Philosophies of art/Aesthetic Stances

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How do you judge a work of art? That may depend on the context and the philosophy(ies) of aesthetics that are applied. Aesthetics may vary in different cultures and different time periods.
Try this website for some good examples.
A work of art is an imitation or representation of a physical appearance or ideal form. Good art is the most accurate imitation of nature or an ideal. See Plato.
Art is the expression of the creator’s feelings or the creation of symbolic forms for emotions that might be felt. Good art successfully communicates the emotions the artist intended to create.
All objects that evoke aesthetic emotion in us share one quality—significant form—, which can be defined as lines, shapes, colors, and other sensory properties and their formal relationships. Good art is a highly unified arrangement of lines, shapes, colors, textures, and values.
Art cannot be considered in isolation from other areas of human experience. The value of art lies in its social intention or utility of the work. Good art is a means to some end, such as great religious art inspiring faith. John Dewey wrote about Art as Experience and how it connects members of a culture or society.

Found in contemporary art, aesthetics and even technique are discarded in favor of the idea being the most important.


Art for art’s sake has little or no value. Art works are used in rituals or have a meaningful, useful, practical purpose, other than pure aesthetic pleasure.

7. HEDONISM – Aesthetic beauty is disinterested pleasure, that can be shared by all others who perceive the same work of art.
Formalism stresses the importance of the formal qualities and the visual elements of art
1. The formalist critic wants the experience of art to be devoted to contemplation of the relationships of the parts to the whole in a work of art.

2. Each part should enhance the quality of the parts around it.

3. It should not be possible to change a single element without spoiling the whole work of art

4. The viewer should feel a unity or wholeness in the work. If you have too much or too little emotion when you experience the work, it is flawed.

5. The Formalist critic wants pleasure in art to come from the art object itself - the combinations of sensations from its surfaces, colors, and other visual qualities.

6. Feelings and ideas should depend only on the way the artist shapes his materials.

7. Art that relies on symbols, or on subject matter, or on the viewer’s life-long experience is rejected by the Formalist critic.

8. The Formalist critic appreciates "art for art’s sake", and feels that no other reason for creating art is needed or even acceptable.

9. A masterpiece, according to the Formalist critic, is a work of art that has perfect visual organization and technical execution.
ART AS FORM – another view

Where the mimetic theory ties art down to the real world, formalism allows the work of art to float free by claiming that only form - the complex arrangement of parts unique to each individual work - has artistic significance. Only what is internal to the work is relevant to its status as art: Works of art are 'autonomous', answering only to themselves. Any outward references, to a real, fictional, or imaginary world, are irrelevant.

Appreciation of art consists, for the formalist, not in merely recognising artistic form, but in responding to it: Kant's theory of mental harmony seeks to explain what the response consists in; Bell posits a unique kind of 'artistic emotion' which accompanies the recognition of significant form.

According to formalism, works of art exercise to a heightened degree the mind's power of ordering sensory data in perception.


A frequently indicated weakness of formalism concerns the concept of form, which is arguably too indefinite to play the role asked of it. In specifying the kind of form that matters in art, the formalist uses notions like 'balance' or 'uniformity amidst variety', but it is very difficult to define these in a way that prevents them from applying to anything and everything - some sort of balance and uniformity amidst variety can, surely, be found in all objects.

Another, more substantial objection is that our interest in form is not in fact as uncontaminated with extra-formal, worldly concerns as the formalist supposes. Sometimes formal values are of self-sufficient aesthetic interest, but much more often they serve non-formal ends: Plausibly, form in art is the vehicle through which a work articulates ins non-formal meaning. Unless form has at least an indirect connection with the world, it tends to become artistically uninteresting and reduces to mere decoration.
Expressivism: stresses the importance of the communication of ideas and feeling in a convincing and forceful manner
1. The Expressivist critic is interested in the depth and intensity of the experience one has when looking at art.

2. An excellent work of art could be ugly.

3. The Expressivist critic believes that the formal and technical organization of the work has to be good; otherwise it would not be able to affect his or her feelings.

