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.
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