Aligning ancient and modern – Philosophy of Aesthetics

Bust at the Musee d' Orsay

Definition of Art

Since Plato wrote on what we now call the philosophy of aesthetics, many philosophers have discussed the nature of art and beauty. They have ascertained art and beauty to be two different but related things. What is beautiful is not always art, for example a rose. What is art is not always beautiful, for example Picasso‘s “Guernica”.

We must first discuss the definition of art, a problem which has taxed philosophers for over two thousand years. I’ll go with the definition which says that art is that which:

  • is created to evoke aesthetic pleasure
  • has no other purpose

This definition distinguishes art from things which are aesthetically pleasing but which have a purpose, such as furniture or well-presented food. Or the British crown jewels, which are also aesthetically pleasing, but which were designed for the purpose of coronating and distinguishing the British monarch. Adding aethetically pleasing elements to practical items is called decorative art.

British Crown Jewels
British Crown Jewels

However we soon run into trouble with the above definition of art. It excludes some forms of art such as dance music, which is created to give aesthetic pleasure but has as possibly its primary purpose the facilitation of dancing. Also some religious art from the great churches of Europe was commissioned to educate the illiterate about the ways of God and Christ and may not have been primarily conceived to evoke aesthetic pleasure.

So let’s try again with our definition of art. If we just say that art is that which:

  • is created primarily to give aesthetic pleasure, or
  • may originally have had a purpose other than aesthetic but that purpose has been superseded by the aesthetics of the work so it now primarily gives aesthetic pleasure
  • usually has no other purpose
  • may sometimes have another secondary purpose

Is that enough? Maybe it is. Primarily is the key word here. Emanuel Kant, no slouch in philosophy, suggested that we abandon efforts to reach a definition of art since artworks have so little in common that they defy a logical definition. Wittgenstein similarly pointed out the futility of reaching an encompassing definition of art.

The above definition covers the Art Deco advertisements from the early twentieth century, of which I am fond. These were created to advertise such things as railway and trans-Atlantic travel, but decades later have acquired a status as art.

Definition of Beauty

There seems always to have been some agreement that beauty delights the senses and the opinions of most philosophers settled around this. There has also been a longstanding and fascinating debate as to how the mind and wider social and institutional values influence what is perceived as beautiful.


At this point we should realise that not all art is beautiful. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ for example is hardly beautiful, but it is powerful art.

Picasso's Guernica
Picasso’s Guernica

Likewise Henry Fuseli’s painting ‘The Nightmare’ is arguably not beautiful but again it is art.

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

So what is the difference between art and beauty?

It seems that beauty is a conceptual quality which is broad and fundamental in scope. It brings delight to the senses in various forms of pleasure, calm or elevation.

Works of art may possess beauty, but it is not essential that they do so.

A survey of the history of thinking concerning art and beauty


Socrates and Plato thought that there was a deep underlying set of ideas and concepts which defined the world and which were appreciated by the mind, not the senses. Plato thought that beauty did not originate in these deeper concepts but was instead derived from the senses working in conjunction with them.

Aristotle added further to this by adding that beauty was drawn from the harmonious qualities of the work of art, and that these qualities were objective.

This type of thinking sees beauty in works of art as something objective which can be, if not quite measured, certainly appraised and understood by people as a set of criteria. The object itself is beautiful and this beauty does not lie entirely in the mind of the viewer.


Later during the Renaissance Alberti suggested that beauty was harmony and perfection with rules of mathematics and geometry defining the harmony. This harmony was often inspired by ancient Greek and Roman ideas on art and beauty. Again we see an objective view of beauty.

Leon Battista Alberti
Leon Battista Alberti

Since Alberti lived in Renaissance Florence for some of his working life, and designed some beautiful buildings, his views were and are taken very seriously right up to the present day.


Later still during the Enlightenment Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, suggested that beauty and truth were the same and this was innate to people, and that beauty must include the good. This idea that beauty only comes from the good is one which for many people is noticeable in the appreciation of all art. If art is derived from the evil or immoral can it ever register with our souls as beautiful? It is a very powerful and fascinating argument.

Hutcheson added that to appreciate beauty both the inner intellect and the senses work together.

Kant was the first philosopher to break with the idea that beauty can be defined objectively; he suggested that beauty was a subjective appreciation. In other words nothing is beautiful as such; but to may be perceived as beautiful by individual people depending on their taste and disposition.

The problem with this view of beauty is that it contradicts an obvious fact – that millions of people including this writer are attracted to, for example, the paintings of Paul Gaugin because they see them as beautiful. So surely Gaugin’s works have some qualities which are effectively objectively beautiful. Or it seems that if beauty is subjective, then there are enough similarities between those who appreciate art to be able to frequently arrive at broad agreement.

Nineteenth Century

It is apparent that each age is accompanied by an ideology which either determines the nature of that age as Hegel suggested, or is determined by the social and economic interests which are created in turn by the material conditions of the means of production, as Marx thought. The very fact that most art of the Renaissance period was commissioned by wealthy religious or aristocratic patrons tells us a lot about the ideology of those times and who dominated. Obviously artists had to conform to the expected moral and social standards, which amongst other things determined the dominant notions of beauty.

Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century thinkers such as Dewey decide that notions of beauty are socially derived and Dickie suggests that they are derived from the wisdom of our institutions.

It is likely true that appreciation of beauty involves our senses and the use of innate concepts planted in all of us by nature herself or by society. But what forces would cause these concepts to form in society in the first place? Mysterious and unknowable? Or simply the dominant thinking of the time?

Maurice Weitz drew inspiration from Wittgenstein in claiming that there is no one characteristic which all works of art possess. There are only resemblances and relationships which unite them together. So o clear definition of art is possible.

