17 April 2007
Philosophy post 4: AESTHETICS
Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" from www.harley.com
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 www.news-antique.com