A consideration of the perception of beauty immediately bridges the subjective and objective. To what extent is beauty residing in the object and to what extent is it a property of the subjectivity of the perceiver? Is beauty an objective feature of the object, like color, for example, which nonetheless needs to be perceived and therefore configured by the observer? Or is there some more complex relationship between the beauty that we seem to perceive “out there” and the state of our internal development? The dualistic framing of that would place beauty either out in the world or as an aspect of the self itself implies an overly dualistic view of the self and the self’s environment. I will explore a view that the average development of individuals within a society determines structures of group consciousness, and one element of each structure is aesthetic, meaning that it configures the perception of beauty.
Before we can embark on a discussion of aspects of the perception of beauty, we might ask just what we mean by beauty? As is often the case with such exercises, what initially seems self-evident becomes increasingly obscure and difficult to pin down with increased scrutiny. We notice something “out there” which we label as beautiful. But is beauty really a feature of the object? Is it objective? If we were to say that it resides in features of the object(like symmetry or proportion) it would not necessarily render a discussion of the perception of beauty moot; our perceptual apparatuses configure our appreciation of objective features of the external world also. These questions of the relation of the subjective to the objective have parallels in psychoanalytic theories, such as object relations theory, attachment theory, and relational theory, among others. They also echo the traditional discussions of nature versus nurture, that is, the subject finding itself within a particular environment, which becomes, for better or worse, its nurture.
Contemporary analytic models emphasize a view of the subject in relation with his or her environment, which initially for humans(due to our utter, and long, dependency at birth) is always another human caregiver. Winnicott’s phrase “there’s no such thing as a baby”  is a pithy summary of the shift to seeing the dyad of infant and caregiver as the phenomenon of interest, study, and care, rather than the infant in isolation. The dyad is seen as having emergent properties that are derived from the contributions of the individuals, but that go beyond them. Development unfolds through a process of the infant internalizing moments of self-other interaction , which then form the basis of implicit working models that configure the experience of subsequent interactions. The influence between self and environment then is bidirectional, though not necessarily always symmetric or equal.
Ekman  has demonstrated that humans experience a set of basic emotions that are hard-wired and set biologically and are therefore universal. These emotions are, however, invariably mediated through culturally specific expression rules. The expression rules are the proximate influence of the larger culture in configuring how the individual can give social expression to the underlying emotions. Those rules are the medium of expression. They can facilitate or hinder those expressions. Since it requires an intersubjective process to integrate emotion, the expression rules are crucial contributors to what developmental avenues are available for the self in development. The expression rules transmit what amounts to aesthetic languages, languages that are either rich or impoverished in terms of developmental potential.
Several authors have described stages of human cultural development that are conceived as being derived from the average individual development of participants in that culture. We can look to these descriptions as providing a picture both of the cultural worldview, including its aesthetics, as well as the psychological processes of the individuals participating in that culture. Just as in relational theory, in which the quality of relating is an expression of characteristics of the developing self-in-relation, we can look to evolving aesthetics on the level of cultural stages to characterize aspects of the evolving self.
I have contended elsewhere that psychoanalysis should be considered a form of applied aesthetics, parallel to medicine as applied science . A corollary to this is the idea that art has a tendency to engage self-development as well as to reflect it, which psychoanalysis then makes use of. In this essay, I will explore how features of self-development configure broad stages of group consciousness, which then reflect, among other things, aesthetic vision, including the experience of beauty.
2. Stages of cultural development section
Ekman’s expression rules are, of course, social constructions; they are both constructed socially but also configure how subsequent social interactions are experienced. Contemporary psychoanalytic models have shifted from viewing the self in isolation to a view of the self as constituted in a relationship; the unit of study becomes the dyad, rather than the individual . Hence, the subjectivity of our emotional experience is configured by nature in combination with nurture(the current synthesis of the traditional dichotomy of nature versus nurture). We know from attachment and developmental psychology research that development is configured by social interactions and that knowledge of one’s emotions is gained through bidirectional communications with early caregivers. This means that the expression rules that Ekman described end up impacting not just our emotional expression interpersonally, but also intrapsychically—we learn what we feel by learning to express those feelings to others.
