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What is Aesthetics?

In the Eye of the Beholder

photo of crowd at art museumQuite noticeably, there is an over use of certain words in the English language–words that are given over to clichés–ones we could all afford to avoid once in a while. You know those little words that create such big clamor like ‘risqué, and even the term cliché itself. On the flip side, there are also words that are severely underused, some even undermined. I’m talking about the terms that hold meaning beyond the spoken word–the ones that often linger on our palates, leaving a taste of thought to be pondered... like the word ‘aesthetic.’

Though underused, the soft and pleasing sound of the word may evoke thoughts of art, poetry, or philosophy–all of which are quite befitting–as the term aesthetic lends itself, in some way or another, to all artistic disciplines. The responsibility that such a word carries, when heard, can conjure a curiosity within us that drives an emotional response. But why? Why does this word strike our senses with such intrigue and engage so deeply our thoughts? Well, if you are an ‘aesthete,’ or someone who is sensitive to beauty and art, you have an understanding that this word incessantly holds us to a certain standard of taste or degree of opinion–or our own personal judgment.

In its plural form, the term ‘aesthetics’ is derived from the Greek word aesthesis, meaning perception, and refers directly to the principles that govern the nature and appreciation of beauty. Academically, it defines the branch of philosophy that deals with the issues of beauty and artistic taste, such as questioning whether or not the qualities of a work of art are actually autonomous–or not being subject to political, moral, or religious criteria. This doctrine of aesthetic standards called aestheticism, which started as an artistic and intellectual movement in Britain in the late nineteenth century, supports the emphasis on aesthetic values as opposed to social and political ideology. Similarly in art, the term aesthetics also lends itself to what we call an ‘aesthetic experience,’ a phenomena in which the qualities of some artistic work evokes an emotional response within us. Be it a painting, a sculpture, written prose or the spoken word, every work of art has unique qualities that speak to our individual opinions. So, attempting to understand what it means when someone refers to a thing as “aesthetically pleasing,” can shift our focus from a thing’s beauty, to a detached issue in philosophy, or a more personal attitude about it qualities when dealing in art and perception.

That’s quite a broad spectrum for one such word, but according to Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889- 1951)–one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century–“The word we ought to talk about is ‘appreciated.’” So let’s talk about it, and what it means to appreciate things in the world around us.

Appreciation and Experimentation

“What does appreciation consist in?” Wittgenstein asks, in his Lectures on Aesthetics. The root word appreciate, means to think well of; to esteem. But definition alone is not sufficient as it too is ambiguous and far too broad. Appreciation can refer to: Grateful recognition–as to favor something, sensitive awareness–as in artistic beauty, or rise in value–as in commerce or finance. But there is a unifying theme: the overwhelming sense of recognition or perceiving something of value within the thing itself. So in dealing with appreciation of any kind, we know that a thing is recognizable either by its familiarity or by some outstanding quality. One way we might come to appreciate one thing over another is by doing a series of comparisons to determine which we prefer most. In fact this process is how we come to acquire a taste for most things like pairing wine with certain foods, and even a particular fashion sense, or the clothes we choose to wear instead of others.

But Wittgenstein dismisses the idea of experiments in aesthetics as absurd: “Aesthetic explanations are not casual explanations”, he claims. “If a man goes through an endless number of patterns in a tailor’s and says: ’No, this is slightly too dark. This is slightly too loud’, etc., he is what we call an appreciator of material. That he is an appreciator is not shown by the interjections he uses, but by the way he chooses, selects, etc.” Similarly in music: “Does this harmonize? No. The bass is not quite loud enough. Here I just want something different . . .” This is what we call an ‘appreciation.’ So, it is not only difficult, but impossible to describe what appreciation consists in, says Wittgenstein. “To describe what it consists in, we would have to describe the whole environment.”

But when considering works of art, such as an abstract painting or a sculpture, it would be quite challenging to consider the ‘whole environment’ before making a judgment about what one comes to appreciate, as we generally gravitate toward a particular artistic work, musical score, or even a well-made pastry. In this case, people tend not to compare well-made pieces of art, music or baked goods. We simply favor the individual thing or not. And while appreciation may be impossible to precisely describe, we can turn to another great thinker, philosopher and historian, David Hume, who offers a decided opinion on the central problems of aesthetics that may shed some light on the challenge.

Objective Appreciation?

David Hume (1711-1776) considered a leading thinker of the eighteenth century, in his classic essay, Of the Standard of Taste, questions: In spite of the all the diversities in people and in their individual likes and dislikes, is there an objective standard of appreciation in art? In short, his answer is this: “Amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame whose influence, a careful eye may trace in all the operations of the mind.” But who shall we credit with having such an eye? And is appreciation a learned skill, or is it some inherent talent that can be found in most any individual? Hume professes that some people have greater powers of discrimination than others. But, he also agrees that beauty and deformity are not really in objects but “belong entirely to the sentiment.”

To better understand this logic, let us explore the notion of sentiment. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines the term as having or showing tender or delicate feelings; of or resulting from sentiment–a combination of feelings, or an opinion, often, one colored by emotion. Surely, most of us have coveted an object that carries ‘sentimental’ value on some level, like your great-grandma’s green vase that still sits on your modern console table, completely outside of the room’s décor. Though your company may feel entirely different about it, it was grandma’s, and for that reason alone, you love it. With that in mind, Hume insists, “It is natural for us to seek a standard of taste; a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least a decision afforded confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.”

So we come to the crux: Is it possible to judge art objectively when sentiment is involved? Would not sentiment invoke disagreement even among experts? Like Wittgenstein, Hume acknowledges that a completely uniform set of universal standards is impossible, but his decided answer remains that there are naturally wide differences in point of delicacy between persons in their practice of a particular art form. He also seems to claim that the frequent survey and contemplation of a particular species of beauty increasingly improves this talent, which he refers to as developing the “careful eye.” In other words, practice makes perfect.

In all that there is to be considered about aesthetics—appreciation and recognition, beauty and deformity, sentiment and judgment, practice and the “careful eye”—perhaps there is a standard of taste. But it does not belong only to the aesthete, the rich or the highly educated. Personal taste lies innately within us all. So let us not trade our appreciation for the likes of perceived expertise. Instead, we should examine and explore our own sentiments. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”


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