Chapter 13: Aesthetics

Issues in Aesthetics: How to Judge Art?

Christopher Schneck

We’ve all had the argument with our good friends about whether our favorite TV show is good. Say you watched the most recent season of Game of Thrones and want to argue with your friends who say it’s a terrible season – how would you go about doing so? Do you argue with them on the basis that you like the CGI characters, the writing, the allegories the story expresses (if it does), what? It can feel really difficult to discuss these things because they are so close to us. It also often feels difficult because we lack the concepts to effectively convince another person why something we like is something they should also like. Sometimes we make appeals to morals, appeals to objectivity, or even force. The idea that others should like things we like has its roots in an idea of taste – if we like something, it has a quality everyone could like.

Within philosophy, aesthetics is the study of beauty. This study is done especially in art, though consideration of beauty solely within the domain of art was only a recent development of philosophical considerations of beauty. While aesthetics is mostly preoccupied with art, there are other areas of experience where we also care about beauty, such as in nature or mathematics. Rather than a moral claim about what others should be like, judgments of taste appeal to beauty, a quality of the object others can also appreciate.

This chapter will deal primarily with judgments of taste. You might wonder why we don’t begin with the artworks themselves and discuss whether something is good art or not. This is a good question to ask – the difficulty lies in what presuppositions we have about what we like and how we can discuss those things we like. What does it mean to like CSI: Miami more than Deadwood, or does it mean anything at all? Or, what if we like going to the Opera rather than watching Deadwood, is one more artistic than the other? What you will see is that many of these distinctions rely first on our conception of beauty and after that on how we distinguish our taste from others’.

To judge different works of art means to rely on a few basic concepts that describe our experience, especially the concepts of beauty and taste. A thing is beautiful if it attracts us and gives us pleasure, and we exercise taste in identifying the things that please us and differentiating them from other things. This means that we’re not just talking about cathedrals or supermodels, but a more general use of beauty in which it is always the ultimate object of our desires. The beautiful object is the object that gives us pleasure. To exercise our taste and judge art is to judge objects that give us pleasure, and therefore to make judgments about beauty. Though we now question whether artworks are primarily beautiful objects this is still done by making judgments about what we like, we may just have a different name for what it is we like. These are judgments of taste.

As a specific subdivision of philosophical inquiry, aesthetics only dates to the 18th century. The emergence of a separate discipline of philosophy dedicated to art developed out of the romantic period, and was especially important as a reaction to the enlightenment philosophy of the time. The term ‘aesthetics’ was chosen for the philosophy of art to emphasize that not all knowledge is scientific or factual, but that there are independent ways of knowing the world through the experience of art.

Instead, some knowledge is aesthetic and pertains to our feelings about the world. You might consider, for instance, what Homer’s Odyssey teaches you about being an individual. Most of what you learn from classics like Homer aren’t given to you in the form of deductions about the concept of an individual. Instead, through learning the motifs of the story and applying them to your own experiences, you learn how to be an individual without the need for any deductive knowledge about the concept ‘individual’.


Prior to this division between romantic and enlightenment philosophy about artistic knowledge in the 18th century, the ancient Greeks considered beauty to be the ultimate value of cosmos. The romantics stressed non-scientific qualities of art, like feeling and creativity. The enlightenment thinkers stressed the proportion, order, and complexity of artwork as aspects of its technical and mathematical perfection. The enlightenment thinkers were largely carrying on the traditions of ancient and classical aesthetics. For ancient Greek thinkers like Plato, beauty was an effect of order, which meant that properly rational things should be beautiful. For example, the use of perfect proportions in music has long been heralded as a standard of beauty, such as in the case of Bach’s counterpoint or Stravinsky’s polyrhythmia. In these examples different notes work together to form a harmony which creates a beautiful sound, and this is attributed in many cases to the proportion and mathematical elegance of the written composition.

