17 April 2007

Philosophy post 4: AESTHETICS

Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" from

On to the forth major field of philosophy: Aesthetics, or “The branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste.” (OED). The overarching questions of this enquiry are:

What is Art? and What is Beauty?

There are three tasks for you, dear students and other readers, this week. Please add other thoughts as they come to you, including descriptions of your favorite works of art; artistic decisions you have had to make in painting, drawing, writing, composing, song-writing, etc.; or experiences in art museums or other locations where irreconcilable differences in taste have made you ponder the nature of beauty.

1. Try to come up with a workable definition of Art. As more definitions are posted here, we should debate among them. Perhaps you want to think of your favorite painting, sculpture, piece of music, song, poem, novel, etc. & try to define it in general terms, then see if your definition covers all possible works of art.

2. Try to come up with a workable definition of Beauty. What qualities or characteristics does an object, person, or action need to possess in order to be rightfully termed beautiful? Are these essential or accidental properties (see the Intro book, p. 32)? Do they change throughout time, place, culture, or individual? If so, is there a fundamental common denominator beneath the shifting specifics, or not? If so, what is it?

3. Is Beauty subjective or objective, absolute or relative? In other words, if two people are standing in front of the same work of art and one says, “This is gorgeous!” but the other says, “This is hideous!” and both are expressing their sincere, heartfelt, natural responses, is one right and the other wrong? Or is beauty truly just “in the eye of the beholder”? Then, if it changes from person to person, what is it? Can it truly be said to exist?

Here are some of my thoughts:

I personally hate making definitions. They are confining, artificial, debatable, divisive. For example, I started to write this definition of art: “I believe that a work of art, to be classed as such, needs to show excellence in the technical skills proper to that medium (such as rhyme, meter, figures of speech, & imagery in poetry; rhythm, dynamics, tempo, articulation in music; etc.) and an ineffable expression of spirit or imagination or creativity on the part of the “artist” (the “interpretation” in a musical or theatrical performance; the “vision” in a painting, and so on)” or something like that. I kind of life that definition, but then I immediately thought of exceptions. What about aleatoric music? That does not require “skill” in the traditional sense, or perhaps requires a new kind of skill, and certainly does not express the composer’s inner soul or anything like that. Yet I can admit that a composition such as Terry Riley’s “In C” is indeed a work of art, and that it contributed something profound to the history of music. And that listening to it or performing in it can be a moving and meaningful musical experience. And what about works that require no skill, but are innovative and “make a statement,” such as the famous toilet. Is that art? If not, why not? Who gets to say? So then, would my definition of art be “Any work that the artist declares to be art”? That just pushes the problem away one degree, because we still have to figure out what/who an artist is and who says he gets to be one. That, of course, just forces us into a circle: “Art is that which an artist makes; an artist is one who makes art” just like “Veger is he who seeks the creator; that creator is he whom Veger seeks” in Star Trek.

So what other directions could we take? Perhaps a reader-response theory, that art is anything which people appreciate as art. Or a Christian point of view, that art is anything created by a person in response to his identity as a subcreator made in the image of a divine Creator.

I almost prefer to take individual items and discuss their relative merits and demerits on a case-by-case basis. But what then am I judging them against except my own taste, and in the case of some fields such as literature, my own knowledge of traditional value-judgments of works by critics?

Here’s a subjective suggestion: “Art is any work of human creation that lifts the thoughts or feelings of an observer out of their quotidian track and forces the contemplation of places, situations, emotions, or images not associated with the observer’s physical location and habitual cognition, through the creation of those places, situations, emotions, or images by a skillful worker in the media of paint, sculpture, words, music, dance, film, etc.”

The OED has this definition: Art = “The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, especially through a visual medium such as painting or sculpture; works produced in this way.”

But couldn’t both of those, mine & the OED’s, apply to advertising (a image of a scantily-clad couple on a beach creates in me the idea of a romantic vacation in the Bahamas, and suddenly I simply must purchase that trip package) or news (a story of a massacre forces me to contemplate the suffering of 32 families I have never met)?

And did you notice how the OED one privledges the visual? What about aural and written and tactile arts?

