Reflections on the philosophy of aesthetics

Definition of Art

Since Plato wrote on what we now call the philosophy of aesthetics, many philosophers have discussed the nature of art and beauty. They have ascertained art and beauty to be two different but related things. What is beautiful is not always art, for example a rose. What is art is not always beautiful, for example Picasso‘s “Guernica”.

We must first discuss the definition of art, a problem which has taxed philosophers for over two thousand years. I’ll go with the definition which says that art is that which:

  • is created to evoke aesthetic pleasure
  • has no other purpose

This definition distinguishes art from things which are aesthetically pleasing but which have a purpose, such as furniture or well-presented food. Or the British crown jewels, which are also aesthetically pleasing, but which were designed for the purpose of coronating and distinguishing the British monarch. Adding aethetically pleasing elements to prctical items is called decorative art.

Philosophy of aesthetics

However we soon run into trouble with the above definition of art. It excludes some forms of art such as dance music, which is created to give aesthetic pleasure but has as possibly its primary purpose the facilitation of dancing. Also some religious art from the great churches of Europe was commissioned to educate the illiterate about the ways of God and Christ and may not have been primarily conceived to evoke aesthetic pleasure.

So let’s try again with our definition of art. If we just say that art is that which:

  • is created primarily to give aesthetic pleasure, or
  • may originally have had a purpose other than aesthetic but that purpose has been superseded by the aesthetics of the work so it now primarily gives aesthetic pleasure
  • usually has no other purpose
  • may sometimes have another secondary purpose

Is that enough? Maybe it is. Primarily is the key word here. Emanuel Kant, no slouch in philosophy, suggested that we abandon efforts to reach a definition of art since artworks have so little in common that they defy a logical definition. Wittgenstein similarly pointed out the futility of reaching an encompassing definition of art.

The above definition covers the Art Deco advertisements from the early twentieth century, of which I am fond. These were created to advertise such things as railway and trans-Atlantic travel, but decades later have acquired a status as art.

Definition of Beauty

There seems always to have been some agreement that beauty delights the senses and the opinions of most philosophers settled around this. There has also been a longstanding and fascinating debate as to how the mind and wider social and institutional values influence what is perceived as beautiful.


Socrates and Plato thought that there was a deep underlying set of ideas and concepts which defined the world and which were appreciated by the mind, not the senses. Plato thought that beauty did not originate in these deeper concepts but was instead derived from the senses.

Later during the Renaissance Alberti suggested that beauty was harmony and perfection with rules of mathematics and geometry defining the harmony. This harmony was often inspired by ancient Greek and Roman ideas on art and beauty.

Later still during the Enlightenment Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, suggested that beauty and truth were the same and this was innate to people. Hutcheson added that to appreciate beauty both the inner intellect and the senses work together.

Kant was the first philosopher to break with the idea that beauty can be defined objectively; he suggested that beauty was a subjective appreciation.

In the twentieth century thinkers such as Dewey decide that notions of beauty are socially derived and Dickie suggests that they are derived from the wisdom of our institutions.

It is likely true that appreciation of beauty involves our senses and the use of innate concepts planted in all of us by nature herself or by society. But what forces would cause these concepts to form in society in the first place? Mysterious and unknowable? Or simply the dominant thinking of the time?

It is apparent that each age is accompanied by an ideology which either determines the nature of that age as Hegel suggested, or is determined by the social and economic interests which are created in turn by the material conditions of the means of production, as Marx thought. The very fact that most art of the Renaissance period was commissioned by wealthy religious or aristocratic patrons tells us a lot about the ideology of those times and who dominated. Obviously artists had to conform to the expected moral and social standards, which amongst other things determined the dominant notions of beauty.

On the other hand the art of Andy Warhol emerged from counter-culture galleries in New York - a paradoxical combination of on the one hand capitalism and its commercialised culture and on the other hand a simultaneous reaction against it. Pop Art seemed to be at odds with the previous art movement of abstract expressionism, which was ironically backed by the CIA in its role of protector of the capitalist free enterprise system.

In the post-modern era in which we now live some argue that there is no dominant cultural narrative; there are instead a number of quite different narratives which tend to reflect the economic, social and lifestyle interests of those who follow them. In the post-modern era is anything and everything beautiful or has beauty itself become a redundant concept in art?

Is art good or bad?