Leading up to the 18th century, most philosophers agreed with this Platonic model of beauty. Ideas about what was beautiful remained pretty consistent from the ancient Greeks all the way through the Enlightenment period in the graph above. The more rational something was, the more beautiful it was. In this way, beauty was an aspect of the truth of the thing under consideration. This is very different from the romantic idea of beauty. For the romantics, a beautiful thing wasn’t something ordered and rational. In fact, it often seemed to be the opposite – beautiful things make you feel their beauty, they are inexact and messy, and they often depend on your own subjective experience.

The historical difference between the enlightenment philosophers’ objective view of beauty and the romantic philosophers’ subjective view of beauty isn’t just a historical point. That difference is a good fault line to show what the typical differences are in philosophical conceptions of beauty. The division between these groups of philosophers motivates many discussions within aesthetics distinct from simply the idea of beauty, as well. As you will see in this chapter, many of the discussions of artistic value depend on this key difference between subjective and objective value, and how it maps onto other considerations within aesthetics. Examples include:

  • is beauty natural or manmade?
  • is art representative, expressionistic, or reflective?
  • does art have objective meaning or does it simply exist for personal pleasure?
  • is the meaning of an artwork determined by the artist’s intention or is it determined by its cultural and historical context?

The Idea of Beauty

Before we consider artistic beauty specifically, we should understand what makes something beautiful. Some important considerations for understanding beauty are: the relationship between form and content, whether beauty is objective or subjective, and whether beauty is a natural quality or made by humans.

While it’s natural to want to consider either the artwork in itself or our individual experience of it, we should first clarify some basic aspects of the artwork. When we try to communicate why something is beautiful to us, we often have a personal feeling about the content of the work. Our favorite TV show might really speak to us: our ambitions, our identity, or it might mirror some representation of how we see the world. We don’t often think about how these representations are presented to us as part of the pleasure we experience. In other words, we don’t often think about the form of the art we like, just the stuff we find pleasurable in the artwork.

However, form plays a big role in the presentation of an artwork. When we refer to the form of an artwork, we mean the composition or techniques used to create the artwork. Form is a manner of portraying the content of an artwork. Content refers to the artwork’s subject matter or its meaning. So painting is a form of artwork, as opposed to other forms of artwork like sculpture or film. We can also say that different ways of applying paint—spray paint for a mural vs. traditional brushstrokes for a Renaissance painting—are different forms of painting.


Van Gogh’s paintings (here Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and a Rising Moon) illustrates the difference in texture different techniques can create. The form of painting – Van Gogh’s brushstrokes – has an immediate effect on how you receive the content. The content, the wheat fields, appear to take on a different meaning when portrayed in Van Gogh’s painting than in a traditional oil landscape painting.

For some thinkers, beauty is a product of the perfection of an artwork’s form. A good example of this is the classical sculptures of ancient Greece, or the previously mentioned composers’ music. For these forms of art, we often feel they express a perfect harmony of parts, and that what the sculpture or the music is about is relatively meaningless. In this way, we judge these artworks according to their form, rather than their content. Stravinsky’s polyrhythmia could be his attempt to portray the complexity of life, or it could be his attempt to represent a Greek myth, or it could simply be an attempt to create a beautiful harmony. In any of these cases, though, it doesn’t change the beauty of his musical composition. The artwork is formally beautiful, though its content may or may not be beautiful.

For many of us, it’s hard to think about something being beautiful in this way. This formalist view of beauty grew out of ancient Greek philosophy, and was heavily influential on considerations of beauty up through the Renaissance, but it doesn’t seem to hold much sway over us nowadays. Often, it feels like we are drawn to artworks because of the content represented in them. This could mean that we like feeling represented in an artwork, that it gives us an identity or that it speaks to our personal commitments, or any number of other psychological reasons. While some artworks seems to be beautiful simply by virtue of their perfection of the form of their art, others seem to only be beautiful by virtue of how they personally move us. This distinction in art, the distinction between form and content, will also map very well onto another dichotomy within aesthetics: whether beauty is subjective or objective in nature. This problem often breaks down like this: if beauty is a product of the form of an artwork, it is an objective quality of the artwork. Thus, if beauty is a product of the content of an artwork, it is a subjective quality we experience about the artwork. Though this distinction is way too cut-and-dry, we’ll see that it does capture much of the spirit of our upcoming considerations on whether beauty resides in an artwork or in the person viewing the artwork.

