As Rocco Buttiglione writes in his foreword to Graven Images, Hildebrand “was convinced that an accurate phenomenological analysis can clearly distinguish values as they present themselves in human experience from the psychological and emotional phenomena that accompany and very often distort them.” One of the great strengths of Hildebrand’s approach is that he writes clearly about the differences between the experience of art and the objective reality of the art object itself. In an essay titled “Aestheticism and the True Disposition to Art,” he opposes the idea that “content can exist only in subjective, emotional effects that are of no importance.” To the contrary: “I really grasp the autonomy and intrinsic importance of art only when I see that it possesses not only its own language but also a content of its own, which is thoroughly objective and must be distinguished from subjective emotional effects.”
The Aesthetics, which has, surprisingly, never before been translated into English, tries to draw out those distinctions across numerous media. The first volume sets out the difference between moral values (which Hildebrand calls “metaphysical beauty”) and aesthetic values that have no separate moral content (“audible and visual beauty”). Thus a bad person can have a pretty face. Aristophanes can be funny but also obscene. The pretty face has visual beauty, but that tells us nothing about the person’s moral value; Hildebrand writes that “the sublime spiritual beauty of the visible and the audible is clearly distinct from expressed metaphysical beauty.” A physically unsightly saint’s holiness, however, radiates from them in a way we appreciate as beautiful—not only morally but also, in a way, aesthetically. (Note that this is different from the belief that a saint who works as an artist must be a great artist: “[A] saint who works as an artist need not produce any great works of art.”)
But how does that interplay work in everyday aesthetic experience? Hildebrand does not say simply that art serves a didactic purpose, as a channel to the transcendent. He starts with the experiential fact that audible or visual beauty—a piece of music, a striking sunset—has, as Crosby phrases it, a “beauty that does not seem to be proper to, or proportioned to, the light and colors and spatial expanse from which it arises.” That is, we are struck more deeply by the view of a majestic mountain than the mountain itself would seem able to bear. This “excess” aesthetic experience is not an illusion, nor does it need to mean that the experience is some kind of divine interpolation on a natural event. Rather, Hildebrand keeps the two phenomena—natural beauty on the one hand and internal experience of excess on the other—in a “sacramental” balance. In a section called “The Solution to the Riddle,” Hildebrand calls this contrast a mirandum, a wonder. The key distinction is this: a person possessed of moral values becomes transfigured so that the bearer and what is borne (metaphysical beauty) are the same. For Hildebrand’s “audible and visual beauty,” however, a mountain that evokes in us an experience of sublime visual beauty, is still a mountain: the bearer and the borne are not quite the same. Rather, that experience “proclaims much higher realities,” a framework that Hildebrand puts to use in examining the Catholic doctrine of the sacraments.
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