Can you come up with a definition that describes & defines art and nothing else? Have fun trying.

And read these articles and previous posts, please:

1. "Pearls Before Breakfast": If a great musician plays great music but no one hears... was he really any good?

2. The Aesthetics of Coffee

3. Faithful Aesthetic Arts

4. Art as Covenant Naming

5. Musings on Art Criticism

6. Giving Thanks for art

7. Intentionality in Art

8. Good Books on Aesthetics

Pablo Picasso's "Portrait of Dora Maar" from


gymbrall said...

Art and Beauty are both absolute and relative terms. They are relative in the sense that they are "value terms" and that as Scripture says "there is a way that seemeth right unto a man." They are absolute in the sense that Jehovah also has an opinion and His opinion is the only one that really matters.

In the absolute sense, our relativistic efforts to define what is beautiful are declarative, in that while we think we are defining Beauty, what we are actually doing, is declaring whether we agree or disagree with God. (See this post for more along those lines.)

As far as a definition for Art. I think about the ways we use the word art and the arts. We speak of the art of painting, the art of sculpting, but we also speak of the art of the sword, the art and craft of woodworking. Art seems to me to be about quality, about excellence. And this allows men to call vile things art, because what they are meaning to say is that this vileness seems excellent to them, or that it is excellently vile. Art is about achieving perfection (for some value of perfection), if that makes sense.

Anyway, thanks for the post and for letting me ramble.

RawkChick said...

hey. here goes for week 5...

question #2:

my definition goes is thus, although the person who came up with this cliche "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder" or something like that did a much better jorb: simply put, beauty is subjective, what one person may think is beautiful can be terribly messed up for another. we all ahve different tastes, that's what makes us interesting. expanding this, beautiful music for me is rock or 'melodic hardcore' (yes there really is such a thing!) while beautiful music for mrs h is classical. for all those teens, a girls may think some guys hot(t), while her friend may think he's the ugliest person on the face of the earth! and same for guys im guessing, but im not one so i dunno what they think.

quetion #3:

out of subjective, objective, absolute, or relative, i believe that beauty is subjective. as in the question above, beauty can mean totally diffrent things to different people. i also believe that 'beauty is in the eyes of the beholder'. if it indeed changes from person to person, i think its still there, it just means different things to different people. if we all thought the same things in the world were eautiful, there it would be incredibly boring! my answer for the last sub-question is oretty much the same. no variety, no exicetment...boring world.

and as my deaf stupid cat tears arounf the house knocking stuff off the counters and other high things, i close this post hoping that it made sense...see you all thurs.

Iambic Admonit said...


Wow, thank you. Your thoughts are extremely articulate and valuable. I appreciate your contribution.

now, now; let's not stereotype! Mrs. H., music teacher though she may be, likes lots more than Classical music!! :)

RawkChick said...

i wasn't meaning to steriotype, but i dont know what other kinds of music you like. so i just used the one that i new. im now on my hands and knees begging for your mercy and forgiveness!*dramatically*

Andrew said...

well this isnt quite a definition, but i think that one of the main ideas behind behind both art and beauty is emotion. even if one person claims the piece of art in question to be beautiful and the other claims it to be hideous, they both are feeling emotions about it. one could almost judge a piece of art on the amount of emotion it evokes. this isnt the only way, but it may be something..

i also think that the idea of forms or w/e (from last week) could come into play. There is an idea or form of beauty that everyone has. however, this overarching idea can take different forms (different sense of "form" than previously) for different people. this basically means that the idea of beauty is absolute, there are just different interpretations of it.

ok, so reading that last paragraph again, it totally sounds like some relativistic politically correct crap, but there might be some truth in there. any ideas/help? anyone?

Darlin' said...

Good Evening Mrs. H!

What is Art? Beauty?
I cannot help but think that the two of these (Art and Beauty) are much intertwined.

I happen to love Art, and I plan on teaching art to young deaf students in the future as my occupation. However, I do not know that there is a definite definition for Art or beauty.

I cannot help but think back to the famous and most overused cliché: “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” And think that it has truth in it.