In the twentieth century modern art challenged conventional notions of beauty and reflected the views of philosophers that traditional notions of art were collapsing. Picasso’s Cubism and de Koonig and others’ Abstract Expressionism in particular made public and intellectuals alike re-evaluate art. Was beauty now an outmoded concept? Many thought so.

In the 1960s the art of Andy Warhol emerged from counter-culture galleries in New York – a paradoxical combination of on the one hand capitalism and its commercialised culture and on the other hand, supposedly, a simultaneous reaction against it. This Pop Art seemed to be at odds with abstract expressionism. Pop Art seemed to try and make the ordinary beautiful – a can of soup or a page from a comic book. In some ways it succeeded in forcing a re-evaluation of beauty. It also gave many people a lot of fun and often hinted that some of the art of the time had become too self-obsessed and humourless.

In the post-modern era in which we now live some argue that there is no dominant cultural narrative; there are instead a number of quite different narratives which tend to reflect the economic, social and lifestyle interests of those who follow them. Therefore in post-modernism is anything and everything beautiful or has beauty itself become a relative and incidental concept in art?

Some philosophers such as Roger Scruton insist that beauty is still important in aesthetics. Maybe a little beauty now and again does no harm and if anything goes, then beauty in works of art has as much right to exist as anything else.

Is art good or bad?

Plato famously thought that art was bad because artists represented things that they did not understand, and represented bad things too. They might thus corrupt audiences by introducing them to the thoughts and deeds of bad characters.

In his “Poetics” Aristotle argued that art is cathartic and in this capacity enables us to safely consider unpalatable things.

Perhaps when art does represent bad things, it either represents bad things which have already happened or forewarns us of bad things which could happen. Steven Spielberg’s “Schindlers’s List” did the former and George Orwell’s “1984” did the latter. Therefore this representation of the bad is not necessarily harmful. Even bad characters such as Shakespeare’s Falstaff remind and forewarn us of the criminal’s capacity for evil.

The Nazis condemned and destroyed ‘degenerate’ art. But their definition of degenerate included virtually everyone who disagreed with them and some groups of people who would not be considered degenerate in the civil societies of the twenty-first century such as Jews, Gypsies, socialists and homosexuals. This raises the question of who decides what might be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in art? Maybe it is best to let art be art, and make our own personal judgements.

There does seem to be a longstanding consensus that art which lies or deceives is inferior art, and that art which holds a window to some truth whether trivial or profound, is superior art. Cooper was maybe right; good art does seem to bear a relationship to truth. ‘Alternative’ art presents a version of truth which may conflict with the mainstream version of truth, so of course we can then ask what is the truth? In their book ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ Berger and Luckmann point out that truth or reality may itself be socially constructed. So when deciding which art is good and true, who decides what ‘true’ is and how. Is there some innate nature of the soul which allows us all, as human beings, to know what truth is? To think this would be to say that Josef Stalin and Jesus of Nazareth both held in their minds a common set of truths. Difficult isn’t it? After reflection it still seems to me that most people across cultures might be able to recognise certain basic human and cross-cultural truths and that ‘good’ art might often reflect these truths.

Does nature express herself through art?

Kant thought that through the artist, nature expressed herself. Since human beings are themselves a product of nature, this makes sense. This is a profound idea and still potentially of great use in our modern world. For example it may be that as our society and its underlying technologies become more complicated, and social and economic change takes us further from the simple tribal life in which we evolved, the apparent chaos of modern art might be the reaction of artists to a society in which our souls feel constrained. Modern art might be a primal scream against the increasingly constricting world we are building.

Modern philosophy of aesthetics

In the twentieth century Dickie suggested that our notions of beauty are in fact socially derived more than from philosophical principle.

Marxists and Freudians have also moved the appreciation of art away from the purely philosophical. Freud looked for repressed forces in the works of the great masters, and suggested that for example Leonardo was afraid of women. Marx suggested that Greek art was valued because of its origins in a simpler and in many ways better time before capitalism, and also because bourgeois collectors wish to inflate the value of rare Greek sculptures.

Since the middle of the twentieth century discussion of beauty was often absent from discussion of art, and conventional beauty was not considered to be a necessary attribute of the work of art.

The subject in painting and modern aesthetic theory

Recently aestheticians have been trying to grapple with the concept of the subject in painting, as it has been debated by modern continental philosophers.

Foucault began this debate when he noticed that Renaissance paintings often presented the subject, such as a monarch, as the omnipresent centre of the scene. One thinks of portraits of Henry VIII. Raphael took this further in some of his pictures which used perspective to give the viewer the impression that they were part of, and could step into, some major event such as a debate between great philosophers or an important biblical event. This flattered Raphael’s patrons who were of course religious leaders and aristocrats. The position of the viewer in relation to the painting by implication gave the impression to the viewer that they were master of the scene and even by extension of the world.

Lacan thought that children, aided by language and the concept of ‘I’ or ‘me’, form a false self-image early in life. This self-image is reinforced by contemporary culture and ideology which gives the individual an even more false sense of an independent self. Althusser adapted Lacan’s ideas about self in his theory of ideology; ideology was derived from the same false sense of independence – but here from social and economic constraints.

In the context of art this is claimed to create alienation from what is real in life and art, and allow for the production of art which further alienates and is often kitsch. If good art and truth are indeed connected then any thinking which separates people from the truth will result in the creation of bad art.

Surely to be aware of oneself is a human facet. For over two thousand years philosophers have debated the nature of the self, the mind and body, and our soul’s place in the objective external world. The longevity of this debate and its modern parallel, the debate amongst scientists about consciousness, suggests that the self is not a false illusion but a fascinating real phenomenon.

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