4. The Expressivist critic has two basic rules for judging excellence: a. that the best work has the greatest power to arouse the viewer’s emotions or b. that the best work communicates ideas of major significance

5. Art should look and feel as if it is based on reality, not other works of art.

6. Great art should not look calculated. It should seem to be the inevitable result of what an artist has seen or felt deeply.

7. The Expressive critic believes that art should make everyday life more meaningful and profound.

8. What matters is the artist’s ability to make the viewer believe in what the viewer sees in the work. The viewer must experience an emotion before the viewer can believe that the artist also felt and expressed it. The genuineness or actuality of the artist’s emotions does not matter and often cannot be determined.


The expression theory of art virtually replaced the mimentic. The concept of expression is paired with with that of emotion, and although connection of art with feeling cannot consist of a straightforward equation of art with the communication of emotion, the expression theory of art seeks to offer a sophisticated and persuasive account of the central place of emotion in art.


Collingwood regards artistic expression as a special form of self-expression.

Artistic expression is a process in which the artist begins with an indefinite emotional state, for which he wishes to find a uniquely appropriate concrete articulation, and in so doing transforms his mental state into something definite, tangible, and intelligible. The work created by the artist does not describe his state of mind so much as incorporate it, somewhat in the way that bodily expressions such as smiles and grimaces embody mental life.

Because expression is not undertaken with any further end in view - it is, so to speak, its own end - artistic creation contrasts with instrumental activities, in which means and ends are distinct, which Collingwood calls craft and opposes to art proper.

By giving primacy to the perspective of the artist rather than (as on the mimetic and formalist theories) that of the audience, the expression theory offers an interpretation of Hegel's intriguing and attractive claim that the mind 'recognises' itself in works of art: According to the expression theory, works of art do not merely exhibit mental features, they, as it were, contain mind.

A natural development of Collingwood's view is to say that the expression theory regards audience as retracing the route pursued by the artist: The audience's appreciation re-enacts the artist's creative process and thereby 'retrieves' his psychological state.


1.The expression theory is associated with the highly questionable ontological claim that works of art are mental objects. Arguably, the expression theory can be freed from that ontological claim, and the artist's activity of self-expression regarded as routed instead through a public, physical object.
2.The theory's apparent emphasis on personal psychology exposes it to criticism. It may be objected that personal ideas, as much as emotions, can be expressed by art, whose legitimate subject-matter is not restricted to the contents of the artist's own mind. But again the expression theorist can plausibly meet this objection by saying that although an emotional component is necessary, the content of artistic expression need not be exclusively emotional: mental states are permeated by concepts, and thoughts are proper material for expression. What a work of art expresses is not therefore confined to merely biographical material.

3.The formalist objection: How can such a supremely self-contained and self-sustaining work as a Ming vase be construed as a product of personal expression? The expression theorist is forced to suggest that the Ming vase has only formal values, and as such does not constitute a full-blooded work of art-proper. It is open to question that such a view would be acceptable to most people's common-sense view of art.

1. The Instrumentalist critic believes that art should serve purposes that have been determined by persistent human needs working through powerful social institutions. Art should serve the interests of the church, the state, business or politics.
2. Art is at its best when it helps to advance some cause that will, presumably, advance the interests of humanity.
3. Art that depends on art or grows out of art is inferior, self-serving, and/or decadent.
4. The excellence of a work of art is measured by its capacity to change human behavior in public and visible ways. For example, great political art results in greater allegiance to the party. Great religious art inspires faith.
5. The technical and imaginative gifts of the artist need to be organized by an idea that is greater or more important than the private emotions of the artist.
6. The Instrumentalist critic believes that, if the meaning of the work is good and is expressed through perfect organized form, then the work is a masterpiece. The phrase perfectly organized forms means the closest possible connection between the appearance and the social intention of the work.

Overview- Dewey’s Theory

Dewey's theory, here, is an attempt to shift the understandings of what is important and characteristic about the art process from its physical manifestations in the ‘expressive object’ to the process in its entirety, a process whose fundamental element is no longer the material ‘work of art’ but rather the development of an ‘experience’. An experience is something that personally affects your life. That is why these theories are so important to our social and educational life.

