Art Appreciation: In the Eye of the Beholder?

  • July 28, 2013 · 1:00 PM
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Art Appreciation: In the Eye of the Beholder?


Art can be framed as a human propensity for "goal directed play," with the intent of "making objects special," and supporting a culture's ceremonies.
Ellen Dissanayake, Author and Lecturer on Art

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
Thomas Merton in "No Man Is An Island"

We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.
Friedrich Nietzsche, made famous all over again by Ray Bradbury in "Zen in the Art of Writing"

Plato had a great love of the arts and wrote about them in many of his works. Why then did he find the arts threatening? He proposed sending the poets and playwrights out of his ideal Republic, or at least censoring what they wrote; and he wanted music and painting severely censored. The arts, he thought, are powerful shapers of character. Thus, to train and protect ideal citizens for an ideal society, the arts must be strictly controlled. Plato's influence on western culture generally is a very strong one, and this includes a strong influence on the arts, and on theories of art. In the case of the arts and aesthetic theory, that influence is mostly indirect. Plato saw the changing physical world as a poor, decaying copy of a perfect, rational, eternal, and changeless original. The beauty of a flower, or a sunset, a piece of music or a love affair, is an imperfect copy of Beauty Itself. In this world of changing appearances, while you might catch a glimpse of that ravishing perfection, it will always fade. It’s just a pointer to the perfect beauty of the eternal. Beauty, Justice, and The Circle are all examples of what Plato called Forms or Ideas. Other philosophers have called them Universals.

Aristotle differed with Plato over what he called "the separation of the forms." Plato insisted that the Forms were the true reality, and that the world of appearances merely copies them. Aristotle held that Forms are never separated from things in this way. The one exception to this is the "unmoved Mover", which is pure Form. It is the goal toward which all things strive. There is no form without content (or matter), and no matter without form. The essential form of anything defines what it is, and provides the driving force for that thing's existence and development. Everything strives to "grow into" its form, and the form defines what the thing can potentially become. Aristotle took time and change more seriously than did Plato. Not surprisingly, he was also somewhat more friendly to the passions than was Plato; though he, too, thought that the moral virtues were various habits of rational control over the passions. Like Plato, Aristotle thought that art involved imitation, though on this point as on many others he was flexible and allowed for exceptions. He also thought harder than Plato about what art imitated. For example, he says that Tragedy is an imitation "not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery". Thus he leans toward the "art as imitation of the ideal" theory that Plato might have developed, but never did.

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant [masked]), claimed that judgments of taste are both subjective and universal. They are subjective, because they are responses of pleasure, and do not essentially involve any claims about the properties of the object itself. (What matters is not the picture I see; rather it is the pleasing effect of the picture on me.) On the other hand, aesthetic judgments are universal and not merely personal. That's because in a crucial way they must be disinterested. Kant divided the kinds of aesthetic response into responses to the Beautiful and the Sublime. The one represents a pleasure in order, harmony, delicacy and the like. The other is a response of awe before the infinite or the overwhelming.

A British art critic and philosopher of art, Clive Bell [masked]), had obvious philosophical connections to the aesthetics of Immanuel Kant. Both stressed the detachment of aesthetic appreciation from other sorts of interest we might have in an object. Bell's aesthetic includes an appreciation of abstract art. For him, the aesthetic value of a painting or sculpture has absolutely nothing to do with its success as a representation of something else. According to Bell, if the Renaissance masters are great, it is not because they were so good at imitating nature, but because of the formal properties of their work. Judged by this new standard, Bell found many highly praised masters from the Renaissance through Impressionism to be deficient. Like the aesthetic of Kant, that of Bell has a certain initial appeal, and no doubt represents an insight. In discussing a work of art, does it not often seem appropriate to draw the conversation back to the aesthetic quality of the work, in distinction from its skillful technique, its romantic associations, or what have you? Nevertheless Bell's theory has not withstood criticism well.

Well then, how should art be critiqued?

Join Plato's Cave philosophers as we discuss the nature of art in its various forms and quality -- good or bad, beautiful or hideous, moral or immoral, priceless or worthless.

Thanks to Ben for suggesting this topic.

Be sure to check the Plato’s Cave discussion and files sections where you can read, post and download documents that are relevant to this topic.

-Steve, Organizer


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  • D.F.

    Saw this today. Seemed appropriate to post it here ;0) "The Veteran"
    by Dorothy Parker

    When I was young and bold and strong,
    Oh, right was right, and wrong was wrong!
    My plume on high, my flag unfurled,
    I rode away to right the world.
    "Come out, you dogs, and fight!'' said I,
    And wept there was but once to die.

    But I am old; and good and bad
    Are woven in a crazy plaid.
    I sit and say, "The world is so;
    And he is wise who lets it go.
    A battle lost, a battle won--
    The difference is small, my son.''

    Inertia rides and riddles me;
    The which is called Philosophy.

    1 · August 11, 2013

  • Jairo M.

