What Should Aesthetics Do?

“Explain beauty,” obviously. Why thank you, that wasn’t entirely obvious.

The problem here is that “beauty” is a pretty complicated notion, with a lot of intertwined ideas wrapped up into it. Do you have to have a certain approach to metaphysics, anthropology, or ethics to explain beauty, or can it be explained without reference to a particular concept of being, human nature, or morality? Can it be applied to all things that are called “beautiful,” which would be ideal, or only certain classes of these things? Finally, what exactly is the beautiful (assuming it even exists!), and how can it be distinguished from similar, related, or easily confused things?

This would cover the concept’s intension (what is its definition, how is it distinguished from other concepts); its extension (to what things does this concept apply); and its connected presuppositions and implications (what concepts do you need to understand before you get to “beauty,” and what do you need it to understand). Once you have these three, I’d say you have a pretty good working theory.

So simple, it seems, and then you try to actually figure it out.

Perhaps the most obvious place to start throwing up complications is the extension of “beauty.” I did a lot of this last time in poking holes in how someone else misapplied the concept, but there’s more I can do. For the moment (but only for the moment!), let’s take it as granted that there are some things that are beautiful, and that among those things would be not only figurative paintings,* but also abstract paintings, religious art, sculpture of every sort, Japanese tea bowls, every sort of literature ever, photographs, performance art, music (the pieces), music (the performances), and, perhaps most complicated (and complicating), natural beauty.

Having to explain why we find beauty in nature throws a number of wrenches into several leading aesthetic theories for two reasons: you have to explain why, rather than assume that, “the natural” (whatever that is) is beautiful; and any theory that relies on human agency, will, or imagination is ruled out if you have to explain things humans had no part in shaping. This doesn’t mean these theories won’t work in explaining art, mind you, but that’s something entirely else, I think; perhaps it’s a sort of “practical aesthetics,” with one related to the other just as political philosophy is related to the philosophy of law.

The other big problem here is that many works of art were created under very different metaphysical and aesthetic assumptions and priorities. The transcendental reality of Heaven being portrayed in Orthodox iconography is very different from the immanent and personal reality of abstract expressionism, which is itself different from the rationalist humanism  of Renaissance portraiture, which differs from the materialism, humility, and assertion of transience of wabi-sabi tea ceramics, which…well, if you know the metaphysics assumed when the lilies of the field were made, you’re probably not a human being. Trying to get one theory to explain what was made under many different theories, or even no theory at all, is going to be quite a challenge.

Intension’s not going to be any easier. As Kuhn pointed out, there are several things a good theory should do, and they don’t always get along. While I’m pretty sure “simplicity” is something only a few philosophers really care about (have you ever read Hegel?), balancing explanatory power with internal consistency when you have to explain so much is going to be difficult, especially seeing as so much of what you’re trying to explain was intentionally created following some theory or other. I’m pretty sure the artists and art critics who have to work with beauty on an everyday basis would prefer that your theory be useful in some way or other—or, at the very least, applicable. It might be best if you avoided casuistry when formulating your theory, but if you could, in the end, show how your theory applies back to what it purports to explain, that would be nice. You know, just sayin’.

Now, the big thorny problem I’ve sort of been avoiding, the one that keeps me from turning this into a “here’s my own theory, wasn’t that simple?” post: if I’m going to stick to my guns on what I’ve said earlier, you can’t use casuistry—saying “here are fifteen things we all know are beautiful, here’s what they have in common, hey look, we’ve got beauty!”—to get to an explanation. No, if I’m going to actually explain beauty, a concept held by peoples and cultures everywhere and everytime, applicable equally to gamelan, Gauguin, and the Great Falls, then I’m going to have to do it without this sort of empirical slight of hand. It may work in the natural sciences where it’s a bit safe to assume that there’s a certain phenomenon that doesn’t quite fit with our accepted theories, something we don’t understand and have to investigate by gathering data and constructing models according to the dominant paradigm, but, for something as abstract and abstruse as a basic philosophical notion that more than a few people have tried to either reduce to something else or deny altogether, you can’t assume it can be found in a few well-chosen examples, since you can’t even assume it can be found anywhere. It very well may not exist! If you don’t even bother to prove there is such a thing as beauty, whatever its metaphysical status may be—a real thing with “less than numerical unity” as Scotus might put it, or a universal transcendental ideal, or a social construct that exists as a sort of abstract object—then you’ve just begged a pretty serious question. Don’t go out setting to prove that beauty is something or other when you haven’t even shown that it is.