Psychoanalysis(and all psychoanalytically derived therapies) make use of this phenomenon for healing. These therapies are exercises in deepening one’s knowledge of one’s emotional world by expressing one’s feeling to another person. That is, one learns to talk more deeply and authentically to oneself through the effort to speak more authentically and deeply to someone else. Freud called the basic instructions to the analysand (the patient in analysis) the fundamental rule. These instructions were to try to say what comes to mind and to relax the usual social editing that we have been programmed through our upbringings to engage pre-reflectively in order to fit in socially.
In other words, the fundamental rule amounts to instructions to loosen and undo the cultural specific expression rules. From a neurophysiology standpoint, these expression rules mediate an interaction between the limbic system, part of the midbrain, and where our emotions are processed, and the neocortex, the location of our social modeling. They are mediated by implicit, subconscious/unconscious procedures and schemes encoded in the right prefrontal cortex . So Freud’s early case material involved people struggling with disavowed emotions: feelings and intentions that they had learned were socially unacceptable and therefore had to be disowned—the neocortex fighting with, struggling to integrate, the limbic, or animal brain.
That these experiences are encoded procedurally(right pre-frontal cortex) rather than discursively, in the left hemisphere language functions has important implication for how they are engaged aesthetically. Discursive(episodic) memory/knowledge, is the knowledge of facts and figures—the content of knowledge that can be expressed in language. Procedural memory encodes the knowledge of how to do things. This is often illustrated by pointing to physical procedures, such as how to ride a bicycle. The crucial point is that there are not just physical procedures, but also psychological and emotional procedures, and these importantly mediate our implicit relational knowing and being. Ekman’s expression rules are largely procedural. Procedural knowledge is activated and accessed differently than discursive knowledge is. Unlike discursive knowledge, which can be called to mind(what is the capital of Georgia? etc.), procedural knowledge is accessed by enacting it. Unless you have formed a secondary verbal memory for whether you can ride a bicycle, you could only access that procedure by performing it—your body is what knows how to ride the bicycle. This is why art always has to be enacted. Unlike the accumulation of propositional systems of knowledge as is seen in science and philosophy, in which one can build on the conclusions of previous researchers, the work of art only has an impact in its enactment. Another way of stating this is that the implicit procedural schemes that configure our set of identifications, and with it our emotionality, has to be enacted in time and space in order for the work of emotional integration to take place. Still another way of expressing this is that it requires play [7, 8].
Thus, as the self, or I, unfolds in development, the development is in concert with group structures that configure elements of the aesthetic language available to the self, which are then made use of to give intersubjective expression in the ongoing task of integrating the underlying emotional experience.
Several authors have described stages of human cultural development that are conceived as being derived from the average individual development of participants in that culture. We can look to these descriptions as providing a picture both of the cultural worldview, including its aesthetics, as well as the psychological processes of the individuals participating in that culture. Wilber  has correlated several of these accounts with one another and found that they are describing the same underlying reality, and indeed, even the descriptive labels have broad overlap. Habermas’ epochs (
With this set of concepts, we can begin to lay out some of the features of these cultural epochs, including a history of their art and aesthetics, with correlations to the psychological and emotional processes on the individual level. A major reference point for processes at the level of the individual level is the point of development along Piaget’s cognitive line.
Piaget’s sequence  goes
My goal is to describe these underlying structures of consciousness in order to clarify how they configure our general view of the world, and specifically how they impact aesthetics and appreciation of beauty. One element involves the way these structures relate to one another in their development and unfolding. Generally, each stage emerges out of the previous stage, transcending, or differentiating, from the previous structure, with a subsequent downward integration with the original stage. With human psychic development, the direction is toward successive internal differentiations. One illustration of this process is in cognitive development. In cognitive development, the substance of one stage becomes the material that the next stage works on or processes. This has an important impact on self-experience; the subject(self) of experience becomes part of the object of contemplation and subsequent integration in the next stage. So at one stage, sensory-motor, we essentially are our perceptual experiences, and we are our body; at the next stage, there has been internal differentiation of an emotional self, which is the core of a self that is no longer the body, but now has a body—but this self essentially
