I rolled my eyes when I first heard this argument from my aesthetics professor. It sounds so incredibly corny to say that the heart is where we feel our emotions. Didn't we all grow out of talking this way early in our intellectual lives? And there he was, a college professor, an expert in his field of aesthetic philosophy, telling us that when we viewed a work of art, we should listen to the rhythms of our hearts. Was he speaking metaphorically?
No. Not at all.
To say that the heart is the locus of aesthetic experience requires neither an abstract plunge into metaphor nor an overly-literal examination of cardiology. One could explain plainly and, I think, convincingly that the heart—the actual, blood-pumping organ—is what gave man his first intimations of rhythm, cadence, and meter, is what continues to make him sensitive and receptive to the more elusive rhythms in nature and art, and is what keeps him attuned and synchronized to a greater cosmic order.
Rhythm and Life
Running, walking, breathing—these are some of the rhythmic activities of human life that are under the domain of conscious control. Each of these activities produces a differently paced, involuntary rhythmic response from the core of the body. That is to say, the heart beats in tempo with life. The heartbeat, along with other organic rhythms, is not merely an expression of the body’s vitality, it is a fundamental source of life. Because the heartbeat is so vital and beyond our control, this rhythm takes on a semi-mystical significance that must deflate this tendency we have to believe in the self-sufficiency of reason. We are alive and continue to live because of factors that the consciousness cannot check, direct, or rule. This realization ought to instill humility in man and compel him to praise the greater whole of which he finds himself a part.
If, by an act of will, we were able to set the pace of our heartbeats as we may consciously control our breathing, I think we should not so readily associate the heart with love, joy, excitement, or other forms of human happiness and passion. The heart gives a tangible rhythmic expression to these emotions that well up within us and defy any expression that reason can formulate. The artist captures the energies and rhythms of his heart and arranges them in space and time as a work of art. These distilled energies have the potential to vitalize another’s heart, working through the senses, acting on the mind, and producing the physically felt effect of the aesthetic experience.
The Rhythm of Making
If the rhythms of dance and song arose organically from the heart, the rhythms of craft may as well have been laid down and ordered by the heart. Crafting is a creative and an intellectual process that at times requires repetitive motion. In chipping stone, weaving, tattooing, and hammering metal, the craftsman soon establishes a regular rhythm that the heartbeat participates in. Painting has its various rhythms too: dipping into the pigment, returning to the surface, making deliberate strokes. Even in the earliest cultures, things were made not merely to be the useful instruments of daily life and religious ceremony, but also as works of beauty in themselves.
Yeats said that we are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us. If he is right, then art can make us happy in one way by externalizing the rhythms of the heart. In another way, we can find happiness through art’s ability to mirror the cosmos and relate it to human feeling. Art can synchronize the rhythms of the heart to the cycles and patterns of nature, allowing man to feel attuned to the natural order and de-alienated from the world.