So you have to start from the a priori, from a nebulous and confusing realm of logic and pure truths. This is where things get nasty, and where the statements I make might just get me into serious trouble.

If you have to start from the a priori, you have to start from a sort of metaphysical and logical system that lets you make such non-empirical judgments, that allows you to use these transcendent truths—indeed, admits that there are transcendent truths—as the basis of any argument. In short, if you want a coherent aesthetics that doesn’t reduce beauty to some other concept or to mere tastes, you’ve just committed yourself to a certain sort of metaphysics—and, dare I say it, not one of the strictly materialistic ones currently in vogue. Much as I like David Lewis, Humean supervenience is an explicitly reductionist theory, one in which higher-order concepts like beauty are eventually reduced to mere combinations of material matters of fact; it’s hard to see how a universal ideal could be explained by pointing to material facts, except, perhaps, as a posited social construct or as some sort of evolved “art instinct,” as another fashionable school of thought these days would have it.**

If your metaphysics doesn’t allow for transcendental entities or ideas, even highly abstract and rarified ones, or your logic won’t let you make purely a priori judgments, then you’ll never have an aesthetics that actually gets you a concept of beauty. Which means that aesthetics can’t be entirely neutral regarding logic or metaphysics; while there may be, and probably are, several metaphysical or logical systems that would work, there are also several that, quite plainly, just won’t.

So the problem of connections is right there from the beginning, as we can’t devise an aesthetics without defending some metaphysical system first. It’s also there at the end—or at least the end “for which,” rather than “of which.” A good deal of art is (or was) created for a didactic or propaganda purpose, espousing some moral or social viewpoint; even that which isn’t an explicit social commentary is often intended to communicate some idea or emotion. This “universal language of art”*** can be effective, but also trite, overblown, or overly moralistic—or it could just be that trying to communicate some moral or social ideal is something either antithetical to beauty or just irrelevant. Once more, if you can derive a moral imperative out of looking at Yosemite, something inherent in that vista rather than simply being inspired by looking at it, I’d like to hear it.

Then there’s also what utility has to do with this. While part of this may be a personal prejudice—I’m a potter when I’m not combining philosophy, pottery, and bikes in some way,**** and I’ve dabbled in metalwork, glassblowing, graphic design, and calligraphy at various points, besides the general interest in bookmaking and letterpress—I’m pretty sure that useful objects can be just as beautiful as intentionally useless ones, like paintings, sculptures, or orchestral music. What’s odd about this is that so much of what we consider “fine art” is in the category of things that serve no useful purpose except, perhaps, contemplation or entertainment—things you can hang on a wall or play in a theater, but not drink water from or live in. It’s an extreme form of Kant’s explication of the beautiful (“Beauty is an object’s form of purposiveness insofar as it is perceived in the object without the presentation of a purpose”), where beautiful things are not simply beautiful in addition to being useful, but beautiful and cannot be useful. Even Kant’s footnote here—and, let’s be honest, footnotes can be more important in Kant than the text itself—seems to imply this distinction, with him contrasting an axe head with features whose purpose we do not know, but do know they have a purpose, with a tulip, “whose purposiveness, given how we are judging the flower, we do not refer to any purpose whatever.”