Such a change in emphasis does not imply, though, that the individual art object has lost significance; far from it, its primacy is clarified: the object is recognized as the primary site for the dialectical processes of experience, as the unifying occasion for these experiences. Through the expressive object, the artist and the active observer encounter each other, their material and mental environments, and their culture at large.

This is a dramatic expansion of the bounds of aesthetic philosophy, for it demonstrates the connections of art with everyday experience and in so doing reminds us of the highest responsibilities that art and society and the individual have always owed to each other: of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living. Civilization is uncivil because human beings are divided into non-communicating sects, races, nations, classes and cliques.[2]

To emphasize what is aesthetic about an experience is not, finally, to emphasize what is apolitical or impractical or otherwise marginal about that experience; rather, it is to emphasize in what ways that experience, as aesthetic, is a 'manifestation, a record and celebration of the life of a civilization, a means for promoting its development' and, insofar as that aesthetic experience relates to the kinds of experiences had in general, it is also the 'ultimate judgment upon the quality of a civilization.'[3]

See his Experience and Nature for an extended discussion of 'Experience' in Dewey's philosophy.

Art Imitates nature. 

To be a work of art it needs to look realistic. 


The work needs to represent, reflect or copy a section of reality. 

One tends to like art that looks real because it can be easily recognized and understood. 

To be art it need to be correct, complete, and vivid in its representation. 

The work of art needs to show that the artist has technical skill. 

Realistic art may teach and reform by emphasizing social ugliness and injustice. 

Idealistic or realistic art may edify and inspire.

See article on Plato.

The object of mimesis (imitation, copying, or representation) is usually identified with nature, by which is meant not only physical nature, and includes human nature. Although some art appears to be non-representational, the mimetic theorist may contend otherwise: In antiquity it was thought, for example, that music imitates the harmony and order of the cosmos and the soul.

The values connected conceptually with representation are cognitive, truth-orientated values such as accuracy and comprehensiveness. These have an important role in art - verisimilitude of plot and characterization evidently matter greatly in literature - but it is hard to see that truth encapsulates the interest of art.

The question remains: Can the mimetic say what it is about art that enables it to represent its (ideal, typical) subjects in a way that is aesthetically rewarding?

.Plato's critique of art in book 10 of the Republic goes further, by suggesting that art's preoccupation with appearances weakens our awareness of reality, and that its effects may be psychologically detrimental and morally pernicious.


Conceptual art is based on the concept that art may exist solely as an idea and not in the physical realm. For advocates of this movement, the idea of a work matters more than its physical identity. The movement began in the early 20th century, but was based on the European Dada movement and the writings of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Conceptual art also had roots in the work of the father of Dadaism, Marcel Duchamp, who was also the creator of the "ready-made." Conceptual art became an international movement, beginning in North America and Western Europe and spreading to South America, Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and Japan. It was a major turning point in 20th century art, challenging notions about art, society, politics, and the media with its theory that art is ideas. Specifically, that art can be written, published, performed, fabricated, or simply thought.
Conceptual art emerged in the 1960’s, the term first used in 1961 by Henry Flynt in a Fluxus publication. It later evolved into a different meaning when the Art and Language group, headed by Joseph Kossuth, adopted it. This group believed that Conceptual art was created when the analysis of an art object succeeded the object itself. The term gained public recognition in 1967, after journalist Sol LeWitt used it to define their specific art movement. Conceptual artists began forming around the theory that the knowledge and thought gained in artistic production was more important than the finished product. The first Conceptual art exhibit, titled "Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects" took place in 1970 at the New York Cultural Center.
Conceptual art was intended to convey a concept to the viewer, rejecting the importance of the creator or a talent in the traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture. Works were strongly based on text, which was used as much as if not more often than imagery. Conceptual art also typically incorporates photographs, instructions, maps, and videos. The movement challenged the importance of art traditions and discredited the significance of the materials and finished product. Rather, Conceptual works were meant to be proactive and questioning to the nature of art.
A controversial movement, supporters believe that Conceptual art expanded the boundaries of art and stopped the influence of commercialism. Critics see the movement as dull and pretentious. Although some Conceptual artists attempted to make serious political and social statements, more often than not they were preoccupied with analyzing the nature of art. Conceptual art was the forerunner for installation, digital, and performance art, more generally art that can be experienced.

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