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The question, “what is art?,” has many answers. People from different places and time have had many different responses to this question over the course of civilization. Even today, our opinions and ideas about what art is often differ or even conflict. There are, however, no right or wrong answers to the question, because the one thing that categorizes all art as such is its aesthetic quality. Aesthetics are, essentially, qualities of feeling and beauty based upon particular judgments, criticisms, tastes and preferences. As this paper seeks to show, it is the dynamic, ever-evolving aesthetic principles and values that have come to define and redefine art over time.

“Art” itself is a vague and elusive concept that is difficult to define. The prime reason for this, as Dabney Townsend’s book, An Introduction to Aesthetics suggests, is because over time, our notions of art has changed as different aesthetic values have come and gone. These changes have occurred historically, regionally, and even individually, within our own personal lives. The aesthetic values of order, symmetry and rationalism that dominated art throughout the renaissance were slowly replaced with the ornate, dramatic and emotional aesthetics that came to dominate European art in the proceeding baroque period. Similarly, the music I listen to and enjoy today is quite different from that which I enjoyed as a child. This is because over time, our aesthetic tastes and values evolve and change. Our notions of what is beautiful and why it is so evolves and changes as our experiences continue to inform and revise how we define beauty in the first place.

As Townsend observes “artists and art historians . . . tend to speak of many different aesthetics depending on the kind of art and style that is being exhibited” (4). In other words, according to the art history view (and in opposition to the philosophical view that maintains a singular theory of aesthetics), multiple aesthetic parameters exist for different art forms. Big, heavy lines might add depth and meaning to a painting in one genre, but detract or muddy its depth and meaning in another genre. Similarly, one art observer might find beauty in cubism, while another observer might find it lacking and devoid of any aesthetic value.

In some respects, notions of art have also stayed the same. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for example, is still valued as a significant work of art today, just like it was in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Artists today continually develop new artistic media, but traditional materials such as paints, canvas, clay and marble, etc. are still widely used to create art. Broad concepts of art also continue to span multiple genres, such as music and poetry, as they did in the centuries past. Some critics and theorists might say that these trends suggest the possibility of a universal aesthetic -- that is, a set of characteristics that elicits feeling and conveys beauty to everyone, everywhere, across time. Conservative, traditional concepts of “high,” “classic” or “great” art are based upon the concept of a universal aesthetic that appeals to human emotions and tastes in general. This view thus maintains that certain works of art bear a certain aesthetic quality that we all see and judge the same way. According to the influential theorist Immanuel Kant, “objectivity” and “universality” are inherent in judgment, since the “cognitive powers” that allow for and comprise judgment are “common to all who can judge . . . individual objects”.

Kant and Clive Bell’s theories of art form demonstrate the notion of a singular, universal art aesthetic. According to Bell, what arouses emotion in art is “certain ‘forms and relations of forms’ (including line and color), which Bell called ‘significant form’ (Clowney). Aesthetic response to significant form is a separate experience from other emotions and occurs “regardless of what other meanings, associations or uses [the forms] may have” (Clowney). According to Bell, the emotion conveyed through form is comparable “to the ecstasy felt in religious contemplation” and that the emotion itself (and the significant forms that evoke it) “are the same for cave art, Polynesian carvings, a Vermeer painting or a Cezanne.

I, for one, disagree with this critical perspective. I think that because aesthetic qualities and values are inextricably tied to emotions, opinions and tastes, they are, by extension, inexorably associated with perception and observation (Townsend), which is not universal but rather, particular, relative and manifold. Furthermore, I do not think that forms on their own, devoid of all context or meaning, can arouse any emotion in people, let alone a distinct and universal one particular to form. Simply put: when is the last time a solid black line, or an outline of a triangle, or a red, squiggly dash mark moved anyone to tears? Laughter? Dispair? Anything?! Significant form gets its meaning from the context that shapes it into a recognizable image or aspect of whatever is being portrayed in the art. Form appeals to our senses and informs our interpretation of an artwork, to be sure, but I do not think our aesthetic responses can be reducible and universalized as a product of form. 

The subject matter taken up by a work of art, for example, is not as easily detachable from its form as Kant and Bell imply. It is the same as telling someone, “don’t think of a pink elephant.” Now, what is the first thing you just pictured in your mind? Of course, it was a pink elephant. If, upon first glance at an artwork, you perceive an apple, how can you then study the object’s shape, color and contours in complete and total isolation from the nature of what the object is? To detach form from context is not only difficult; it is often, for many of us, impossible. And the nature of the object will undoubtedly have a bearing upon one’s response to the work, be it emotional, informative, or both.

Furthermore, I believe Kant’s and Bell’s views about a singular, universal art aesthetic to be limiting in the respect that it downplays the roles that creator and viewer have in defining art and recognizing its aesthetic quality. I am more inclined to agree with the theories of Leo Tolstoy, which maintain that whether something is art depends upon how it is experienced by its audience, although, unlike Tolstoy, I believe that the artist has an equally creative role in experientially assigning art its aesthetic value, hence the artist’s inspiration to create it to begin with. Also important to note is that, to return to an earlier conversation, I believe that art’s aesthetic quality is relative and manifold (not universal and singular) because of its inexorable relationship to perception and interpretation (which are, by nature, varied and experiential). I believe that a painting of an apple can be beautiful to some and not to others. I believe that a depiction of the crucifixion can stir emotion in some people and not others. I believe that in art, multiple interpretations of aesthetic value are possible, because our individual and collective experiences alike continue to shape and inform our notions of beauty and thus, that elusive quality that gives art its significance -- that is, its aesthetic quality -- is a matter of personal definition.

Returning to the question of what art is, here is how I personally define it. I define art as anything that has been created and/or observed to bear aesthetic qualities of beauty and taste. I believe that different objects are and are not art to deferent people. My friend says that Pollok’s work is art. I say it is not. Neither of us are right, neither of us are wrong. It is as true to me as it is to him. For him, it is art because he sees an aesthetic quality in the colorful random and chaos made by the paint splashes, which have formed themselves. For me, it does not have artistic value because the splashes do not resemble, depict or portray anything with meaning (or at least, that means to me) and because for me, beauty is inextricably linked to meanings and emotions, which these splashes do not bear. Even with this being said, I still recognize it is art because at the end of the day, I am not in the world alone. I am a part of a group; of a species, of a religion, of a country, of a race, of a community, of a family, do not believe we can define our world based solely upon our own beliefs. Collective consciousness does identify and sort aspects of our world regardless of intention, and since there are many others like my friend, I must recognize that Pollok’s work bears aesthetic value to many people and thus, is art (at least, to them) at the same time as it is not art to me. Thus, aesthetic value is relative, and multiple aesthetic qualities are possible.

21st Century Enlightenment Artist Research Project
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