An Exploration of Potentialities for Human Living

Art is the signature of man.
—G. K. Chesterton

Everything, infinitely, says something to someone.
—Victor Hugo

In one of his signature ironic provocations to thought, G. K. Chesterton imagines a young boy staring up at a prehistoric cavern filled with paintings of reindeer and other animals and asks,

What would be for him the simplest lesson of that strange stone picture-book? . . . That he had dug very deep and found the place where a man had drawn the picture of a reindeer. But he would dig a good deal deeper before he found a place where a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man.[1]

In suggesting a certain kind of human uniqueness, Chesterton draws our attention to a claim that has had an important and diverse history in twentieth-century thought: that the experience of art discloses to us something about the human being. What do we learn about ourselves through artistic endeavor and appreciation?

Art, of course, covers quite a range of activities and products. It can be disciplined and elaborate or merely tentative and occasional: fugues and finger-painting. Art employs equally diverse materials. It is something that is done with oil and canvas, ceramic or marble, water, light, attuned strings and air and silence. It makes use of pen, pencil, brush, bow, mallet, fingers, palm, mouth, voice—and the list could go one for quite some time.

Art produces many and diverse expressions. It is exemplified in the monumental, politically-charged, murals of Diego Rivera, in the poetry of Pindar and Sappho as well as Rumi and T.S. Eliot, but also—as a world-class cello student once remarked in philosophy class—in the attempt to make people feel something through tiny vibrations of air. The rich multi-dimensionality of art shows us that it is not reducible to any one of the magnificent things it can produce, nor to all of them together. Clearly, then, art cannot be defined by an exhaustive enumeration of its products, were that even possible. Rather, to understand art we must grasp it as a human performance—both of the artist and the aficionado—that reveals something about our human capacity and, perhaps also, our need.

Art is also something done with words. The term “poetry” is derived, by however long a route, from the ancient Greek word poiesis which is related to the verb “to make” and also carries the sense of bringing into being.” An artist is one who creates—not ex nihilo, admittedly, but at times close to it. All this suggests that artistic endeavor and the delight we take in it reveal to us that we are beings who exercise and enjoy imaginative and creative powers. This is one reason that the arts and the skills needed to appreciate them belong in a university. If we study ourselves under the various perspectives of natural science, social science, psychology, and history, why not also study ourselves as beings capable of producing beauty and as beings peculiarly moved by it?  

Access to the artistic realm of human experience is, thankfully, not for the artist alone. The experience of art is available anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. In a surprising way, this means that art is always public. No matter how secluded the circumstances of composition, there is a “for others” quality to a work of art that cannot be completely avoided. We do not all create—indeed many of us locate ourselves deliberately at a very safe distance from artistic endeavor. Yet, all of us in some way take in the creation of others. Even the most tone deaf or dexterously limited among us can be moved by art.

This experience of being moved by art is philosophically significant. Were we to pause and consider it for a moment I think we would find it strange that, in an age defined by increasing mastery over nature and human society by means of science and technology, there should persist this occasional experience of being moved without our prior knowledge or permission; of being arrested in our tracks by a painting or a melody or an act of human kindness.

We are, in a more than metaphorical sense, “called out” of ourselves and reminded that we harbor this capacity to be moved by reality even when we do not consciously advert to it. What we experience in art in these moments is, more precisely, beauty, whose exposition is the very raison d’etre of art in its myriad differentiations.[2] It belongs to the essential quality of beauty and its force of attraction to arise always prior to consent, colluding with our freedom prior to our consciousness of their interaction.

This dynamic relation between beauty and the human perceiver has the structure of a “call and response.” The most extended reflection on this ontological structure occurs in the work of the French philosopher Jean-Luis Chrétien who argues that “the manifestation of beauty comes to us in the form of a call, in order to speak to us in our exile, in our oblivion, in our distance.”[3] Here we see the first of three features of the beautiful which can encounter us in art: that beauty calls to us. In other words, as Chrétien goes on to say, “splendor is itself vocal.” Moreover, whether through art or nature or anything else, beauty calls us in order to recall to us something we have forgotten. Art is a call that is an invitation, an invitation to return to oneself.

