The Philosophy of Aesthetics: Art, Taste and Culture

Presentation to the Philosophy Forum, July, 2007

1.0 Definition of Art

1.1 Expressive statements and actions are part of the three orientations in linguistics; propositions of Truth, propositions of Justice, propositions of Beauty. Statements of Truth are verified by external correlation with the objective world. Statements of Justice are verified by mutual consent in the intersubjective world.

1.2 Pragmatically, statements of Beauty (sensuality and perception) are verified by sincere assertion in the subjective world and are expressed as taste. Art however also appears as a manifestation in the physical world; it also consists of all artifacts, technologies and the human manipulation of space and derivation of meaning ("found objects").

1.3 Contemporary New Zealand philosopher Denis Dutton (Aesthetic Universals, 2002) identifies seven universal features in aesthetic endeavour:
(i) It comes from technical expertise.
(ii) Art exists for art's sake. Its utility is independent of a technical function.
(iii) Artistic endeavours embody meaning through style.
(iv) Apropos (iii) artistic endeavours are subject to criticism.
(v) Artistic endeavours simulate experiences of the world with imitation (exceptions: abstract painting, most music)
(vi) The artistic endeavour expresses a dramatic focus.
(vii) Artistic works are hypothetical and imaginative.

2.0 Questions of Taste

2.1 Universal criteria concerning aesthetic judgement has proven to be elusive, although not for the want of numerous attempts. Immanual Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790) is one such famous attempt. Distinctions are drawn between the agreeable, based on sensory experience ("the cushion is gentle"); the good, based on ethical judgements; and the sublime and beautiful, which present themselves as "subjective universal" judgement with a "sensus communis". In contrast Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), had argued that the two were mutually exclusive. Beauty was well-formed, accentuated, and aesthetically pleasing whereas the Sublime was a power dangerous to the human capacity to appreciate and had potentially destructive qualities through its appeal to the unknown and unknowable.

2.2 In contrast to universal standards of taste, sociologically and anthropologically orientated considerations demonstrate variability in aesthetic standards across time and space which can be the result of tradition (e.g., the colour 'red' symbolising 'danger' in Europe to 'safety' in China), fashion (e.g., the change in taste concerning African artworks from Victorian to Edwardian England, changes philosophical and literary thought (e.g., the association with rationality in The Enlightenment to romanticism). Pierre Bourdieu criticises Kant's (and others) attempts to universalise aesthetics, claiming that it represents a class bias (Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste 1984).

2.3 According to the Frankfurt School, the commodification of art and culture bebases its capacity to produce meaning with substance, and in particular mass production of art controlled by the capitalist class (cf., essays in Dialectic of Enlightenment by Adorno and Horkheimer, The Aesthetic Dimension by Herbert Marcuse) and coined the phrase "the culture industry". They argue that bourgeois art ("high art") always retained an element of critical independence as the artist often had the capacity to produce their own meaning free of the demands of a commodified popular culture. Given the pretensions associated with the term "high art" it is perhaps best to draw the distinction between Free Art and Commercial Art.

3.0 Challenges to the Criteria of Taste

3.1 Challenges from aesthetic theory include attempts to create an "anti-art" through extreme functionalism, that is, produce artificacts and technologies that have no aesthetic value whatsoever, artistic performances which are deliberately attempting to resist interpretation, presenting random noice (e.g., Dada); arguably the aesthetic value is the absurdity. The twentieth century and onwards has also witnessed serious attempts to combine psychoanalysis with artistic endeavours (e.g., surrealism).