If you really want to hack off a bunch of people not always known for their irascibility, tell folks who do fine or traditional crafts that what they do isn’t fine art or “creative,” like the British government pretty well did earlier this year by including marketing and sales managers but not skilled crafts in a prescriptive list of creative occupations. It also seems odd to suppose that truly beautiful but useful objects like San Ildefonso blackware or elaborately worked chalices aren’t beautiful, simply because they’re also useful.

But there’s also another dimension to utility, a moral or persuasive one. Is art that successfully advocates for a certain ethical, political, or philosophical position greater or more beautiful than one that doesn’t? Is there a point at which advocating for a cause becomes propaganda and schlock, no matter how skillfully executed the form? I know I mentioned this earlier, but, if you hold that joining beauty and utility destroys beauty, then you’re stuck with a world where art is devoid of much of its meaning, save being merely pretty. Pretty ain’t always beautiful.

Oh, right, that big one: our Ideal Theory should explain the difference between the tasteful, liked, or merely pretty and the actually beautiful. This would go a long way in explaining the appeal of kitch, perhaps (and demolishing some of the excesses of bad postmodern arté), but also help explain why things that are outright ugly—Frances Bacon paintings, for instance—can still be beautiful. I think there’s more than a subjective/objective divide here (though that’s certainly part of it) since “just because nobody/everybody/the right people/the wrong people like it” doesn’t mean it’s good or bad (see my above ranting on casuistry), just that an empirical sample likes it or doesn’t; again, we should be able to cook up a theory that works everywhere and for everyone, a theory based on transcendentals rather than taste.

So that’s a pretty tall order, no? I think I hit some of the bigger complications, but probably nowhere near any of them. Not to worry, that’s what the comments section and later posts are for.*****

*I’ve had professors argue that portraiture is the highest form of art, because, in it, you can see a person who has realized their telos. I see someone creating an eternal and timeless fiction, one designed to annihilate the real person who existed, creating a crystallized double who exists only in the overblown megalomaniacal imagination. Your mileage may vary.
**Properly shredding this question-begging piece of fashionable shit is a matter for another post, but if you want an example of confusing taste with beauty/causistry/limited application of “beauty” to a certain class of things, may I suggest you start with this?
***Again, limited experience with only the things you understand and that fit your definition of “art” leads to thinking everybody has the same understanding of semiotic cues, interpretive schema, and conceptual apparati you do. All my ranting about Paul Delvaux and wabi-sabi should be enough to make that clear – as should a quick trip through a postmodern novel or dramatic work that plays with the ambiguity of signs and how easily they can be subverted. Music is a universal language only to people with a very limited universe.
****Seriously, it makes sense! It works! I…I have a bowl I made that I keep at the bike shop I work at that I use to explain wabi-sabi. That counts, right?
*****Seriously, have I been working on this thing for four weeks now? Sheesh. Even the easy topic’s not so easy, is it?
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One thought on “What Should Aesthetics Do?

  1. These ideas emerged from thinking about music, abstract art and natural beauty. I don’t think beauty is anything metaphysical. It is also not a concept in the sense of heaving a defined intension or extension.,
    I see the experience of beauty (a very real emotion) as an experience of success of discovering order in perception. Its purpose in evolution is to reward discovery of order which is of prime importance for survival. It depends on your previous knowledge (which in turn depends on culture) and therefore it may be different from one individual to the next and different at similar times in the same individual. These ideas are connected to attempts by some people (notably Max Bense) to define measures of beauty in terms of order and disorder, especially in terms of information theory. However, Bense just defined mathematical measures while I am trying to explain the function of beauty in perception.
    If I am on the right track with this, it should be possible to develop this into a scientific theory (in perception psychology/neuroscience). The challenge is that the experience of beauty depends on the knowledge of the perceiving person which is individually different and shifting in creative processes, making it quite difficult to design experiments.
    I think these ideas can also be applied to representational art, i.e. if a semantic component comes in, although the processes will then tend to be more complex.
    My own ideas about this topic: http://asifoscope.org/2013/05/10/on-beauty/

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