Objective views on beauty

The first view we will consider is the objective view of beauty: beauty is a quality of the object. In this view, beauty is a quality that exists independent of any individual person. This means that ‘beauty’ is something that naturally exists, independent of any individual person’s desires. A beautiful thing expresses beauty insofar it meets objective criteria that allow us to put it in the class of ‘beautiful’ things. The renaissance painters we discussed earlier are a good example for this view, since their paintings are beautiful insofar as they express beautiful proportions or forms. These paintings don’t move us the same way our favorite comics or movies do, but we can see that they are beautiful, even if it has little to do with our own interests.

Often, objective beauty is an aspect of the form of the object, rather than the content. People who subscribe to this view are called formalist. Again, in the renaissance painters the subjects of the paintings (men, women, children, goats, apples, etc.) are not themselves beautiful. The content in these paintings, their subjects, matter very little. We would hardly compare supermodels today with the Mona Lisa! Rather, the proportion of the paintings approaches a mathematical and formal perfection that those painters called ‘beautiful’.

This brings up an important question about the view that beauty is objective: is beauty a product of the order or proportion of the thing? This is a difficult view to sign on with. This would mean that the content of the artwork doesn’t matter: neither the characters of the novels we read, nor the superheroes in our favorite comics, nor the subjects portrayed in a painting, nor even the lyrics in our favorite songs! Even though these aspects of our favorite art seem like the most important part, the formalist would argue that they do not meaningfully contribute to art.

It’s also possible that objective beauty isn’t wholly dependent on the form of the art. With increasing complexity, something becomes increasingly beautiful. A good example of this is a Gothic cathedral – many of the striking features of these churches are due to their overwhelming complexity. This view is often tied to scientific or mathematical concepts of beauty, as well. The flying buttress on the aforementioned gothic church is beautiful precisely because of the complexity of its architecture and its mathematical dimensions. Shortly, when we discuss the sublime, we will see that this is a major factor in determining whether things are beautiful because they are too complex for us to understand in everyday terms.


You can see in the Darmstadt Madonna that every part of the image is constructed to fit into sectors according to a pre-planned proportion, according to those three main vertical lines that trisect the image. In this painting, the Madonna is less important than the proportion of the image.

Our last consideration for objective beauty should be whether there is beauty in itself. Broadly, the question we should ask is “Is beauty a quality independent of the thing that expresses it?” If we answer “yes”, then beauty must be something that exists independent of beautiful things. While it may be tempting to say that we can just generalize from specific beautiful objects to beauty in general, this would not give us an objective beauty. If beauty is an objective quality, there must be some independent standard to measure specific beautiful things by; we should have some way of relating the Mona Lisa and a Gothic cathedral and measuring whether one is more beautiful than the other.

Subjective views on beauty

As we just discussed, much of history has consigned beauty to an objective existence separate from our individual experience. This may seem, however, totally alien to your own personal experience. Lots of us think of art as something that has a personal effect on us, or pertains to our individual taste. This is because we’ve become used to viewing art as a subjective experience. If beauty is subjective, it must mean that beauty is a quality of the individual’s experience rather than a quality of the artwork. There are a few different ways we can talk about subjective beauty: as an aspect of taste, pleasure, and entertainment. Since these concepts rely on the individual’s subjectivity, they are very different from our previous considerations of the object itself via its form, order, and complexity.

As we previously discussed, the objective view of beauty was largely dominant from the ancient through late medieval period. With the enlightenment of the 17th century came an increasing emphasis on the individual person and their experience, rather than how that individual fit into the objective picture of the world. Accordingly, judgments of taste became one of the main ways to talk about pleasure, and therefore beauty.

