Aesthetics is the area of philosophy that studies the nature of beauty and art. Aesthetic appreciation, then, is the admiration of beauty, such as valuing the fine arts of music, literature, dance, and visual art. What is considered beautiful and even what is considered art are not always agreed upon by everyone in the same culture, much less across different times. Recognizing what is appreciated aesthetically for a given group can help us understand the values that inform their decisions, how individuals interact with each other, and even how advanced a past civilization was according to how art was incorporated into their tasks. Much of what we know about ancient civilizations in Egypt, Greece, South America, and China, for example, comes from the art and artifacts that have been uncovered by archaeologists. The word aesthetics comes from the Greek word aisthanomai, which means to perceive. Theories of aesthetics fall under the study of philosophy and other disciplines concerned with how we value what we perceive.
Artifacts are objects created for human use, such as tools, weapons, clothing, utensils, and individual works of art. The word art usually refers to the intentional process of creating something to fulfill an aesthetic purpose. Because there are choices in how artifacts are designed, they can be artistic and carry an aesthetic quality While some people share reactions to certain objects of art, the aesthetic properties themselves are usually subject to individual interpretation. That a painting is square, framed in gold, and brushed with blue and yellow pigments are aesthetic facts; they are not questionable. That the square represents perfect order, the gold depicts the prestige of royalty, and the vibrant blue and yellow convey the peace, warmth, and contentment of the sun shining in the sky are aesthetic determinations that could be interpreted differently. They are judgments. Aesthetic properties often have the power to inspire emotional response, and such a response is not likely to be consistent.
Whether or not there is a universal concept of beauty is a question philosophers have asked for centuries. Nevertheless, the beauty and aesthetic properties found in art serve many purposes. Art can be educational, as with an illustration that details the bones in the human skeleton, ft can be representative, as with a play that tells the life of two characters in history. It can motivate, as with a speech that inspires listeners to action. Art can enrich our lives in the way that a sculpture adorns a room or music inspires a mood. The ways we communicate what we perceive in the world are expressed in how we create, value, and respond to the aesthetic properties of art. Contemporary philosophers of aesthetics are concerned with our perceptions, both immediate images that present themselves in our minds and the personal manner in which we make sense of such impressions. Because aesthetic appreciation inspires emotional response, it is also of interest to cognitive psychologists who seek to know how the brain processes what we see.
The term aesthetics was first used in 1735 by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, a German philosopher who separated the study of knowledge into two subgroups: logic as the study of abstract ideas and aesthetics as the study of how feelings influence sensory perception. The topic itself is much older, having been explored by ancient Greek philosophers. Plato (427-347 BC) believed that true reality exists in perfect forms of concepts like good, beauty, triangle, and so on. People and objects can at best only be imitations of the ideal forms, because the world we live within is made of appearances. If something is beautiful, it is because we strive to know the ideal form of beauty. In the dialogue The Republic, Plato suggests that art can be dangerous. Poems and stories can be entertaining and beautiful, but they are falsehoods because they are only representations of true reality. Plato saw art as an imitation of life and life as an imitation of the ideal forms.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) similarly recognized the imitative value of art but more as an instrument for communicating with nature. When we appreciate something for its aesthetic value, positive emotions are aroused because we step away from our individual selves and recognize the universal beauty we share with all of nature. Aristotle saw poetry and tragedy as ways of rising above individual emotional situations; aesthetic appreciation paves the way for spiritual purification.
Medieval philosophers expanded Aristotle’s religious focus. For Thomas Aquinas (AD 1224-1274), the beauty we witness in the world proves cosmic order and the power of the divine. Aquinas also identified what he saw as the necessary components of beauty: perfection, proportion, and clarity. Theories of aesthetics since this time have tried to define art and beauty. During the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, the emphasis shifted toward shedding superstitions and recognizing the human capacity for reason. The Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) looked to human nature to explain why we have certain tastes. We identify some objects as aesthetically pleasing because they affect our sentiments. Like Shaftesbury, Baumgarten (1714-1762) believed that the emotions were not necessarily something that should be repressed. He saw aesthetic experience as a means of interacting with the world through our thoughts or cognition, such as poetry and the truth it reveals about the world.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was concerned less with emotions than with separating the world of appearances from things as they truly exist. For aesthetics, this means that unlike Shaftesbury, we admire things because they are beautiful and not because of the pleasure they produce. Beauty is a universal concept, something that exists independently of our recognition of it. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) both emphasized the role of the human will and art as a means of freeing oneself from misery. Music for Schopenhauer is the purest of the arts because of the abstract creative powers it employs. For Nietzsche, two opposing powers are present in both art and the artist: Apollonian (light, beauty, and measure) and Dionysian (chaos). Nietzsche’s “will to power”— inspired by Schopenhauer’s “will to live”-embraces pain. Aesthetics here is a natural drive that reveals and transcends the burden of the individual human condition, uniting all of humanity across cultures.
Art is defined by R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) as self-expression and by Monroe C. Beardsley (1915-1985) as something produced for the purpose of aesthetic pleasure. Unlike an artist, a craftsperson creates artifacts for the purpose of function. The 20th-century “new criticism” movement saw aesthetic appreciation as having its own value and “good” art as representing the common human experience through Western history. More recently, Arthur Dan to (1924- ) has suggested that what is appreciated as art can be influenced by the evolving discussion of theorists such as himself but nonetheless has specific content and meaning. Art is much broader for George Dickie (1926- ) and is defined according to the aesthetic principles that are able to contain the viewer’s awareness; Dickie also formulated the “institutional theory of art” to explain the systematic way of restricting aesthetic value to what is appreciated within society.
- Beardsley, Monroe. (1966). Aesthetics from classical Greece to the present: A short history. New York: Macmillan.
- Carroll, Noel (Ed.). (2000). Theories of art today. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Dickie, George. (1997). Introduction to aesthetics: An analytic approach. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.