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~ The Philosophy of Aesthetics - A Survey ~

Plato
Plato writes about two fundamental aspects of imitation in Book X of the Republic. The first topic concerns the nature of imitation itself, and creates three levels of things: the ideal state, first-order imitations (the bed a carpenter makes), and second-order imitations (the bed an artist paints). He describes a painter as an artificer, the "maker of all the works of all other workmen...[who accomplishes this feat by] turning a mirror around and round...making the sun and the heavens, the earth and yourself..." There are thus three "artists--God, the maker of the bed, and the painter" with the painter being "thrice removed from the truth...with no true or healthy aim." The second aspect of imitation deals with the detrimental effects of expressive arts. When art depicts emotions, it concerns itself with an inferior part of the soul, not the rational principle in the soul. Plato believes that "hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State." He believes the excitement of poetry will lead to neglect of justice and virtue--rational states of the soul.

Aristotle
Like Plato, Aristotle conceived of art as imitation. Although his Poetics focuses largely on drama (tragedy & comedy) and poetry, it is possible to apply Aristotle's ideas to other forms of art. In an attempt to define the nature of objects, he lists four different kinds of causes: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause (purpose). Tragedy uses the material of language, in the form of human actions, portrayed by actors imitating those actions, with the purpose to arouse specific emotions, pity and fear, resulting in a catharsis. This final catharsis is expected to resolve deep conflicts about our place in the world. While Plato objected to the act of imitation itself, Aristotle acknowledges that acts of imitation are pleasurable in themselves, thereby acknowledging the abstract nature of an art work and the healthy cleansing possibility of the final catharsis. He outlines the six formal parts of every tragedy: fable or plot, characters, diction, thought, spectacle, and melody, and argues that the success of the drama may be aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play ("the better way and shows the better poet") rather than the spectacle itself (the resulting effect on the audience). He argues that the "less vulgar form of imitation is the higher, and the less vulgar is always that which addresses the better public, an art addressing any and everyone is of a very vulgar order."

Plotinus
Born in Egypt, Plotinus settled in Rome where he formed a kind of intellectual commune based on the teachings of Plato that led to the founding of the school called neo-Platonism. Neo-Platonism blends the teaching of Plato with mystical, metaphysical elements resulting in something close to a religion. Ennead One: Sixth Tractate seeks a definition of beauty. Beauty is not something physical (proportional) but is a quality of the soul. "Corporeal beauty arises by communion with divine reason...Even bodies that are said to be beautiful are made so by soul." Through introspection, individuals should work to attain a state of union with, as well as recognition of, the principles of oneness, virtue, harmony with the universe, beauty itself. To ascend to this ultimate state, Plotinus suggests that the soul must see "beautiful ways of life, beautiful actions (not those produced by crafts, but those produced by people said to be good), and then the soul of those who produce the beautiful actions." While Plotinus seems to leave the artist (craftsman) behind in his philosophy, subsequent neo-Platonists acknowledged that artists were in fact the very ones to provide the experience of beauty to the ordinary person, thus enabling them to attain this ultimate state of Oneness, beyond all being and thought. "This experience arises when you perceive in others or in yourself: greatness of soul, just character, pure self-composure, and a countenance possessing virile courage, donned with dignity and honor in a calm, serene, and unperturbed disposition, with the god-like intellect shining on all this."

Bonaventure
Giovanni di Fidanza took the name Bonaventure when he entered the Franciscan order in 1243. Like Plotinus, Bonaventure's writing is a guidebook for the soul undertaking a journey to find a union with God. Bonaventure, however, specifically argues for the role the arts play in this spiritual voyage. "Divine Wisdom is to be found in the illumination of the mechanical arts, the sole purpose of which is the production of works of art. In this illumination we can see the eternal generation and Incarnation of the Word, the pattern of human life, and the union of the soul with god. And this is true if we consider the skill of the artist, the quality of the effect produced, and the utility of the advantage to be derived therefrom." Works of art are valued if the work is "beautiful, useful, and enduring. Knowledge renders the work beautiful; the will renders it useful; perseverance renders it lasting." Ultimately these works provide a noble, useful, and agreeable good, the purpose of which is to express, instruct, and persuade. The result is to lead the soul from the awareness of physical light to another form of spiritual light or insight.

