Art as the ultimate transcendental escape

Schopenhauer’s philosophy portrays human life as servitude to the Will, our desires and goals are governed by the blind urge and empirical observations of this striving only lead to pain and suffering. Aesthetic experience can provide some respite from the Will. For Schopenhauer the aim of the arts is to present the Platonic Ideas and aesthetic contemplation of these objects reveals these Ideas, and with that, relief from the Will. Aesthetic contemplation results in the individual ceasing to be an object of willing and therefore free from the trammels of the will. Consequently it is clear that aesthetic experience has a key role to play in human lives. Despite its appeal and rewards, there are some issues with Schopenhauer’s account, which may damage the theory, but the aim of this essay will be to show that Schopenhauer can provide a robust defence.


In the World As Will as Representation volume 1 (WWR1) aesthetic experience is shown to have subjective and objective elements. Objectivity is familiarity of the timeless forms and experiencing Will beyond its manifestation in the phenomenal world by way of the comprehension of the Ideas. Platonic Ideas are integral to Schopenhauer’s philosophy; but if considered to be in a separate realm of identities then this does not work with Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. The puzzle arises from “the attempt to relate in thought a single will […] with which plurality […] does not even make sense, to a world consisting of a multiplicity” (Hamlyn, 1980, p107). We can allay these worries by focusing on Schopenhauer’s characterization of the Ideas: they are “archetypes […] particular objects” and “objectifications of the will” (Guyer, 2005, p271). Ideas are a manifestation of Will, so to talk of them existing somewhere is erroneous as like Will, Ideas are not subject to the principium individuationis. We access the Ideas, either by being a genius so possessing the ability to see what “nature endeavored to form” (WWR1 p186), alternatively we access the Ideas via the artist’s work “the artist lets us peer into the world through his eye” (WWR1 p.195)


The various grades are in order of objectification of the Will, to illustrate: inorganic matter is an objectification of the Will as am I, however, my objectification is higher, the Will is clearer in myself than in a rock. We class works as more beautiful than others based on these grades. It entails that any object can become an object of aesthetic experience. This has problematic for contemporary theories of aesthetics, it seems unappealing that all objects can be objects of aesthetic experience.


Beauty requires little effort from the viewer, the object “presses itself on us” it “invites contemplation” (WWR1 p.197). Such objects remove us from “the thralldom of the will” (ibid). This criterion allows us to say one thing is more beautiful than another, if it compels us into contemplation because it so clearly and distinctly expresses the Idea. Thus Schopenhauer’s theory should not be rejected, everything has the potential to be beautiful, but this is not the same as saying everything is therefore art, it also therefore seems to allow us to have an account of ‘bad art’ i.e. something where it is difficult to get to the Ideas, which is an appealing aspect to an aesthetic account.


This does reveal other worries, the idea of a passive audience, and the reliance of representation of the Ideas. It seems that it is an unflattering account for modern artists, often modern works require an engagement from the audience, and are often not explicit representations. However, Schopenhauer could perhaps reply that a true genius would be able to convey the Ideas in any artistic medium. We can also bring in the idea of the grades of objectivity to answer the passivity objection, in the same way it takes more effort to see the Will in a rock it can with a work of art, but this does not mean the Ideas are not present.


The account of the sublime is a strength of Schopenhauer’s aesthetic account. There are objects that “invite us to a pure contemplation [but] may have a hostile relation to the human will” (ibid p201). Yet we can turn away from these relations and become the knowing subject, when this happens we are filled with the sublime. Something is not beautiful if cannot easily convey the Platonic Idea to the observer, but it can be sublime. For example a cliff face, where we feel threatened by its enormity, yet when we tear away from the hostility it poses to our corporal bodies we become a will-less subject of pure knowing (WWR1 p202). The beautiful and the sublime means that we do not consider everything beautiful, and the distinction allows for an account of ‘art’ and ‘nature’ and can explain what is happening to our consciousness when we experience these objects. Thus, Schopenhauer’s account of aesthetic experience survives the criticism that all objects can be objects of aesthetic experience due to the different ways different objects give access to the Ideas. Further to this the grades of objectification means we can rank beautiful objects and this satisfies desires to say one thing is more beautiful than another.


The subjective aspect to Schopenhauer’s account of aesthetic experience is based upon how the beautiful and the sublime alter the subject’s consciousness when we engage in such aesthetic contemplation. It is at this juncture, that it is appropriate to bring in how his theory works with human life, and fully explain how the subjective qualities improve our lives. Aesthetic experience gives us the ability to go from Will-driven perception to Will-less perception and this freedom from the power of the Will is what provides respite from the relentless suffering that is the Will’s manifestation; even if it is only a temporary relief, it surely must play an important role in human life, we can temporarily stop the pendulum swing from our achieved desires and boredom and thus stop the dissatisfaction that comes with this striving.


