Art and Aesthetics in Action
Written by: Professor Severyn T. Bruyn
A Work in Progress
The following draft is for local critique and discussion.
A Critique of Art and Aesthetics
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that examines the nature of art and our experience of it. It emerged during the 18th century in Europe and developed in England as philosophers grouped together such fields as poetry, sculpture, music, and dance. They classified all the arts into one category and called them les beaux arts or the fine arts.
Philosophers began to say that reason by itself could not explain beauty. Beauty may have some rational properties, such as “order, symmetry, and proportion,” but it is really an experience not explained by reason alone. It is understood through intuition and experienced with human feeling and emotion. An aesthetic experience could include a mixture of feeling, such as pleasure, rage, grief, suffering, and joy.
Immanuel Kant interpreted aesthetics as a field giving priority to form over function. Beauty, he said, was independent of any particular figure with which it was attached. A horse might be beautiful apart from whether it raced well. He asserted that knowledge is not something that is created merely by outside institutions but also by our natural constitution. The seat of judgement now moved from medieval reasoning toward the idea that human intuition could be a source of knowing. And aesthetics began to develop as a university discipline.
But in the minds of many critics today aesthetics does not belong as a university discipline. Art historians have claimed that there is no such thing as art, there are only artists. And postmodernists question whether aesthetics should exist as a university subject, whether it is a legitimate inquiry. As we shall see, some would deny that any universal criteria exist for judging art in all cultures and historical epochs.
Many questions are under scrutiny by postmodernists and other critics.
What is art? What is an aesthetic experience? How can an aesthetic value be distinguished? What is so important about this experience? Why does an object become beautiful? How do we define beauty? How is art to be judged? How is a judgement the expression of an epoch? Is art independent of politics? How is a work of art produced?
Is aesthetics a legitimate discipline for the university? This is the subject of our inquiry. We will suggest that the answers come slowly as we learn more about our nature and the universe.
First, we will look at a critique of aesthetics from the standpoint of race, class, and gender. The critique below proposes to eliminate aesthetics as a subject in the university.
Second, we will examine how a new aesthetics could be constructed as a university discipline. We will set forth a basis for its new agenda. The agenda begins with what we call theoretical and general aesthetics.
Third, we will conclude that art is a vital discipline for development in civil society.
I The Current Critique
Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?
Postmodernists and other critics believe that aesthetics should be eliminated as a university discipline and give many reasons for their argument.
First, they argue that each type of art (e.g. painting, ballet, sculpture, music, and poetry) is so different that no one theory could explain them all. Each type has its own unique expression and its own principles for aesthetic judgement. All the arts cannot be explained faultlessly under one category.
Second, they argue that aesthetics is elitist because it claims and acts to set the foundation for all art. But no single group could be the judge of all art. Art is uniquely generated in social contexts with distinct values for people who are different in their ethnicity, race, and gender. People develop a special aesthetic on their terms -- like a Black Aesthetic, Feminist Aesthetic, Native American Aesthetic, African Aesthetic, and an Asian Aesthetic. There cannot be – and should not be -- an overall aesthetic.
Put another way, no single exalted idea or master theme can comprehend the artistic experience of all people. Each group’s artistic work is based on its own criteria of what is art. With one master discipline, each group becomes a “minority aesthetic,” a “subcategory of the accomplished field.”
Mary Devereaux suggests that feminist aesthetics is a fundamentally new approach to the field. A feminist aesthetics cannot simply add theories to the old aesthetics. To take feminism seriously requires rethinking basic concepts and recasting the history of the discipline." In particular, feminist theory involves a rejection of "deeply entrenched assumptions about the universal value of art and aesthetic experience." Feminism is a new paradigm, which requires examining to what extent, if any, the old model of aesthetics and the new are commensurable.
Feminists have been unhappy with aesthetics for a long time. They note how white males formulated the norms for beauty in the 18th century. Aesthetics was designed for the “man of taste,” i.e. intended for the “cultivated man.” A gentleman could by such norms scrutinize an art object and thereby know what was “excellent,” understand what was beautiful and what was not.
Clyde R. Taylor, a black film scholar and literary/cultural essayist, argues that aesthetics deceives students into thinking that one worldview could explain all art. Art historians, philosophers, and anthropologists should not think that they could “absorb” all views. It is presumptuous to assume that a general aesthetics can interpret all art, at all times, everywhere.
