In this article we'll look at Aesthetics, starting with what it is and why it should concern us before moving on to some historical ideas put forward and the notions that are discussed today. The subject is a very broad one and so we won't be able to cover everything, but hopefully we'll get an indication of why it still fascinates people (and not just philosophers).
What is Aesthetics?
Aesthetics is often understood as either the theory of beauty or the philosophy of art, or more generally as both. For a long time the latter was concerned with definition, asking and trying to answer the question "what is art?" The former addresses similar problems, wondering what we mean by beauty (and other similar or contrasting terms that we use, like sublime, ugly and so on), as well as how we would justify an assertion like "this painting is simply magnificent" or "Hugo's writing is pretty awful".
It seems more obvious in the case of aesthetics why we would bother with a philosophical investigation than many other subjects. Consider the frequent discussions most people find themselves in from time to time when an aesthetic concept is being used or argued: "the Dutch play the most beautiful soccer", "Beethoven's music is more important than a one-hit wonder", "modern architecture is boring", "Juliette Binoche is the best actress alive", and so on.
An example that comes up often these days is the art exhibition with, say, a fifteen-foot canvas painted in some shade of red before which two patrons of the gallery are arguing. The first might say "'tis truly a marvellous work, dear fellow. The deepness of the colour symbolises both man's passions and his madness, co-joined for the most fleeting of moments with his struggle to grasp a rational temperament and bring order to the chaos that seizes him at every turn. The brush strokes, alternately violent and subdued, remind us that the vicissitudes of childhood and the agony of death are tempered by the calm recognition of our fate that we may attend to in our middle years. How wonderful!" In reply, the second might remark, "um... it's just a plain red canvas. It symbolises only two things: firstly, that you shouldn't sit down or you'll have to stop talking out of your ass; and secondly, that I'm even more of a chimp for paying to see it."
The point, of course, is that both judgements involve, implicitly or explicitly, a definition of art or a theory of beauty. Even the familiar refrain "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is just more of the same; after all, why should it be? It isn't obvious that we shouldn't be able to come up with some kind of conception that allows us to say "this is beautiful but that isn't", but neither is it immediate that the task will be an easy one because we see disagreements like that above every day.
Standing in the Louvre it can appear that there's something very different going on to much of so-called modern art, but plenty of critics wax lyrical about works that the guys at the pub assert could be bettered by their three-year-olds in a finger-painting class, with some on the carpet for good measure. Listening to Bach it can feel as though losing this music would be that much more of a tragedy than the premature death of yet another dance-floor classic. Gazing up at a Dutch townhouse can strike us as a world away from a drab and dreary tower block, while the concretisation of open spaces can seem like a crime—even without the environmental and ethical considerations. However, what reasons do we have for preferring the one to the other, or deciding what goes in the gallery?
We see, then, that we can't get away from aesthetic judgements of one kind or another. Many thinkers in the past tried to understand art, beauty and what they consist in, some studies saying that aesthetics proper started in 1712 with Addison's series in the early Spectator issues. Long before then, however, the Egyptians and Greeks were investigating such things. Let's look at some of the opinions offered and the history of the subject.
What is art?
Early history—the separation of art
The term "art" comes from the Latin ars, this itself deriving from the Greek techne, meaning skill. The idea was that all pursuits or endeavours requiring a degree of skill—whether it be leading an army, sculpting a statue, building a house or using rhetoric to win an argument—was an art. Any such skill involved an understanding of rules, so there could be no art without an appreciation of those underlying the discipline. Neither the ancient Greeks nor the later Scholastics considered poetry an art, for instance, because it relied on inspiration (to the former, usually from the Muses) and hence was the very opposite of art.
Thus it was that both the employment of skill and the mastery of the associated rules gave a much wider definition of art than we use today. A distinction was made between those arts that involved only mental effort (the liberal arts) and those needing physical too (the vulgar—meaning "common"—arts). In the Middle Ages, the former were further divided to include grammar, rhetoric and logic, known as the trivium ("three roads"), and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, called the quadrivium ("four roads"). Reading this article, for example, would make it an attempt at a vulgar art form because effort is required both to make sense of the writing and stay awake while so doing.
In this list, only music is what we would today consider an art. In those days, though, music was the study of harmony, not how we might think of it. Poetry remained separate from the arts until 1549, when the first Italian translation of Aristotle's Poetics was completed by Segni and people became persuaded by the arguments therein and the explanations of the rules of tragedies. During the Renaissance another development took place: what we now know as the fine arts (painting, sculpture, architecture) became distinguished due in large part to social circumstances. Beauty—whatever it is we mean by that term—had become valued more highly and the proponents of these skills thought of themselves as higher than mere craftsmen. Painting originally, and later sculpture, became a valuable commodity and at least as good an investment as other ventures, raising the profiles of their creators.