Some minimal awareness of this dynamic of call and response is expressed in our commonsense language when we speak of being “struck” by a work of art or when we feel as though art “speaks” to us. We use these metaphors to describe an experience being-addressed by reality and yet also of in-breaking or irruption, of something sudden or unexpected, unlooked-for and therefore of an address that occurs beyond the calculations and agency of the perceiver. Great works of genius shake us out of our routine and invites us into a different world.

Second, in posing the question of beauty, art raises the question of truth, and it does so in two ways. First, art raises the question of the full truth of the world by revealing that our common ways of seeing the world (practical, utilitarian) are reductive. We have mistaken a part of reality for the whole of it. Second, art also raises the question of the self. In its call to return and re-member, art raises the question of a truth about ourselves that we have lost amidst the diversions of our daily routine. Chrétien writes:

The call of beauty gathers up in itself all that is susceptible of calling us to truth and to ourselves . . . The response we give to the provocation on beauty’s part, if it is constituted by love, brings into play the totality of our being and becoming.[4]

In other words, the call of beauty engages us in the question of truth in both an ontological and an existential register. It questions whether the world as we experience and navigate it, is in fact, all there is of the world and, simultaneously, questions who and how we are as subjects of that first question. Who are we as beings to whom the world appears and appears precisely in order to be known and participated in? How does our way of being in the world reveal or occlude reality? In its relationship to truth, art discloses a thicker, richer experience of truth because it shows us that truth’s propositional moment presupposes an ontological and an existential moment.

Third, the call of beauty originated in art results in a dialogue. Although it is beauty that initiates a call, we inevitably make a response, in one way or another, thereby constituting not a monologue, but a dialogue: “If beauty is the voice of things, the face-to-face encounter through which beauty grips us is not in its essence a speechless contemplation but a dialogue.”[5] We are in constant dialogue with reality. The distinct disciplines of our modern universities are, when rightly understood, so many vernaculars of the discourse of human consciousness in its concourse with being. This implies, moreover, that the intelligibility we discover in the world is the reverse side of the observation that the world calls out to us. All art is in a rich sense realism:

In order for our gaze to be able to interrogate things and call upon their manifestation as an answer, they themselves must in some way or other have called our gaze and forewarned it . . . Things of themselves call us and incite us to interrogate them. Their beauty calls us by responding and responds by calling.[6]

This is to suggest that the pull of curiosity and the satisfaction of insight and discovery are subtle enticements to enter more fully into a dialogue that is already ongoing. We would not interrogate the world if the world did not have some means of answering our questions and, more fundamentally, if it had not always already provoked those questions within us. That impulse to question, hypothesize, articulate, apprehend, and answer—the primordial disposition to wonder—is itself already a response to the world that has reached out to us prior to our self-conscious attending. Dante writes of this same experience in poetic terms in his Purgatorio:

The soul, which is created quick to love,
responds to everything that pleases, just
as soon as beauty wakens it to act.
Your apprehension draws an image from
a real object and expands upon
that object until soul has turned toward it;
and if, so turned, the soul tends steadfastly,
then that propensity is love—it’s nature
that joins the soul in you, anew, through beauty.[7]

The experience of art, then, reveals to us that it is not only we who master the world, but also the world which masters us. It is the healthy reminder that there is a world that calls out to us, at times reaching into our hearts and minds to wrest from them feelings, ideas, and insights that we could not produce if left to our normal distracted everyday obsessions. In this, art testifies to two essential lessons.

First, ontologically, that there is more to being and to life than what we grasp through our pragmatic and utilitarian frames of interpretation. Aspects of life go unconsidered and misunderstood or forgotten when we forget that we stand exposed to the world (and not only the world to us). Second, existentially, art teaches us that there is more to us: that there remain other possibilities for our lives that remain unthought and unpursued.

The three aspects of the experience of beauty we have distilled from Chrétien’s analysis—its originating call, its relation to truth, and the resulting dialogue—are also present in the account provided by the Canadian philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan, SJ. Like Chrétien, Lonergan thinks that the experience of art reveals to us something important about our human subjectivity. In doing so, it reasserts certain truths about our own possibilities for life and choice that are often undervalued or forgotten in the present age. To this account, however, he adds a number of helpful distinctions, which serve to draw out the ethical implications of art with particular force.