Taylor asks, How could art critics who are born and raised in Europe judge sculptures created by people born and raised in Africa? How could anyone interpret the magnificent Kisongi-Ethiopian grave sculptures outside their native setting? How can anyone interpret such sculptures placed out of context in a British museum? Native sculptures should first of all be viewed and interpreted in their original environment.
Taylor argues that if you were to see the Kisongi-Ethiopian grave sculptures in their own setting, you would see that the meaning “dramatically overflows the presumptions of aestheticism.” Anthropologists should stop trying to reconcile these “inventions of early societies” with the modern logic of aesthetics.
The revolutionary outcries of the late 20th century, “Black is beautiful” and “Fat is beautiful,” began the deconstruction of modern aesthetics, but the work is not done. The elimination of these old aesthetic norms continues, hopefully to end the deception begun in the 18th and 19th centuries. Taylor says:
I would recommend abandoning it [aesthetics] altogether in the conviction that the cultural-humanist goals of feminism might best be achieved without aesthetic baggage. Whatever is “lost” by the abandonment of aestheticism would be more than regained in the wider pursuit of cultural liberation.
In sum, critics argue that there is no table of universal norms. And there is no basis for establishing them. The problem is not simply its elitism that de-legitimizes the aesthetic. It has no conceptual foundation. It has no “universal norms and values.” Without universal criteria for judgement, there is no discipline.
Now a wider argument begins against aestheticism.
The Political Factor: Nationalism
Critics argue that aesthetics takes a political form that is repressive. It advances with the power of big nations over the small nations and it sets the norms. It keeps nations from developing their own norms and way of life.
Frantz Fanon once described how the European aesthetic acted like an “internal psychic policeman” in African colonies. The educational system in Algeria, he said, transferred “the structure of moral reflexes” to the colony. It did not honor local art. Its purpose was to cultivate local respect for “the established order.” Under colonial rule, European standards for art created an atmosphere of inhibition. Art taught in the schools eased the task of formal control by the French over the colony.
Now there is globalization. Critics today speak of multinational corporations spreading uniformity in art and culture around the world. People are tuning their radios, TVs, and computers everywhere into western music, stories, and films. This is a worldwide ‘commodification’ of culture, a homogenization of values degrading local art.
Critics see a great irony in all this.
Professionals claim aesthetics is a discipline above politics and beyond ideology. They assume that art can be judged by universal criteria. But the evidence is not there. There are no universal criteria. And without them, a general aesthetics should not be taught in the university.
The Religious Factor: Universalism
There is more to say. In France, socialist critic Régis Debray today argues that art is supplanting the “decadent institutions of religion.” Art is spoken of as a “universal” in a desperate attempt to find unity in the world. Art has become sacred, replacing religion.
In ancient times, Debray says, the god was sacred in the temple. In the classical age, the king was holy in his palace. In modern times, the people’s representatives were sacrosanct in their parliaments. In the postmodern age, which he calls Late Modernity, art has taken its hallowed place in museums and exhibitions.
The “religions” of the world found their sources for the sacred in the clan, the tribe, and the city, the nation and civilization. Now Art is proposed as a global religion embracing all gods, styles, and civilizations. Debray argues,
Debray says finally:
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu agrees. He describes this bourgeois “disposition” toward aesthetics as class based, lacking universality, affordable by people who live above the “imperatives of daily survival.” The aesthetic disposition of the Renaissance distinguished the privileged and promoted their view of art, and now this domain continues to oppress people around the world.
In conclusion, critics make a strong argument. They do not believe that the aesthetic experience is a universal part of human nature. All statements are ironic; no statement can claim identity with all possible truth. Aesthetics as a discipline should therefore be eliminated because of its universalistic pretensions. Art interpretation can then move back into what is called its “indeterminate multiplicity.” Postmodernists want people to appreciate the richness of invention that is possible in a world not constricted by “Euro-bourgeois taste norms.” Politics should not – and cannot --exercise control over meaning in every human expression.
