of art and art itself exist within a contextphilosophical, cultural, class and
gender specificfrom which it emerges and without which it does not exist.
Philosophers and art theorists cannot escape the influence of past philosophers and
theorists any more than they can remain untouched by current trends in film, technology,
and architecture. Art and culture and theories of art and culture are inseparably and
organically linked together. Furthermore, this is not a static or eternal pattern but one
that is dynamic, fluid, constantly changing historically over time.
changes in philosophy (generally) are likely to become more influential in the philosophy
of art. There is a profound convergence between general philosophy and philosophy of art.
Let me express three general trends that are important to keep in mind as we discuss pre-aesthetic, aesthetic, and
postmodern theories over the duration of this course.
As Sartwell points out, (p8)Europe only developed the concept of the
aesthetic in the 18th century.
Here are the
three broad movements in philosophy that are important to remember when we reflect upon
questions concerning art:
1. Deep suspicion that we cannot hope to
fix any single ontology, any universally adequate unchanging account of human cognition or
human interests or human concerns.
2 We must reflect upon the contingent and
tacit practices of human life. These are central to philosophical reflection
2. There cannot be any canon or principles
or conceptual priorities in accord with which philosophical theories may be shown to be
approaching systematic closure on any questions.
(as the study of art and beauty), aesthetic experience (the proper way of approach and
experience art and beauty), and modern art (art for arts sake) all arose together at
approx. the same time as expressions of modernist culture (somewhere between the
Renaissance and the middle of the 20th century). Aesthetics is the name of the
philosophical study of art and natural beauty. It is a relatively new branch of philosophy
that arose in the early 18th century (early 1700s )in England and
Germany, over 2000 years after the beginnings of other branches of Western philosophy
(which began in Greece around 600 B.C.E.)
is closely related to the concept of aesthetic experience. Baumgarten who coined the term
aesthetics, claimed that humans experience the world in two fundamentally wayslogically
is a thorn, it will hurt if it pricks me
a sunset, looking at seashells, enjoying a work of art. These things are beautiful because
you are looking at them aesthetically.
What we call
art, or more properly fine art, is therefore, according to the 18th +19th
century tradition of the aesthetic, those objects made by humans to be enjoyed
aesthetically. So, Paleolithic European cave paintings, Native American wood carvings are
not really art according to some because they were made by people before the emergence of
created as art, aesthetic exp. And aesthetics are notions that all arose together. These
human ways of interpreting the world have not always existed since the dawn of human
society and not even since the beginning of Western civilization. Philosophy is often
thought of as a kind of systematic reflection of our ordinary commonsense intuitions and
deeply rooted beliefs and assumptions. This would mean that aesthetics is a reflection on
ideas we already have about art, artists. If aesthetics is a branch of philosophy and
philosophy is a reflection of our ordinary commonsense intuition, then, in a sense, we
already know what art, aesthetics, and artists are.
commonsense intuitions may be so deeply engrained and internalized that we may take them
for granted. Perhaps we can more fully experience artworks if we enlarge our perspective.
How do we do this?
Our way of
viewing art from an aesthetic point of view is only one way of looking at things. It
appears at a certain point in the history of certain cultures and may just was easily
disappear and be replaced by another way of viewing things.
The ideas of
aesthetic enjoyment and fine art and artist arose in what we call the modern period (end
of 17th century to middle of 20th). Main points of modernist
1. Aesthetic experience is nonutilitarian
2. AE is detached from ordinary
self-interested pursuits (is disinterested)
3. Works of art are made to be viewed
aestheticallyand so just to be enjoyed (For no other purpose)
4. Everyone can appreciate art just by
adopting the aesthetic point of view
5. Artists see things in a unique way and
creatively find innovative ways of communicating that vision to us
6. Artists show us how to look at the
world, how to understand ourselves, who we are
7. Works of art express these unusual
ideas of artists
8. Great works of art must be innovative
and creative, expressing new ideas in new ways
9. The history of art is the history of
these great innovations by these great artists
Art is not hard to understandit
just requires that we adopt the aesthetic point of view
The story of
aesthetics begins with Hobbes claim that all human perception is self interested.
