Aesthetics considers what is appreciated as beauty in nature as well as in the creative and performing arts. “Beauty itself is but the sensible image of the infinite,” said the historian George Bancroft. The nature of beauty is one of the most fascinating riddles of philosophy and life. Is beauty universal? How do we know it? (Remember the problem of universality in week 1. Is there anything, beauty included, that a postmodernist can consider universal?) How can we predispose ourselves to embrace beauty? A branch of philosophy called axiology is ultimately concerned with understanding sensory-emotional values and judgments of feeling and taste (For more on axiology, scroll down to the end of the lesson).
If aesthetics is concerned with what constitutes beauty, then this naturally leads us to this question: are there objective criteria for what determines beauty? or rather, does beauty indeed lie in the eye of the beholder?
Throughout the history of aesthetics, in each period there have been some prevalent ideas, ideologies, and discursive formations that shaped, regulated, and reframed the conceptions of beauty. In this part, we will go through the most influential ideologies and discursive formations that caught the attention of (mostly European) theorists, philosophers, and historians of aesthetics. If we momentarily concentrate on European thinkers, we can say that theories and discourses of aesthetics in Europe have developed in accordance with the central questions of premodern and modern European thought (Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, 1).
Even though the term aesthetics was added to the lexicon of philosophy in the 18th century, theories of aesthetics have been discussed under other designations throughout the history of Western philosophy. Eagleton reminds us that aesthetics is born ‘as a discourse of the body.’ (Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, 13). The Greek term that refers etymologically to beauty (aithesis) talks about human perception and sensation in general (Eagleton, 13). The following image is a concrete manifestation of aesthetics as the discourse of the body.
The discourse of aesthetics in the West has been deeply influenced by two major theories about the aesthetic, namely the Platonic theory and the Aristotelian theory. It is well known that Plato sets the scene and articulates the crucial outlines and questions for the next generations in almost all areas of thought, including aesthetics (Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 40). According to the Platonic theory of reality, which is famously articulated in the theory of the Ideas or Forms, the ultimate reality is concurrently rational, ethical, and aesthetic. In short, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are united (Tarnas, 41). Beauty is the most accessible and most visible of the Forms. Beauty is allusive to the other Forms.
Let’s start from Ancient Greece to see how the notion of beauty and speculations about it have evolved over time. For Plato art represents a representation of the Forms. It is mimicry, a copy of a copy of a form and for that reason art is not very much appreciated in his Republic (See: Plato, Republic X, 604e-605a). For Aristotle, however, the aesthetic is a representation of nature. The beautiful, according to him, is what has order, symmetry, and definiteness. In this way, in spite of their disagreement on the relationship between reality and idea, Plato and Aristotle both saw aesthetics as associated with mimicry. For both of them, art is a kind of imitation. Also for both, aesthetics is interrelated with ethics (Peter Goldie, ‘Toward a Virtue Theory of Art,’ 372). For both Plato and Aristotle, aesthetics and ethics are connected not only in theory but also in practice. Artistic activity and ethical activity together provide the necessary conditions of human well-being. In this way, this discourse of aesthetics reinforces the togetherness of the good and the beautiful (Goldie, 373). Within two relatively different Platonic and Aristotelian narratives, the discourse of aesthetics has been prevalent in our intellectual system for centuries.
Aesthetics in general deals with the pleasures and displeasures of sensory and affective perceptions. So far, so good! Not surprisingly then, aesthetics is divided into two major categories, aesthetics of beauty that primarily relies upon pleasures and that of evil which revolves around displeasure. At the dawn of the modern era, one of the main questions that preoccupied such philosophers as Hegel was whether or not evil can be an appropriate object of aesthetic study. Can evil, in nature and art, be beautiful? pleasurable? considered valuable?
Hegel’s response was not delightful for theorists who work on the aesthetics of evil; It seems that Hegel remains ambivalent about the possibility and value of evil’s aesthetics. on the one hand, he believed that evil as such cannot be an appropriate object of aesthetics and on the other, he acknowledged prolific instances in the works of romantics where the evil was subjected to an aesthetic enterprise (Peter-Andre Alt, The Aesthetics of Evil). Simply put, he is not happy with recognising the aesthetics of evil, but he accepts the concept as an actual phenomenon of his era. Why is this important? Well, Hegel perhaps the most colossal figure, but not the only one among those who remain ambivalent about this. Even now, it is not that easy for the general population as well as some creative artists to watch and enjoy evil’s manifestations in arts.