With the onslaught of these criticisms about the politics of art, aesthetics is at best a “local theory,” not a general theory. It is not a discipline that belongs in general education. In this cauldron of criticism, aesthetics becomes a discourse of many schools of thought with no general basis for judgement.
Is this the end of the story?
II Dialectics: A Perspective without Foundation
Dialectics is a perspective in philosophy that considers the problem of differences and contradictions. It encourages criticism, and it is a basis from which to assess the problem. Below we note a few scholars who take this dialectical perspective on aesthetics and art.
The British literary critic Terry Eagleton writes about the aesthetic:
Sociologist Arnold Hauser says art is dialectical. Art is like culture as it is based on contrast, opposition, and contradiction.
Spontaneity and resistance, invention and convention: dynamic impulses born of experience break down or expand forms, and fixed, inert, stable forms condition, obstruct, and enhance each other. It is the riddle of Kant’s pigeon – the atmospheric pressure which seems to hinder its flight is what makes it possible. Artistic expression comes about not in spite of, but thanks to, the resistance which convention offers to it. The artist must possess a formal language, which is not too flexible, so that others will understand him and he can understand himself.
Hauser sees art as an example of Hegel’s Aufhebung: a simultaneous development and destruction of “valid conventions, symbols, and schemata.” He argues that without seeing this creative-destructive process, no understanding of art is possible. Art has its role in producing a continuous “hypertrophy of forms,” he goes on, which is part of the human condition.
We will begin with this perspective. We think that art is part of the battle for emancipation while it remains equally a prisoner of institutions. If aesthetics is to develop as a legitimate field for discourse, it must speak to its politics of gender, race, and class.
First, we will visit the established theory. Then, we consider a new agenda.
II Theories of Art
What is art? The answer has puzzled many thinkers for many centuries. Our review below is cursory, but essential to start our discussion. Our focus below is on western thought; later we introduce views from eastern thought and other outlooks to build a new aesthetics. We begin with the ancient Greeks.
Mimetic theories. Art is an imitation of nature.
Plato said that art makes a copy of nature. This would seem simple enough, but it is really complex. A “copy” can mean a “re-presentation” of nature or an interpretation of nature. Plato argued that artists make copies of nature, but nature is a copy of great Forms. Forms refer to great Ideas or Principles hidden from sight, indeed, behind the creation of things as we perceive them. In other words, the things that people perceive in the material world are shadows of great Ideas that cannot be witnessed by human eyes.
Aristotle revised this notion slightly. In the art of playwriting, for example, a specific work of art represented a higher idea. A tragic play exemplified the more elevated idea of someone falling from a higher to a lower estate. The play gives particularity to this abstract idea. Aristotle also saw the higher Form in nature itself, as the form of an oak tree is hidden in its seed.
Shakespeare correspondingly suggested that art imitates nature. Hamlet’s speech referred to the purpose of a play as “ … to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”
We will also revisit this notion of imitation when we consider how scientists view the universe today.
Expressionist theories: Art represents the inner life of the artist.
Leo Tolstoy said that art evokes a feeling to be shared “by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words.”
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
Many artists are in concord with this theory. The nineteenth-century expressionists and post-impressionists (e.g.Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Munch) took this position as they opposed the Realist and Impressionist tendency to copy nature.
Idealist theories: Art is based on intuition.
Benedetto Croce said that art is pure “intuition,” that is, a “feeling that is given some form.” Art is based on “inspiration” from which a representational form is produced. In philosophical sense, art is an act of the spirit, going beyond the power of reason and the materials themselves.
Psychological theories: Art is symbolic of a hidden nature.
Art is an expression of concealed desires. For example, Freud argued that art was stimulated by the desire to win honor, power, riches, and fame. So, art could be the expression of neurosis. These psychological theories assume that the writer, poet, and painter – like everyone else -- disguise their emotions. Then, they project them into their art.
Hermeneutic theories: Art is an expression of the artist’s intent and social setting.
Frederich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey emphasized the intent of the artist. It is essential to get the artist’s own interpretation, they argue. The right interpretation of a “text” -- which refers to any symbol that requiring interpretation such as a poem, a painting, a novel, or a score of music – then demands reconstructing the historical setting and the artist’s original scheme.
Formalist theories: Art is an organic unity, self-contained, self-justifying.
