In my opinion, all human work is founded upon philosophical (or religious) principles. Without, nothing can be accomplished, nothing created. We would be tether less and nobody would know what to make or what to do – all that would be created or done would be empty of meaning. Without basic principles of aesthetics we could not determine what is beautiful and what is not. Without an understanding of categories we cannot transcend the categories.
To an artist the subject and materials inform each other; tools and material inform the idea and shape the realized form, the idea helps choose the materials and tools. Yet underneath is this principle of the aesthetic, that of the artist informed by the culture in which they live and shaped by their experiences in their environment. But this begs the question of whether aesthetic properties are subjective, objective, etc….
Although the study of aesthetics goes back to at least ancient Greece, I don’t have the energy or time to start there, so I’m going to start with Kant. Kant’s theory of “pure beauty” laid out four primary characteristics: objectivity, spectator disinterest, freedom from concepts (purpose), the mandatory nature of its beauty. When no definite purpose, or concept, is involved- like in the random interplay of fall leaves- our cognitive powers are freed from restraint and it is when this interplay is harmonious that there is an experience of pure beauty.
There is a lot to be said for Kant’s ideas. To take it to the most basic of human interaction with beauty, sexual arousal, there have been many objective studies about how we perceive beauty in our fellow humans. Studies in the 19th century by a psychologist named Wilhelm Wundt showed that arousal follows a distinct bell curve based on the complexity of the stimulus involved. Too simple and we get bored, too complex and we get confused, but right in the center that is where beauty tends to lie. Also, we now know that facial beauty across cultures can usually be boiled down to two areas, uniqueness and symmetry.
Hume wrote about beauty not being so much a matter of something being good of its kind and so involving perfection of a concept but rather something having “good making” or “bad making” qualities. In this way, a work of art of art could be praised for having a good quality, like clarity of light, but this could be outbalanced by other qualities that would out balance it, creating a work that was overall not beautiful despite its one good quality.
More recently, Professor Joseph Margolis at Temple (check out What, After All is a Work of Art?) talked about “aptness,” “partiality,” and “non-cognitivism” characterizing art appreciation, rather than “truth,” “universality,” and “knowledge.” For him, works of art are “culturally emergent entities” and thus not directly available via the senses alone. On the other hand, Arnold Hauser prefers a non-relativistic point of view and even went so far as to provide a ranking of “taste”. So-called “high art” would outrank “low art” because of the greater creativity of its formal structure and the weight of its content. Another more modern view point is that of Robert Taylor, who set forth the idea of a level point of view based off the level of the viewer. In other words, Thomas Kinkaide and Michelangelo have equal value for their respective audiences.
Once again, I have gone off the deep end in my philosophical ramblings. In the end, I find it difficult to separate my own subjective sense of beauty from that of my own cultural milieu, whether it is in opposition to what is there or acceptance. I fill in my own gaps in beauty through access to other cultures, other environments. I personally tend to lean towards a more post –modern interpretation of beauty as resulting as much from context- viewer, space, moment in time, etc…. I think this may unnecessarily complexify (yeah, I made that up) the conversation, but then again, I have never been one for definitive answers….
Eric in a Word:apricate
Book of the Day: Egon Schiele- Jeanette Zwingenberger
Song of the Day: Ubuhle bakho- Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Sketch Medium: red chalk & vine charcoal on page from Abigail Adams biography (actual size: 6" x 9")