17 June, 2024


Pleasure Or Purpose: What Aesthetic Does In Our Lives? 

By Saumya Liyanage

Dr. Saumya Liyanage


Artistic practice as a creative endeavor is regarded as a second rate activity when it comes to considering science and scientific truth claims. As we all know, Plato wanted to remove artists from his utopian State. He argued that arts generate moral issues and bad sentiments so this type of human actions should be removed from the society. This tendency of marginalizing the arts and artists’ works increased in 18th century Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a tendency of ‘faculty psychology’ started identifying higher and lower faculties of sense experiences and those psychologists categorized human sense experience in a hierarchical manner. Along with this, there are higher faculties that are believed to correspond with human intellect and there are lower faculties which are defined as non-cognitive and bodily. These bodily faculties produce subjective experience (Johnson 2007). 

Mark Johnson here refers to the eye of the human being as one of the higher faculties which believe to be produced human intellect. The eye gathers information which is processed in the brain, and the brain orders the body to take action. This is the ‘Nature – idea – response’ model that Western science has propagated for the last few centuries. We observe worldly phenomena, process data in the brain, and come to certain conclusions. Therefore information which is gathered through the eye and processed in the brain, dominates our knowledge and we assume that our intellect is developed through the information gathered through the eye. The eye also refers to the mind or ‘mind-eye’ as well. However, other senses such as smell, touch, taste, and hearing are referred as secondary to  ocular-centric perception. While these lower level senses provide lower rated sense experience, the higher order sense like the eye provides higher order intellectual attainment. As a result, aesthetic pleasure is also categorized as a lower level of sense experience because we believe that the arts ignite subjective mental states. This subjective experience is placed against rational thinking. Even in Asian aesthetic theory, ‘rasa’ is also defined as something related to ‘extract of essence’ or taste of food. In line with this, the consumption of food and extricating ‘rasa’ is a secondary sense experience achieved through the tongue.

Figure1: Thilini Fernando in Mr W. or Last Days of Attanayake, a play produced by the Dept. of Drama Oriental Ballet and Contemporary Dance, University of Visual and Performing arts, in 2017. Photo credit Dhananjaya Rathnayake.

Aesthetic pleasure 

Our daily life is filled with activities: lecturing, teaching, seeing patients, having meetings, driving cars, cooking, washing, and cleaning. All these activities are understood as rational activities. Therefore, we think that we need the aesthetic. The aesthetic is placed against reason and again it is a less rational, less intellectual but a much needed component of life – aesthetic entertainment. Aesthetic pleasure is considered ‘subjective’ because it addresses human sentiments, feelings, and emotions. In the rational-emotional binary opposition, reason is favored and hierarchically higher than emotion. For instance, sexual pleasure is seen as obscene and less intellectual similar to mere bodily activity. 

Arts and especially the aesthetic come into play as a means of escape from anxieties in our daily lives. The idea of Terror Management Theory (TMT) explains how we are conscious about our bodies and health, and take care of our wellbeing through various activities. The idea behind this consumption of arts is connected with the desire for human immortality. The fear of death is alleviated by seeking help from art and aesthetic pleasure. Thus aesthetic experience is used as a way of escaping daily reality and also used as a tool of wellbeing. However, my question is, are these arts and aesthetics there only for us to gain pleasure? Are there any other utilitarian needs for which we humans can use the arts? What are the other benefits that the arts can bring to human life? In what capacity could art enrich our human experience? These are some of the vital questions that I would like to discuss here.

Figure 2: ‘I see me’ a dance work choreographed and performed by Kanchana Malshani, Choreography Lab, Goethe Institute, Colombo 2019. Photo credits Malaka Mp Photography.

Body, Mind and Cognition 

Western modern philosophy theorizes the division between the rational mind and the body and the human body is understood as a separate function like a mere mechanical object similar to a clock or a machine. We see the human beings and their bodily functions in this dualistic way. Accordingly, a human being has two separate entities: mind and body. Bodies decay and are vulnerable to all sorts of diseases and ailments. We unconsciously conceptualize our bodies as a collection of functionalities such as blood circulation, respiratory functions, secretions such as urine and saliva, functions of organs such as lungs, liver, heart, and intestines. These conceptualizations of human body and its functionalities lead us to think about our bodies as inanimate objects which are enlivened through blood and breath. We distinctively differ between the thinking substance (mind) and the physical body (Soma) because we believe that thinking is a higher order function which is nothing to do with the physical body. These daily conceptualizations of our thinking and bodily functions lead us to separate our rational thoughts from bodily functions. Therefore the body is marginalized in the history of philosophy. 