Monroe Beardsley and William Wimsatt argue that the intention of the artist is not available with any accuracy or even desirable as a standard for judging a work of art. The interpretation should be on the form of the work itself, not based on the artist’s motive or the historical setting. The meaning of a work of art is in its form -- the relationships between the work’s elements, such as the combination of colors, the clarity of the words, pitch of the sounds, and the nature of the rhythms. Roger Fry and Clyde Bell argued this position in music theory and Eduard Hanslick made the same argument in visual arts.
Observer theories: Art is in the eye of the beholder.
The meaning of art is not in the form (or structure) of the art nor is it in the creator’s intent. It is found in the response of the onlookers and audience. The viewers are the real judges of art. A work of art may have its historical meaning, but each observer is the real and final interpreter.
Beauty theories: Art is based on a sense of beauty.
Theories of art as beauty were popular in late 19th century Europe, partly a reaction to utilitarian beliefs and “the ugly industrial age.” Many philosophers still support the idea that art is grounded in a sense of beauty – or that art exists for the sake of beauty.
The Beautiful, contemplated in its essentials, that is, in kind and not in degree, is that in which the many, still seen as many, becomes one.
Pragmatic theories: Art is explained by its function and consequence.
A work of art is explained not by its beauty or form, but by its effect on the audience or its creator. In this sense, art is many things. Art is an escape from reality. Art achieves an ideal. Art is a source of pleasure and delight. Art promotes the community. Art is instructive, didactic, or propagandistic. Art is therapeutic, i.e. a mode of healing. Art is a means of communication.
All these theories carry truth. But they also illustrate the problem of a complex subject. Art cannot be defined by categories that separate its dynamics in society. We shall argue that defining art by “categories” is part of the problem.
III Building a New Aesthetics
We want to build on these theories but correct the problem. A dialectical perspective includes these old categories but interprets their dynamics. The purpose of art in this view is to create an aesthetic field that is conscious of politics and related to emancipation. And we want to speak to the problem of universals.
The philosopher D.W. Gotshalk points to the dynamic interaction between categories based on universal criteria. He sees these criteria in terms of the interaction of materials, form, expression, and the function of art in society. For art criticism, each of these aspects of art has its own dynamics, but they are also powerfully interactive, and they need to support one another.
In other words, Gotshalk proposes that art criticism should be based on the action within and between these old categories. As we shall see, his position offers us a basis for starting a new agenda for aesthetics.
I summarize below a few of Gotshalk’s points about his criteria for judging art. We start with the material dimension, which avoids the error of idealism.
The materials of the artist – the pigments, tones, timbre, marble, etc. – are part of the artist’s tools, and usually involved with the artist’s intent. The proper resolution in the differences in these materials (as red vs. blue in painting, or as faster vs. slower in music) is critical to understanding a work of art. In painting, pigments have different hues and values of intensity that must be brought together to create an aesthetic experience. In music, tones contrast in pitch, timbre, and volume and they must find an aesthetic connection. In sculpture, marble has its contrarieties in grain, color, texture, and sheen, etc. In creating a work of art these contrasting qualities must join aesthetically.
Gotshalk moves to make a connection between the materials and other categories such as its form and expression. He gives many illustrations that we will bypass, but the aesthetic use of the “tools” is of course not enough. We need criteria on the aesthetics of the form to take the next step in judgement.
The form of the art faces the problem of tension and its resolution. Space and time, causality and teleology, are universal forms, he argues like Plato, which are “the structure of human existence.” Art enhances these forms. These universal (“cosmic”) forms are the basis for creating the specific artistic form, which is a “purification and vivification on a small scale of them.” The task of art is to give the forms some “intrinsic perceptual value” and to generate the aesthetic experience. Then, what are the principles that express these “forms?”
Gotshalk says that the form of every work expresses a combination of principles. The principles include harmony, balance, centrality, and development. A work of art – a poem, a play, a painting, and a sculpture -- exhibits some unity based on these principles, which are universal to art. Gotshalk illustrates in detail how such principles operate, and I summarize only a few of these points to offer the flavor of his argument.
Harmony, for example, achieves a unity by recurrence in the artwork. Balance achieves unity by contrast; certain items oppose and equalize each other. (The opposing items form a system of neutralizing tensions to produce that unity, and the dynamics remain.) The principles of balance and harmony are the reverse of each other, as balance emphasizes “diversity in unity,” and harmony emphasizes “unity in diversity.”