While the enlightenment thinkers pushed for more consideration of individual subjective experience, much of their considerations of beauty still gave priority to objective considerations of beauty, such as order and proportion.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that subjective experience really became the centerpiece of aesthetic consideration. The 18th century birthed the romantic period, a reaction against the objectivism and scientism of the enlightenment. Specifically, the romantics focused on the reality of subjective experience through the individual’s passion. This means that rather than order and reason, the romantics were concerned to elaborate the reality of an individual’s life through their emotions, attitudes about the world, and desires.

So, there are a few questions we can ask about the subjective view of beauty. In this view, we take it for granted that all beautiful experiences are a quality of the subject’s experience of a thing. The thing experienced (be it artwork, person, mountain, etc.) doesn’t have any beauty in itself, instead it is only beautiful insofar as an individual ascribes beauty to it. For this reason, it is hard to tell what beauty is an experience of – personal taste, pleasure, or if it is simply an aspect of the entertainment value of the thing. It also makes it difficult to determine whether or not that thing is really beautiful: if I can’t stand Game of Thrones but my friends love it, who is correct? If beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, then are we both correct, and Game of Thrones is both ugly and beautiful? Without an independent standard it’s difficult to tell if someone else is wrong, or if beauty is even worth talking about at all.

One version of the subjective argument is that all individual attributions of beauty have to do with the individual’s taste. Taste is an attitude we have toward our experiences which informs us feeling pleasure or displeasure. This means that our individual taste informs whether we will feel pleasure when looking at something. If we find that experiencing the object is pleasurable, then we say that it is beautiful. This view, of course, shares a lot with social constructionism. Social constructionism is the view that all values exist simply because individuals in a society have agreed upon an arbitrary value and elevated it above others based on that agreement. “Beauty” is just a convention, or a way of referring to an object that gives us pleasure, which is the important part of the experience.

Our judgments about taste are also something inherently communicable. When we say “Oh, I like that!” about a painting at an art gallery, we’re not merely informing ourselves. We want to share our taste, and to discuss the merits or demerits of the thing we’re experiencing. Similarly, if beauty is only a convention for referring to things we find pleasurable, this convention must come from somewhere. Often, this somewhere is our upbringing or education, and this also has to do with our ability to communicate the things we find pleasurable with other people who are similarly predisposed to us (whether of the same class, or identity, and so on).

So, beauty can either be a quality independent of the thing, or it can be something we subjectively experience about the thing. In the first case, as an independent objective quality, beauty must make up part of the existence of the thing. The beautiful thing is really beautiful because we are experiencing something about that thing itself. In the second case, as a subjective quality of our experience, beauty isn’t a real aspect of the thing at all. Instead, beauty is only part of the appearance of the thing; in fact, what it is in itself doesn’t matter at all! If beauty is only part of the appearance of the thing, then it’s just a property of our subjective experiences, such as a particular feeling we have about it or a reaction we have to it. Since we like the artwork, it must be beautiful.

In this section we have discussed the two major views on what a beautiful thing is: whether beauty is an objective quality of the thing, or whether beauty is a subjective quality of our experience of the thing. For the objective view, aspects of the form of the thing often matter most, such as order and proportion. For the subjective view, aspects of the content of the thing often matter more. The content of an artwork is often what we attach emotions to, such as beautiful scenery or a tragic scene. The form can also influence our subjective attitudes toward the artwork, though this often depends more on the artwork than our individual attitude. For the subjectivist, how I identify with the thing and want to communicate that to others (especially others that see it the way I do) is what makes up the beauty of it. These two views are not mutually exclusive, and in the history of philosophy many thinkers have grabbed a little from the objective view and a little from the subjective view. However, this distinction is helpful for understanding why the existence of beauty and the distinction between form and content are so important for other considerations about art specifically. We will now move on to discuss aesthetic experience as it pertains to art specifically, rather than the experience of beauty generally.