Yet, cognitive science has recently found that our thinking activities, conceptualization, and ideas are not generated in a separate mind but these ‘mind activities’ are inherently embodied (George L., & Mark J., 1999, p. 3). The embodied mind is developed through organism-environment interaction or coupling.  Traditionally, psychologists and philosophers believed that thinking and thought processes are rational and intentional activities. However, recent studies have proved that our thoughts do not function rationally but occur largely within our unconscious region. Further, abstract ideas and concepts are also largely metaphorical. For instance, in our daily lives, many abstract concepts such as time, space, distance, speed, etc. are understood in linguistic metaphorical structures (George L., & Mark J., 1999). These key findings of cognitive science have already questioned the way we understand human nature and our engagement with the world. We are now at a juncture where we may need to reconsider our previous assumptions on the human mind, reason and aesthetic experience and our engagement with the world. One cannot marginalize aesthetic sentiment as merely ‘subjective’  because the subjective-objective dichotomy cannot be applied anymore to explain how people perceive aesthetic experience. In other words, aesthetic sentiment is both rational and emotional at the same time. Hence, artistic activities, aesthetic experience, and perception are not mere cognitive or sentimental functions but about how human beings seriously engage with the world.                         


Let me begin with music. Music plays a key role in shaping our lives and forming our experience as human beings. Music has the power to bring back memories and histories of our lives and it allows us to escape from the current social reality and encourage us to live through the past. Many of us are fond of listening to old music. The reason is that these musical sounds bring nostalgic sentiment for us and help us to escape from the current reality. Let’s contemplate for a moment and see what happens when you hear a familiar song from the 70s or 80s. How do we understand the experience it provides us? How do we understand its meanings despite its language and meanings derived from linguistic connotations? One of the basic arguments here is that we understand music not just because we know the language or we know the particular genre of music, but our understanding is rooted in bodily means. Mark Johnson argues: ‘The meaning in and of the music is not verbal or linguistic, but rather bodily and felt. We understand the meaning of longing, desire, expectation, for better things to come, and so on. We cannot convey it verbally, but it is nonetheless meaningful, and it is enacted via our active engagement with the music’ (Johnson 2007, p. 242). It is not a particular aesthetic mind that germinates and informs us about the meaning of music but it’s the corporeal knowledge that is inherent in human beings which suggests to us different connotations of what we listen. The argument here is that music is an abstract form of art and its meanings go beyond our linguistic structures and connote indescribable meanings derived through our senses. 

In terms of understanding arts and extricating aesthetic pleasure, we tend to transform all kinds of aesthetic experience into a ‘representation’ form. Transforming innate meanings into a representational mode allows humans to understand the arts as a ‘particular language’. There is a very popular saying that “music is a universal language”. But the irony is we do not listen or familiarize ourselves even with our neighbors’ musical traditions such as Carnatic music. Because language dominates the domain of understanding and eventually what we do is transform other forms of experiences into a language like metaphors through which we assume that we could understand the meaning of arts. Therefore music can be understood not only as an aesthetic object but music can be innately social and an ideological text. 


Let me now discuss, in brief, the values pertaining to dance.  Dance as an art form can present diverse forms of expressions and meanings. Traditionally, Sri Lankan dance for instance have various codifications where dance audiences extricate meanings through narratives and stories embedded in dance. E.g. Hanuma Wannama or Gajaga Wannama depicts animal behaviors and meanings related to how these animals behave and move along with stories related to religion and rituals. Without these narratives embedded in traditional dance, we cannot see what meanings or feelings that these moving bodies bring as aesthetic meanings to the viewers. Similar to other art forms, we tend to define dance again as a universal language, or ‘mother of all tongues, or ‘the mirror of the soul’ (Warren cited in Leavy 2015, p. 149). These views are commonplace in the society related to dance, because we try to understand dance as a particular ‘language’ similar to music. However, dance is one of the most abstract forms of art where meanings cannot directly be accessed. 

Despite the literal and narrative meanings embedded in dance, dance is used to cultivate other forms of values and meanings for human beings. Dance is narrative and tells stories. In traditional forms of dance, people make meanings from narratives and stories embedded in dance rituals. These stories and narratives encapsulate human nature and gods’ and goddesses’ influence in human lives and wellbeing.  Dance is emancipatory and is used as a way of expressing social and personal discomforts and disagreements. There are some instances in which dance is used to critique social norms and raise disagreements through humor and satire. These forms also can be seen in some traditional dance dramas such as Kolam or Sokari in Sri Lankan dance-drama traditions. In these dance-drama forms, people use this art form to critique and show their discontent about established hierarchies and social status. Dance can be used to raise social cohesion by engaging with various communities and bringing them to a common platform. Dance is used as a healing process and it can heighten human wellbeing and communal sense. So there are many ways that we can understand how dance could be utilized in our daily life. In recent studies, dance has been identified as a tool to transcend historical time. As Cleark-Replley argues ‘dance is a form of transformative human action that expresses an individual’s being with  purposive ends and can thus support communal relations’ (Cleark-Replley cited in Leavy 2015, p. 149).

