Can we name a universal aesthetic experience, one that all peoples around the globe have encountered from the beginning of humanity to the present? Probably not. But if we wanted to come close, we could do worse than the daily occurrences of sunrise and sunset. The size of the sun, the colors that surround it, the length of the shadows that engulf us as we watch: how many trillions of times have those converging phenomena moved a human being to stop in his or her tracks and gaze?
It’s important to remember that the moment in question is completely experiential – there is nothing actually happening on a cosmic level. When we speak of sunset, the sun isn’t actually doing anything it doesn’t do any other time of day. The earth is still spinning at its same regular pace. The moment is solely defined by the position we occupy on the earth’s surface, the angle from which we apprehend our surroundings. Move us a couple hundred miles east or west, and it’s not happening.
Though we know this to be true, it can be difficult to accept that what we experience at sunset isn’t a cosmic phenomenon. Imagine what it must have meant for all but our most recent forebears, close to a million generations of humans observing, marveling at this incandescent display? Something of that experience must be ingrained in our minds as an archetype, a paradigm that other experiences can be measured against.
These thoughts have been traveling with me over the last few weeks as I consider the desire to find objective ways of measuring the value of art. It’s a worthy effort – statistical study – but part of me can’t help feeling that it will always hit a stumbling block just before the finish line.
There is an aspect of the artistic experience that is wholly determined by where we are standing at a particular moment, physically and metaphorically. I think of that often with music. It’s a mistake to think it is simply a matter of objective values.
But when I say there are subjective values involved, I don’t believe that in any way diminishes their importance. Our ability to agree on subjective values is a precious commodity. If we agree, as a culture, that certain combinations of sounds are pleasing or displeasing, that’s one small example of mutual understanding, which is crucial to civilization. If someone challenges our agreements, we have an opportunity for cultural growth, which is also crucial to civilization.
If we believe that agreement is impossible or unnecessary, civilization crumbles.
“That’s really beautiful.” “Yeah, wow.”
Exchanges like that, from a mountaintop or an apartment window, connect us in our specific moments to one another. These connections are minute in the grand scheme of things. But erase them from our collective experience, and you drastically change the nature of our species.