Lonergan defines art as, “the objectification of a purely experiential pattern.”[8] This is a characteristically compact definition that it will serve us to unpack. In calling art a pattern, he is noting that in any art form—for example, music, painting, or dance—we do not only experience the elements—tones, colors, movements—but also the relations between those elements. Much of our artistic vocabulary, in fact, is devoted to describing, not the elements of art, but the relations between those elements.

We describe, for example, melodies, more than pitches or tones, and we describe them as haunting or exuberant. The skilled composer exploits the many possible relationships between musical notes to create expectation and frustrate or satisfy it in pleasing ways. As an audience, we think we know “where a melody is going” or when it is going to “end.” And that perception of an internal relation and anticipation of its likely direction can then be frustrated when a piece changes key or arrives at an imperfect cadence that extends the musical theme rather than resolving it.

These and other modes of creative variation such as relations of rhythm and tempo or the interplay of major and minor keys can enable music to reflect or “objectify” in some way the world it arises within. Here “objectification” means simply to catch experience in the act, so to speak. It is not the reduction of experience to a predetermined set of interpretive categories, but precisely the opposite: the holding-in-view of experience in its plenitude and many possible determinations.

Art, moreover, does not objectify just any pattern, but an “experiential” one. In defining art in this way, Lonergan draws our attention to two things. First, to a general fact of conscious life: that all our experience is patterned in one way or another and we often take it for granted that one particular pattern is the only or primary one. Second, in objectifying a “pure” and “experiential” pattern, Lonergan sees correctly that the experience of art draws a salutary contrast with our normal patterns of experience which tend to be instrumentalizing patterns. He draws our attention to a common experience that we rarely reflect on, namely, that most of our day is spent “getting things done.” Because of this we relate to our own experience primarily in light of “what can I get out of it?” or “how is this useful?”

This patterning is at once a very common and also a very limited way of considering our rich experience of the world and all that it contains. Patterns of efficiency, productivity, and utility are “impure” not because they are essentially inaccurate or morally dubious, but because they consider experience for the sake of something else. I do not enjoy my commute to work the way I might a Sunday drive in the country, it is merely the means of arriving at my office. And, while I am aware enough of the weather to know that I do not need a jacket or an umbrella to walk across campus to class, this is fundamentally different from contemplating the beautiful spring day around me. A “purely experiential” pattern of my experience allows these other elements to surface “for their own reasons” rather than for mine.

The philosophical relevance of this analysis is the realization that art presents an alternative way of considering our experience because it considers it purely as experienced; not as a means to something else, a distraction from something else, or an impediment to something else In art experience is simply taken on its own terms. Color, sound, movement, texture—the building blocks of so many of our experiences—are, in art, offered to be perceived directly. According to Lonergan, this capacity to consider our experience on its own terms motivated only by a curiosity or a marveling at its gratuity recalls for us the fact that at the most basic level of our sensory experience we are characterized by “an openness to the world, to adventure, to greatness, to goodness, to majesty.”[9]

Lonergan draws three important consequences from the fact of this openness. The first is that, as with Chrétien, the experience of art reveals the human need for healing and restoration. Art holds out to us the opportunity to re-collect ourselves; to be called back and collected together from our dissipation in the tasks of daily life. It is the experience of art—including, the experience of oneself in experiencing art—that contests and thereby makes visible the “automatic behavior of ready-made subject in a ready-made world.”[10]

Second, the experience of art reveals the richness of our situatedness to us, our “worldedness.” The tones, colors, and movements as well as their internal relations recall to us and call out of us references to the larger world of human meaning we are always already embedded within but often miss in our haste and preoccupation. Art is, “accompanied by a retinue of associations, affects, emotions, incipient tendencies that are part of one, that arise spontaneously and naturally from the person.”[11] Is it not fascinating to consider how a painting I have never seen before or a piece of music I have never heard before can nonetheless move me, recalling feelings or memories or experiences that I have seen and heard and lived?  Art recalls us from a state of forgetfulness by reminding us of the larger world of nature, feeling, meaning, and aspiration to which we belong.