Figure 3: Cassandra directed by Seth Baumrin at Gershom Theatre, Lviv Ukraine, 2019. Actor, Lyudmyla Honcharova is performing with co-actors. Photo credit Vadym Rybin.


Finally, I would like to discuss briefly how theatre and performance practice could benefit our lives not only as a source of aesthetic pleasure but as a way to uplift other human values in our daily life and beyond. Theatre is a powerful medium through which one can communicate and share ideas and thoughts with other communities. The idea of ‘theatre’ has been used for a wide variety of meanings from antiquity to the present. The term theatrum mundi is used to denote the ‘world as theatre’ capturing every human activity taking place in the world. Further the term theatrum vita humane connotes the idea of ‘life as theatre’ (Fischer-Lichte, E. 2014). These usages therefore indicate how the term theatre is used to encapsulate both human and worldly activities. 

Theatre invites actors and theatergoers to get together and engage in a communal space where they share certain meanings of their lives and surrounding environment. This is understood as an autopoiesis feedback loop or ‘co-presence’ of a group of performers and viewers. In this co-presence, theatre ‘investigates’ as well as ‘represents’ social phenomena where we live in (Leavy 2015, p. 174). Hence, theatre is not only for us to have pleasure and use as a leisure activity but also an investigation, exploration and representation of our daily realities. In general, theatrical performance raises our conscious awareness of where we live, what we do, and how we can change our environment. This awareness is vital for human beings to live and work in a society where unjust and exploitation is dominated. Theatre raises our awareness of our surroundings and further questions prejudices dominating in social structures. Theatre has the power to empower marginalized communities, groups of people who are suppressed by dominant power structures such as military, medical or governments. Theatre therefore stands along with those marginalized people and leads their struggles to emancipate them from those suppressive tools. In this sense theatre is political and educational. Theatre activism leads people to engage with policy and make changes in how they are being governed. Theatre is education in the sense that it blurs the boundaries and restrictions imposed in the traditional educational systems and allows people to learn without been subjugated to established pedagogies. Thus theatre creates a space for people whose voice is unheard and left alone. People who are involved in theatrical enactment and who are a part of the audience can cultivate knowledge through watching and engaging with the theatre. In this way, theatre and performance can serve to enhance human experience in diverse ways. 


In these concluding remarks I would like to restate the idea that similar to scientific enquiry, the arts and arts practitioners also do research in their respective fields and create theories, challenge existing concepts and prejudices, develop new ideas, find new forms, and problematize existing knowledge with new creative research and insights. As I have argued above, the history of philosophy has created a gap between artistic endeavors and scientific explorations. However, with new understanding about how the human brain and cognition operate, it is clearly proved that human thinking, conceptualization, and ideas, traditionally understood as a function of the rational mind, are not rational activities but are embedded with emotional drives and  occur largely in the human unconscious. In line with this aesthetic sentiment is an important human cognitive function that goes beyond our limits of language. Therefore, the arts override language and linguistic meanings. We make sense of the arts and our environment through our bodies and their encroachment with the outer world. The value of the practice of the arts and aesthetic sentiment is an integral component of human development. It is our duty for the next generation to convince that the arts and the aesthetic is another way of holistically understanding the world that science cannot perceive through  rational means. 


The author wishes to thank Dr Arosha Dissanayake, past president of the GMA and all the committee members of the association who made this event possible. Further a special gratitude goes to Himansi Dehigama and Sachini Senevirathne for preparing this paper. 


Fischer-Lichte, E. (2014). The Routledge introduction to theatre and performance studies. London: Routledge.

Johnson, M. (2012). The meaning of the body: Aesthetics of human understanding. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kashima, E.S. (2010). Culture and Terror Management: What is “Culture” in Cultural Psychology and Terror Management Theory? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(3), pp.164–173.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (n.d.). Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. New York, Ny: Basic Books, [20]10.

Leavy, P. (2019). Handbook of arts-based research. New York: The Guilford Press.

Leavy, P. (2020). Method meets art : arts-based research practice. New York: The Guilford Press.

*This paper is based on a guest speech delivered at the annual lecture series titled ‘Medicine and Beyond’ organized by the Galle Medical Association at Karapitiya Teaching Hospital in 2019.

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  • 0

    Dr.Liyanage, excellent guy that he is, has gone to great lengths to explain the effect of aesthetics on humans.
    But still, the piece doesn’t impel me to refer “Johnson, M. (2012). The meaning of the body: Aesthetics of human understanding. Chicago: The University of Chicago”. every time I decide to watch “Sound of Music”

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