Aesthetics: Definition & Meaning
Deriving from the Greek word for perception (aisthesis), and first used in the 18th century by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, the term "aesthetics" (also known as æsthetics or esthetics) refers to those principles governing the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in visual art. Academically speaking, aesthetics refers to the branch of philosophy which deals with issues of beauty and artistic taste.
Put simply, aesthetics covers questions like:
What is beauty?
OF VISUAL ARTS
WHAT IS ART?
HOW TO EVALUATE
The Definition and Meaning of Art
The word "art" stems from the Latin word ars, which means roughly "skill" or "craft". This doesn't get us very far.
One Encyclopedia defines art as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others". Unfortunately this definition ignores the attitude of the audience, which we think is unhelpful.
We say that art is created when an artist creates a beautiful object, or produces a stimulating experience that is considered by his audience to have artistic merit. This is still extremely vague, but we think it covers all the main issues. (See also: Types of Art.)
The Intrinsic Subjectivity of Art
Beauty is not a subject which attracts uniformity of opinion. Each of us appears to have a different viewpoint about what is, and what is not, beautiful. As a result, it is almost impossible to establish an agreed definition of art.
This problem is nothing new. Art critics, curators and historians have argued about it for centuries. However, over recent decades, exponents of contemporary art - such as Jeff Koons (b.1955), Tracey Emin (b.1963), and Damien Hirst (b.1965), among others - have produced a number of new works which bear little resemblance to traditional examples of fine art. This raises the question: what are the limits of art? See also: Primitivism/Primitive art.
Defining the Boundaries of Art
Obviously not everything can be art. But how do we set limits? For example, how can we tell the difference between (say) a piece of magic and a work of performance art? Or, what is the difference between a scientific experiment and an artistic installation? Or, when does a film documentary become a work of art?
Proceduralism Provides an Answer
The Proceduralist approach, which defines art according to the procedure involved in its creation, may help to determine what is art. It works like this: (1) If Jack the artist applies several coats of red paint to a large rectangular piece of wood, which he intends to exhibit as a painting at his local art gallery, then it is truly a work of art. (2) If, on the other hand, Bob the interior decorator applies several coats of red paint to a similar piece of wood which he then installs as a front door at a customer's house, then it is a door, not a work of art. To put it simply, if I intend something to be art, it's art; if not, it's not.
Is Bad Art Still Art?
Just a moment - what do I mean when I use the expression "bad art?" Probably, "I don't like it!" In other words, it's not an objective judgment but a personal one - a purely subjective view. (I may not like a sculpture by (say) Picasso, but I'd probably agree it was still art.)
Truth is, while the proceduralist approach helps us to separate art from non-art, it doesn't help us to distinguish good from bad.
The last set of European aesthetics that was able to distinguish good art from bad art was that used by the Nazi government to identify "degenerate art" (entartete kunst). At the same time, Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov were using "Socialist Realist" aesthetics to set guidelines for artists in Soviet Russia. Both examples illustrate the dangers of a powerful elitist minority group trying to impose aesthetic standards on the rest of society.
Basically, unless we intend to reintroduce the "art police", we need to accept that bad art is here to stay. In fact, from a practical as well as a philosophical viewpoint, we need bad paintings, bad plastic art and bad installations to highlight the good stuff!
The Value of Applied Art
Among the many issues of beauty and aesthetics covered by the philosophy of art, is the question: what is the difference between arts and crafts (between fine art and decorative art)? Even today these two areas are separated by a huge gulf: separate colleges, separate professions, separate funding systems, separate exhibitions, and so on. Is all this justified? The answer is, it depends on your value system. If you think that drawing and painting is somehow more elevated or intellectual than creating a stunning design for a new motor car - or a piece of stained glass, a tapestry, a lacquered ebony box, or a pair of earrings - then you might answer Yes. On the other hand if you feel that all these activities are capable of being equally creative, you will answer No. Historically, drawing, painting and sculpture have long been classified as "fine arts" - a noble type of "art for art's sake" - whereas crafts, along with their modern cousin "applied art" (largely, design) are regarded as lesser disciplines. Fortunately, this is changing in the 21st century.
What Makes a Good Painting?
This is another key issue of aesthetics - one which curators and exhibition selection-committees around the world are constantly obliged to face. For example, how much of a painting's artistic value derives from its visual impact, and how much from its intellectual content? Are realist or naturalist paintings better than abstract ones? Not surprisingly, these questions have innumerable answers!
Popular Versus Good Art
Almost every year there's a major fashion trend or style. Lots of consumers follow it, but after a time they dump it as it becomes superceded by the next big style. Is art heading the same way as the fashion industry?
Take the art museum industry, for instance. When planning an exhibition, should curators select paintings, sculptures, installations and other contemporary artworks because they represent top-quality art, or because they will attract visitors to the museum?
These questions highlight an important issue. Museums are seen as fairly boring places, so having a shocking or highly controversial work of art in an exhibition may help to draw crowds. In the same way, the Turner Prize needs publicity to survive and prosper. In both cases, organizers may respond by choosing works of art which they feel will entertain the public, even if their artistic standards fall below those of other works. Although it has clear short-term benefits, does this strategy make sense in the long term?
For example, what happens when art students begin to appreciate that in order to succeed in the art world - rather than develop a set of specific creative skills - they need to invent some whacky, controversial attention-grabbing idea? Answer: they search for an attention-grabbing idea and so become entertainers. Unfortunately, as we all know, the sort of techniques used to attract people's attention involve violence, bad language and other similar methods. It might be popular, but will it be art?
For more about the meaning of art terms, see: Homepage.