Study questions

  1. True or False: The romantics were reacting against the enlightenment philosophers’ idea of beauty.
  2. True or False: The Ancient and Classical philosophers share similar views about beauty.
  3. True or False: Beauty is only subjective.
  4. True or False: Formalists are objectivists about beauty.
  5. True or False: Judgments of taste are central to subjectivists’ account of beauty.
  6. True or False: The artwork’s subject matter or meaning is called its form.
  7. True or False: The artwork’s subject matter or meaning is called its content.
  8. True or False: A social constructionist would only think Van Gogh’s paintings are beautiful if the rest of society does.
  9. True or False: Romantic theories about art can be called subjectivist, due to their reliance on individual feeling produced by an artwork.
  10. True or False: Enlightenment theories about art can be called formalist, since they rely heavily on the technical, proportional, and mathematical perfection of an artwork.

For deeper thought

  1. Can someone be an objectivist about beauty, but not about art? Is the value of beauty distinct from the value of an artwork?
  2. Can people desire non-beautiful things according to the definition of beauty given above?
  3. Can we judge others’ taste if we are objectivists about art – ie, can we say someone has bad taste if they dislike a piece of artwork we think is beautiful because of its formal qualities (like the Darmstadt Madonna)?

What are works of art?

Often, when we think of beauty, we think of great artworks. Though there are other forms of beauty, such as mathematical or natural, the most prominent notion of beauty is that given in art. In this section we will cover some philosophical discussions over what art is, the relationship between artworks and other objects, the value and function of art, and the nature of representation. By the end of this section, you should be able to apply the two views of beauty to specific kinds of art.

First, to define art, we should distinguish it from other kinds of beauty. Artworks are non-natural, since they are made by humans. In terms of the objects we experience, we can broadly say there are two kinds. Natural objects have their purpose internal to them – an acorn, for instance, exists for the sake of becoming a tree. Artifacts have a purpose external to them, since they are made by something that has a plan for them. Chairs, for instance, are made by humans to sit on. You could eat on a chair, even though that isn’t it’s given purpose. However, most people would find you odd, since humans build chairs for sitting. In this way, there is a very basic dichotomy between natural objects and artifacts.

Artworks are a form of artifact. Artworks can generally be defined as any artifact which expresses some kind of idea. Additionally, artworks often function primarily as objects of beauty and contemplation, rather than instruments. The idea doesn’t need to be intentional – a vase from ancient Greece might tell us much about the values of ancient Grecians. It also doesn’t need to be abstract or intellectual – Monet’s paintings could simply express his technique for capturing living scenery. Artworks will never be natural objects, either. When we experience natural beauty, we don’t wonder about the technique used to create it nor the ideas expressed in the object. Artwork is also not the sole experience of beauty, though it has a special purpose in helping us understand our place in the world that other experiences of beauty lack.

Our broad definition of artworks does seem to have some difficulties to it, though. Surely there must be some difference between one of those Monet landscapes and my doodles to show my landlord where the water pipe broke! Or, as a more plausible example, there should be some kind of distinction between artworks like comics that are fairly straightforward, and artworks like a Monet which may express much more than a Garfield comic. In the 18th century, the romantics came up with such a distinction (largely due to their obsession with cultivating taste): high art and low art. High art is usually intellectual and takes refined taste to appreciate. Low art, by contrast, is art merely for the sake of pleasure. While Monet may be high art, Garfield is certainly low art in this distinction. This is certainly not a dichotomy that has been accepted universally, nor is it really a good description of the difference between Monet and Garfield. However, it is a helpful interpretive device to start thinking about the differences between them.

This distinction gets especially dicey with ancient art. Greek vases, for instance, are central pieces of classical art. The vases often have depictions of gods in some act or illustrate some aspect of Greek mythology. These were simply vases to fill with wine, or foodstuff, or anything else. Yet these vases tell us so much about Greek life in that period that they are regarded with the same interest as classical Greek sculpture (which fits much easier into “high art”). They are also done with great craftsmanship, but the same claim could be made about hand-me-down blankets that our grandmothers made in the great depression. While it seems like the high/low art dichotomy has to do with the intention of the artwork, it also has to do with the subject matter of the art.