Picasso's Guernica

Plato famously thought that art was bad because artists represented things that they did not understand, and represented bad things too. They might thus corrupt audiences by introducing them to the thoughts and deeds of bad characters.

In his “Poetics” Aristotle argued that art is cathartic and in this capacity enables us to safely consider unpalatable things.

It seems to me that when art does represent bad things, it either represents bad things which have already happened or forewarns us of bad things which could happen. Steven Spielberg’s “Schindlers’s List” did the former and George Orwell’s “1984” did the latter. Therefore this representation of the bad is not necessarily harmful. Even bad characters such as Shakespeare’s Falstaff remind and forewarn us of the criminal’s capacity for evil.

The Nazis condemned and destroyed ‘degenerate’ art. But their definition of degenerate included virtually everyone who disagreed with them and some groups of people who would not be considered degenerate in the civil societies of the twenty-first century such as Jews, Gypsies, socialists and homosexuals. This raises the question of who decides what might be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in art? Maybe it is best to let art be art, and make our own judgements.

There does seem to be a longstanding consensus that art which lies or deceives is inferior art, and that art which holds a window to some truth whether trivial or profound, is superior art. Cooper was maybe right; good art does seem to bear a relationship to truth. ‘Alternative’ art presents a version of truth which may conflict with the mainstream version of truth, so of course we can then ask what is the truth? In their book ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ Berger and Luckmann point out that truth or reality may itself be socially constructed. So when deciding which art is good and true, who decides what ‘true’ is and how. Is there some innate nature of the soul which allows us all, as human beings, to know what truth is? To think this would be to say that Josef Stalin and Jesus of Nazareth both held in their minds a common set of truths. Difficult isn’t it? After reflection it still seems to me that most people across cultures might be able to recognise certain basic human and cross-cultural truths and that ‘good’ art might often reflect these truths.

Does nature express herself through art?

Kant thought that through the artist, nature expressed herself. Since human beings are themselves a product of nature, this makes sense to me. This is a profound idea and still potentially of great use in our modern world. For example it may be that as our society and its underlying technologies become more complicated, and social and economic change take us further from the simple tribal life in which we evolved, the apparent chaos of modern art might be the reaction of artists to a society in which our souls feel constrained. Modern art might be a primal scream against the increasingly constricting world we are building.

Modern philosophy of aesthetics

In the twentieth century Dickie suggested that our notions of beauty are in fact socially derived more than from philosophical principle.

Marxists and Freudians have also moved the appreciation of art away from the purely philosophical. Freud looked for repressed forces in the works of the great masters, and suggested that for example Leonardo was afraid of women. Marx suggested that Greek art was valued because of its origins in a simpler and in many ways better time before capitalism, and also because bourgeois collectors wish to inflate the value of rare Greek sculptures.

Since the middle of the twentieth century discussion of beauty was often absent from discussion of art, and conventional beauty was not considered to be a necessary attribute of the work of art.

The subject in painting and modern aesthetic theory

The tricky subject of the subject in painting

Recently I have been trying to grapple with the concept of the subject in painting, as it has been debated by modern philosophers.

Foucault began this debate when he noticed that Renaissance paintings often presented the subject, such as a monarch, as the omnipresent centre of the scene. One thinks of portraits of Henry VIII. Raphael took this further in some of his pictures which used perspective to give the viewer the impression that they were part of, and could step into, some major event such as a debate between great philosophers or an important biblical event. This flattered Raphael’s patrons who were of course religious leaders and aristocrats. The position of the viewer in relation to the painting by implication gave the impression to the viewer that they were master of the scene and even by extension of the world.

Lacan thought that children, aided by language and the concept of ‘I’ or ‘me’, form a false self-image early in life. This self-image is reinforced by contemporary culture and ideology which gives the individual an even more false sense of an independent self. Althusser adapted Lacan’s ideas about self in his theory of ideology; ideology was derived from the same false sense of independence - but here from social and economic constraints.

In the context of art this is claimed to create alienation from what is real in life and art, and allow for the production of art which further alienates and is often kitsch. If good art and truth are indeed connected then any thinking which separates people from the truth will result in the creation of bad art.

In my view to be aware of oneself is surely a human facet. For over two thousand years philosophers have debated the nature of the self, the mind and body, and our soul’s place in the objective external world. The longevity of this debate and its modern parallel, the debate amongst scientists about consciousness, suggests that the self is not a false illusion but a fascinating real phenomenon.