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edit index Aesthetics

Henri Matisse
Blue Nude I (1952)

Aesthetics (or Esthetics, or Philosophy of Art) is a branch of Philosophy dealing with the definition of Beauty and how we relate to what is Beautiful. The word aesthetics was first used by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, who helped to establish the study of Aesthetics as a separate philosophical field. Aesthetics studies what constitutes Art, as contrasted with Craft, for example, and examines the function of the artist.

Aesthetics is well-developed in Philosophy, and even in Theology. "Water, greenery, and a beautiful face" were identified by Muhammad, founder and Prophet of Islam, as key things to differentiate, for example. Aesthetics is closely related to Ethics, including an individual's "Moral Core", as well as Epigenetics and Axiology. Studies of Cognitive Science, Anthropology and Primatology all have connections in aesthetic principles. Since actions or behavior can be said to have Beauty beyond sensory appeal, Aesthetics and Ethics often overlap to the degree that this impression is embodied in a "Moral Code" or Ethical Code. The elements which often contribute to the aesthetic appeal of an object depend greatly upon the medium under which the object has been designed.

The word aesthetic is also used as a noun, meaning to "appeals to the senses." Someone's aesthetic has a lot to do with their artistic judgement, for example. As individuals, we make choices about what we wear, drive, and decorate our homes with, all of which points to a particular aesthetic within us. Some of the meaning of aesthetic as an adjective can be illuminated by comparing it to "anaesthetic", which is by construction an antonym of aesthetic. If something is anaesthetic, it tends to dull the senses or cause sleepiness. In contrast, aesthetic may be thought of as anything that tends to enliven or invigorate or wake one up.

What is "Art"?

How best to define the term "art" has always been a subject of much contention, but never more so than in the late 20th century. Many books and journal articles have been published arguing over even the basics of what artists and philosophers mean by saying something qualifies as Art.(1) Theodor Adorno claimed in 1969 "It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident any more."(2) Artists, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists and programmers all use the notion of Art in their respective fields, and give it operational definitions less and less similar to each other. Further, it is clear that even the basic meaning of Art has changed. What was considered beautiful in 1920, for example, might be hopelessly quaint now, or at best, "retro". Some thinkers, for instance, have argued that the difference between the "Fine Arts" and otherwise "Applied Arts" has more to do with value judgments made about the Art than any clear definition.(3)

The Cubists, Dadaists, Igor Stravinsky, indeed, many Art movements and individual works, struggled against this conception that Beauty was central to the definition of Art, with such success that, according to Danto, "Beauty had disappeared not only from the advanced art of the 1960's but from the advanced Philosophy of Art of that decade as well."(4) Perhaps "Expression, such as found in Benedetto Croce's theories, or "Counter-Environment", as in Marshall McLuhan's work, are replacing the previous role of beauty - perhaps it too is now "hopelessly quaint".

Perhaps it has become even harder. In William Kennick's view, no definition of art is even possible any longer. Art could be seen as a cluster of related concepts in a Wittgensteinian fashion (as in Weitz or Beuys). Another approach is to say that Art is basically a sociological category, and that whatever the Art Schools and Museums and various artists get away with is considered Art - regardless of formal definitions. This "Institutional Definition" has been championed by George Dickie and others. In fact, most people did not consider the depiction of a Brillo Box or a store-bought urinal to be artistic until Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp (respectively) placed them in the right context (i.e., the Art Gallery), which then provided and imbued these objects with the aura and values surrounding the Art World.

Proceduralists often 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 after its introduction to society at large. For John Dewey, for instance, if the 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, intending them as shorthand notes to help him write a longer article later, these would not be a Poem. Leo Tolstoy, on the other hand, claims that what makes something art or not is how it is experienced by its audience, not by the intention of its creator. Functionalists like Monroe Beardsley argue that whether or not a piece counts as art depends on what function it plays in a particular context; the same Greek vase may play a non-artistic function in one context (carrying wine), and an artistic function in another context (helping us to appreciate the beauty of the human figure)...

It is little wonder so much confusion abounds.

Better Question:
What's an Artwork's "Value"?

Instead of an academic war of formal definitions and non-formal definitions, perhaps a better way to define Art is to ask about its Value. Is an Artwork a means of gaining knowledge of some special kind? Does it give insight into the human condition? How does the work relate to Science or Religion? Is the work a tool of education, indoctrination, or enculturation? Does it help make us more Ethical? Can it uplift us spiritually? Is the work Political in some way? Is there some value to sharing or expressing the emotions it may trigger? Might the value for the artist be quite different than for the audience?

Answering the above questions often teases out the meaning of an Artwork much more easily than trying to design a theory from the top-down. Working on the intended and resulting value of Art tends to help define the relations between Art and other endeavors. Art clearly does have critical goals in many settings, but then what exactly is the difference between critical Art and Criticism? Is every critical essay also a piece of Performance Art? Regardless, the value of an Artwork is often the answer to the question, "What is Art"?