Dante
Dante Alighieri lived in Italy in the 13th-14 centuries and is most famous for his Divine Comedy. In a letter to one of his patrons (Letter Ten), Dante explains and justifies his writing. As with Aristotle, Dante's ideas and arguments can be extrapolated to illuminate a larger body of works of art, helping to define the aesthetic spirit of the Renaissance. Dante calls our attention to the fact that his work has several meanings, one conveyed by the letter (literal), and another conveyed by what the letter signifies (allegorical). As did Aristotle in his Poetics, Dante outlines the formal characteristics of his writing, but then turns his attention to the genre of comedy, which unlike tragedy "begins with sundry adverse conditions, but ends happily." He uses the language of the vernacular, "in which even women-folk hold their talk," illustrating the Renaissance spirit to communicate with a larger, less exclusive or elite audience. His artistic aim is to "remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and to bring them to a state of happiness...in a heaven glowing with a spiritual fire which is holy love or charity." While neo-Platonism was important to Dante, Dante believed that each individual soul must make its own spiritual journey, and it remains itself throughout. Dante's literal story of love for Beatrice becomes a metaphor for a spiritual union with God.

Francis Hutcheson
An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue was first published anonymously in London in 1725, its author the 18th-century Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson. As an empiricist, Hutcheson believes that all knowledge begins with simple ideas provided by sense. He calls the power to perceive ideas of beauty and harmony an "Internal Sense," and attributes the greater capacity to receive (and perceive) such pleasant ideas to fine genius or taste--in music, a "good ear." While external sense can tell different species of trees, herbs, and minerals, "there is still something further necessary, not only to make a compleat master in architecture, painting, or statuary, but even a tolerable judge in these works; or to receive the highest pleasure in contemplating them." Beauty can be either original (absolute) or comparative (relative), but the concept denotes the perception of some mind--the subject. He defines objective attributes of beauty as uniformity amidst variety--traits found in nature. Beauty can be found in an imitation when a unity between the original and the copy has been achieved. The original may be an object in nature as well as an established idea. Deformities of old age in a picture, if well represented, shall have abundant beauty. He believed in a universal sense of beauty inherent in all men of experience and education.

David Hume
18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume was known as a skeptic and an atheist. His essay "Of the Standard of Taste" first appeared in 1757 and is an attempt to explain widely varying ideas about beauty. Justice, humanity, magnanimity, prudence, veracity are qualities universally applauded, but critics must take care not to be fooled when these "sentiments" are used, not as universal precepts, but as manipulative tools to further a specific prejudiced cause (i.e. religion). Hume acknowledges the truth of all sentiment because it has a reference to nothing beyond itself and is always real. Judgement, however, differs in that it must result in universal agreement. Practice is necessary to the discernment of beauty and enables a critic to discern among works with varying degrees of excellence. Hume criticizes strict formal rules governing the composition of artworks as yielding work "insipid and disagreeable." He requires works of art to provoke regular effects and responses in order to be called beautiful. Judges must possess a "strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice" in order to perceive qualities of beauty that artworks have the capacity to produce. "Every work of art has also a certain end or purpose, for which it is calculated; and is to be deemed more or less perfect, as it is more or less fitted to attain this end."

Immanuel Kant
Kant spent his entire life in K"nigsburg, East Prussia, and wrote the Critique of Judgment in 1790 during his tenure as a professor at that city's university. Kant presents a case for aesthetic judgments as purely intuitive. He identifies taste as the feeling that belongs to aesthetic intuition, thus claiming taste is purely subjective. Judgments of taste are not judgments of cognition, thus poor imitations that arouse intense subjective feelings of pleasure or pain can be beautiful. Judgments of taste must be disinterested; there must be no desire for the physical object or for the existence of the object. "That which pleases the senses in sensations is pleasant (enjoyable); that which pleases only as a means is good for something (useful). That which pleases for itself is good in itself (beautiful), while that which is esteemed or approved and is accorded an objective worth is good. Only judgments of the beautiful are disinterested. Judgments of beauty are universal and impute agreement of everyone. Judgments of taste are singular, not dependent on comparison with any other thing, hence the beautiful is that which pleases universally without requiring a concept. Only art can be beautiful, and genius is the talent or natural gift through which nature give rule to art. Works of art must be original, exemplary (not imitative), nor derivative from some formal scientific rule. Genius provides the material for products of beautiful art, but the execution and form require talent cultivated in the schools. Beautiful art requires imagination, understanding, spirit, and taste.

