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Introduction | Aesthetic Judgements | What is Art? | Aesthetic Universals | History of Aesthetics
Introduction Back to Top

Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and appreciation of art, beauty and good taste. It has also been defined as "critical reflection on art, culture and nature". The word "aesthetics" derives from the Greek "aisthetikos", meaning "of sense perception". Along with Ethics, aesthetics is part of axiology (the study of values and value judgments).

In practice, we distinguish between aesthetic judgments (the appreciation of any object, not necessarily an art object) and artistic judgments (the appreciation or criticism of a work of art). Thus aesthetics is broader in scope than the philosophy of art. It is also broader than the philosophy of beauty, in that it applies to any of the responses we might expect works of art or entertainment to elicit, whether positive or negative.

Aestheticians ask questions like "What is a work of art?", "What makes a work of art successful?", "Why do we find certain things beautiful?", "How can things of very different categories be considered equally beautiful?", "Is there a connection between art and morality?", "Can art be a vehicle of truth?", "Are aesthetic judgments objective statements or purely subjective expressions of personal attitudes?", "Can aesthetic judgments be improved or trained?"

In very general terms, it examines what makes something beautiful, sublime, disgusting, fun, cute, silly, entertaining, pretentious, discordant, harmonious, boring, humorous or tragic.

Aesthetic Judgements Back to Top

Judgements of aesthetic value rely on our ability to discriminate at a sensory level, but they usually go beyond that. Judgments of beauty are sensory, emotional, and intellectual all at once.

According to Immanuel Kant, beauty is objective and universal (i.e. certain things are beautiful to everyone). But there is a second concept involved in a viewer's interpretation of beauty, that of taste, which is subjective and varies according to class, cultural background and education.

In fact, it can be argued that all aesthetic judgments are culturally conditioned to some extent, and can change over time (e.g. Victorians in Britain often saw African sculpture as ugly, but just a few decades later, Edwardian audiences saw the same sculptures as being beautiful).

Judgments of aesthetic value can also become linked to judgments of economic, political or moral value (e.g. we might judge an expensive car to be beautiful partly because it is desirable as a status symbol, or we might judge it to be repulsive partly because it signifies for us over-consumption and offends our political or moral values.)

Aestheticians question how aesthetic judgments can be unified across art forms (e.g. we can call a person, a house, a symphony, a fragrance and a mathematical proof beautiful, but what characteristics do they share which give them that status?)

It should also be borne in kind that the imprecision and ambiguity arising from the use of language in aesthetic judgments can lead to much confusion (e.g. two completely different feelings derived from two different people can be represented by an identical expression, and conversely a very similar response can be articulated by very different language).

What is Art? Back to Top

In recent years, the word “art” is roughly used as an abbreviation for creative art or fine art, where some skill is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the “finer” things. If the skill being used is more lowbrow or practical, the word "craft" is often used instead of art. Similarly, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way, it may be considered "design" (or "applied art"). Some have argued, though, that the difference between fine art and applied art or crafts has more to do with value judgments made about the art than any clear definitional difference.

Since the Dadaist art movement of the early 20th Century, it can no longer even be assumed that all art aims at beauty. Some have argued that whatever art schools and museums and artists get away with should be considered art, regardless of formal definitions (the so-called institutional definition of art).

Some commentators (including John Dewey) suggest that it is the process by which a work of art is created or viewed that makes it art, not any inherent feature of an object or how well received it is by the institutions of the art world (e.g. if a writer intended a piece to be a poem, it is one whether other poets acknowledge it or not, whereas if exactly the same set of words was written by a journalist as notes, these would not constitute a poem).

Others, including Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910), claim that what makes something art (or not) is how it is experienced by its audience, not the intention of its creator.

Functionalists like Monroe Beardsley (1915 - 1985) argue that whether or not a piece counts as art depends on what function it plays in a particular context (e.g. the same Greek vase may play a non-artistic function in one context - carrying wine - and an artistic function in another context).