    We didn't quite get into beauty. We got a little stuck in the cave drawings trying to figure out if it was art or not ( to them who drew the cave drawings and used them for their ceremonies or hunting strategies or magic). Two meanings of word ART, ART as objects of art, and ART as the process of creating objects of art. Seems like we forget to add the preparatory words "OBJECT OF" to the word "ART". But things got real interesting afterwards with Amanda and Swami. Amanda got into the [chemical engineering?] process of art. And Swami got into the art of particle physics and some historical figures in physics and mathematics. So I benefited from this gathering. There is much art to making this happen. Thanks to organizer Steve, Ben Forbes Griffith for the meetup topic, and the contributions by all who attended. Sorry I got there late.

    August 4, 2013

    • Rami K.

      And then there is the classic greek definition of the ars: "the business of every art is to bring something into existence."

      August 5, 2013

  • Rami K.

    To aid in the process of finding our next topic, there are plenty of items to select from

    July 30, 2013

  • mercedes j.

    Lively conversation. Good points.

    July 28, 2013

  • Rami K.


    July 27, 2013

  • Jairo M.

    The maha-art form or pinnacle of the arts today, I suspect, would be the works of film, or the movies, because they involve moving pictures and include sound which may include music. Think of Gone with the Wind, or West Side Story, or the music video Thriller. So how should these kinds of art be critiqued? By how successful and influential they become according to their genre and their author's intentions.

    1 · June 29, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      "I conceive of the film as a modern art form particularly interesting to the sense of sight. Painting has its own peculiar problems and specific sensations, and so has the film. But there are also problems in which the dividing line is obliterated, or where the two infringe upon each other. More especially, the cinema can fulfill certain promises made by the ancient arts, in the realization of which painting and film become close neighbors and work together." --Hans Richter

      July 26, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      But the highest art has to be gathering together of people of unlike minds to discuss and do philosophy on art and aesthetics.

      July 27, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Will be out of town. :-(

    July 26, 2013

  • Jairo M.

    Art appreciation is what we get when we have conquered other peoples and filled up our museum with their treasures, and this inspires writers and painters to come up with new ideas based on the old that is on display in museums, but we the public don't understand what the new artists come up with, partly because they don't know what they are doing, so we must attend art appreciation classes just to try to figure them out. But we have lost the true and original purpose of art. Art was meant for Religion. Somehow we've lost it's original purpose.

    July 10, 2013

    • Ben Forbes G.

      Just because religions organizations have for too long in most societies' history been among the only organizations rich enough to patronize many forms of fine art does not mean such arts could not be dedicated to more diverse and better purposes now and in the future.

      1 · July 24, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      Religions inspire artists, or at least recruits them to produce works to educate the mass about doctrines.

      July 24, 2013

  • Rami K. <- Can Artists Make the World a Better Place?

    1 · July 14, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      The beautiful Sinead O'Connor speaks out again­

      July 22, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      So there is hope that artists who have become celebrities can voice their opinions that may make positive changes. Recent example: Stevie Wonder vowing not to perform where "Stand your Ground" or similar laws exist.

      1 · July 22, 2013

  • Jairo M.

    What is beauty? What is beautiful? How do we make something beautiful? What is the opposite of beauty? Or if we negate the beauty of something do we get the ugly of it? What is ugly? Is "ugly" the opposite of "beauty," and if so, wouldn't there be an opposite of "beautiful" and wouldn't it be the word "ugliful" or is that not a real word? Assuming that there is such a word, how do we make something ugliful? I think the pairs that form opposites are beauty and ugliness. In general and conventionally, we can say of these words "beauty" and "ugliness" that we desire that there be beauty and that ugliness be reduced.

    July 21, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      So objects that are beautiful are objects of our desire. Beauty pleases the mind, and ugliness disturbs it. If these two extreme states of minds are on a continuum and in the same dimension, then couldn't we increase beauty by reducing ugliness? I heard in a discourse on interdependence by the Dalai Lama that if there is a causal link between ugliness and hatred and anger then we might want to consider if by reducing our anger and hatred we can reduce our ugliness and therefore increase our beauty. Is there evidence that beautiful people are in general less angry and hateful? If so, then that is a beauty secret that the beauty industry doesn't want us to know. Those wise beings who have looked into the past lives (previous reincarnations) of beautiful people have seen a causal effect in the lives where the mind has practiced patience has accumulated the good fortune or karma to be reborn beautiful.

      July 21, 2013

  • Rami K.

    I was going back over the BBC essay on Wittgenstein that Steve posted back in May 2012 to the files section [] and was wondering what roll Ludwig W. will be playing in our conversation?

    July 12, 2013

  • Rami K.

    While studying the American philosopher Donald Davidson [] (1917–2003) I come across this gem relevant to our discussion: "The Invention of Art: A Cultural History" []

    July 11, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Was "aesthetic philosophy" (same time same place) killed in favor of this topic??

    June 27, 2013

    • Steve

      Art is a broad subject. Ben was only intending to suggest a meetup rather than announce a definite meeting -- the meetup software screwed up. The two meetings are essentially on the same topic. So, I contacted Ben and we agreed to simply stop reservations for his and leave mine open. Ben's content was left up since it will be discussed. If you noticed my uploaded file, you will see that all of the arts are up for discussion under aesthetics and philosophy of art.

      June 28, 2013

  • Rami K.

    Least we get hung up on the visual arts only: here is, for your appreciation, Vihart presending Twelve Tones

    June 28, 2013

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