We have all found ourselves at some point at an art museum, looking at some weird cobbled together sculpture, wondering “What could this possibly mean?” Many of us approach art in this way, expecting a communicable meaning somewhere within the artwork. This is especially true since the advent of conceptual art in the last 50 years, which often focuses on conveying some kind of message (usually moral). While this is a dominant manner of interpreting art, it is not the only idea about meaning in art, and in the last few centuries other ideas have become dominant. The idea that art needs to stand for something else is only one possible interpretation of what is presented in an artwork. The three possibilities we will cover here are representation, expression, and form.

Theories of meaning in art

Historically, the dominant theory of meaning in art is the representational theory. Representation means that an something stands for another thing. An image or symbol can represent an abstract idea or simply represent the subject it portrays. The represented meaning is inherently communicable and an objective fact about the artwork. Since Plato’s time, art has been predominantly considered a representational activity. The representation theory of art is that the meaning of an artwork comes from what it represents. The representation can simply be some thing that is painted, like in a landscape painting. The representation can also use the straightforward image in the painting (say, the landscape painting) to represent an abstract idea, which is not immediately implied by the image in the painting. The landscape could represent the wildness of nature, or the need for us Americans to protect our natural resources. It could also just simply represent that landscape like a photograph would, by giving us an idea of what it is like to be in that specific natural setting.


You can see in this photorealist painting by John Bader, Johns’ Diner with John’s Chevelle, a level of perfection in realism that you do not see in other forms of landscape painting like Van Gogh’s painting above. Believe it or not, this is a painting, not a photograph! If we were concerned simply with the realistic portrayal of a landscape, it would make Bader’s painting objectively more beautiful. Though there are certainly other arguments to make about whether one painting is better or not, for someone who is only interested in the correct representation of nature through art, Bader’s painting is objectively better.

The romantics, however, felt the representational theory of art was insufficient. For the romantics, nothing about the communicable and objective meaning of an artwork explains why we have the taste for some forms of art and why some art forms are so moving. The romantics instead thought that the meaning of art was in its expression. Expression in this sense means that the subject of the artwork is the emotion attached to the image. The romantic theory of art is that art does not convey a concept but a powerful emotion or feeling. A good example of this is the romantic painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. While the painting may not evoke a specific emotion, such as sadness, we do not need to ‘read’ the painting in a specific way to understand its objective meaning. Instead, the painting evokes some kind of strong feeling: that of solitude, or overcoming, or perhaps wonder at the magnitude of nature.


Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Even after the romantics, many forms of art defy either representational or romantic theories of art. This is especially true of modern and postmodern art. Modern art specifically defines the meaning of art by its form. Form, remember, is the composition or technique used to create the artwork. In many of these art forms the point of the artwork is to allow the spectator to reflect on what an artwork does and how their perception is formed by different techniques of constructing the world. This is especially prevalent in Picasso’s cubism, where the painting is meant to show we understand the objectivity of an object from the different possible viewpoints we can have on it. This kind of art is more of a ‘meta’ art, so we can call it reflective art. The reflective theory of art requires that the content of a painting be a reflection on its form or presentation to the viewer.

The value of art

We’ve talked a lot about how to judge beauty and what beautiful art is. What about putting those conceptions of beauty to work and helping us make judgments of taste about the value of art – can we finally tell our friends our favorite TV show is better, and express why? In many current Hollywood movies, we assume that our identity and morals must be expressed. We assume the standard for others liking what we like must refer to a kind of social standard about what we believe. Many of these films – think about superhero movies like Black Panther and Captain Marvel – seem to also be merely produced for the purpose of pleasure. So, is it just that I like this thing or is it just that it is a socially useful tool for thinking morally? Neither of these options really captures why we like these movies and shows, though. This brings up an important difference in ideas about artistic value: should art have some external use or simply exist for its own sake?