The third consequence follows from the first two, art enables what Lonergan calls a “release” of our experience from the normal lanes we fit it into. This is not only a release from the pragmatic pattern so familiar to us, but also every other pattern. Thus, in art,

[Experience] is allowed its full complement of feelings. Experience falls into its own proper pattern and takes its own line of expansion, development, organization, fulfillment. It is not dictated to by the world of science, the world of inquiry, the world of information, the world of theories about what experience should be, or by utilitarian motives. It is. It has its proper rhythm, just as breathing has.[12]

Such an experience returns us to what Lonergan calls the “elemental meaning” of experience, that is, a basic openness to possibility that is overlooked by the instrumentalizing patterns of science, philosophy, practical efficiency, and strict utility. Here this basic potency of all experience reveals simultaneously and correlatively the elemental meaning of the human person. Re-appropriating a theorem from Aristotle, Lonergan writes: “The subject in act is the object in act on the level of elemental meaning.”[13]

In other words, the specific experience of art makes legible to us what is true of every experience, namely, that it involves the participation of a conscious and free subject: “The subject in act is just himself or herself—subject in act, emergent, ecstatic, standing out. The subject IS its own originating freedom.”[14] The basic potency of human experience is one particular and marvelous instance of the potency of Being in general. This elemental meaning is ingredient to all our experiences and their patterns. In reflecting those experiences, art returns us to, not only the awareness of ourselves as beings moved by the beauty of a world beyond us, but also to an awareness of our freedom and responsibility.

In its recollection of human freedom, we see the ethical implication of art in both its subjective and objective aspects. On the part of the human person, “one is transported”[15] by art. And because “one’s experience is a component in one’s apprehension of reality,”[16] the ability to let oneself be transported and develop and expand one’s experience has a direct effect on that same subject’s capacity to apprehend reality and, on the basis of that apprehension, to make judgments about its value and decisions about how to act in response to it. When Lonergan says that art, “is an opening of the horizon,”[17] it is not only an expression of the at-times numinous experience of beauty, but also an articulation of the real ethical weight of artistic experience. Such a newly-opened horizon renews the responsibility of the observer by reminding her of her freedom and unfolds new possibilities for its use.

Art, therefore, has a somewhat paradoxical character, it removes us from the dominant problem-solving patterns of our daily life, which are precisely those patterns that often impute responsibility to us. Yet, in transporting us to the world of the ballet or the symphony art equips us to renter those familiar patterns with renewed insight and energy:

Art is another case of withdrawal for a return . . . Just as the mathematician explores the possibilities of what physics can be, so the artist explores possibilities of what life, ordinary living, can be. There is an artistic element in all consciousness, in all living.[18]

Art is essential training for the morally attuned person, because it reminds us of our freedom and enables us to step back from the interpretive and performative routines of daily life to envision alternate possibilities. In addition to the transformation of the subject entailed by the experience of art, there is also its objective dimension. This is summed up well by Lonergan when he writes, “Art is an exploration of potentialities for human living.”[19] If art reveals a world to a subject, it a fortiori reveals a world. It not only returns us to our daily obligations with a renewed awareness of our freedom and responsibility, but also expands the scope of that responsibility which is too often circumscribed within the limits of our own concern and attention.

Art reveals that the world within which we exercise our freedom is not one way, but in fact could be many different ways. That revelation is essential for the authentic and fruitful use of one’s ethical responsibility. Thus, art not only reveals our freedom to us (subjective dimension), but also reveals the larger world within which that freedom is exercised (objective dimension). Art reveals the world to be something given not simply in absolute determinations—as the prophets of cold hard common sense and realpolitik suggest—but as something hospitable to human aspiration, to human influence, and one requiring human intervention for its healing.

In freeing the imagination from its default and narrow horizon of possibilities for action, Lonergan makes clear that the ethical power of art has not only personal, but also cultural significance: It is relevant for individuals navigating the possibilities of particular lives, but also relevant for cultures which tend in one direction or another: toward greater, more humanizing liberty or its opposite.

