Art and the Aesthetic

Posted by on July 11, 2011

In several art logs prior to this paper I have discussed the role of art forms that are not necessarily “aesthetically” pleasing.  Continuing with these thoughts of exploring art as something more than aesthetic, I will discuss some of my ideas, as well as definitions and perspectives on art from various academic sources. The discussion will make it lucid that since art can be defined and experienced in various ways, stating whether art should be aesthetically pleasing is a matter of which definition and perspective one subscribes to.

In Chapter 1 of Professor Freeland’s “But is it art,” some theories on art are introduced such as theory of art ritual and Kant’s idea of beauty in art as “purposiveness without a purpose.” (Freeland, Pg. 14)  The theory of art ritual expresses a perspective on art as being purposeful, because the art in its ritualistic form is supposed to communicate some greater meaning to a community.  Contrasting with the theory of art ritual where art has a purpose, Kant’s perspective states that the aesthetic in art is defined by beauty that is purposeless in its purpose.  In Kant’s perspective there is a part of art that lacks purpose.  Though Kant did not “insist that all art must be beautiful,” many later authors expanded on this Kantian notion of “purposiveness without a purpose” to believe that the centrally defining feature of art should be that “it should inspire a special and disinterested response of distance and neutrality.” (Freeland, Pg. 15)  There is already an apparent difference in the theories of art, as to how they believe the art and the aesthetic should be viewed.  If one fully committed oneself to the theory of ritual art then art would not have to be aesthetically pleasing, rather it would have to be purposive in conveying whatever the ritual or meaning is supposed to be.  This would qualify certain forms of art such as abstract art as non-art.

Marcia Eaton is an author wishing to deny that the aesthetic cannot be defined, stating that “what is aesthetic remains constant even though specific features pointed to as aesthetically valuable may change.” (Pg. 86, ABQ 8)  Her theory states that “delight in what resides intrinsically in something is a mark of the aesthetic generally.” (86, ABQ 8)  I find her response intriguing because it is the most flexible definition of the aesthetic that I have encountered; the theory could effectively answer the two leading questions of this paper: should art be aesthetically pleasing and can art be defined as whatever is aesthetically pleasing? Her answer and escape is through the idea that some intrinsic value “aesthetic” remains constant while what people value aesthetically and artistically changes over time.

Although I am tempted to follow in Marcia Eaton’s footsteps, I have to reject her theory of art and the aesthetic along with the others.  I respect her theory in the manner in which Jerome Stolnitz states that “a definition…is only a point of departure for further inquiry.” (Pg. 79, ABQ 7)  Eaton’s theory compels me to consider art that cannot be considered “aesthetic” such that one would not delight in what lays intrinsically in it.  For example, political and social art like Picasso’s Guernica or loud and vulgar art like Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son.  In both cases, I cannot fathom a case in which the viewer would “delight” in whatever lays intrinsically.  At their core, these works express immense pain, grief, and horror.  If in some society being delighted by immensely depressing emotional events is acceptable, I would hope to not have to live in it.

Having considered several theories of art, I cannot affirm that art should be aesthetically pleasing or that art can be defined as aesthetically pleasing.  Various forms of art serve various purposes, whether they are religious, social, political, aesthetic in Eaton’s understanding, or simply to be purposeless.  Different types of art will always require different theories whereby we may understand and appreciate their essence.  One definition of art is limiting to all other forms of art that exist, have existed, and will come to exist.

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