that kind of world. We should remember this, when we see pictures of a dog with six legs emerging from a vegetable marrow or a woman with a motor-bicycle substituted for her left breast.

(Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry)

It may be wondered whether Modernist movements like Surrealism and Cubism would be seen as healthy or deleterious in respect to their influence on consciousness and human participation with the world and nature. My first inclination would be to say that many modern art movements are groping after what was lost in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance transition from iconography to perspectival realism in which the subject matter increasingly becomes bound by physical space and imprisoned in a single sliver of physical time. Picasso, for instance, begins to free the subject from its spatiotemporal constraints. At the same time, such liberation risks depriving us of our natural sense of harmony and proportion. Much more could be said in this respect, but I wish to add another element to this question.

Together with Barfield’s concern over the representational arts, I had also wondered about the effect on consciousness of post-2000’s pop music, in which all of the vocals have been auto-tuned by a computer program and all of the drum-beats have been sampled and digitally synchronized to a metronome? In other words, I wished to add to Barfield’s concern over the Chimera a concern over the Machine. Bona fide art is indeed epiphanic, but the epiphany seems to be increasingly overshadowed by the Leviathan of the market. 

I think that a remark about the definition of art may offer more insight into this question. I wonder if “art” is perhaps best understood not by reference to any specific feature of its product, but as an intentional stance of participation. This stance of participation characterises both the artist and the viewer or audience. The artist participates the divine archetypes and raises his medium to “echo” or “reflect” this participation as well. In this way, the original medium is transfigured into a work of art. As a result, it may serve as a sort of invitation to any viewer or listener to participate these same archetypes. We can, of course, adopt the artistic intentionality towards any object and thereby disclose it in its beauty instead of its utility.

I said that a word of art can serve as an invitation to do this. Alternatively, a work of art may be imagined as a portal of entry into the epiphanic experience that was the artwork’s formal cause. That individuals may have vastly different experiences of a single work of art can be understood by the fact that “Knowledge is according to the mode of the one who knows,” as Aquinas wrote. In the transition from sight to insight, we trade our eyes for our ideas and each person has befriended some ideas and not with others. As a result, the archetypes are perceived in different vantages and inflections. But we take part in the archetypal experience, whether to a greater or lesser degree. And this participation shapes us, “Or do you suppose there is any way in which someone can consort with what he admires without becoming like it?” as Socrates asks in Plato’s Republic

My question about pop music is thus reformulated into: what effect has it had or will it have that the object to which people are adopting this participatory stance has been all but scoured clean of the last of its authentic and epiphanic elements and that the object that people are “consorting with” and therefore “becoming like” increasingly traces its formal cause not to an epiphanic experience but rather to an algorithm or the calculation of profit margin? I think this can easily be converted to express Barfield’s concern: what effect has it had or will it have that the object of this participation increasingly appears to be utterly bereft of natural proportion and unity and instead appears as a cobbled mass of disparate fragments? Perhaps some readers will be obliged to offer their comments and remarks.

“Bullfight: The Death of the Toreador”, 1933

One Comment Add yours

  1. It’s a good question, and I believe the effects are dehumanising. I’m currently reading a book by Joseph P Farrell exploring similar questions in relation to classical music and mind control, called ‘Microcosm and Medium’ – you might find it of interest.


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