Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of beauty and taste
The term aesthetics comes from the root word aesthesia which means to have the ability to perceive, to feel, to sense. The antonym of aesthesia is anesthesia, a more commonly used word, that means the inability to sense or feel, to be asleep.
Aesthetics affect our day to day, from choosing a new cushion, to selecting a card from a cardshop or to picking out a new jumper. Our decisions on most occasions, are made with a long-unchanged set of preferences or predispositions….certain colours….particular styles.
So….beauty and taste….are the two linked? Immanuel Kant seperates the two.
…It would be a folly to dispute the judgement of another that is different from our own in such a matter, with the aim of condemning it as incorrect….the principle Everyone has his own taste (of the senses) is valid.
But he goes on to say that
It would be ridiculous if…someone who prided himself on his taste thought to justify himself….if he pronounces, that something is beautiful, then he expects the very same satisfaction of others: he judges not only for himself, but for everyone.
This of course, not only puts the responsibility on the creator, but also the spectator. Dennis Dutton, American philosopher of Art, talked about ‘the culturally conditioned eye of the beholder’. David Hume 18th century Scottish philospher also spoke about someone who is qualified to make a judgement should have some practice, an experienced eye. Richard Wollheim says
Anyone who confronts a work of art and understands it and has the appropriate experience is now entitled on the basis of this experience to evaluate the work favourably.
What do you think? Are you experienced and therefore entitled to make a judgement?
(2) Kant,I. The Critique of the Power of Judgement. (1790)
(3) Wollheim,R. Art and its Objects p.237 2nd edition (1980) Cambridge University Press
Beauty describes something that pleases the eye through a combination of shape, colour and form
What is it, that makes a person believe something is beautiful? To make them stop in their tracks to really look.
Beauty can come in different forms, perhaps we are moved by a piece of artwork, like Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ above. It could be that you look past the artworks to the building that they are in, I often turn around to comment on a piece of art, to see my husband gazing ceiling-ward at the beams or the stone mullions. A photographer will capture beauty in a human being. While still others, will only consider nature to really portray beauty.
Grossglockner High Alpine Road, Austria. August2016
When you take into account the number of people who have written about beauty and what makes something beautiful, among the many theories are there any over-laps?
Immanuel Kant, who I referred to in my last post about aesthetics, says that when we look at something, we make a judgement, but we also acknowledge the effect it has on us. That when we look at an object or a scene we find beautiful, we experience a feeling of freedom. I re-read over this theory a few times before coming to the conclusion that perhaps this freedom he talked about is a moment of respite from our routine or mundane thoughts. This is certainly so, in our fast paced modern lives.
Nature itself is often the cause of experiencing that sense of freedom, when we are standing looking at the view from the top of a mountain or over rolling green fields. Ancient mathematicians say that there is a formula which explains the ‘rightness’ of it which they have referred to as the golden ratio. That even in nature there is a equation, it is no coincidence that a number of philosophers are also mathematicians and they apply this maths to beauty.
So if such a ratio exists, is it a fast track tool to create something beautiful?
The Golden Ratio shown on ‘Creation of Adam’
William Hogarth an 18th century English painter and writer of the book ‘The Analysis of Beauty’ theorised about a line of beauty…an s-shaped line which causes liveliness within an art piece.
Richard Wollheim talked about art having a purpose and that for the creator to have been successful, he will have described that purpose to the spectator. Of course if you are a representational artist this may be easier than if you are not.
William Morris, English 19th century designer, said that
‘any decoration is futile…. when it doesn’t remind you of anything beyond itself
So, golden ratios, serpentine lines, representation, purpose these are some of the tools that the creator might use to make something beautiful, but let us all realise as spectators that we also have a responsibility to be informed, and possibly take time to understand the artist as well as their art.
(1) Michelangelo. Creation of Adam (1512) Sistine Chapel
(3) Hogarth,W. The Analysis of Beauty (1753)
(4) Hogarth,W. Detail from Beer Street (1751)
(5) Morris.W said in a lecture on Design (1881)
Theory developed by Edmund Burke in the mid-eighteenth century, where he defined sublime art as art that refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation .
View from Table Mountain over Cape Town
We have all had experiences where we have felt in awe of the vastness of something, the photo above goes someway to show how ‘small’ we can feel in the scheme of things and I believe that this goes someway to describe Edmund Burke’s theory of sublime.
Unfortunately though, I think that as we have ‘over-used’ the term sublime to describe things which are far from sublime, it has lost its identity and power. Describing an evening out, as ‘simply sublime’ is possibly not what the speaker intended, according to Burke, unless of course they have had an experience of such intensity and greatness, beyond all capability of calculation!