Many people disagreed with Hobbes and though that some human actions were disinterested,
that is, done for their own sake, enjoyed and appreciated for their own sake. And one
large subset of such disinterested actions were those associated with art and natural
began in Britain with the Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) who said we can love things for
themselves (good wine, a beautiful sunset, a painting). Deciding what we should love and
appreciate in this way is a matter of taste, a kind of inner sensation, or feeling. It is
not something you can learn from a book.
mentioned earlier, In the 1750s Alexander Baumgarten pursued this idea by dividing
all human thought into two broad categorieslogic and aesthetics. After Baumgarten,
the British worked on the idea of good taste as kind of refined sensibility available to
anyone who would adopt the detached, disinterested aesthetic point of view. And still
later, at the very end of the 18th century, the German philosopher, Immanuel
Kant synthesized the work of the British taste theorists and the German attempts to define
the aesthetic as differentiated from the logical, and Kants efforts pretty well
defined and stabilized the tradition of the aesthetic attitude for the next 150 years.
1. We can ask whether at the end of the 20th
century and beginning of the 21st, are we still in the modernist period or are
we moving beyond that into a postmodern place, a post-aesthetic phase?
2. One of the most
interesting issues in this ongoing debate is whether art merely reflects the existing
politics of the status quo or whether art can create new ways of looking at things that
may challenge the status quo. Does art have its own voice, can it generate its own point
of view, or is it merely the expression, symptom, reflex of a larger political system?
question leads us back Platos theory of art which can be classified under the
general heading Theories of Imitation. Plato explored two fundamental aspects
of imitation: the nature of imitation itself and the bad effects of imitation itself.
First, we turn to the nature of imitation.
approached this point analytically and logically. Take an object in the sensory world, a
bed for example. An observer can pick out its unity or commonality as a type or kind of
thing, and its diversity as multiple instances of that thing. Beds are identifiable as
beads and yet are different from trees. Logically, Plato argues, there must be a single
ideal form that accounts for the unity (it is the philosopher who is able to apprehend the
formsunderstood through the minds eyenot our physical eyes). Plato
assigned priority to the single form which comes logically before sensory instances of
analysis of imitation as a concept results in a threefold distinction in reality. Formsminds
eye, sensory objects/physical objects, images/pictures/poems about beds. Plato thought
that the sensory world imitated the world of forms. So, poems/art are doubly removed from
reality since they mirror the physical world. So, art is an illusion of an illusion.
Images and pictures are only imitations of imitations.
distinguished in a fundamental way between appearance and reality. Reality is not found in
the immediate present, but in an accessible but protected sacred realm of forms that the
present imitates. An imitation can be more or less true depending on how close it is to
Painting is an
art that will produce only inferior imitative instances on this scheme. Plato shows poetry
to belong to the same imitative scheme, so the poet is in no better position than the
painter or naïve imitator who holds up a mirror to the world. None of the arts can claim
knowledge because of where they stand in the imitative hierarchy.
Historical Introduction to
problems, questions, and concepts included in aesthetics and philosophy of art are many
and this sometimes makes a study of the literature of aesthetics a difficult and
perplexing matter. However, the problems of aesthetics when studied historically (As I
hope this short sketch of the origins of aesthetic questions will indicate) and the
questions of philosophers are actually closely related.
questions included within the study of aesthetics have developed out of twin concerns in
the history of thought: the theory of beauty and the theory of art.
2 concerns were first discussed by Plato. Even though philosophers have disagreed about
how art should be defined, they have continued to debate the theory of art in roughly
similar terms as Plato until very recently. However, the theory of beauty underwent an
important and monumental change in the 18th century. (Kant). 18th
century thinkers, instead of only taking about the nature of beauty, added additional
concepts, the sublime, the picturesque. That is, they added additional concepts to the
study of beauty.
At the same
time, another development was taking place and this is that the concept of the aesthetic
was being worked out (Hutcheson, Burke, Alison, Kant). Generally speaking, these
philosophers were concerned to develop a theory of taste that would allow them to explain
the experience of the beautiful
of disinteredness is at the core of these analyses and is the center of these philosopherss
concept of the aesthetic. What happened is that the idea of beauty was broken up and
fragmented and gradually was replaced by the concept of the aesthetic. After the 18th
century, the word beautiful came to be seen as equivalent to having aesthetic value.
the 18th century then, the twin concerns of aestheticians have been the theory
of the aesthetic and the theory of art.