Dividing the fine arts from science as it came to be was a more tricky matter. Those involved in the former chose to consider themselves scholars rather than artisans because of the social consequences and used the old ideas of what constituted art to study laws and rules. It was then difficult to say that they weren't engaged in science as it was understood then; in painting, for example, men like della Francesca, Pacioli, Piero, Leonardo (and also Poussin and Dürer, along with others) were either writing on perspective and proportion or using their work to study them. Only late in the Renaissance did a distinction arise, thanks to the assertion that whatever art could achieve, it couldn't do the same as science. This point was made particularly forcefully by the master Galileo, again combining philosophy with science.
If we look at dictionary definitions we typically find that the concept of art is either undefined or uses the older versions that have been given up today because they were so unsatisfactory. However, it's interesting to look at the evolution of meaning over the years and note that, once again, philosophical analysis has played a part in the progression of our understanding.
Back in Greek times there was already a distinction made between original and imitative art but it was lost over the succeeding centuries. For some twenty-one hundred years until the fifteen hundreds, the notion we considered before was in general use; that is, producing something by means of accepted rules. The next two and a half centuries saw an evolving of new ideas as the separation of science and crafts from art was mooted and then asserted, until around 1747 when Charles Batteux coined the term "fine arts" and listed them as sculpture, painting, music, dance and poetry. With the addition of a further two—architecture and eloquence—this list of seven became dominant, as did Batteux's conception of these fine arts having in common the imitation of nature. From approximately this time, art was understood as the production of beauty; however, this definition was problematic, so we'll look briefly at why it was given up.
What is beauty?
It may seem perfectly obvious what we mean by the term beauty, but even in everyday conversation it's employed in many different senses. Compare, for example, the following statements:
- That was a beautiful sunrise.
- That was a beautiful poem.
- He/She is a beautiful man/woman.
- That was a beautiful goal.
- That was a beautiful moment.
- It's a beautiful day when Hugo doesn't post.
Although there's a similarity to each, we don't mean quite the same thing in our use of the word. Can we clarify it in such a way as to have each make sense? Perhaps: according to popular definitions, beauty is that which is pleasing to the senses; that would certainly explain each of the options above. Unfortunately, though, it isn't much help to our efforts to define art; it then becomes "the production of things pleasing to the senses", but that puts us back where we started: Beethoven is pleasing to some, but some people take pleasure in the karaoke warbling of rugby players, so how can we call his work art and not the post-match celebrations also?
Another aspect to this question concerns the division of the crafts from the arts. On the face of it, it seems that a finely balanced sword could easily be considered a masterpiece, or a well-prepared meal, or some exquisite brickwork, or a patchwork quilt put together over generations, and so on. What about carpentry resulting in a simple rocking chair that sends the weary incumbent to sleep as surely as Holblingian prose? Why shouldn't a thatcher call his efforts a work of art?
A more sophisticated notion of beauty is Cardano's suggestion that it's harmony, a kind of elegance, simplicity and equilibrium of whatever medium is being employed. However, this restrictive sense doesn't seem to capture Baroque or Gothic art, or later on—say—Picasso. As a result, it was rejected too and beauty remained a troublesome aspect of the philosophy of art.
The failure of definitions
Both the older classification of art as the production of beauty and the separation of the fine arts from the crafts and sciences began to come unstuck with the advancing years. The advent of photography and later cinematography, along with other areas like landscape gardening, were outside the scope of the older fine arts and often did not produce beauty in the same sense; can a photograph create beauty, or is it already there and the photographer merely records it? However, it seemed ridiculous to exclude these from any definition of art and hence the understanding of the term had to evolve again. The possibilities put forward included the following:
- Art imitates or reproduces nature: Leonardo considered that the best painting was that which "is in greatest accordance with what it represents", but as we alluded to above, imitation is victim of much the same difficulties as beauty. How do we judge the success of an imitation, in any case? What of music, or painting in more abstract forms?
- Formalism: According to this idea, art is the creation of form; that is, shaping or constructing things. It goes back (as do most ideas) to Aristotle but the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a lot of work from theorists in rigorously applying it, Zamoyski declaring that "art is all that which has arisen out of a need for shape". The problem here is that the definition is—as the term suggests—too formal, and intentionally so: the formalists wanted to disallow certain areas of art that they considered should not be. Also, we can quite easily say that the sciences and crafts are creative and there are many people who consider their products beautiful, especially in the former case.