This question doesn’t just split according to the easy dichotomies we have previously discussed (though it can). Some objectivists like Plato think art should offer moral instruction, and some objectivists like the classical art theorists think art should simply portray perfect proportion and mastery of technique. Similarly, many subjectivists think that art must provide instruction for moral life, but just as many subjectivists think art is simply for pleasure. Often, in our culture, our view is a blend between the last two ideas: that beauty is subjective and should sometimes provide moral instruction, while sometimes it should just be for pleasure. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help us decide on the value of art. How can I say that CSI: Miami is a better show, or even of the same artistic merit, as Deadwood? Moreover, can I compare CSI: Miami to Caspar David Friendrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog? These comparisons will seriously depend on your view of beauty, and thus your views on art. If you think art is only subjectively beautiful, you might appeal to others’ taste and argue that what CSI: Miami expresses is more interesting than Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. You could also be an objectivist and claim that all of the TV shows are bad examples of art, since none represent mathematical or technical perfection in their portrayal of time using the montage like the old black and white film Battleship Potemkin, and thus do not portray beauty through their representations. These are both pretty extreme examples, but they show that to make coherent arguments about art, we need to consider:

  1. What the quality is in the artwork that draws us to it (beauty – objective or subjective)
  2. What differentiates it from other artworks (taste – objective or subjective)
  3. What makes it art rather than not (representation, expression, reflection)

Value also depends, at least in some part, on the intention of the artist. Is the value of art determined by the intention of the artist, or is it simply the effect of the artwork itself? We might think back to those Greek sculptures – are those great pieces of art because some Greek sculptor thought to himself “I must express the form of beauty to instruct the masses to live a moral life!” or are they simply great pieces of art because they show us what it meant to be a Greek? If we look back on many of the great pieces of art in history, many of them are simply great because they advance the techniques of their art so far or because they capture the spirit of their age so well. None of these works, however, is great because the idea in the author’s head is so masterfully represented in the work. Rather, it is because the important sociocultural impact of these art pieces that they are remembered.

Issues about the value and intention behind the work of art are just a few of many current problems within aesthetic theory. With the resurgence of traditional forms of classical art in music and painting, the reflective content of film and video games, and the relationship between pleasure and morality in mass culture, it is difficult to say there are any unified views on art anymore that can account for all contemporary artistic production. Though some of the classical views hold sway, so do the romantic and postmodernist views. We will end this chapter with some important contemporary questions to consider about aesthetic theory, beauty, and the nature of art posed in the question “For deeper thought” section, below.

Study questions

  1. True or False: Natural objects have an internal purpose, whereas artifacts must be given a purpose by something else.
  2. True or False: Artworks are artifacts which serve as objects of beauty and contemplation.
  3. True or False: Expressive art refers to art that makes you feel some kind of emotion about the content portrayed in it.
  4. True or False: Representational art refers to art that portrays an idea or symbol.
  5. True or False: Reflective art is art that takes questions about its own meaning as its content via reflection on its form.
  6. True or False: Natural objects can have beauty.
  7. True or False: Natural objects can be art.
  8. True or False: According to theories which accept the dichotomy, high art is more intellectual than low art.
  9. True or False: According to theories which accept the dichotomy, comic books are low art.
  10. True or False: The Darmstadt Madonna pictured above is considered beautiful thanks to its formal perfection, rather than its emotional meaning.

For deeper thought

  1. Should good art be pleasurable? Is ‘being entertained’ the same as being pleased?
  2. Should good art communicate a message, moral or otherwise? Does art need to reflect upon the form of its presentation?
  3. Are there forms of art that have meaning to us that do not rely on our judging them beautiful, even if this beauty does not refer to objective perfection?
  4. If we judge contemporary art meaningful even if it is not pleasurable, does this mean that we have changed our definition of beauty or does it mean that not all art is beautiful?


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Introduction to Philosophy by Christopher Schneck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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