G. W. F. Hegel
German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel belonged to the first generation of scholars after Kant. His voluminous and complex writings sought to describe all that could be thought. He links art and religion as forms of historical realization of the possibilities of minds and ideas. Art and religion provide the highest forms of the ideal that we can experience and stand at the top of Hegel's system. Belief or faith is a way of knowing, a consciousness or knowledge. The goal of the spirit is to realize the Absolute which first takes shape in the finitude of Art. The work of art's external common existence includes both the subject which produced it and the subject which contemplates and worships it. But ultimately, art is the concrete contemplation and mental picture of the implicitly absolute spirit as the Ideal. The artwork's natural immediacy is only a sign of the Idea. Portrayals of humans in action as well as historical, heroic deeds are preferable to symbolic, landscape, or abstract paintings because in the human form one can see the mental idea, a successful effort to discover the God of pure thought. Thus, classical art is superior to symbolic art. Romantic art gives up the task of showing God as an external form and replaces it with the significant that can be understood only by an inward turn of the spirit. When this inward turn is complete, religion replaces art. Thus, "beautiful art can only belong to those religions in which the spiritual principle, though concrete and intrinsically free, is not yet absolute; it makes the natural wholly into the mere expression of spirit, which is thus the inner form that gives utterance to itself alone." Beautiful art functions as a philosophy leading the spirit to a purified state of revelation.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche announced the death of God in Thus Spake Zarathustra in 1888. This enabled him to explore and return to the naked forces that created God in the first place. In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music Nietzsche explores the Apollonian-Dionysiac duality responsible for the origins of art. Apollo represents the ordered plastic arts; Dionysus the non-visual disordered art of music, "the daemonic chant of the multitude." Nietzsche cites the Raphael painting entitled Transfiguration as a portrayal of "the need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to produce the redemptive vision and to sit quietly in his rocking rowboat in mid-sea, absorbed in contemplation." The individual must return to the chaos of his natural beginning state in order to become one with the cosmos. Only music (Dionysus) can enable the individual to lose self awareness because it does not, like all the other arts, represent appearance, but the will directly. "Music alone allows us to understand the delight felt at the annihilation of the individual" leading to "eternal life continuing beyond all appearance and in spite of destruction." He concludes that the "Dionysiac element, as against the Apollonian, proves itself to be the eternal and original power of art, since it calls into being the entire world of phenomena."

John Ruskin
British art critic John Ruskin was one of the most influential critics of the nineteenth century. He was both a connoisseur and an elitist, calling "painting, or art generally, nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing." The greatest paintings (or works of art) are those that express the greatest number of the greatest ideas. A great idea is "great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind." Ideas that can be received from works of art are ideas of power (technical skill), ideas of imitation, ideas of truth, ideas of beauty, and ideas of relation. Power and imitation are basically mechanical ideas whereas truth, beauty, and relation are intellectual ideas that produce greatness in art. Ideas of relation, "requiring at the instant of their perception, active exertion of the intellectual powers, are the noblest subjects of art and the most important source of pleasure."

Leo Tolstoy
Russian writer and aristocrat Count Leo Tolstoy underwent in a religious conversion late in the 1870's that resulted in his embracing a form of Christianity based on love, non-violence, and simplicity. What Is Art? was written after this life-defining moment. Tolstoy attempts to distinguish between art and counterfeit art. Feelings of diversion and a certain excitement are received from counterfeits of art, whereas real art creates a unity with spectator and artist, a "feeling of joy and of spiritual union with another and with others also infected by it." "The stronger the infection, the better is the art as art." The contagiousness of art is determined first by the sincerity of the artist and the impelling need of the artist to express his feeling. This is a condition always found in peasant art, but almost entirely absent from upper-class art. Good subjects expressed in art move humanity forward toward perfection and transmit feelings drawing men together in brotherly union. Bad feelings in art are those feelings accessible only to members of the rich classes and include Church art, patriotic art, voluptuous art, transmitting feelings of superstitious fear, pride, vanity, ecstatic admiration of national heroes, exclusive love of one's own people or sensuality. Tolstoy argues that in every period of history there is an understanding of the meaning of life representing the highest level to which men in that society aspire, and this understanding is the religious perception of the given time and society that art should impart on the public. Artists should be everyday workers who learn their craft not in schools but in life, and who feel the strong need to express these good and noble sentiments. Tolstoy argues against state support for the arts saying, "There is no position more injurious to an artist's productiveness than that position of complete security and luxury in which artists usually live in our society."