- Art is expression: This is Croce's definition and is one of the conceptions that tries to take account of the intentions of the artist; the painter, for example, has a purpose behind his work that goes beyond merely filling a space on a wall, whereas the armourer only plans to make a sword. Even if the latter is fair and accurate, though, we can still find a sword beautiful or call it a work of art. By expression, then, we refer to the artist's intention to show us some feeling, thought or idea through a medium. This, unfortunately, doesn't account for constructivism in art (that is, combining art, science and technology in an experimental way), or the way a photograph or painting, for instance, can evoke different reactions in different people according to their own ideas and not just (or at all) those of the artist.
- Art is that which produces a certain effect: Instead of looking at what the artist had in mind, we could look at the result for those experiencing a piece. What effect, though? We could say that art produces a kind of exhilaration, or shock, or prompts reflection, but—again—the same opera, say, can prompt myriad responses, from tears to blank faces to remarks like "I hope the fat lady sings pretty damned soon". What is the "correct" effect? It's hard to see how the question can be answered in a satisfactory way.
We see, then, that the situation with defining art is somewhat analogous to that of defining science or scientific method as we saw in the last article. A number of suggestions have been made and each of them seems to have something to it, but they all have their difficulties too and don't quite capture what actually goes on. This led some thinkers to take the view that the task was impossible in the first place, with Weitz asserting in no uncertain terms that "it is impossible to propose any necessary and sufficient condition of art; therefore, any theory of art is a logical impossibility, and not merely something difficult to achieve in practice".
Defining art again
It's tempting to fall victim to this idea but it smacks of something that the philosopher Illka Niiniluoto calls the "all-or-nothing" fallacy. Perhaps we're just setting the bar too high, asking for something that will provide us with absolute certainty when we really need more complex schemes to deal with art, science and life in general? To go back again to our analogy with science, perhaps we can instead use a list? That is, something like "art is expression, or something that makes you feel awed, or sad, or inspired, or it's giving form to an idea you have, or trying to capture nature..." and so on. This seems a little rambling but that's because we have to take into account so many different factors to get at what we mean by art, and because concentrating on only one of them to the exclusion of others has failed. The Polish thinker Tatarkiewicz did just this when he gave this definition:
Art is a conscious human activity of either reproducing things, or constructing forms, or expressing experience, if the product of this reproduction, construction, or expression is capable of evoking delight or emotion or shock.
Here we see again the evolution and increasing sophistication of philosophical thought and still today efforts continue on this important question. Tatarkiewicz was subject to critique, too, with the Institutional Theory of Dickie coming to the fore (art is defined more by the conferral of status as a piece of art by the artworld, or the community making it up), while still others have suggested (referring to some ideas of Wittgenstein) that the concept of art, like so many others, is defined by its use; to try to do otherwise is to miss the point and misunderstand the way in which all definitions are continuously subject to challenge by the artists themselves.
Questions in Aesthetics
Apart from the difficult problem of defining art, there are other areas of aesthetics that we'll say a few words about here. The subject is so large today that it would require a separate series to cover everything that's been written on or thought about art over the years, as we'd expect given the importance most people attach to it in one form or another.
One question studied by aesthetics is the experience of art: is there a correct way to watch a movie, look at a painting, or listen to a piece of music? Do we get more out of the Mona Lisa if we know the history of it, for example, or how it was painted? Is the feeling it invokes in an artist deeper or more meaningful than that in a tourist, or just different? Do we need to know the intentions of an author, say, or what the poem was supposed to mean to appreciate them to the same degree as an English graduate might? Alternatively, does too much education on these things actually dull the senses?
Everyone is capable of making judgements about art, whether it be graciously, cursing or the simple teeth-clenched retort of "philistine". However, are some opinions more important than others? We are not considering the experience that two pictures may bring about, but instead the classification "that one is best", or something similar. Does expertise make a judgement more worthy of our consideration, as before? On the other hand, can we just say that it's all "in the eye of the beholder", as the saying goes, and hence confidently skirt around remarks like "face it, Holbling: your writing sucks as much as your thinking"?
Art and Society
What is the relationship between art and society? In particular, do artists have social responsibilities in their work or can they almost do as they choose?
In recent years such questions have had an impact on philosophy, especially with discussion of Heidegger and the influence on his thinking — if any — of his Nazism. What of art? Does a photographer in a war zone have a moral obligation of some kind to bring the horrible truth to the public, or does distorting it a little have minimal impact on his or her art? Does a painter who sketches dead bodies with the assistance or a mortuary worker need to worry about what the deceased's family might think? Should an artist seek to have a positive impact on society, or is it "art for art's sake"? There are many ways in which art and society interact and much work in aesthetics is concerned with them.