Burke described a number of things that can cause a person to experience the sublime. Magnificence….vastness….loudness….suddeness…where senses are heightened. Even going as far as experiencing the relief of realising that we have survived a terrifying experience.
The Glacier at Grossglockner 2016
I can distinctly remember this very feeling myself, when visiting the glacier of the Grossglockner in Austria in 2013. We stood at the top of a viewing area at people who appeared the size of ants below and then we walked the long way down and joined them. The experience was wonderful, but also terrifying.
The glacier at Grossglockner 2013
The photo above has no filters, but the monochrome palette I think, just makes it feel ancient and other-worldly. The fear that the ground beneath you could open up and you would never be seen again, is not something that I would want to experience again. In fact, when visiting the same place, two years later, I decided against walking down on the glacier, appreciating the panorama from my ‘safer’ viewpoint!
Numerous artists have endeavoured to capture the sublime, usually by creating large works of art which cause the spectator to feel small.
Edmund Burke also talked about having this sublime experience, that realisation of one’s own ‘smallness’ meant that somehow the viewer could cope better with the mundane and ordinary and somehow experience things in a different and perhaps better way. Which sounds a lot like the more modern message from today of mindfulness.
Lots of people ‘seek out’ these experiences, to make their lives richer. A surfer on a huge wave is one image that springs to mind, that while they are in that moment, nothing else is really significant, only surviving and experiencing the present and afterwards, perhaps appreciating the here and now.
(2) Martin. J The Plains of Heaven (1851-3)
(3) Martin. J The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3)
Burke. E A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)
In 2014, the Tate gallery put on an exhibition called ‘Ruin Lust’. The show focused on people’s obsession with decay….the decay over years…but the decay of more than ‘the material’. The destruction of buildings, the ‘updating’ of things considered unfashionable or obsolete, even the changes in the way we live, the decay of culture.
John Piper’s work above, shows an area of Bath that he was called to in 1942 to document the damage made after three nights of bombing there. While he painted, the buildings around him were still smouldering and falling and in an exhibition of the works he painted, he said
‘after a war the controlled emotional record of actual events – the record made at once from experience and in the heat of the moment – is the only one that counts’
It is obvious that his paintings were not only a record of how the buildings looked, but the emotions he felt being there so soon after the destruction and the ‘realness’ of the devastation.
What a commission! To document and give an accurate account of how things looked after an area had been bombed…. but also this work was a form of memorial/reminder for a time when things recovered.
Slate mine, Rosebush, Pembrokeshire
I recently stumbled upon this adit to a slate mine, this had a real feel of decay to it, not merely in the fern and moss-covered walls and rusted columns and trusses, but also the decay of the long left behind industry which shaped the surrounding landscapes.
Clare Woods’ Dead Spring, a depiction of natural decay and death. This painting was inspired by Paul Nash’ painting of the same title, interestingly Paul Nash was also a War artist (like previously mentioned John Piper) who painted during the first world war.
In this painting, he has captured how nature was being destroyed by the ravages of war, the tree stump surrounded by barbed wire, the land churned up, the lack of colour and seemingly hope.
This painting shows the chaos, the destruction, the heat.
It seems hard to see how a place can ‘return’ from this and that is why these war artists are creating a memorial, not only to how things were, but so the viewer can see how things have moved on.
Japanese animator Isao Takahata said
‘we are used to recovery [Tokyo], we’ve turned destruction to creation’
Destruction and decay seem quite final, which of course has a negative feel. But they can still be beautiful. I suppose in the same way that a hand-me-down kitchen table with the lived and loved marks is more beautiful than a just out of the box flat-packed table….it is the normal way of life….and life is beautiful
On a personal note, I have really come to love the work that those who document war do. I have stopped to really look today and that is surely what art is all about!
(1) Piper J. Somerset Place, Bath (1942)
(2) Piper J. as part of a review of a war memorial exhibition (1941)
(3) Woods C. Dead Spring (2011)
(4) Nash P. Wire (1918-19)
(5) Nash P. The Mule Track (1918)
(6) Takahata I. The Art of Japanese Life (BBC documentary 2017)
lack of guile or corruption; purity
It probably seems fairly negative to say that there is little left in the world that is innocent and yet that is sometimes how we may feel.
We sometimes find something that to us seems to be pure, but is then transformed into another thing entirely when we become aware of an underlying motivation or another viewpoint that we hadn’t previously been party to. With that new knowledge we can no longer see the initial impression.
Perhaps innocence is to be without knowledge, that once we are aware, we are no longer innocent.
Children are often an image we might hold when we think of innocence, certainly youth is closely connected with simplicity. Other symbols used to portray innocence in art might be lambs (in their biblical reference to Christ the lamb), baby animals, nature, the colour white to show purity or bright light.