A few weeks ago I was at the Franklin Institute, where I went to see the King Tut exhibit. Looking at all the lovely pieces of work they made and all the artifacts… I thought that they were beautiful works of Art. Each piece had detail that we know had to be done by hand because there was no such machinery then to reply on like we do now. Each piece was made with hard labor and effort. Thought was put into each piece made for the best…with the best quality possible. The designs and work left me in awe.

After seeing this, and being in shock at the skill presented; I compared it to today’s modern art. I am not a fan of modern art. I do not consider a jumble of welded metal that looks like it was made on accident by someone totally high a “work of art.”
(No offense to any modern artists…) However, there are many people, as you know, who are fans of such things and consider it “beautiful.”

I think that for something to be considered “art” it must have a level of skill involved. Also, I think that it must show that work and thought was put into it.

Does everyone have to agree that something is “beautiful” or a work of “art” for it to be so? If I think that something is beautiful and the next person disagrees with me…then is one of us wrong??

I don’t think so. Every one has different tastes just as every one has different morals. It is the same with food. I love Brussels sprouts… but my sister says they are disgusting. Is one of us wrong? Or right for that matter? No. It is a preference of tastes and personal beliefs.

I think back to what the Bible says to form my opinions. The first verse to come to mind with this matter is when (I forget where exactly) it says “We are beautifully and wonderfully made.” The Bible tells how each of us were beautifully made and in His (God’s- Yes, I am a Christian) Image.

I believe we (man) though our beauty may be distorted by our sin, are indeed beautiful. I believe this because God made us lovingly and in His Image. He used great detail and nothing man made has ever matched to such skill, quality, and love used to create us.
So if I was asked to give a definition for Art, I do not think I could give a completely accurate one, but I would say something like this: Art is something created that is either visual or audible; made thoughtfully with some amount of work, skill, and passion.

I am completely aware that modern “art” can be classified under this definition. But as I said, just because I in particular am not partial to modern art - that does not mean that it is NOT art, in some sense.


“3. Is Beauty subjective or objective, absolute or relative? In other words, if two people are standing in front of the same work of art and one says, “This is gorgeous!” but the other says, “This is hideous!” and both are expressing their sincere, heartfelt, natural responses, is one right and the other wrong? Or is beauty truly just “in the eye of the beholder”? Then, if it changes from person to person, what is it? Can it truly be said to exist?”

It believe that it does truly exist. I’ll tell you why I believe this: If someone pinches me really hard and I say “OUCH!” because It caused me pain and then someone standing next to me was pinched in the same manner and with the same strength… and they say “that did not hurt” because in fact, it did not cause pain to that person; Did “pain” really exist? Did it not change from one person to the next?

If we were to say beauty did not exist because it changed from one person to the next then we can reason that pain does not exist either. Am I correct?

And if this is true, I bet I can find A LOT of people to argue that pain does indeed exist. (Unless of course we just imagine it…and every thing else in the world…or of course maybe we are but figments of someone’s imagination…or maybe I am real…and you are not…I imagined you all…etc. hehe)

Well I think I have said more than my share… See you in class tomarrow!

qt pie said...

greetings and salutations,
i think that art is anything that a person does with his/her hands in attempt of depicting something they feel. I think a major part of art is displaying your emotions, and allowing the viewer/reader/listener to understand a new part of life they may not have gone through. art should enhance your mind, it should be a fresh breath of fresh air, and should make you feel some sort of emotion.

i believe in the saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" there is no absolute beauty, nor is there any one person on earth that can decide what is beautiful. Now we may have similarities in taste on certain things that we do call beautiful, but none of us are exactly the same in this way.

Darlin said...

After some more thoughts... I was thinking and came up with an example for visual art that was indeed beautiful and a work of art...but again at the same time wretched because of the reason in which it was made.

The Golden calf, in the Bible.
It was beautiful, made with skill, and showed some thought, which was my definition that I gave for art.

However because it was made as an Idol, I believe it is not art. But rather a sin.

Am I wrong?? Does the purpose in which art was made affect whether or not it is beautiful? or whether or not it is indeed a work of art?

Just wondering if anyone has any thoughts about this.


