Aesthetics, Beauty, Art: An Integral Inquiry

By: Michael Schwartz

There is a tendency in integral circles to collapse and conflate the terms of art, beauty, and aesthetics. While there can be an aesthetical-sensory experience of art that is beautiful, this alignment of terms expresses only one range of enacted perspectives that might otherwise deploy these terms.

Aesthetics, a term that has accrued a wide range of meanings (which from an integral stance can all be honored, yet need be specified), emerged in philosophy in the middle of the eighteenth century, initially signifying a nascent science of or inquiry into the significance of the sensory, and often with a stress on feeling. Aesthetics is not necessarily aligned with questions of the beautiful. In Kant’s first critique (Critique of Pure Reason), rather than in his third (Critique of Judgment), the section on Transcendental Aesthetic is not concerned with beauty but with time and space. Nor are questions of the aesthetic-sensory restricted or reduced to perception of a work of art.

Beauty, along with the True and the Good, are in Ken Wilber’s integral theory one of the Big Three, as a shining through of “the One.” This shining through however does not require the sensory, hence need not be aesthetic -- as with the beauty of mathematical thought, proper to the eye of mind, or the beauty of a transpersonal domain, proper to the eye of spirit. Further, not all developmental waves are necessarily, automatically, or as readily transparent to “the One.” In fact, the relation of states and stages of consciousness to the shining through of the One remains an open question for integral inquiry and research. As does the question of what a rigorously defined and investigated aesthetics line of development might look like.

Art is that which presents a frame around itself (Wilber) – art differentiating itself from the immediate world while situating itself in relation to that world (Heidegger): a world (of art) within a world (of actuality). Instances of neo-avant-garde art, such as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, or moments of scatological art, purposefully repulsive and ugly, are not in the first instance concerned with the beautiful.

We would do well then in integral circles not to align too quickly the terms of art, beauty, and aesthetics, but instead explore their interplay in fresh lines of questioning. And it is just these kinds of explorations, through the making of and reflecting on art, that pulse through the very heart of the IAM Center at Meta-Integral.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared on Integral Life at

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