Benedetto Croce
Croce lived in Italy between 1866 and 1962, was active politically as an antifascist, and helped negotiate the armistice with the Allies at the end of World War II. He holds strong views or art as an expression of a synthesis of intuitive experiences. He believes knowledge has two forms: logical/intellectual and intuitive/imaginative. The total effect of a work of art is the latter--intuitive. He states that the difference between a scientific work and a work of art (between an intellectual and intuitive fact) lies in the difference of the total effect aimed at by their respective authors. He defines intuition as "the undifferentiated unity of the perception of the real and of the simple image of the possible." Neither space nor time is essential for intuition. Intuition begins as sensation, formless matter, which, when conquered by form, produces concrete form, generating spiritual activity. Intuitive activity possesses intuitions to the extent that it expresses them, with expressions not limited to verbal ones, but including pictorial as well as musical forms. He believes all genuine intuition is capable of expression without regard to mechanical or technical skill. Excellent art collects intuitions that are wider and more complex than those which normal people generally experience, making the difference between ordinary art and excellent art a quantitative one. He claims that "certain men have a greater aptitude, a more frequent inclination fully to express certain complex states of the soul, and these men are known as artists." He believes, however, that simple intuitive expressions can also be art. Historical, critical, or formal division is not necessary to the expression of art. "By elaborating his impressions, man frees himself from them. By objectifying them, he removes them from him and makes himself their superior. The liberating and purifying function of art is another aspect and another formula of its character as activity. Activity is the deliverer, just because it drives away passivity." A work of art is created when an artist serenely realizes some sensibility or passion in a physical form, thereby subduing and dominating the tumult of sensations and passions. He avoids the word "beauty" until the very end of his essay when he defines it as "successful expression, or rather, as expression and nothing more because expression when it is not successful is not expression."

Edward Bullough
Edward Bullough had a successful tenure as a professor at Cambridge and wrote Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle in 1912. Psychical distance is akin to Kant's "disinterest," and Bullough uses a fog at sea to illustrate his concept. Feelings of fear or anxiety which make fog a dreaded terror of the sea are not compatible with the aesthetic experience. Instead one must see the fog as a thing of enjoyment, relishing the opaque veil of transparent milk it creates. The ability to see it thus, the ability to stand outside the context of personal needs and ends, is psychic distance. Bullough comments, "Distance, if every member of the public could be trusted to keep it, there would be no sense whatever in the existence of a censor of plays." Distance is a factor in all art and provides the criterion of the beautiful as distinct from the agreeable. There are two ways of losing distance--"over-distance" and "under-distance." "Over-distance" results in highly idealized or abstract art that stands unapproachable by ordinary people. More common is "Under-distance" in which the subject cannot separate adequately from the art work in order to experience the object aesthetically. Drama is an art from which it is most difficult to distance; dancing next, sculpture, then painting, finally music and architecture. The most intense aesthetic experience results with a maximum of involvement without the loss of distance.

Clive Bell
Bell went to Cambridge and became a part of the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals that included his wife, painter Vanessa Bell, and her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf. Art critic and painter Roger Fry, 15 years Bell's senior, was influential to Bell, introducing him to the post-impressionist painters Picasso, Derain, and Cezanne. Bell was a formalist who developed a theory of "significant form." In Art, Bell begins by claiming an artistic sensibility as well as a turn for clear thinking, both necessary to formulate aesthetic ideas. He believes the starting point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion provoked by works we call art. He labels the quality all such objects possess "significant form," lines and colors combined in a particular way along with forms and relations of forms that stir aesthetic emotions. While aesthetic judgments are undisputedly matters of taste, a good critic may be able to point out aspects of a work of art that will permit the viewer to realize its significant form, thereby enabling the viewer to receive the aesthetic emotion a work of art can evoke. Bell sees no need to pry into the intentions of the creator of the work; artists are those individuals capable of manipulating lines, colors, and form in such a way as to communicate the profound emotion of its creator. Artists contemplate objects and perceive them as pure form in certain relations to each other and feel emotion for them as such, after which follows the desire to express what has been felt. Artists have the ability to perceive and express an "ultimate reality," which makes us aware of the "God in everything, of the universal in the particular, of the all-pervading rhythm." Another thoughtful point regarding us as subjects follows: "He who would feel the significance of art must make himself humble before it."

 

 

 

     

 


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