Among the other famous philosophers of the 19th century, the German Friedrich Nietzsche makes a significant contribution to the philosophy of art. It is well-known that Nietzsche valorizes truthfulness (in the sense of being honest to ourselves) and nonetheless, he admits that to live a good and happy life, to say yes to life, and to rekindle the flame of life energy and lust for life we need illusion. For him, artworks play an irreplaceable role in producing this necessary illusion. In his Birth of Tragedy, he speculates on the idea of illusion’s necessity, and in his Will to Power, we read this famous slogan: “We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Now, based on the Nietzschean theory of aesthetics, is it possible for us to find the necessary illusion in evil? If the answer is positive, then it means that Nietzsche can help us to justify philosophically the aesthetics of evil.
The other predicament with the notion of the aesthetics of evil for early modern thinkers lied in a supposed interconnectedness between the aestheticization of a phenomenon and its encouragement. In a moral language, the problem with the aesthetics of evil was this: the representation of evil in the works of art ought not to encourage it in real life. Nonetheless, as Joel Slotkin demonstrates in his monograph, Sinister Aesthetics, from the early modern era, there was an unmistakable tendency among modernist thinkers and artists for the recognition of aesthetics of evil (Slotkin, pp. 24- 25). How can evil be beautiful?
Well, it depends on our criteria for judging a phenomenon beautiful. Among the 19th century and early 20th century Romantic and Neo-Romantic philosophers, pleasure, emotion, and taste are the ultimate concerns of artistic work. Thus, it depends on the taste of the creator as well as that of the observer/ audience. If the creator/ observer finds a manifestation of evil pleasant, pleasurable or emotion-provoking, then it will not be surprising to find the aesthetic in evil.
In her piece for the Paris Review, Katy Kelleher takes a quick look at the aesthetics of evil by examining and analyzing some ‘infamous’ paintings. The paintings include a wide range of time from the Renaissance until the early 20th century. Let’s read the piece and take a look at the paintings.
Since the Enlightenment rival theories and discourses of the aesthetic began to appear. In the 18th century, the newly emerged call for aesthetics as well as the newly emerging discourse of aesthetics can be considered a response to the political problems of the time, most importantly political absolutism (Eagleton, 14). Yes, it is always important to remember that the theories of aesthetics are the products of the political crucible in which the ideas are created.
In order to do so, it is nice to look at speculations of the famous German philosopher, Emanuel Kant (d. 1804). Kant is well-known for his innovative speculations on both political philosophy and the philosophy of art, among other things. His major theory of aesthetics is enunciated in his Critique of Judgment. His theory of aesthetics is indeed ‘an investigation of the judgment of taste.’ (Harold Lee, ‘Kant’s theory of Aesthetics,’ 537-8). Kant uses the term aesthetic to mean something subjective, something that is referred to the subject, the human being, and the subject’s feeling of pleasure and pain (Lee, 537-8) (In stark contrast with the Greek understanding of the aesthetic, Kant makes an opposition between the moral and the aesthetic. This demarcation is realized by indicating that:
The aesthetic is what pleases without a concept (or the intervention of a mediating idea)
The aesthetic is also distinguished from the moral, since:
The aesthetic is what pleases without a desire (Lee: 538).
His theory of aesthetics in this way has been uttered in comparison and relation to the previous theory articulated by the Greek philosophers. Because his judgment of the aesthetic is disrobed of concept and desire, he prefers to use the term ‘taste’ in reference to it. That is why the judgment of the aesthetic in his works is also called as ‘the judgement of taste.’
If you are curious to know more about how Kant looks at art and beauty, don’t miss the following video. It also helps us to know better how Kant’s politics and aesthetics are interrelated.
A summary of Kant’s idea on beauty can be abridged as follows: “We take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
In their theory of aesthetics and in the discursive formation they were imbedded, Romantics have been highly influenced by Kant. They emphasized ‘the pursuit of beauty for its own sake’ (Tarnas, 373) also known as ‘Art for Art’s sake’. The aesthetic bridges the natural and the spiritual and in addition, in the time that many intellectuals have been disenchanted with orthodox religion, art, the aesthetic, or the aesthetic experience served them as the main spiritual medium. (Tarnas, 373).
In our era, there are artistic movements that focus specifically on issues such as race and gender, among other things. These movements aim to reflect upon dimensions of inequality and identity and the ways in which aesthetics have been influenced by these issues, as well the ways in which artists of different social groups deal with them. You will learn and enjoy by reading the following brief pieces on Black aesthetics movements as well as feminist and queer approaches to arts.
Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
Goldie, Peter. “Towards a Virtue Theory of Art,” in The British Journal of Aesthetics, 47, no. 4 (2007): 372-378.
Lee, Harold. “Kant’s theory of aesthetics,” in The Philosophical Review, 40, no. 6 (1931): 537-548
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 2011.