We begin to examine the sequence of developmental stages. The initial stage is sensory-motor, made up the most basic, biologically organized percepts. The pre-operational stage involves physical actions in manipulating physically perceived objects. The self at this stage is the body which engages the environment through physical manipulation; Freud’s oral stage. We can see at this point the beginning of the move inward, as indeed, all these stages tend to unfold with increased levels of interiority, even as psychologically, they involve a de-centering, or shift away from self-centeredness. The pre-operational stage is still largely external, in that the material for processing is the physical percept, and the manner of manipulation remains physical, on the outside—but it also represents an early unfolding of intentionality, which is always on the inside, not the outside. Intentionality appears at this stage with pretend play, which introduces the question of “who is it” that is pretending. Fonagy and his colleagues  describe an important milestone in self-development that occurs during the pre-operational stage, around age 4, which is expressed in the “false belief test.” A child is presented with a box with an external label describing its contents—for this example, we will say that it shows chocolates. The child is asked to tell what is in the box; the answer will be “chocolates.” Then the box is opened, and it is revealed to contain crayons. Once closed again, the child is queried as to the box’s contents, and this time answers “crayons.” Then the child is asked to imagine a friend, who hasn’t seen the open box; what will this friend say is in the box? If the child is younger than four, the typical answer will be “crayons;” if the child is older than four, the usual response is “chocolates.” Development theorist will point to this as an indication of the development of a theory of mind in the child. After this milestone, the child is able to hold in his or her mind an image of the other child and to realize that it is distinct and unique to that other person. This is the beginning of the emergence, still quite underdeveloped, of the
With the next stage, concrete operations, the substance of the earlier stage—physical manipulations of the external world—become the material to be worked upon. Now there is a truly mental operation, though still manipulating a physical action. This is a huge step forward and allows for a much more logical, structured inner world, albeit still concrete and rather rigid. Societal structures that emanate from this level are labeled
The unfolding of formal operational thinking at the individual level, and rational level societal structures is transformative. It is only at this stage that a true interiority opens up. Cognitively, the mental operations which in the previous level could only be used to manipulate concrete sensory data become themselves the material for operations at this new level. Individuals at this level can, for the first time, think about the nature of thought. The opening of this capacity, typically around age 12 with the full myelinization of the corpus callosum (the broad fiber tract that connects the two hemispheres of the brain), heralds the work of adolescence. One important aspect of this work is to bring into awareness the previously implicitly accepted rules and roles assigned by society and parents and to explicitly digest them, integrating them as deeply held principals rather than as religiously followed rules.
This account of development, both of individual and group cognition, helps explain a very broad sequence of development in art. The earliest productions by humans that are usual thought of as artistic production are the Paleolithic cave paintings, usually estimated to date from approximately 40,000 years ago. They tend to depict isolated images, such as particular animals, sometimes with human figures, quite iconographic(that is, lacking anything close to realism). Theorist debate whether to even consider them art per se, though they are often seen as precursors of what later would be considered art. The sense that they have a surface or superficial aspect would fit the notion that they reflect a sensory-motor processing of the world. Along these lines, they may also reflect what could be called sensory motor concerns—the primal struggle against nature and the elements, the struggle for food and basic shelter. Gebser [11, p. 48] summarizes key aspects of this stage, that of “magic man” as involving five characteristics: (1) egolessness; (2) a point-like unitary world; (3) spacelessness and timelessness; (4) a merger with nature; and (5) a magical reaction to being merged, imbuing him with supernatural power.
The mythic structure, as discussed above, relates to concrete operations in cognitive development for the individual. Gebser sees the magical stage as being
⋯whereas the distinguishing characteristic of the magic structure was the emergent awareness of nature, the essential characteristic of the mythical structure is the
To illustrate this transition from magical to mythic levels, Gebser cites examples of Occidental art dating from the second millennium B. C., for example, a colored stucco relief depicting a “Prince with a Crown of Feathers” from the Palace in Minos. The scene presents “terrestrial man(and not a divinity)” distinguished from the background of reeds and grasses [11, p. 62]. Though this figure is terrestrial, that is, of a human, not a God, it is still quite stylized and non-realistic. The art of the mythic period tends to be
While Wilber calls the next stage
Remember, what is subject at one stage becomes the object of the subject’s contemplation at the next stage. This also means that the stages represent an evolution in the self’s set of identifications—what it imbued with “I-ness” shifts with the stages. The progression of internal differentiations means that what had to be concretely enacted at one stage may be available for mental contemplation at the next stage. This is particularly evident with the emergence of the rational stage, corresponding to formal operations at a cognitive level. As such, it is the first purely mental, or internal stage, in which one is able, for the first time, to think about thinking. As with the ability to hold space more fully in mentation, with perspectival consciousness, a similar shift occurs in relation to time. As people are less embedded in their physicality, they are less embedded in time. The circular, repetitive experience of time in nature is replaced by linear, clock time.
