Art and Aesthetics in Action

Written by: Professor Severyn T. Bruyn

Postmodernists have a point about aesthetics failing as a discipline, but the problem rests in its modern form. The subject critics talk about is better described as “aestheticism” and that should be eliminated, not aesthetics. Aestheticism is a set of beliefs about art that does not represent the scope and diversity of the subject. It is for the privileged and should be studied in sociology as a system of beliefs.
Aesthetics should stay as a university discipline. It helps people develop discipline in the arts, but it should also have a larger place in society. I think the field should be more expansive and self-reflective, not fixed on a principle, or a theory, or a set of theories.

We should promote the sharing of ideas on art as an experience at all class levels, and with all races and every ethnic group. We should advance the practice and discussion of art in every community.

The arts and the field of aesthetics are hard to define for good reason.

One reason is because the language is different from other disciplines, like philosophy or physics. The language of a work of art, for example, is in its quality, which will speak for itself. The magnificence or the eloquence of a work of art may go beyond words; no interpretation is possible. Then, some people can respond to the quality in a work of art, while others cannot. Yet, much of our understanding and appreciation depends upon sensitivity and culture, something that is cultivated.

So, aesthetics should be supported even with ambiguity in the subject. Many scholars say that “ambiguity” in art is not bad, indeed good. The ambiguity stands in tension with the emphasis we give to the “precision” in science. The issues here are about the nature of knowledge and they require attention.
The philosopher F.S.C. Northrop argues that the West has inherited a culture dominated by empiricism and rationalism. The arts are underdeveloped in this culture. People in this western culture lose the language of feeling that supplies a greater depth to life. In the East, people support the legend and the myth that go with the arts and the feelings they represent. Northrop argues that one culture is not better than the other, rather, the development of culture needs balance between extremes. 

The cultivation of the arts today then adds balance to a society that might prize science too much. The advancement of aesthetics should encourage people to practice the arts, indeed, encourage everyone to experience art and make judgements about it. The word “art” in this sense is that subject we decide to frame for study and appreciation.

Today the arts have a new role to play in society. And this is the point.

The arts should move farther out into the public commons. All people should render it definition and develop the subject. All people should practice it.

Grass roots efforts have been underway for some time to advance art through adult education programs, but I think that more could be done. Art has higher purposes as a public enterprise.

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