Philosophy of Beauty and Aesthetic Theory: A Brief History

What is beauty? What counts as art, and what does not? The philosophy of aesthetics has tried to answer these and other questions ever since the onset of human civilization.

Plato and Aristotle: Mimesis and Catharsis

Like many aspects of contemporary thought, the philosophy of aesthetics has its origins in the ancient Greeks. More specifically, various aesthetic considerations have their foundations in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle.

It is in his work Politeia that Plato (427-347 BC) touches on the essence of art and both prose and painting in particular. One of the most fundamental terms he brought into existence as a criterion in terms of art is mimesis. It pertains to imitation, or representation, of what is our reality. Broadly speaking, mimesis is the transformation of reality into art.

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) and his work Poetics further elaborated on Plato’s foundations. First of all, he differentiated between useful and reflective art. Second, he attributed mimesis to human nature, saying that we experience joy and learn by means of mimesis. Third, he established character, plot, and emotions as the main features of artistic mimesis.

Moreover, Aristotle was concerned with the psychological dimension of art. In observing the principles of the tragedy he referred to art’s purifying effect based on fear and empathy. His notion of catharsis is one that has branched out from the form of tragedy, spread across all variations of art, and is still of crucial importance in our times.

Frances Hutcheson and David Hume: Aesthetic Predisposition and Common Sense

In his essay “An Inquiry Concerning Beauty” (1725), Francis Hutcheson reverts to traditional characteristics of beauty, naming order, symmetry, and unity as the main features of objective beauty. The following quotation renders obvious his empirical approach towards aesthetics:

“The word beauty is taken for the idea raised in us, and a sense of beauty for our power of receiving this idea.”

Furthermore, Hutcheson defined aesthetic predisposition as relevant for the perception of beauty. It involves immediacy and indifference. Only if a work of art appeals to us straight away and without any interest in the object per se do we speak of aesthetic impression and value.

David Hume and his seminal work Of the Standard of Taste (1757) added the dimension of individual subjectivity and common sense to the philosophic discussion of aesthetics. The former acknowledges the validity of taste as a non-disputable subject matter because everyone perceives something else as beautiful. It is this validity which has become a part of a common sense understanding due to which no one is eligible to regulate other people’s aesthetic judgments.

Immanuel Kant: Disinterested Pleasure and the Sublime

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant demarcated judgments on beauty as judgments of taste, which bear no epistemological but subjective significance only. Aesthetic evaluations are not logical and thus produce no knowledge whatsoever.

Kant also talks about disinterested pleasure as highly relevant in terms of aesthetics. As soon as someone is interested in the very existence of a work of art, they are not judging aesthetically. Moreover, in line with David Hume, he postulates subjective universality as a criterion of art.

The sublime is yet another aspect of aesthetics that was of interest to Kant. The sublime as a term is attributable to Edmund Burke. Kant, however, differentiated between the sublime in mathematical terms and the dynamically sublime. The former deals with sheer size in perception. Looking at a mountain range, for instance, invokes in us a sentiment of awe. The latter, however, goes beyond size and is triggered by a thunderstorm at sea, for instance.

Walter Benjamin and the Technical Reproducibility of Art

In 1936 Walter Benjamin wrote about art and its technical reproducibility. He talks about the aura that is inherent in all forms of traditional art, such as a painting or a sculpture. In the wake of the Technological Age, however, new forms of art emerged, which lack in this very aura. Benjamin refers to art forms which dominate contemporary times: film and photography.

According to Benjamin, it is the quality of reproducibility that characterizes these new art forms and makes them suitable for mass production. Think of a photograph and the possibility of an infinite amount of copies. Benjamin mentions the qualitative change brought about by such non-auratic art forms and their increasing political function due to their very reproducibility.

Philosophy of Aesthetics as a Continuum

The philosophy of beauty and aesthetics is one of the most intriguing fields in all Philosophy precisely because it defies attempts of final and clear-cut definitions. Ranging from the ancient criteria of order, symmetry, and unity, as well as the concept of mimesis to the various Enlightenment, approaches characterized by individual subjectivity and common sense, the question of what constitutes beauty and the arts is essentially one that must be considered within the respective temporal and historical context.

Given the numerous efforts to delineate the field over the past three millenia, the only aspect which appears to be certain is that our approach towards art is uncertain, an incessant process, and rather a continuum than a synchronic undertaking. It is, therefore, safe to say that our attitude towards beauty and aesthetics will continue to evolve, develop and change further so that our artistic and aesthetic concept will be different yet again in, say, 50 years from now.

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