Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on aesthetics. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

What is art?

Excerpt from Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: An Introduction by Robert Stecker:

Why should we care what art is? One preeminent reason is the permanently puzzling nature of avant-garde art. From impressionist paintings to piles of dust and unmade beds recently exhibited in galleries, such works, in their time, puzzled, and sometimes enraged, critics and viewers. Are these items art (if they all are) merely because they are put forward by an artist, placed in a setting such as a gallery, or is there something more to being art that needs to be identified? Can something be put forward in this way, but fail to be an artwork?

Avant-garde art of the past one hundred years has made the nature of art increasingly puzzling because it has progressively stripped works of the traditional traits by which we recognize them as art, while expanding the category of objects capable of art status. With regard to new categories, examples are legion. Found art has added unworked objects chosen by the artist, which are often ordinary artifacts like bottle racks and bicycle wheels. Earth, bricks, and scraps of cloth are materials of now famous recent works. With regard to the stripping away of traditional traits, the same is true. In some works—which, in addition to found art, include aleatoric art where the final product is left to chance—the contribution of the artist is minimized. In some works, form seems to disappear as in lint strewn on a gallery floor. Many works attempt to eliminate aesthetic properties. Robert Morris issued a notarized statement withdrawing all aesthetic qualities from a metal construction that bore the poetic title Litanies. Sometimes this stripping away is pursued because artists themselves have taken an interest in the nature of art. Hence anyone cognizant of the art world can hardly avoid the question: what is art?

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Why bother about art?

Excerpt from Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art by Anne Sheppard:

Here are some of the things that people do in their spare time: they read novels, they read poetry, they go to the theatre, they listen to music, they go to art exhibitions, they make trips to look at buildings or to view scenery. These are all aesthetic activities. People engage in them from choice and for their own sake. Reading a novel will not help me earn my living (unless I am a professional reviewer or teacher of literature). Going to an art exhibition will not cure me of any physical ailment. A visit to a beauty spot will not make my house any warmer. Why then do people seek out aesthetic experiences? One obvious answer would be that people do these things because they enjoy them. It gives pleasure to read books or go to the theatre, to listen to music or look at paintings, to gaze at fine buildings or contemplate the beauties of nature. This answer tells us something, but not very much. Why seek this particular kind of pleasure? What is it about reading novels or listening to music or going to look at beautiful scenery which makes these particular activities worthwhile? There are many ways of getting pleasure: having a drink in the pub or going for a brisk walk may be pleasurable too. Why bother about art or about natural beauty? Why spend time, money and effort on these particular sources of pleasure? Is there something special about aesthetic experiences which makes them pleasurable in some special way? Is there any further point to them, apart from the pleasure they afford us?

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What is beauty?

Excerpt from The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIvor Lopes:

Beauty is evil, a surreptitious diversion of earthly delights planted by the devil, according to the third-century theologian-philosopher Tertullian. Beauty is a manifestation of the divine on earth, according to another third-century philosopher, Plotinus. Could these two really be talking about the same thing? That beauty evokes an experience of pleasure is probably the only point on which all participants in the continuing debate on beauty agree. But what kinds of pleasure one considers relevant to an experience of beauty, is the crux of the problem of beauty.

In ancient, medieval and eighteenth-century philosophy, the problem of beauty was framed by the larger concern of what constituted a good life. The question regarding the nature of beauty was answered with a view to its role in achieving the good life for those who cultivated its apprehension. In the twentieth century, philosophers framed the problem of beauty as a problem for conceptual analysis. The questions asked were: Is beauty subjective or objective? Are there properties in the object that count towards beauty in all cases, that are sufficient or necessary for an object to be judged beautiful? What kind of pleasure is the pleasure we experience of beauty?

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Is beauty objective or subjective?

Excerpt from Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics by Gordon Graham:

Whereas we can apply colour words like red and green without committing ourselves to a favourable estimation of the things we apply them to, we automatically praise something when we call it beautiful, and criticize it when we describe it as ugly. But this raises an important philosophical question. What is the connection between a purely descriptive term like ‘red’ or ‘green’ and the evaluative term ‘beautiful’?

There are two possibilities that philosophers have discussed at great length. The first is that the connection is purely subjective. That is to say, whereas terms like red and green identify real properties of the apple, the term ‘beautiful’ says something about the person who uses it. This is the view embodied in the familiar saying that ‘Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’ and it is exactly the view we found Hume espousing in the previous chapter – ‘To seek the real beauty, or the real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to seek the real sweet or real bitter’ (1963: 239).

Now there are two principal objections to such a view. The first is one that Hume’s Scottish contemporary Thomas Reid brought against him. If saying ‘This is a beautiful red apple’ means ‘I like/love/value/prefer this red apple’, why don’t I just say that? Why cast my opinion in such a misleadingly objective form, as though it were about the apple, when in fact it is about me, and my feelings towards it? The other objection is this. If judgements of beauty are purely subjective, why does anyone bother to argue about them? ‘De gustibus non disputandum’ an ancient Latin saying goes – ‘There can be no disputing over matters of taste’. If I say, I like the taste of avocado, whereas you do not, how could there be any point in arguing about it? I can’t give you reasons to like the taste of avocado; you just don’t. But when it comes to judgements of beauty then people do argue. What is more, for the practical purposes of buying paintings and sculptures, judging flower competitions, awarding fashion prizes, granting scholarships, they need to argue. We want to award the prize to the most beautiful roses, we want to choose the most beautiful painting submitted in the competition, we want to buy the most beautiful recording of a piece of music, etc.

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What is the relationship between art and emotion?

Excerpt from Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics by Gordon Graham:

Not infrequently, great artists theorize about their work. This is unsurprising, but what is more surprising is that even the greatest of creative artists can take a very simple-minded view of art. One of the best-known instances of this is Leo Tolstoy, the Russian literary giant. As well as his many novels, Tolstoy wrote a short book called What is Art? and in it the everyday conception of expressivism is set out with striking naiveté.

“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.” (Tolstoy in Neill and Ridley 1995: 511)

In these few words, Tolstoy captures a picture of artistic activity that is very widely shared: artists are people inspired by an experience of deep emotion, and they use their skill with words, or paint, or music, or marble, or movement, to embody that emotion in a work of art. The mark of its successful embodiment is that it stimulates the same emotion in its audience. It is in this way that artists may be said to communicate emotional experience.

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What is the relationship between art and truth?

Excerpt from The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIvor Lopes:

In thinking about art as a source of knowledge, two extreme approaches are tempting. On the first, art is embraced enthusiastically but rather loosely as a source of insight and fresh awareness. Sometimes this approach includes the view that the special insight cannot be put into words, but perhaps allows us to perceive the world in a new way. On the second, opposed approach, art or experience with art is rejected as not meeting requirements for the production of knowledge, knowledge being defined along traditional lines as true, justified belief. Art may be critiqued for not asserting or conveying true beliefs, or for not providing justification for any beliefs it may convey. Sometimes this approach includes the charge that even if true knowledge claims are occasionally presented in a work of art, those claims are uninteresting in content.

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