History of Aesthetics


Examples of Pre-Historic Art are rare, and the context of their production and use is not very clear to us. Scholars and archaeologists often can do little more than guess at the aesthetic doctrines guiding some Pre-Historic works. Ancient Art, by contrast, blossomed. Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese works developed unique and characteristic styles, but the Greeks, perhaps, had the strongest influence on the Aesthetics in the West.(5)

The Greek period in ancient Art saw a veneration of the human physical form and the development of corresponding skills to show musculature, poise, beauty and anatomically correct proportions. Greek philosophers correspondingly felt felt that aesthetically appealing objects were beautiful in-and-of-themselves. Plato felt that beautiful objects incorporated Proportion and Harmony, even Unity among their parts. Similarly, in the Metaphysics, Aristotle found that the universal elements of Beauty were Order, Symmetry, and Definiteness.


African Art existed in many forms and styles, and with fairly little influence from outside African Nations. Most of Africa's Art followed traditional forms, and the aesthetic norms were handed down orally as well as written. Sculpture and Performance Art are prominent, and abstract and partially abstracted forms are highly valued - long before influence from the Western tradition began in earnest. The Nok culture is testimony to this, and the Mosque of Timbuktu shows that specific areas of Africa developed unique aesthetics.


Islamic Art is perhaps the most accessible manifestation of a complex civilization that often seems enigmatic to outsiders. Through its brilliant use of color and its superb balance between design and form, Islamic Art creates an immediate visual impact. Its strong aesthetic appeal transcends distances in Time and Space, as well as differences in Language, Culture, and Creed. For a U.S. audience, a visit to the Islamic Galleries of a Museum such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art can represent the first step toward penetrating the history of a religion and a culture that are often in the news but are little understood. Further, Allah was taken to be immune to representation via imagery. So Islamic aesthetics emphasized the decorative function of Art, or its religious functions via non-representational forms. Geometric patterns, floral patterns, Arabesques, and abstract forms were common, as was calligraphy. Order and unity were common themes.


Indian Art evolved with an emphasis on inducing special spiritual or philosophical states in the audience, or with representing them symbolically. According to Kapila Vatsyayan, "Classical Indian Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Literature (kaavya), Music, and Dance evolved their own rules conditioned by their respective Media, but they shared with one another not only the underlying spiritual beliefs of the Indian religio-philosophic mind, but also the procedures by which the relationships of the symbol and the spiritual states were worked out in detail."


Chinese Art has a long history of varied styles and emphases. In ancient times philosophers were already arguing about aesthetics. Confucius emphasized the role of the Arts and Humanities (especially Music and Poetry) in broadening human nature and aiding "li" (etiquette, the rites) in bringing us back to what is essential about humanity. His opponent Mozi, however, argued that music and Fine Arts were classist and wasteful, benefiting the rich but not the common people.

By the 4th century CE, artists were debating in writing over the proper goals of Art as well. Gu Kaizhi has three surviving books on this Theory of Painting, for example, and it's not uncommon to find later artist/scholars who both create Art and write about the creation of Art. Religious and philosophical influences on the Arts were common, and diverse, but never universal. It is equally easy to find Art largely ignoring Philosophy and Religion in almost every Chinese time period.


Medieval Art is highly religious in focus, and typically was funded by the Churches, powerful ecclesiastical individuals, or wealthy secular patrons. Often the pieces have an intended liturgical function, such as altar pieces or statuary. Reflection on the nature and function of Art and aesthetic experiences follows similar lines. St. Bonaventure's Retracing the Arts to Theology, or seeing the skills of the artisan as gifts given by God for the purpose of disclosing God to mankind via "The Four Lights".(6) As the Medieval World shifts into the Renaissance Art began to focus on Secular issues of human life. The Philosophy of Art of the ancient Greeks and Romans was thus, re-appropriated.

Modern Global

For Hegel all culture is a matter of "absolute spirit" coming to be manifest to itself, stage by stage. Art is the first stage in which the Absolute Spirit is manifest immediately to sense perception, and is thus an objective rather than 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; here we contemplate perfection of form without any kind of worldly agenda, and thus any intrusion of utility or Politics would ruin the point of Beauty.

The British were largely divided into Intuisionist and Analytic, the former seeing aesthetic experience as disclosed by a single mental faculty, while for the latter, it was identical to the moral sense - the sensory version of moral goodness. Arguments continued, with Francis Hutcheson seeing Beauty as disclosed by an inner mental sense, while Lord Kames, William Hogarth, and Edmund Burke hoped to reduce beauty to some list of attributes. Later analytic aestheticians strove to link beauty to some scientific theory of psychology (such as James Mill) or biology (such as Herbert Spencer).

