The metaphysical and ethical dimensions of human freedom are intimately related. This is the most significant difference between the existentialists and Husserlian phenomenology: the existentialists link the power to disclose the world to the necessity of human beings to decide who they should be, in terms of the fundamental values directing a person’s life.
The concept of “existence” designates precisely this ethical dimension of human life. The existentialists argue that, of all the beings existing in the world, the human being is the only one that can decide what it should be; indeed, it is forced to do so since it has no fixed nature. As the existentialist motto goes, “man is condemned to be free.”
Here, freedom is not just independence in the sense of independence from, but in the sense of being able to decide who and what one should be. This ethical dimension of freedom as the power of self-determination (which also entails a duty) explains the central place of the notion of “engagement (commitment).”
Before it designates any necessity to choose in particular situations, “engagement” refers to the fundamental position of the human individual, whose very being consists in having to make use of its freedom. On the existentialists’ outlook, the only positive feature of “human reality,” strictly speaking, is responsibility towards others and towards oneself (and, for the Christian existentialists, also towards God).
Many human beings refuse this burden and flee from their ontological responsibility by accepting pre-given roles. This is what Sartre’s “bad faith” and Marcel’s “functional man” designate.
What is the link between the metaphysical and the ethical dimensions of human freedom, and how does this latter concern aesthetics?
Let us begin with the first part of the question.
We will first approach it by using a mode of argument typical of phenomenology. Many existentialists insist that the ways in which a human consciousness “intends” the world (that is, imposes a certain order and regularity in external phenomena) is intrinsically dependent on the values the person has set for herself.
A mountain climber views a mountain in a way radically different from an intellectual who has devoted his or her life to books. The difference in their perspectives relates to the deep projects of selves that distinguish these two persons. In other words, behind every perception there is a value influencing the perception in advance and thus ultimately determining its precise content.
On a deeper, ontological level, the experience that there is something at all, the experience of being, cannot be conceived if there is not a desire for it (an “ontological exigency” says Marcel). The very capacity of human beings to conceive something in the world at all is premised on their capacity to posit values (Sartre 1943a; Marcel 1960a, for the religious perspective).
If that is true, however, then every “revelation” of the world in the first, metaphysical sense also entails a revelation of the fundamental ethical (or, as the existentialists preferred, existential) project underpinning this perception.
This answers, then, the second part of the question regarding the relation between the work of art and the ethical aspect of freedom. For the existentialists, as we saw, the work of art brings to a higher level of reflexivity and consistency the innate capacity of human beings to disclose the world.
However, since this capacity is itself rooted in the ethical or religious nature of human beings, the work of art plays a central role in conveying a more acute sense of ethical responsibility. It follows that there is an intimate link between art and engagement: every aesthetic ordering of the world brings with it a conception of human freedom and suggests ways to use it.
Hence, Sartre’s definition of the literary work, which applies broadly to all works of art: “… an imaginary presentation of the world inasmuch as it requires human freedom” (1948a, 45). In other words, the artwork serves the purpose of “making us feel essential in relation to the world.”
The work of art presents the world not just in the sense that it reveals aspects of it, but also in the sense that it calls for human involvement, notably in collective action (or, for Marcel, ‘communion’) (Goldthorpe 1992).
This definition of the artwork remains ambiguous inasmuch as it does not specify whose freedom is required. A number of features can be delineated as a result, depending on whose freedom is emphasised in each case.
The freedom required by the world is first of all that of the artist. Every artwork reveals a fundamental, existential attitude towards the world, and is the expression of an existential choice. We will return to the fundamental notion of expression below, but we can already note that putting existential weight on every act of disclosure leads directly to the conclusion that artistic practice is intimately linked to ethical and political choices.
However, the ‘expressive’ aspect of the artwork, the fact that it is the manifestation of a unique subjectivity, is not the most interesting one for the existentialists; from this perspective, existentialist aesthetics is quite distant from romanticism. This is because existence, freedom and self-determination are, for the existentialists, essentially active and practical notions.
The existential choice is not simply a choice of who one should be, in the sense of a choice of personality or character; the theory of existence does not translate into a theory of genius. Rather, the emphasis is on the active relationship within the world, and especially with others.
Accordingly, one defines who one is by what one does with one’s freedom in the world, through the ways in which one proposes to change the world, notably in relation to other human agents. When the artist presents the world (whether he or she likes it or not), this presentation also proposes to others ways to live in the world and possibly (at least for the most politically minded authors, such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty) to change it.
In Sartre’s words, every “imaginary presentation of the world” is an act of “a” freedom speaking to “other” freedoms about possible ways of engaging freedom in the world. Extending Sartre’s definition of the novel, then, we could say that every artwork is an “appeal” (Sartre 1948a, 32).
Therefore the artwork involves a freedom that is not just that of the artist, but also that of the audience. In existentialist language, it is freedom considered as ‘engaged,’ that is, irreducibly caught up in engagement and forced to do something about it.
Hence, Sartre offers another definition of the artwork that identifies the different poles of the metaphysical power of art: “… the writer has chosen to reveal the world and particularly to reveal man to other men so that the latter may assume full responsibility before the object which has thus been laid bare” (Sartre 1948a, 14).
In their own artistic practice and their work as critics, the existentialists tended to interpret this conception of art’s mission (as revelation and appeal) as an argument in favour of representational approaches, and against formalistic and puristic approaches.
They were generally sceptical of ‘autotelic’ conceptions of the artwork that view it as a self-contained object answerable only to its own formal rules. In this respect, again, they differ from some modernist views.
Indeed, this insistence on the representative dimension of art might appear old-fashioned, inasmuch as the more modern insistence on the autonomy of the artwork has marked most late 19th century aesthetic projects and their 20th century descendants. The existentialists’ insistence on the intrinsic ethical and political significance of the artwork further distances them from these other aesthetic approaches.
Deranty, Jean-Philippe, “Existentialist Aesthetics“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).