I will sketch out some major theories of beauty in the tradition and then I will move onto
the theories of taste as they developed in the 18th century (and the
development of the term aesthetics began). Following these two sections, we can explore
theories of art beginning again with Platos imitation theory that you witnessed in
his allegory of the cave reading.
example of Platos understanding of beauty can be found in the Symposium. This
dialogue devoted to praising and exploring love, ultimately gives us a definition of
beauty as understood by Plato. He explains that it is the Form of Beauty that is the
object of love. Diotimas teachings describe a ladder of love that moves from the
appreciation of singular beautiful bodies on up to the ultimate and higher contemplation
of the Form of Beauty that makes it possible for us to discern individual cases of beauty
at all. Those who have ascended the ladder
of love learn that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of bodies.
philosophy of beauty does not have much interest in the world of sense and considers it
from a philosophical point of view to be a kind of illusion and a potential source of
error. According to Plato, beauty transcends the world of sense experience, which means
that the experience of beauty is different from what would be described as aesthetic
experience today. His theory dismisses sights and sounds as illusory.
however take an interest in the beautiful things of the world of sense. He does try to
figure out what all beautiful things share in common. But for Plato, beauty is a simple,
unanalyzable property and is logically similar to a primitive term such as red (cannot be
definedcan only be understood by direct sense experience).
If we look
at Platos theory of art, we see that he held an imitation theory of art that focuses
attention on the objective properties of the work of art. The theory of art in Plato is
object centered. This leads to Platos negative estimation of art as twice removed
from reality and a poor source of knowledge. Art is doubly unreal and is an inferior
product and poor model for moral conduct. Platos characterization of paintings as
untrue appearances may be understood as the origin of the view that art is illusion, a
view held by a number of present day theorists.
Plotinus, like Plato, thought that the experience of beauty itself is
not a sensuous experience but an intellectual one. One of the most important results of
both these theories of beauty was the establishment of contemplation as a central idea in
the theory of beauty and consequently in the theory of aesthetic experience. Almost all
aesthetic theories have maintained that the exp. Of beauty, or more generally, aesthetic
exp., involves contemplation.
When Plato and Plotinus thought of contemplation, they meant that a
person had an awareness of a nonsensous object.
Of course, meditation can also be linked to the sensory world.
**Where and in what ways do you see this sense of contemplation in
discussions of art and the artworld today?
**Is this term helpful? Too narrow?
Thomas Aquinas (354-430 AD)
understanding of beauty is not an unworldly one; he defines beauty as that which pleases
when seen. Objects please when they have the conditions of beauty which are perfection,
proportion and brightness or clarity.
his theory has both objective and subjective aspects. The idea of pleasing brings in the
notion of the subject who is pleased. Being pleased is a property of a subject. This is a
significant step away from the objective Platonic conception of beauty toward a subjective
account. This subjective concept of beauty will reach its high point in the theories of
18th century philosophers.
progress towards the Renaissance, we find a great interest in more concrete and specific
topics such as the theory of painting and the theory of architecture. There is also a
resurgence of Neoplatonism at this time.
Century: Taste and the Decline of Beauty
18th century brings us into a critical and important time in the history of aesthetics. It
is during this time that philosophers provided the basis for aesthetics in its modern
form. During the middle of the century, the German philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten
coined the term aesthetics. It is at this time that the philosophical tradition tried to
explain behavior and mental phenomena by attributing each kind of phenomenon to a distinct
faculty of the mind.
the vegetative faculty (explains nutrition and procreation), the locomotive faculty
explains movement, the rational faculty explains mental behavior, the sensory faculties
explain perception, imagination, etc.
Prior to the
18th century, it was generally assumed that beauty named an objective property
of things. But in the 18th century, there was a shift to talking about taste
and thus a shift onto the subjective faculties of the perceiver. In the hands of these
philosophers, philosophy, philosophy of art became subjectivized. What this means is that
philosophers turned their attention towards the subject and analyzed the states of the
subjects mind and his mental faculties. For example, British philosophers thought
that they had discovered a new internal sense (in the subject)the sense of beauty.
establishment of aesthetic theory as the theory that unifies the problems of the theory of
beauty and the philosophy of taste was not completed in the 18th century.