Art is relevant to concrete living, [in] that it is an exploration of the potentialities of concrete living. That exploration is extremely important in our age, when philosophers for at least two centuries, through doctrines on politics, economics, education and through even further doctrines have been trying to remake man, and have done not a little to make human life unlivable.[20]

Finally, in addition to personal and cultural significance, art can have religious significance. The awareness of possibility in general, which is the first step toward an expanded and more responsible exercise of freedom, is also a new degree of openness toward the specific possibility of ultimate or transcendental meaning. Such openness toward the possibility of ultimate meaning is the sense Lonergan attributes to the broad term “religious experience.”[21] A first condition for such religious openness is the breaking away from merely instrumental patterns of experience that prioritize immediate pragmatic needs and too-often collude in more and less obvious ways with the default self-centeredness that characterizes many of our interactions.

Distractedness, as Blaise Pascal saw with penetrating clarity, is perhaps the greatest impediment to the kind of awareness that would make something like religious awareness a real possibility. To say this is certainly not to say that art can produce the presence of God or reliably introduce us to transcendence. And, just as certainly, the experience of art does not necessitate an experience of God to be authentically itself. Nevertheless, according to Lonergan, art experienced in certain ways can begin to orient us towards transcendence: 

The fundamental meaning important to us in art is that . . . the break from the ready-made world heads on to God . . . The artistic moment simply breaks away from ordinary living and is, as it were, an opening, a moment of new potentiality.[22]

Put simply, art frees us to contemplate the deeper significance of the fact of significance. It can raise the question of whether the universe and the originating freedom of human beings within it might have a source and destiny. Developing an openness to what may be indicated by the wider world of being is, in the broadest sense, a spiritual exercise because it saves us from the constant temptation to reduce the grandeur of the world around us to only what our professional expertise or personal concern admits.

Art testifies to the intelligence of artistic experience and to the mystery that provokes it in us. It testifies to the freedom of human consciousness and to differentiations of human intelligence that make our freedom meaningful rather than arbitrary and fruitless. Artistic experience, then, is a type of engagement and a type of reasoning that leads us back to the wonder at the heart of things. It returns us beneath the habitual patterns of daily life to the overwhelming fact of being at all. Under the right circumstances this experience can become a spiritual exercise.

For just as the patterning of scientific observation must be learned and practiced, so too the patterning of artistic experience must be learned and deepened by practice. At its most refined degree of attentiveness we are returned to our capacity for wonder, letting its unrestrictedness be felt and seen by letting ourselves be guided by what we experience in art.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius) 165.

[2] I do not, of course, intend to conflate art and beauty. Art is one of many possible expressions of beauty, but to that degree, what can be said of the dynamic interaction between beauty and human consciousness is also true of art, even if it admits a very wide range of degrees relative to, on one side, the quality of the art and, on the other, to the disposition and receptive capacity of the perceiver.

[3] See for example, The Call and the Response (NY: Fordham, 2004); Hand to Hand: Listening to the Work of Art (NY: Fordham, 2004).

[4] Ibid., 13

[5] Ibid., 35

[6] Ibid., 36

[7] Dante, The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio (New York: Bantam, 1981), “Canto XVIII,” lines 19–27

[8] Bernard Lonergan, Topics in Education, CWL vol. 10 (Toronto: Toronto, 1993), 211.

[9] Ibid., 214

[10] Ibid., 212

[11] Ibid., 214

[12] Ibid., 215

[13] Ibid., 217

[14] Ibid., 217

[15] Ibid., 216

[16] Ibid., 216

[17] Ibid., 216

[18] Ibid., 217

[19] Ibid., 217, 222

[20] Ibid., 232,

[21] See: Bernard Lonergan, “Openness and Religious Experience.”

[22] Lonergan, Topics, 224-25

Featured Image: Alexa Meade, Self-portrait, 2010; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Gregory P. Floyd

Gregory P. Floyd is an instructor in the Core Program at Seton Hall University. He earned his philosophy PhD from Boston College in the field of phenomenology and religion.

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