We see, then, that aesthetics is a diverse and important subject with roots stretching back thousands of years but which is far from finished and with the same relevance to us today as when the first caveman said "that doesn't look like a mammoth to me."
Dialogue the Fifth
The Scene: Still in The Drunken Bishop, Anna and Jennifer have gone to the bar and are talking to a friend of the former, having done so to "let the boys have a few minutes to themselves". Steven is trying to look at Jennifer without making it too obvious while Anna is pointing out Trystyn to her friend.
Steven: (Eyes slightly glazed...) Wow. Where did you find her?
Trystyn: At my uncle's house.
Steven: (Not really listening...) Your cousin is hot.
Trystyn: (Deadpan...) So am I—they should open a window.
Steven: (Blinking...) Um, I mean she's nice.
Trystyn: She's a good person, for sure.
Steven: What? (He punches Trystyn lightly.) You suck. She's beautiful, I mean.
Trystyn: What do you mean by "beautiful"?
Steven: (Exasperated...) Here's an idea: close your eyes; remember that I'm not paying you to be an idiot, so you're working for free tonight; then open them and take another look.
Trystyn: She's my cousin...
Trystyn: It's not something I've thought about.
Steven: You're a saint, to be sure.
Trystyn: No doubt. (He pauses.) Anyway... I've been studying aesthetics recently and it's quite interesting. What do you mean by "beautiful"?
Steven: It figures that a philosopher would study putting people to sleep.
Trystyn: Aesthetics, you dolt. Philosophy of art; theory of beauty; that kind of thing.
Steven: There's a theory? Don't you guys ever leave the library?
Trystyn: (Conspiratorially...) We get girls there too...
Steven: (He turns sharply to look at Trystyn.) Really? (Pause. He looks back at Jennifer as before.) "I knows what I likes and I likes what I sees."
Trystyn: Okay: what is it that makes her beautiful?
Steven: (Misty-eyed...) Her mind. (Pause.) She has the beating of me, for sure. (Another pause.) Her eyes, and how they narrow when she's about to speak. The way she's holding that glass.
Trystyn: (Serious.) Wow. I think I'm going to cry. (Pause.) You've only just met her.
Steven: Weird, huh?
Trystyn: Hmm. Do you think other guys mean the same things when they say a girl is beautiful?
Steven: Probably not. Most guys only have one thing on their mind: does she have a father or brother big enough to hurt me?
Trystyn: (Laughing...) Fair enough. Is it the same as when you say a painting is beautiful, though, or a sculpture?
Steven: How do you mean?
Trystyn: Well, are you saying "this painting is beautiful" because you think it's got something about it that makes you feel as though it's special in some way, or worth something; or are you commenting on some technical aspect of it, like the method? Are you referring to the way the painter has achieved whatever aim he or she had in mind? And so on. (Pause.) These aren't the same.
Steven: I see. (He looks at Jennifer more intently.) When I look at your cousin, I don't really care what anyone else thinks about her, and I suppose it's that way with paintings sometimes too. Then again, I can see what you're getting at: if I watch a movie and I can appreciate how difficult a scene was to make or how hard it was to get across a certain emotion with just a glance, I might think of the director or actress and say "that was beautiful".
Trystyn: Right—and you'd expect there to be something about it that others could notice too.
Steven: I suppose so. It should be there for all to see. Then again, not everyone does.
Trystyn: Right. Then we can ask another question: is that a failing on their part?
Steven: A failing?
Trystyn: Is there a "correct" way to watch the movie or is any interpretation as good as another? Also, suppose a scene makes you feel sad but someone else views it differently—satirical, say. Is that a failing on either part, or is there no "correct" way to feel about a scene?
Steven: I guess I've never thought about it this way. You just assume that what you feel or think about a movie is the right way and hardly give it another thought.
Trystyn: Sure, but suppose it could be shown that there is a correct way to understand a movie and yours is different; you could watch it again with this in mind and maybe get something else out of it. On the other hand, if it were shown that it just can't be done, then it might say something about critics.
Steven: That they're useless parasites, you mean?
Trystyn: (Laughing...) Sort of.
Steven: I see your point. They should just say "here's my take" and not "this movie is lame and if you disagree you're evidently some form of troglodyte."
Trystyn: That's it, I suppose. Even if we don't give aesthetics the time of day, we're still using it.
Steven: The important point is: can I use it on your cousin?
Trystyn: Better ask her—her she comes now. (The girls are returning.)
Steven: (Worried...) What should I say? Pretend we were talking about something interesting.
Trystyn: That's a tall order for me, as you know. (He winks.) Just be yourself; otherwise she'll see through you, beautiful or not. (Thoughtfully, looking at Anna...) Strange creatures—mesmerising, really.
(Steven is not listening.)