There is an important sense in which each evolving stage represents the differentiation of a new dimension of reality that is then added to the reality of the previous stage. Each stage is “more whole, more inclusive, more complete” then the previous stage . We can get a feeling for this by looking at how one dimension relates to higher dimensions in geometry, particularly as it relates to the experience of time. If we think about how one dimension relates to the next lower dimension from which it emerges, we see that the next higher dimension tends to be experienced as
This has a great impact on both the individual and cultural levels. As people are less embedded in their physicality, they are less embedded in time. And a huge consequence is that one can now think about time without having to enact it to the same degree. The circular, repetitive experience of time in nature is replaced by linear, clock time. The wide distribution of cheap pocket watches, which occurred in the eighteenth century, along with the differentiation of the individual internally from the conformist social roles allowed for the development of a middle class, and individual driven consumerism.
As is implied in the point about the transformation of the experience of time and space, the rational or mental stage of cultural development is also commonly referred to as
Science, freed from the dogma of religion, transformed the world. I do not have space in this discussion to do justice to the utter transformation of our world that modern science has unfolded, but perhaps the ubiquity of these effects render an exhaustive discussion of this unnecessary. I would emphasize how this process involved an opening up of internal space, parallel to the perspectival depth achieved in external space. This involved a transcending of the previous level’s view of time and space. As technology, as applied science, takes up increasing space in our world, more and more of the world we live in becomes a projection of our inner worlds. In urban environments, it is possible to live in settings in which literally everything visible originated as an idea in a person’s consciousness before finding physical manifestation in the outer world. Recall, this is all part of the sequence of internal differentiations, leading to the emergence of the mental world, sometimes referred to as the noosphere. The noosphere, or mental world, is seen as emerging from the biosphere, the realm of life, which emerges from the physiosphere, or lifeless universe . At each stage, what could only be manifested through physical enactment can gradually be experienced internally, as a mental event—the “eye of flesh” can become the “eye of mind” . A vivid example is Einstein’s famous thought experiment, of imagining that he was riding on a photon at the speed of light. In his imagination, he transcended the limits of time and space.
Greater depth of post-conventional ethical development unfolded, manifesting in the liberation movements that reflect Enlightenment ideals. In the previous stage, self is still embedded concretely in how we act in the external world, it is also embedded in our bodies. With the mental stage, our sense of self and therefore citizenship can transcend our bodies and therefore our biology. The liberation ideals of the Enlightenment reflect this in the re-defining of citizenship rights as no longer rooted in biologic elements such as race or gender. Personhood is now based on an idea rather than a concrete biologic or physical attribute. Wilber sees the appearance of women’s liberation movements as a sign of the emergence of rational level societal structures . Tolerance of opposing views is another unique manifestation in the world of the mental/rational level. This was institutionalized in Constitution of the United States, with minority rights protected against the power both of the majority and of the government, as well as in the separation of church and state, and guarantee of freedom of religion. For the first time in the history of the world, the twentieth century saw a general consensus on the level of nation states for the abolition of slavery.
All of this is reflected in modern art. Leonardo’s
Although I am using words like a stage, and level, we should emphasize these are types of processes, and as such, they unfold in time in space. A particular moment of aesthetic appreciation is as much a function of the dynamic unfolding of process and development. As such, a major form that art takes is in the depiction of the dynamics of growth and development itself. This cuts across the different levels. So early religious iconography is just as much about development as it is understood at that level (development means striving toward God) as a modern psychological novel is. Freud, who had such an impact on modern aesthetic sensibility, started with concerns about pathological side tracks in the unfolding of the mental level. Complexity involves the differentiation of function, allowing specialization, followed by subsequent integration. Pathology can occur both with incomplete differentiation to begin with or with differentiation which defies subsequent integration and thus becomes dissociation. The
Much of the art and literature of the mental stage involves the struggle to reach and consolidate at this level. This is reflected in the truism that for a novel, or movie, or play(more broadly, a story) to be compelling, it must involve growth and development in the protagonist. This is true even in classical tragedy, in which the development typically involves an earned awareness of in the protagonist of his or her fatal flaw. Much of the classic American Theatre can be seen in this light, as depicting struggles reconcile the demands of roll deriving from the previous, mythic stage, with the earning dual yearnings that emerge as part of the differentiations of the mental/rational stage, the yearnings both for individuation and authenticity, on the one hand, and intimacy and communion on the other. These are themes found in abundance in the plays of Williams, O’Neill, Miller, and Wilson. These are themes found often in novel and films, as well, such as Ecco’s
As you will recall, we discussed earlier the tendency for beauty to evoke love toward the object. Clynes  has pointed out the close relationship between love, empathy and the appreciation of beauty; we tend to develop loving feelings toward an artist, writer, or musician who deeply moves us.