The principle of centrality then becomes evident when “an ensemble of items is so connected that one item or group is given aesthetic dominance over the others,” which remain important but subordinate to it. Many great artworks illustrate this principle, e.g., Giotto’s “Madonna Enthroned” (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) with its dominant mother and child; in music a certain tone or chord may dominate over the others, e.g. the chord for oboes in the third measure of the four-measure figure that opens Wagner’s Tristan Prelude.
The principle of development may supercede “centrality” in its aesthetic value as in a short story that does not have a high point but reveals progressively a character, a mood, or a situation. Development thus contrasts to the other principles. It is based on novelty as opposed to harmony’s dependence on repetition; it is based on disequilibrium as opposed to balance, which is based on equilibrium. Again, centrality is based on hierarchical order, but the principle of development is an arrangement of items as prior and posterior, not as superior and inferior.
This is a quick summary of a rather complex discussion on principles. The four principles of harmony, balance, centrality, and development have their derivatives, such as recurrence, similarity, gradation, variation, modulation, symmetry, contrast, opposition, equilibrium, rhythm, measure, dominance, climax, hierarchy, and progression. They are the chief principles of form that are used by artists for the enhancement of perception.
Now “form” must connect dialectically with “expression” in the work.
By “expression” in a work of art Gotshalk means “its great wealth of content – the feelings, ideas, character, and personality – lying behind the material surface” and within the structural form. The artist introduces expression consciously or unconsciously. Principles in the use of “materials” and “form” should then support that expression. For example, in dance a nimble body is needed to express eloquent sensations of weight and lightness, thrust, rising and falling, floating, soaring and sinking. In music, a careful combination of instruments is needed to express sparkle, gaiety, swiftness, melancholy, yearning, or uncertainty and power. In painting, certain colors and texture are needed in the right combination to express tenderness, bleakness, or loveliness. The right form in a marble statue is needed to express coldness, grace, or twisted rigor. And so on.
Lastly, the dynamics between the materials, form, and the expression of art must be assessed in relation to its function in society. Gotshalk’s analysis is important here, but critics can fault it easily. I think that Adorno and other members of The Frankfurt School examine the connection of art to society with more accuracy. We will return to this aspect later.
But we should anticipate here some of the political issues that lie ahead. Gotshalk’s principles stand solidly in the field of aesthetics, but there is more to say about art in terms of subcultures, including those of gender, race, class, and nationality. Each culture requires study for how aesthetic principles apply in their context. This means linking aesthetics with sociology and anthropology to study the variable norms.
The classic principle of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has a major role to play in this new agenda. The “beholder” is not just an individual, but groups where important bonds and norms are created. Sociologists study this variability through qualitative studies. As we shall see, beauty can be virtually anything if you have the eyes to see it. But seeing beauty requires entering into the life of the group. And this involves the method of participant observation.
Thus, we begin to anticipate a few of the issues. Our question now is whether it is possible to develop a new aesthetics.
I think that an entirely new field of aesthetics should be constructed in a way that connects with political issues. To deal with the politics of art and advance its emancipating role, we must address its connection with the university.
IV A New Aesthetics
We will look at three domains for a new field for aesthetic studies. First, we will examine what we call “theoretical aesthetics.” This domain connects art with university subjects in fresh ways, notably for our purposes with philosophy, and the physical and social sciences. Second, we will examine how a “general aesthetics” brings this interdisciplinary outlook to the fine arts. Third, we will see how aesthetics is a subject of everyday life, not just an arcane topic for the elite or just for faculties and students in universities. It should address the politics of gender, race, class, and nations.
The direction we take in these different domains will require some readers to suspend belief about what is possible. It is like imagining how an organism would be created in a universe of molecules. The transition could be that difficult. A new aesthetics is about building an entirely new place for art in the life of the university and society.
Notice. Art is the grammar of life. There is an art to everything. There is an art to living on the street safely, an art to running a school well. There is an art to raising children sensitively, and managing a business with intelligence. And there is an art to the study of every subject in the university. In this study of art in the university we look at theoretical aesthetics.