Rosie Perera said...

I will bypass the "what is art" question for a while (mostly because I've written extensively on it in this blog in the past, and "Mrs. H" has pointed you to some of those posts).

You've all articulated it so well. I too believe that beauty is subjective. Though we can't all agree on what examples of art are beautiful, can we all explain why something we think is beautiful is beautiful? In other words, do we all share a common human understanding of the concept of beautiful? I'm not even sure about that, though I suppose the two most serious contenders for a definition of what makes something "beautiful" are "it stirs our emotions" and "it achieves some standard of excellence in the genre" (or a combination of the two). One person might enjoy heavy metal music and be particularly enthusiastic about an excellent example of a song in that genre, while another might be able to understand and appreciate its technical excellence, but still hate the sound of it.

As children, we are taught what the word "beauty" means by being shown examples of things that are beautiful by someone else who considers them to be beautiful ("Look at the pretty flower! What a beautiful sunset!") How we learn to assimilate that definition into our own minds and apply it to different things that we consider beautiful is a mystery to me. One of the enduring questions in philosophy is "To what extent it is possible to know what is inside other minds?" (E.g., can two people compare their headaches and know which one is worse?) So I think the appreciation of beauty remains something somewhat solipsistic; we cannot fully share it with each other. Even though we can go on writing ad infinitum about it on blogs, etc.

Speaking of this, "The Artist's Circle" is a short film made by a friend and film teacher of mine, Bruce Marchfelder, that is quite good and appropriate for this discussion. Here's the blurb on it: "Have you ever been captivated by a work of art? The Artist's Circle considers the question by exploring the relationship between an artist, the artist's work and the inevitable covey of critics, scholars and 'hangers-on' who would rather judge a piece of art than simply enjoy it."

So, after watching that film, anyone care to critique it as a work of art? :-)

Andrew said...

i think art can be summed up like so any thing that is lovely. i think that sums it up. you may think some things dont fit but yes infacr people are a work of art. in fact look at all god has created and you will see art. beauty is a different story it all depends on the heart beauty is on the surface to some. to others beauty is an inward lifestyle that you can only see through knowing a person or what ever it is you are seeking out beauty in.

cinderella said...

Hey Mrs. H!

In answer to question#1.
Art is when something is taken and formed into something in a persons hands. But what happens if I take dirt and pour water into it and it makes mud. Is that art? It's using my hands to make something. Now some people might think it is if they made some sort of picture out of it. Now there was a point (at least I think) to that weird mud metaphor. Art I think is anything that is made by someone if they really put their heart into it. I am positive that if you take that mud that you made with your hands and splattered it on a piece of paper there will be someone in this world that will say that is art. Now those OCD/perfectionist artists out there that spend so much time working on these masterpieces would probably pop a blood vessel in rage if someone called that splatter of mud art. Why? Well because they spend so much time and effort and they put everything they have into making something into a masterpiece. The person that splatters mud doesn't put anything time of feeling into it and yet even to one person it is considered art. The artists might not think that's art because they have this definition of art that it has to be a sculpture, painting, piece of music, writing or something that takes time and feeling and making mud pictures isn't using any of those. This is where I think little 3 year olds know art better than the most famous artists. Little three year olds see art in everything because they know that everything took someone work to make it. They can find the ugliest things such as mud as art. And didn't God make us from the mud? So are we really his art? Thinking about this gave me this definition of Art. Art is something that can be made by a person and appeals to anyone's senses.

In answer to question #3.
I think beauty is more subjective. It defiantly depends on a person opinions and their taste. The statement that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder is true. I don't think there is another way to really classify beauty. Beauty is totally different to everyone. If I think some shirt is really cute and Sasha(first person to come to mind) thinks it's the ugliest shirt she has ever seen(which she would never think ;-) ) than we have different ideas of how something looks and its beauty. I know these types of examples are probably what everyone else is already thinking. I think that the eye of the beholder thing is the closest anyone has gotten to describe what beauty it. I'm not the next braniac philosopher who has the mind power to think outside the box and find a better answer than that.

Well see you all tomorrow!

p.s Rawkchick your post was so funny. =]