It is via the strength of our mind that one is able to be free of the ordinary way of thinking and results in seeing the object not in relation to other objects, thus aesthetic experience ultimately results in how “we no longer consider the where, the when, the why and the whither in things, but simply and solely the what” (WWR 1 p272) when this happens “the individual has lost himself; he is pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge” (WWR 1 p178). It follows from how bleak Schopenhauer paints the world as representation, that one would exalt this type of will-less perception. Once engaged in contemplation of the Ideas, the attention that we normally pay to our typical objects of desire is gone, consequently the subject is released from the suffering that comes with the impossibility of the fulfillment of the goals that the Will desires. We become aware of things beyond the principium individuationis, and so we lose awareness of our individuality. It is often at this point that problems with Schopenhauer’s account come to the fore, Hannan remarks that “it seems incomprehensible how a creature whose very essence is willing could cease to will altogether” (Hannah, 2009, p105). This does seem to be a difficult aspect to Schopenhauer’s account, although perhaps we could defend the account by claiming that we do not desire as such cease to will when we partake in aesthetic contemplation, rather we have just gone beyond the desires that are associated with Willing, thus the will-less state is a product, we do not Will to be a will-less subject, that is the other solution mentioned, denial of the Will.


It is so vital for our human happiness that we escape the Will because “so long as our consciousness is filled by our will, […] we never obtain lasting happiness or peace” (WWR1 p196) but when we engage in pure contemplation, we go above all willing, free from desires. This is the value that aesthetic experience has and its place in human life. Although it is clear to see that this is a positive aspect in the account, we can question what consequences it has for Schopenhauer’s account of an encompassing aesthetic theory. Guyer proposes that Schopenhauer’s aesthetic account revolves around a negative definition of happiness, which here means, happiness is just the lack of the pain caused by the Will, this in turn could prompt objectors to say that this reduces art to no more than an anesthetic, a drug could achieve similar results, and this is a valid reason for why we would want to reject a theory of art. Guyer claims that the idea that aesthetic experience is important based on an effect that could be achieved by something other than the artwork is a problem for an aesthetic theory (Guyer, 2005, p281). However Guyer wants defend against this and show that Schopenhauer’s account is not just a simple negative one, to do this we need an interpretation that shows “aesthetic experience as intrinsically pleasurable” not that it is “nothing but an anesthetic” (ibid). This is done by paying close attention to Schopenhauer’s account of the pleasure of knowledge.


Guyer acknowledges the strong negative elements in Schopenhauer’s theory, it is clear the he stresses negative pleasure that comes from contemplation of Platonic Ideas, however it is not the only source of aesthetic pleasure Schopenhauer recognizes. Schopenhauer does write about the positive pleasure that we get from contemplation of the ideas themselves: “We gain pleasure from comprehending the most perfect form of knowledge of that object” (WWR1 p.200) this is significant as Schopenhauer is arguing that this can only come from contemplation of the Ideas and nothing else, so the state of being a subject of pure knowledge does have intrinsic positive value. It is also this line of thinking that can avoid the seemingly paradoxical air around the role of music in his theory. It seems perplexing how music as the embodiment of the Will, can afford us relief from the Will. However, we can reaffirm Schopenhauer’s account that knowledge of the Will is a good thing in itself. Aesthetic experience does not only provide negative happiness thus it does not have instrumental value alone, and should be valued for its own sake. Guyer proposes that experiencing art does more than offer an escape from the pains of the phenomenal world as a mere drug would do, but gives us “a joyful affirmation of our identity” (Guyer, 2005, p285) which is to say that art – but music especially – offers something that cannot be found in the world as representation, when we contemplate music or the Platonic Ideas, we become one with the object, as Schopenhauer says we are a mirror of the object. Thus we are connected to our own Will in a way that cannot be found in reality. To support this view, Janaway claims aesthetic experience results in “[…] an objectivity explicitly superior to that of science or ordinary empirical knowledge.” (Janaway, 1996, p39), so we gain new knowledge, that can only be provided by aesthetic contemplation. This defence shows that aesthetic contemplation is not to be valued solely instrumentally, it is more than just a painkiller, the knowledge of Platonic Ideas has value that cannot be gained from any other source.


This essay has shown that Schopenhauer’s account avoids the criticisms contemporary aestheticians advance. The Platonic Ideas when properly understood do not debase Schopenhauer’s account, they may be perplexing but they work within the monist framework and the beautiful and sublime distinction along with the grades of the Will’s objectification fits with our desires to claim some objects are more beautiful than others. Lastly, the objection that art is no more than a painkiller is unfounded; there is clearly a positive value to aesthetic contemplation. Following this discussion we can see that ultimately Schopenhauer’s account is a strong one, and has a huge role in human life as it frees us from suffering. A


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