Anne Higonnet, art historian says that during the 18th century period of Enlightenment, people began to see children and childhood in a different light, rather than seeing and portraying children as small adults, people saw that they were in fact new lives in a state of unconciousness and innocence. In Higonnet’s opinion this new vision of a child allows us to…..
deny, or enable us to forget, many aspects of adult society…. The Romantic child makes a good show of having no class, no gender, and no thoughts–of being socially, sexually, and psychically innocent
One artist who has spent sometime, trying to capture innocence in a different way, is Agnes Martin.
She spent a lot of time in solitude considering her painting, before planning and making notes about her new piece in a design book.. She liked using maths to plan her paintings, believing that the pureness of maths made her art pure and without conflict.
Without awareness of beauty, innocence and happiness, one cannot make works of art
Initially, this might seem to be a little narrow-minded, but it is not about creating a work that is beautiful or that portrays innocence and happiness, but understanding these concepts.
(1) Bouguereau.W Innocence (1893)
(2) Higonnet,A Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood
New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998
(3) Martin, A Untitled #5 (1994)
(4) Martin, A. (1912-2004)
a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period of time or a place with happy personal associations.
In 17th century medicine, Nostalgia was the term coined and used to describe the melancholy in soldiers fighting away from home. Doctors reported symptoms of depression, weight-loss and anxiety displayed in soldiers, despite trying various remedies, the only thing that appeared to cause any improvement was for the soldiers to return home, one report speaks of a soldier making a immediate improvement even with the knowledge that he would soon return home.
For many people, they may feel nostalgic when thinking back to their childhoods, perhaps remembering warm days playing outside, when looking back each day of the school summer holidays seemed to be sunny, or maybe its remembering a holiday or celebration with family and friends. It could be the days when we had no responsibilities and could make plans and dreams with no hindrances or limitations.
Various things can make us feel nostalgic, music can sometimes put us straight back to the first place we heard it, a smell can connect you with the past.
There are some people who gladly look back, feeling that the past was simpler or better or happier. Of course nostalgia can also remind of uncomfortable memories, the emotions which are triggered are not only happy ones.
In Wales, people use the word Hiraeth, a welsh word difficult to easily translate, but that means the pull or ‘draw’ of Wales, the longing for Wales when away….our homecoming.
Nostalgia is used as an advertising method, using the familiar to sell.
The use of the nostalgic font from their original adverts, makes their adverts comforting, a sense of reliability for a longevity of a product which (in some other advertising ploys) might not even be true of the item advertised.
The nostalgia spoken about in the 17th century, causing serious illness and even death, seems a far cry from the manipulation and association used in advertising today.
(1) Ray Ban advert (1960)
(2) Current Ray Ban advert used on a bus stop in America
(3) Great Western Railway advertisement 2017
Even in the last 50 years, numerous philosophers and theorists have written about their thoughts, we could almost be pulled apart by the number of voices trying to be heard. Whereas perhaps previously, philosophy has been an area for ‘those that can’, now it becomes more accessible through media, simple-spoken books (like the ‘….for Dummies’ range) and a different use of language. YouTube has revolutionised the way people find information and educate themselves. When once a concept could be set to confuse the learner, now there may be any number of explanations produced in simple language, animation, music, graphics to make things clear. Your limit is not how many books you can buy or borrow from the library, but what your internet download speed is.
So when information that only relatively recently was accessible to ‘scholars’, becomes available and understandable to all, everyone is capable of forming an opinion. The stage which was only previously reserved for the ‘expert’ is now open to anyone who feels that they have something to say. This is proven by the steady rise of musicians, reality stars and bloggers who have launched very outwardly successful careers from an online platform.
The online drawback to this new ‘open night’ style stage, is there is no disclaimer, no small print. One voice may be carefully considered with copious research and checking of reliable sources, the next voice may be from a person who had a cheese sandwich before bed and has drawn something from the disjointed dreams that followed.
Are we on dangerous ground when each speaker has access to the microphone?
In a time when appointments with your doctor are like ‘gold dust’ , but Dr Google is a few clicks away, we can be set in a spin. Put into this mix, the information sources that are calculated and motivated by things the listener is unaware of and we can find ourselves on a cliff-edge unaware that where we are standing is nothing but top soil held together by some roots with no rock foundation.
So do we pick out a path back to secure ground or do we stay in this area on the edge so that we can see the better views?
Le doute n’est pas une état bien agréable, mais l’assurance est un état ridicule.
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is [an] absurd [one]
(2) Arouet, F (Voltaire) Letter to Frederick II, Prince of Prussia, (1770)