From the late 17th to the early 20th century Western aesthetics underwent a slow revolution into what is often called Modernism, a global phenomenon. For Baumgarten Aesthetics is the Science of the sense experiences, a younger sister of Logic, and Beauty is thus the most perfect kind of Knowledge sense experience can have. For Kant the aesthetic experience of Beauty is a Judgment of a Subjective, but Universal, Truth, since all people should agree that something is beautiful, if it in fact is. However, in Modern terms, Beauty cannot be reduced to a basic set of features (see the "Value Question" above). Perhaps Schiller saw it coming, in claiming that Beauty is the most perfect reconciliation of the sensual and rational parts of human nature.

Post-Modern, Anti-Global

From the early 20th century, Post-Modern artists, poets and composers strongly challenged the assumption that Beauty was central to Art and Aesthetics. As mentioned above, Benedetto Croce suggested that "expression" is central in the way that Beauty was seen. George Dickie saw the sociological institutions of the Art World as glue, binding Art and Sensibility into Unity. Marshall McLuhan suggested that Art always functions as a "counter-environment" designed to make visible what is usually invisible about a society. Further, Theodor Adorno felt that Aesthetics could not proceed without confronting the role of the Culture Industry and the commodification of Art and aesthetic experience. Jean-François Lyotard invoked the Kantian distinction between Taste and the Sublime, with sublime Painting, unlike Kitsch Realism enabling us:

" see only by making it impossible to see; it will please only by causing pain." (7)

Aesthetics in the Arts

Of course Art Appreciation, including the ability to see the Art within something, is an "eye of the beholder" problem. Yet, there are certain elements we can define across a group of Paintings, Plays, or really any Artwork. Generally, Art adheres to the aesthetic principles of Symmetry/Asymmetry, Focal Point or Perspective, Pattern and Contrast, Dimensionality, Movement, Rhythm, Unity and Proportion. You can't take a sample Artwork, lay it down, critique it across aesthetic dimensions, and reach some kind of quantitative judgement as to its quality (despite how much critics wish to do so). Great Paintings, for example, touch our Souls, and with any great Artwork, they may violate some of our guidelines, or lend different weights to various aesthetic principles within us. Sometimes, an Artwork veers markedly from an aesthetic principle specifically for the effect and comment on that principle. Still, studying Aesthetics gives us a basis for discussion.

Music, for example, has the ability to directly affect our Emotions, Intellect, and even our Psychology. Lyrical works can assuage our loneliness or incite our passions, and as such, music is a powerful Artform. Although, the aesthetic appeal of Music is highly dependent upon the Culture where it is developed and practiced. Some of the aesthetic elements expressed in Music include Lyricism, Harmony, Hypnotism, Emotion, Temporal Dynamics, Resonance, Playfulness, and even Colour.

Applying Aesthetics to buildings and related architectural Structure is complex, as factors extrinsic to Visual Design (such as structural integrity, cost, the nature of building materials, and the functional utility of the building) contribute heavily to the design process. Architectural designers can still apply the aesthetic principles of Ornamentation, Edge Deliniation, Texture and Flow, Solemnity, Symmetry, Colour, Granularity, and the interaction of Sunlight and Shadow. The great architects would argue they are directly manipulating Light, Transcendance, and Harmony. Closely related, landscape designers use natural and artificial materials scaling from the size of a person to the expanse of an open field. They may employ Water (in pools, streams, or fountains), Colour, Plants, Reflection, Seasonal Variance, Masonry, Fragrance, Depth of Field, Exterior Lighting, Repetition, and other elements in their aesthetic.

Performing artists appeal to our aesthetics of Storytelling, Grace, Balance, Class, Timing, Strength, Shock, Humour, Costume, Irony, Beauty, and Sensuality. Extending this to Poetry, Stories, Novels, and Non-Fiction, authors use a variety of techniques to appeal to our aesthetic values. Depending on the type of writing an author may employ Rhythm, Illustrations, Structure, Time Shifts, Juxtaposition, Foil Characters, Imagery, Fantasy, Suspense, Snalysis, Humor, and Cynicism.

Although food is a basic and frequently experienced commodity, careful attention to the aesthetic possibilities of our culinary palette can turn mere eating into artful dining. The best chefs inspire our gastronomy with Regionalism, Spices, Diversity/Contrast, Anticipation and Seduction, and of course, Decoration and Garnish.

See Also


  1. Davies, 1991, Carroll, 2000, et. al.
  2. Danto, 2003
  3. Novitz, 1992
  4. Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty, 2003.
  5. This is not surprising, given the intellectual and scientific advancements of the time, but let us not minimize the importance of the Romans, Egyptian, and other cultures in Western development.
  6. The Light of skill in Mechanical Arts which discloses the world of Artifacts, as guided by the light of Sense Perception which discloses the world of Natural Forms, as guided by the Light of Philosophy which discloses the world of Intellectual Truth, as guided by the Light of Divine Wisdom which discloses the world of Saving Truth.
  7. Lyotard, Jean-Françoise, What is Postmodernism?, in The Postmodern Condition, Minnesota and Manchester, 1984.

External Links

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo and Pseudopedia articles "Aesthetics" and "Aesthetics" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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