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Aesthetic Theory of Art







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Aestheticism was a late 19th century European movement based on the idea that art exists for the sake of its beauty alone.

The movement began in reaction to prevailing utilitarian social philosophies and to what was perceived as the ugliness and philistinism of the industrial age. Since the late C19th, many have sympathised with those who found the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution abhorrent and consequently turned towards Aestheticism.
Its philosophical foundations were laid in the 18th century by Immanuel Kant, who postulated the autonomy of aesthetic standards from morality, utility, or pleasure.
As Cynthia Freeland writes about Kant in "But is it Art?":
"He aimed to show that good judgements in aesthetics are grounded in features of artworks themselves, not just in us and our preferences."
She describes Kant's theory of art in more detail :
"The aesthetic is experienced when a sensuous object stimulates our emotions, intellect and imagination. These faculties are activated in 'free play' rather than in any more focussed and studious way. The beautiful object appeals to our senses, but in a cool and detached way. A beautiful object's form and design are the key to the all-important feature of 'purposiveness without a purpose'. We respond to the object's rightness of design, which satisfies our imagination and intellect, even though we are not evaluating the object's purpose."
Kant's philosophy and views on art have been immensely influential. Even if we do not subscribe to the whole package, the reasons for his towering influence are I would suggest:

1 A coherent philosophy which aimed to set aesthetic standards on a universal basis.

2 A belief that good judgement in aesthetics is based upon features in the artworks themselves and not just in ourselves.

3 Appreciation of beauty has to be disinterested, in other words independent of it's purpose and the pleasurable sensations it brings about. An object is beautiful because it promotes internal harmony or 'free play' of our faculties.

The Conceptualists would argue with all of the above. They would reject the whole idea of a universal aesthetic standard and would say instead : "This is art because I say it is.". The consequence of this for the Conceptualist is that the artwork (or concept) is of it's own kind and none other so it cannot be judged by any outside standard based on features in it or in other artworks.

Kant's emphasis on the importance of a universal standard based upon features in the artworks serves to identify four glaring inadequacies of the Conceptualist position:

1 The first inadequacy of the Conceptualist position is that the artist becomes the sole judge of his/her work. In no other field of human activity would such a claim stand up for a moment. Imagine a bricklayer praising his/her own work and refusing to listen to the objections of the householder who had just seen his/her wall fall over? Imagine the lawyer representing you in your claim for industrial injury damages saying that you had won because he had put over such a good case, even though the judge had dismissed the case and awarded you no damages?
So it is with what Conceptualists call art - the claims of the artists about what they are doing or thinking just ring hollow. As the Americans would say in such a case "Where is the beef?!"

2 The second inadequacy of the Conceptualist position is that they see the artist as more important than the artwork (when they provide one).

3 The third inadequacy of the Conceptualist position is their idea that everyone is an artist. One of the Handy Hints from the Stuckist Manifesto makes it clear just how ridiculous the Conceptualist position is by copying, not extending or exaggerating, the Conceptualist logic:
"Joseph Beuys...... is cited as a genius for stating that all people are really artists. The Stuckists claim their right to the title of genius by proclaiming that all people are brain surgeons."
On the whole, I personally want any operations on my head to be done by a properly qualified brain surgeon. In the same vein, based on my experience and that of many others, all people are NOT artists and, based on my experience again, the number of artists is few and the number of great artists is fewer.

4 The fourth inadequacy of the Conceptualist position is their reliance on documentation, supporting texts etc. whereas Kant has clearly identified that the work of art has to stand on it's own as the expression of the artist's inspiration and his/her communication with viewers.
Conceptual art works and Installations have the greatest difficulty in communicating their message on their own. The accompanying documents, supporting text and other "explanations" of the work are essential to extract any sense of what is being communicated. In contrast to representational and even abstract art therefore, Conceptual art objects or installations are incomplete, relatively mute and, to the ordinary person, add little or nothing to the (readymade) components from which they are assembled or to the environment in which they are exhibited.

As a listener to classical music, I thoroughly enjoy the pleasure of reading documents about the lives and backgrounds of the composers whose music I like.This helps my understanding of their lives and background. It is however absolutely NOT integral to the artistic status of the Eroica symphony that I should read that Beethoven once nearly met Schubert in a Viennese coffee house. In similar vein, I have little sympathy with the whole Conceptualist mantra of supporting documentation and explanation of all kinds. Documentation is no substitute for art. Documentation is not art.

My view is that Kant knew more about art than Conceptualists. Kant's legacy included the "Significant Form" theory of art next considered.

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