Chloe Pritchard took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘Aesthetics’ as a philosophical keyword.
Aesthetics has been defined by the Oxford English dictionary as ‘a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, or the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste’.
Appreciation of pleasing aesthetics, or ‘beauty’, has been perceived by some academics as a means of communicating that begins as early as childhood. As Barbara Herberholz hypothesises, aesthetic judgement involves an awareness of our environment, and that early childhood is the time for aesthetic beginnings and foundations. Thus, appreciation for aesthetics resonates so deeply within our society and culture that many believe it begins as early as childhood.
To understand how the appreciation of pleasing aesthetics has become so permeated into our society, we must study its philosophical and historical origins. The appreciation of beauty, or of pleasant aesthetics, arose primarily from prominent ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato, Pythagoras and Aristotle. These philosophers explored the subject of aesthetics from a combination of empirical and moral methods, which included pleasing aesthetics as one of the ‘highest forms’ of goodness on Earth, attempting to quantify mathematical properties of ‘beauty’, and perfect aesthetics in a human as a paragon for virtue.
From the 1700s onwards, the study of aesthetics became a topic of philosophical interest. Prominent philosophers such as Hume and Kant both addressed the philosophical appreciation of beauty: they argued that aesthetic pleasure was something universally shared, and that pleasure is derived from a universal agreement of good taste. This universality of aesthetics has been questioned by some modern feminists, who argue that philosophers in the 18th century who could afford (and who had the leisure time) to produce supposed universal truths were in a position of privilege; the elitist philosophers ‘universal truths’ and policies of absolutism were therefore subjugated to their own class and gendered perceptions, their ‘universal truths’ often unknowingly excluded opinions from the alternative classes and the opposing gender.
During the 1800s, ‘aestheticism’, the movement around the appreciation of aesthetics, promoted the ideal of beauty over social-political themes as the inspiration for literature, fine art, music, and other arts. The discussions around aestheticism became more varied and complex during this era: For instance, music, previously deemed beautiful but trivial in aesthetics terms by Kant in his work Critique of Judgement, became divided into two contrasting philosophies in the 19th century: formalism and anti-formalism.
Formalists believed that music could only be appreciated as intelligent and beautiful manipulations of sound, essentially as a pleasant sound aesthetic. Although formalists appreciated music, they believed that music held no deep philosophical meaning. Those philosophically opposed to this concept of music, or the aesthetics of sound, as nothing more then an arrangement of pleasant noises were referred to as anti-formalists. Famous anti-formalists included prominent composers and philosophers such as Richard Wagner and Nietzsche. They believed that the aesthetics of sound, i.e music, could be utilised as a form of expressing alternative artistic meanings and emotions, however they believed music could only be used to enhance other artistic mediums, like plays or works of art, and not as its own form of art. The clip below is an extract from Wagner’s famous opera ‘the ring cycle’, and shows how music was successfully used to enhance the theatricality of the story.
In the 19th century literary movement, writers of the ‘aesthetic style’ adopted the bohemian principle that art should exist for art’s sake (from the French expression l’art pour l’art) and its only requirement was to be beautiful. As demonstrated in an extract from Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘the poetic principal’:
“We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake […] and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: – but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake”
This expression ‘art for art’s sake’ made an artistic comeback in 1975, as it became the title of a single released by 10cc which reached 5th on the UK singles chart.
By the onset of the 20th century, artists, musicians and philosophers were challenging the assumptions that the purest form ‘art’ could be in was aesthetically pleasing. The term aesthetics became much broader during the 20th century as new artistic concepts, such as modernism and postmodernism were introduced into society. The term aesthetics also became increasingly popular during the 20th century and began to be integrated into discussions on the arts.
My exploration of the term aesthetics in the 20th century will narrow and primarily focus upon art, music and literature. If your personal interest in 20th century aestheticism lies in alternative subjects, I would recommend books such as Judith Wechsler (ed) Aesthetics in Science (1988) and Eckart Voland, Karl Grammer (Eds.) Evolutionary Aesthetics (2013), which explore scientific and evolutionary aesthetics in the 20th century. (Previews for the books can be found by following the links below):
Musicians, philosophers, critics and poets of the 20th century debated questions which arose from the 19th century discussion on the aesthetics of music. Prominent composers like Stravinsky and poets such as Ezra Pound warned that listeners should not look for meaning in music, as it distracts listeners from truly experiencing the music. Many current philosophers however disagree with this approach to the aesthetics of music. For instance, philosophers Stephen Davies and Peter Kivy both believe that music can be an expression of the artist’s emotions and can offer a reflection into the internal state of the performer or composer. Discussions in the late 20th century & 21st century on the aesthetics of music focus(ed) upon a much larger variety of issues. Current music aestheticism touches upon topics such as the capacity for music to express emotion, the ‘decline’ of musical complexity in popular music, the concept of ‘bad music’, and whether musical aestheticism can actually be found in current music and the music industry.
Artists in the early 20th century attempted to use new and alternative forms of expression which rejected the traditional concept of pleasing and universal aesthetics, a far cry from the Kantian and Hume theories on the universality of aesthetics. Traditional notions of aesthetics were challenged and re-sculpted in early 20th century artistic movements such as cubism and surrealism. Aesthetics within modernist art in the 20th century became a matter of individual taste, as the principles of modernism stressed freedom of expression, experimentation, and radicalism. The term aestheticism is therefore entirely different and has changed significantly when compared to its usage in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly as it has lost its philosophical universality.
Literature of the 20th century also attempted to break away from pre-existing notions of beauty and aestheticism. For instance, famous author Virginia Woolf advocates in her essay on modern fiction the importance of freedom of expression and originality. She also endorsed a move away from society constrictions on the aesthetics of literature. The aesthetics of literature in the 20th century was intermingled with other cultural influences like art and music. Movements like cubism, originally only considered an artistic movement, became so culturally significant its influence became broader and effected alternative cultural fields, like literature. For instance, William Faulkner’s novel As I lay dying and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans contains cubist elements, as they both employ repetition and block passages (which were often rearranged) to construct an overall piece of literature.
This move away from traditional aestheticism within artistic movements can be seen as having potentially lead to the increasing usage of the term aestheticism throughout the 20th century, as its place within the arts was discussed, debated and often discredited.
Although this ‘break away’ attitude towards aestheticism was more prevalent towards the beginning of the 20th century, debating and questioning aestheticism’s place within artwork and the traditional role of beauty within society has maintained to this day. The term aesthetics seems to have changed entirely since its origins: as the importance of traditional beauty in artwork fluctuates, so too does the philosophy and cultural applications of the term aesthetics.
B.Herberholz (2nd ed.) Early Childhood Art (Dubuque, I.A, 1979).
C.Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music (Chicago, 1991).
Edgar Allan Poe, The Poetic Principle (1850).
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. J.H.Bernard (1892).
Simon Frith, Taking Popular Music Seriously: Selected Essays (Surrey,2007).
S.Olsen, ‘Literary Aesthetics and Literary Practice’, Mind, Vol.90 (1981).