However, Kants views near the end of the 18th century incorporated the
insights of the British aestheticians and came close to being a unified aesthetic theory.
By aesthetic theory I mean a theory that makes the concept of the aesthetic basic and
defines other concepts of the theory in terms of the aesthetic.
First I will
describe Humes views because they serve as the best contrast to Kants and then
I will move onto discuss Kant. We will read selections from both for next weeks
Humes Standard of Taste he makes it clear that his investigation into the nature of
taste is an empirical investigation of certain aspects of human nature.
denies that we rationality intuit beauty or the rules that govern it. For him, the
foundation of our understanding of taste is to be found in experience. His claim then is
that the normative question of what is correct to call beautiful can be solved by a
comprehensive empirical survey of the taste of men. This is the feature of Humes
view that most vividly contrasts with Kant.
Hume concludes that beauty is not in objects but is a
feeling. These feelings are linked by the nature of our human constitution to certain
qualities in objects.
--faculty of taste is more refined and developed in some
people. He also claims that standards of taste vary according to age and temperment
So, it is
possible to have objective judgments about beauty in the sense that there might be
universal agreement among normal subjects. (Humeexperiential account of beauty and
tried to show how it is possible for us to have some knowledge which is certain unlike
Hume who thought that since knowledge derives from experience we cannot be certain of
anything. The differences between Hume and Kant show up in their different philosophies of
taste. The empiricists (Hume) understood the philosophy of taste as an empirical inquiry
into the object which can lead to a psychological generalization about human nature. Kant
conceives of the philosophy of taste as an inquiry into the a priori foundations of
knowledge which will show why judgments of beauty are universal and necessary.
all aesthetic judgments focus on pleasure, which is a property of the experiencing rather
than of the objective world. But even if judgments about beauty are subjective, Kant does
also thing that they are stable and universal in a way that other pleasures are not.
(pleasure felt with beauty is different than with other pleasures of taste like our
pleasure of taste involved in consuming chocolate for example).
theory of beauty can be summarized in a sentence: A judgment of beauty is a disinterested,
universal, and necessary judgment concerning the pleasure which everyone ought to derive
from the experience of form.
are indifferent to the real existence of the object. The judgment of beauty is independent
of the interest in real existence. Interest in the object is a secondary and different
kind of judgment.
All of these
qualities are primarily involved with the experiencing subject. Kant asserts that it is
the recognition of the form of purpose which evokes the beauty experience. Only form is
beautiful. (the design of a painting or the compositional structure of a music piecethese
are the result of purposive activity of a human agent). The form of a work of art is the
result of purposive activity of a human agent.
views can be understood as a link between 18th century theories of taste and 19th
century aesthetic theories. These 19th century aesthetic theories were totally
subjectivized. An object is beautiful because it is an object of our aesthetic
The significance of the 18th
century for aesthetics can be summarized in the following way: Before the 18th
century, beauty was a central concept; during the century it was replaced by the concept
of taste and finally by the end of the century we open onto a concept of the aesthetic.
Other strain in the history of aestheticsthe
philosophy of art
was not until shortly before the start of the 19th century, that the imitation
theory of art found in Plato and Aristotle was called into question. During the 19th
century, the theory that art is the expression of the emotion of the artist came to be the
dominant view. The doctrines of the expression theory of art has its roots in Kants
theory of knowledge. This viewpoint was a reaction against empiricist philosophy and an
attempt to reach behind the sensuous screen of ordinary knowledge to something thought to
be vital and important. This generated a new role for the artists a new interest in
role of the artist is pointed up by the following passage from Nietzsches will to
aesthetics have hitherto been womens aesthetics, inasmuch as they have only
formulated the experiences of what is beautiful, from the point of view of the receivers
in art. In the whole of philosophy hitherto the artist has been lacking.
expression theory of art explains that art is the expression of the emotion of its
creator. This theory tries to show that art can also do something important for people. It
attempts to related art to the lives of people. And finally it attempts to account for the
emotional qualities of art and the way in which art moves people.