Homo ludens, beauty, and the art of living

Another dimension of meaning refers to playing in the broad sense of the word. Doing something for its own sake (‘I write poems just for fun’) and related experiences such as joy or flow are considered characteristics of a fulfilled life. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) described flow as being completely involved in an activity for its own sake - a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The slogan ‘art for art’ is often conceived to express that art is complete in itself. The art of thinking beautifully (aesthetic experiences) refers to emotional reactions that occur when we experience a work of art. This process denotes the interaction between a stimulus and cognitive-emotional processing. One can use the term of beauty to refer to (aesthetic) objects, occurrences, or activities (sunset, painting, a piece of music, a game). Pleasure refers to the feeling a person experiences. Both denote the same interaction. Psychological models have described aesthetic experiences in terms of sensory, perceptual, and cognitive processing (Leder et al., 2004; Palmer, Schloss, & Sammartino, 2013). The model of aesthetic appreciation and judgement (Leder et al., 2004) comprises a sequence of five processing stages: perceptual analysis, implicit memory, explicit classification, cognitive mastering, and evaluation. Aesthetic judgements and aesthetic emotions are the two outputs of the model. In the following section, I illustrate the role of meaning by using concepts of aesthetic experience in the context of play. Playing encompasses the components of intentionality and activity (one is doing something intentionally and with attention) and the association with rules (conventions, social norms, rules of playing cards). Both are involved in the process of aesthetic experience. In the following, I would like to delineate some aspects that are characteristic of or may contribute to this experience.

Facets of play as action orientation and values: The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga reminded us that homo faber (‘man the maker’) is associated with homo ludens (‘man who enjoys playing’). Homo ludens is a term or anthropological model that emphasizes the importance of the play element of culture and society. Play is a basic element of human culture: ‘... play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is different from ordinary life’ (Huizinga, 1949, p. 28). According to Huizinga, play is a voluntary activity. It is done at leisure, during ‘free time’. The examples he used to examine the contrast between play and seriousness include ceremonies and masquerades, contests and races, the romping of young dogs, exhibitions, performances, dancing, and music. In choosing these examples, he carefully elaborates situations that emphasize the joy and delight of life but also hints at the reasons for negative symptoms.

I would like to note that the things someone likes can differ tremendously from person to person. In naming some, there is a danger of overlooking others. Completeness is not intended. The following examples illustrate the abundance of life but also the relative nature of preferences that is characteristic of an intentional perspective. Aesthetic responses are too variable to serve as putative prototypes, and there may be some individuals who have negative experiences with prototypes that are valued by others. The sneer ‘They look like they came from a dollhouse’ could provoke somebody to defend his/her preferences for decorative boxes or dishes. Squabbles about taste sometimes take on the character of a lasting and embittered clash of opinion, but it seems that the related ambiguity contributes to interindividual differences in preferences and aesthetical orientations. Nonetheless, the art of thinking beautifully and the ability to look at affairs in a playful way remains a criterion for positive development across the lifespan. I concentrate on a few examples that illustrate the dynamic facets of playing and its interconnection to intentions, actions, and meaning. In visual arts and musical arts, a strong play element may be called essential. The manipulation of musical instruments is called ‘playing’. The essential nature of all musical activity is play - a component of music that is often admired due to the many talents and skills involved (e.g. components of play such as virtuosity, the ability to communicate with band members, superior ease).

Similar to all human actions, play is constituted by the application of rules. Regardless of whether you play an instrument or listen to your favourite band, regardless of whether your sportiness involves physical training or is limited to watching world championships, the enjoyment of competitive impulses or just passing the time require knowledge of the rules to a certain degree. To explain the purpose and enjoyment of a move in a particular sport to an outsider, one should initiate him or her into the rules of that game. The question of how knowledge of rules can contribute to the differentiation of taste and pleasure in a specific domain is tempting and remains open.

Flow and cognitive demand: Which factors predict whether we enjoy activities? With regard to the role of cognitive demand, that is, the ease of cognitive processing, psychological theories suggest an easy to medium level of processing. The fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure (Reber, 2014) claims that people prefer visual displays to the extent that they are processed more easily. If information about an object is quickly processed, one feels positive affect that is experienced as beauty. The effect of the complexity of information processing on preferences also interacts with expertise. In terms of arousal theory (Berlyne, 1974), aesthetic pleasure is a function of arousal, but it decreases as arousal becomes too great, for instance, if one is not familiar with the rules. If arousal drops below the optimal level, the organism will seek stimulation. Berlyne claims that arousal is best and most effective at a moderate level. Moderating factors are novelty, complexity, unexpectedness, and incongruity.

Imitation: Some types of pleasure can be evoked by repetition or imitation. Examples include the execution of rule-based action, movements, or the imitation of motoric skills. Successful motoric performance (juggling) or the creation of visual or acoustical effects are activities that are executed because they affect flow experience or create a satisfying product. Repeated patterns on carpets and shower curtains, Arabic arabesques on the front of a building, or a squiggly script serve as adornments and can enhance the impression of something special. Play with ornamentation has the function of drawing attention to an object and enhancing its value - sometimes for the enjoyment of the beholder. Of course, the artist’s livelihood will be secured if he or she is able to amaze the audience. The idea of‘mimesis’ has governed the creation of works of art that correspond to the physical world and has been used to evaluate the quality of an art object. The use of the concept of mimesis shifted from ‘imitation of nature’ to ‘imitation of other examples or other authors’.

