“The past is preserved only in darkness, the future is not raised to the level of an image, as something which can be anticipated. It is the symbolic expression which first creates the possibility of looking backward and looking forward... What occurred in the past, now separated out from the totality of representations, no longer passes away, once the sounds of language have placed their seals on it and given it a certain stamp.” Ernst Cassirer

In “An Essay on Man,” the German philosopher and leading thinker on aesthetics, Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) calls a great artist a discoverer of forms. His celebration of the human agent and aim to expand the vast potential within this agency is clear throughout his work. He celebrates Leonard da Vinci’s concept of saper vedere – knowing how to see.

Ernst Cassirer - An Essay on Man

If Leonardo da Vinci is right when he says the average person looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking, then it takes an artist who is a genius by definition – fully aware of their surroundings and in tune with the spirit of a place – to make the world sing. This is the gift we give to one another when we create art. 

“What he gives us,” Cassirer writes about the artist, “is the individual and momentary physiognomy of the landscape. He wishes to express the atmosphere of things, the play of light and shadow.” 

Education is an atmosphere, and in Ernst Cassirer’s mind, describing this atmosphere is the mission of the artist. The artist is an educator, leading us out of darkness and into light. Henry David Thoreau offers a pithy and prescient token of wisdom that might resonate with followers of Cassirer:

“It is not what you look at, but what you see.”

The seer in the pages of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves who cries out, “Open in me a thousand eyes of curiosity,” yearns to be a great artist. The rocketman seduced by the sky in Ray Bradbury’s short story has the vision necessary for a great artist.

Joseph Conrad writes, “The artist appeals to that part of our being which is a gift and not an acquisition– and, therefore, more permanently enduring.” 

In his profound manifesto on art, Lewis Hyde reminds us that “the spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.” That spirit is a willingness to wonder because we know how to see. Knowing how to see is a matter of being open to the phenomena that surround us and willing to make connections. Neuroscience teaches us that our brains are yearning to make connections and encode them in our neural networks.

Cassirer comments on the ways these connections enrich our lives:

“Aesthetic experience is incomparably richer. It is pregnant with infinite possibilities which remain unrealized in ordinary sense experience. In the work of the artist these possibilities become actualities; they are brought into the open and take on definite shape. The revelation of this inexhaustibility of the aspects of things is one of the great privileges and one the deepest charms of art.”

Hazard Adams summarizes Cassirer’s contributions in the following way:

“He argues that art always tends toward the particular and sensuous and seeks to overcome the gap between subject and object, whereas language and science move toward abstraction and divide object from subject. This conclusion leads him to be critical of subjectivist theories or notions that art expresses the infinite…. He holds that art is not an imitation but a discovery.” Hazard Adams
Critical Theory Since Plato - Hazard Adams

This is precisely what Ernst Cassirer offers with the metaphor he uses to constitute reality. You see, reality is made up of different symbolic structures like myth, language, art, poetry, science, and so on. Following Thoureau’s assertion, we are reminded that reality is not made up of the material of existence, but is constituted by the practice of meaning making. This is what Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes as the phenomenology of perception.

Seeing is a practice that requires the individually constituted material of existence to come together with the viewer in an effort to make meaning. Cassirer explains that although each organ has its individual assignment, they function together to construct a spiritual reality.

We apprehend those spiritual realities by discovering that which contains the energy of experience. Hidden within each breath of perception is the delicate balancing act between receiving and creating these spiritual realities. 

This kind of seeing echoes the delicate care in which William Blake apprehends the world recorded in his poem, Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake - Auguries of Innocence
Ernst Cassirer on the Gift of the Artist