This theme of love and beauty leads into a discussion of yet another unfolding that many writers see as a potential for human development. Wilber describes a post-rational stage involving what he calls
One of the major themes of process and development that we have been discussing involves increasing complexity as a function of differentiation of function, with subsequent integration. This process manifests on the individual and group level, and in small versions that are nested within larger and larger manifestations. The shift from prokaryotes, single cell organism that lacks an encapsulated nucleus, to eukaryotes, which have encapsulated nuclei, is an example from early in phylogenetic development. Multicellular development can only unfold so far before specialization of the function at the cellular and tissue level is necessary for further development. The specialization of the liver for detoxification frees the other cells and tissues of the body from that task, allowing those other tissues to concentrate on their unique functions, be it circulating the blood as with the heart, filtering out waste and water with the kidney, insulating the body from the external world with the skin, or the unfolding of interiority and consciousness with the brain. The differentiation of the value spheres can be seen in a similar light. Pathology at both the individual and societal level can be attributed to the twin dangers of incomplete differentiation and merger at the lower level, or dissociation and lack of subsequent integration at the higher level. Much of the post-modern critique of Western Culture amounts to a version of the later, in which science has colonized and suppressed the other two value spheres, leading to a soulless modern world, with technology run amuck [6, 15, 18]. Much of post-modern art and culture can be seen in this light.
In contrast is a vision of the value spheres as increasingly integrated, in which a clear view of objective reality informs and is informed by a deepening moral sentiment, both of which interact with a deepening individual subjectivity and aesthetic. Wilber  has described the Buddhist ideas of
We have discussed the development of the individual self, or “I” as that development has unfolded within its complementary social matrix, emphasizing the aesthetic aspect of the cultural experience. Two of the main configuring dynamics of that development has been the sequence of internal differentiations, as well as the differentiation of the value spheres of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, institutionalized in social and cultural structures as Science, Religion, and Art. These three value spheres engage three different facets of reality, and use differing languages—the language of “it” for science’s examination of the external, objective world, the language of “we” for the shared values of the realms of morality and religion, and the language of “I” as the subject experiencing the realm of beauty. The art of the sensory-motor realm takes as its content or referent the world or sensation itself, and sees with the “eye of the flesh.” The art of the mental realm takes as its referent the content of the psyche as mentally perceived. Examples at this level include surrealism, conceptual art, abstract art and abstract expressionism. Marcel Duchamp summed this up: “I wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting. I was much more interested in creating
Wilber [14, p. 193] refers to the causal and non-dual levels as partaking of the “eye of spirit.” At this level, there is no particular level of the referent, which means that this “formless” art might make use of any and all levels, from the sensory-motor imagery of a Zen landscape to the subtle/causal level of the Tibetan
What characterizes this art is not its content, but the utter the absence of the self-contraction in the artist who paints it, an absence of that in the greatest of this art, can at least temporarily evoke a similar freedom in the viewer, which
was Schopenhauer’s profound insight about the power of great art: it’s being transcendence [14, p. 193].
As has been discussed above, each successive unfolding transcends and includes the previous level, achieving greater and great adequacy and completeness of appreciation of reality in all its depth and beauty. The beginning of this discussion involved considering how we perceive what is beautiful; the backdrop to this is the implicit assumption that we distinguish beauty as sometimes present, and sometimes not. In as much as art is both a reflection of a state of mind but also a way of evoking certain states, these latter stages move toward psychological, emotional and spiritual states in which integration is more and more achieved. These states tend to involve an appreciation of beauty as everywhere all at once, just as truth seems self-evident, as well as the rightness of everything [20, 21]. The True, the Good and the Beautiful become again integrated, intertwined and self-evident. The journey of the I, then, is toward a greater and greater appreciation of beauty as everywhere and in everything at once, as truth and rightness become equally increasingly imminent and self-evident. As Wilber sums it up: “Art is in the eye of the beholder, in the I of the beholder: Art is the I of Spirit.” [14, p. 194].