Imitation and breaking rules: Sometimes, we enjoy a game if we break the rules -and we should not ignore that rule-breaking has several meanings. One refers to creativity, particularly to the creation of something new or to giving up traditional norms that sometimes are experienced as a restriction. The composition of a fugue is based on a complex theory and rules that concern matters of texture. Johann Sebastian Bach, a master of fugue techniques, extended the rules (‘Bach shows the same shocking ignorance of the rules here [referring to his last work, Die Kunst der Fog«] as he showed in fugues written at large’; Tovey, 1949, p. 43). How far rules and deviations from existing rules are accompanied by pleasure, approval, or outrage is a question of temperament and expectation (cf. preference, subjective norms, level of tolerance) in the face of social expectations. Some types of rule deviations are associated with the progressing emancipation of arts, whereas in other contexts, they include a moral component. In a social context, play actions and games with rules receive or gain meaning from the motivation to cooperate and compete. Nonetheless, deviations from rules are accepted to some degree in the context of fair play. It remains an intriguing question how many tournaments have been held and won without violations of the rules.

From a psychological point of view, the interconnection between play and imitation has been elaborated by Jean Piaget. According to Piaget (1962), play involves schemas that are susceptible to being purely for functional pleasure. Play can also lead from activity to representations and mediate the transition from sensory to mental adaptation. Ludic activities are maintained and repeated as a function of assimilation. Imitation is a type of systematic accommodation to spatial conditions and to models that are virtual but not actually usable. Imitation, as well as the mental imitation of an absent model, lead to differentiation and coordination between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’. The transition from general imitation to specific movements is a result of training. We become familiar through imitation.

The pleasure of mastering ludic activities contributes to a feeling of virtuosity. Differentiation and expertise serve as implicit or explicit criteria of taste inasmuch the differentiation of rules or details develops the standards of evaluation. A differentiated knowledge of rules or expertise in a specific domain is not sufficient for enjoyment but nonetheless contributes to the development of aesthetic judgement criteria.

L’art pour Part and the art of living: The motivation or willingness to find meaning in the playful and aesthetical facets of life is conceptually closely related to Sternberg’s concept of cognitive style or thinking style (Zhang, Sternberg, & Rayner, 2012). In contrast to performance constructs such as cognitive abilities (intelligence), intellectual styles refer to people’s preferences or preferred manner of dealing with tasks and processing information. Regarding goals, one can speak of an orientation towards activities that make life beautiful. Interestingly, emotional valence is often focused on activities that do not seem relevant for survival or reproduction but, rather, are executed for their own sake. The slogan ‘art for art’ is often used to convey that art is divorced from any moral or utilitarian function. I assume that the slogan ‘art completes itself’ becomes an empty phrase or exaggeration if one claims that the experience of art or art itself is without limits or has no purposes or preconditions. The French philosopher Victor Cousin (1845) placed demands on the open-mindedness of our power of judgement. ‘Il faut comprendre et aimer la morale pour la morale, la religion pour la religion, l’art pour l’art’ [One needs to comprehend and like morality for morality’s sake, ...] (Cousin, 1845, p. 799).

In ample philosophical concepts, such as ‘aesthetics of existence’ (Foucault, 1988) and ‘art of life’ (‘Lebenskunst’, Schmid, 1998), human life and selfdevelopment are subject to the perspective of aesthetically differentiating processes. The art of life or living refers to the conscious leading and continuous formation of life. In the interplay of knowledge and powerful relationships, the relation to oneself and one’s existence constitutes an important field in which aesthetic values are to be applied. The art of aesthetic life conduct in this broad sense also includes moral questions and action competence. Similar to conceptions of wisdom, it can be understood as an ideal realization of the balance between knowledge and virtue.

Transcendence, religious beliefs, and spiritual experience

Religions have lost their normative and moral functions for many people. Auguste Comte’s influential law of three stages holds that, due to the natural law of the human mind, all progress of knowledge develops through three mental stages: from the theological and metaphysical stages to the positive stage. The science of society represents the apex of this progression (see de Lubac, 1995). Although economic questions and the man as maker are the current focus of attention (‘Man makes religion’; Karl Marx), religious orientations and mythical experiences are still represented in everyday life in different ways. Several studies have provided evidence that religious belief can prevent depression and change goal focuses. Participants reminded of God have demonstrated motivational changes (e.g. decreased active goal pursuit and increased temptation resistance) (for an overview, see Laurin & Kay, 2016). Correlations between religiosity and subjective well-being can be partly explained by mediating factors such as perceived control (Jackson & Bergeman, 2011), social support in the community, and charity activities. The meaningful role of social relations is acknowledged in many religions, but for some denominations, it is not completely reducible to interpersonal relations (see Martin Buber’s I-Thou relation; Buber, 1958).

Of course, not all spiritual branches are burdened with the question of whether God exists. Mythical ecstasies or revelations (‘Then, suddenly dear friend, one turned into two - and Zarathustra walked into my view’; Nietzsche, 1882/1954) are comparatively rare experiences. For uninspired people, such experiences might be disconcerting, but for some people, such experiences might be motivation for meditative exercises. Meditative contemplation and mindfulness exercises have been found to regulate anxiety, subjective well-being, and relaxation (see mindfulness-based stress reduction). They might be suitable for those who wish to bring order into daily life and to dampen the effects of everyday stress. Doctrines of enlightenment that can be used as basic orientations are also available for the interested user. How mental states such as those achieved during mindfulness meditation are related to physical or neuronal changes is still a challenging problem for research. Bringing attention to one’s breath, a sound, or a sensation or enjoying the present are mental states that can be compared with the default mode network of a neuronal activity. Consequently, determining the type of mental training that can change the neuronal structure is an area of research interest that has developed during recent years. As the branch of astrology demonstrates, a not-marginal part of society believes that the movements and relative positions of planets can influence human life (among other factors). In everyday life, intentions are not closely tied to the results of natural-science research.

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