At the metaphysical and ontological level, when we watch, for example, a play being performed, are we judging one work of art (the whole performance), or are we judging separately the writing of the play, the direction and setting, the performances of the various actors, the costumes, etc? Similar considerations also apply to music, painting, etc. Since the rise of conceptual art in the 20th Century, the problem is even more acute (e.g. what exactly are we judging when we look at Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes?)

Aestheticians also question what the value of art is. Is art a means of gaining some kind of knowledge? Is it a tool of education or indoctrination or enculturation? Is it perhaps just politics by other means? Does art give us an insight into the human condition? Does it make us more moral? Can it uplift us spiritually? Might the value of art for the artist be quite different than its value for the audience? Might the value of art to society be different than its value to individuals?

Aesthetic Universals Back to Top

The contemporary American philosopher Denis Dutton (1944 - 2010) has identified seven universal signatures in human aesthetics. Although there are possible exceptions and objections to many of them, they represent a useful starting point for the consideration of aesthetics:

  • Expertise or Virtuosity (technical artistic skills are cultivated, recognized and admired)
  • Non-Utilitarian Pleasure (people enjoy art for art's sake, and don't demand practical value of it)
  • Style (artistic objects and performances satisfy rules of composition that place them in recognizable styles)
  • Criticism (people make a point of judging, appreciating and interpreting works of art)
  • Imitation (with a few important exceptions (e.g. music, abstract painting), works of art simulate experiences of the world)
  • Special Focus (art is set aside from ordinary life and made a dramatic focus of experience)
  • Imagination (artists and their audiences entertain hypothetical worlds in the theatre of the imagination)
History of Aesthetics Back to Top

The Ancient Greek philosophers initially felt that aesthetically appealing objects were beautiful in and of themselves. Plato felt that beautiful objects incorporated proportion, harmony and unity among their parts. Aristotle found that the universal elements of beauty were order, symmetry and definiteness.

According to Islam, human works of art are inherently flawed compared to the work of Allah, and to attempt to depict in a realistic form any animal or person is insolence to Allah. This has had the effect of narrowing the field of Muslim artistic possibility to such forms as mosaics, calligraphy, architecture and geometric and floral patterns.

Indian art evolved with an emphasis on inducing special spiritual or philosophical states in the audience, or with representing them symbolically.

As long ago as the 5th Century B.C., Chinese philosophers were already arguing about aesthetics. Confucius (551 - 479 B.C.) emphasized the role of the arts and humanities (especially music and poetry) in broadening human nature. His near contemporary Mozi (470 - 391 B.C.), however, argued that music and fine arts were classist and wasteful, benefiting the rich but not the common people.

Western Medieval art (at least until the revival of classical ideals during the Renaissance) was highly religious in focus, and was typically funded by the Church, powerful ecclesiastical individuals, or wealthy secular patrons. A religiously uplifting message was considered more important than figurative accuracy or inspired composition. The skills of the artisan were considered gifts from God for the sole purpose of disclosing God to mankind.

With the shift in Western philosophy from the late 17th Century onwards, German and British thinkers in particular emphasized beauty as the key component of art and of the aesthetic experience, and saw art as necessarily aiming at beauty. For Friedrich Schiller (1759 - 1805), aesthetic appreciation of beauty is the most perfect reconciliation of the sensual and rational parts of human nature. Hegel held that art is the first stage in which the absolute spirit is immediately manifest to sense-perception, and is thus an objective rather than a subjective revelation of beauty. For Schopenhauer, aesthetic contemplation of beauty is the most free that the pure intellect can be from the dictates of will.

British Intuitionists like the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 - 1713) claimed that beauty is just the sensory equivalent of moral goodness. More analytic theorists like Lord Kames (1696 - 1782), William Hogarth (1697 - 1764) and Edmund Burke hoped to reduce beauty to some list of attributes, while others like James Mill (1773 - 1836) and Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903) strove to link beauty to some scientific theory of psychology or biology.

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