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What’s New in… Aesthetics

Kai Hammermeister on the beauty business.

Aesthetics is the philosophical investigation of art and the theory of beauty and opposite phenomena, like the ugly, the comical, the ironic, the grotesque and so on. The term comes from the Greek word aisthesis, meaning sensual perception. For a very long time in Western thought inquiries into art and into beauty were two very distinct affairs that need by no means overlap. All throughout the history of Western philosophy, beauty was treated together with the ideas of the good and the true as one of the aspects of being, i.e. as an ontological question. There was never much doubt in any philosopher’s mind that beauty is something praiseworthy and valuable. Ancient philosophers generally thought of beauty as an expression of the harmony of the cosmos, as Plato explains it in his late dialogue Timaios. For Plotinus the visible beauty of worldly things mirrored the divine beauty. This was also the basic approach that the Middle Ages took to beauty; by no means adverse to sensual pleasure, thinkers like Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century considered beautiful objects as luminous symbolizations of God’s glory.

The valuation of art, however, was very different. Plato criticized art in the Republic for being the imitation of real objects that in turn are imitations of ideas – and thus art turns out to be ontologically disappointingly weak. Only with the emergence of the discipline of philosophical aesthetics in the 18th century did art slowly assume a more prominent role in the thinking of philosophers. Aesthetics started out by placing more emphasis on the senses in the process of cognition. The British empiricists like Shaftesbury, Hume and Burke were the first to stress this sensual element also in relation to works of art. In Germany, Alexander Baumgarten and Moses Mendelssohn transformed the Baroque philosophy of Leibniz and Wolff by stating that although sensual perception might not grant the same precision of cognition as rationality, it still allows for insights into the perfection of the world. Aesthetics proper, however, begins with Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790) in which he separates the aesthetic judgment from the rational and moral judgement and thereby makes room for a unique mental faculty that deals with beauty and art. Kant’s formal aesthetics is still one of the most relevant texts in this tradition. His notion that we can never interpret a work of art for good because we can never place our perception of it under a concept remains one of the great insights of aesthetics.

For G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) the formal aspects of art were less important than its content. Art for him was one expression of the absolute spirit, and thus it changes both in content and importance throughout the ages. The Romantic philosophers such as Schelling, Solger and Novalis, put art at the highest pinnacle of their philosophical systems, because only art allows for the possibility of intellectual intuition, i.e. the mediation of freedom and determination, sensuality and rationality and so on. Idealist aesthetics came to an end with Schopenhauer who considered the contemplation of art as a means to escape the workings of the will and as granting us a moment of serenity. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) reversed this valuation and championed art as the great stimulant of life.

In the 20th century, aesthetic investigations generally were no longer integrated into a philosophical system, and yet aesthetics became one the most prolific areas of research and argument. But not all of these investigations were benevolent. In the mid 19th century, Kierkegaard had already demanded that the aesthetic state of mind must be overcome by the ethical state. In the 20th century, thinkers like Rudolf Bultmann and Emmanuel Levinas criticized art as a potential or actual obstacle to truth and responsibility.

But by and large, thinkers emphasized the importance of art, although philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that philosophical aesthetics must be overcome as a discipline, because it treats works of arts just like other objects, i.e. something that can be methodologically investigated and controlled. The general trend, however, was for aesthetics to become more and more prominent as a philosophical subject while traditional disciplines like metaphysics or epistemology fell out of favour. This increasing importance of aesthetics was primarily a development in the continental branch of philosophy, although in the past few decades the analytic school has been catching up.

Many contemporary aesthetic theories are not stunningly original contributions, but rather elaborations on traditional positions. All throughout the century, a strong neo-marxist strain can be detected that has transformed itself into a different kind of politically-critical aesthetic theory in the last quarter of the century. Neo-marxist theories of art, however, were for a long time rather prominent, as for example in the writings of Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Bloch or Jean-Paul Sartre. In the Frankfurt School, predominantly with Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, this approach was connected to a criticism of mass entertainment as destruction of the critical potential of high culture. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) took a rather different stance on technology and forms of entertainment like movies that he considered a progressive form of art. He judged the new medium of film as especially useful for resisting the aestheticization of politics practiced by the Nazis. Adorno thought this theory led to a regression of aesthetic perception, yet nevertheless Benjamin’s thesis became rather influential in the contemporary aesthetics of technology and media. Another influential model was Martin Heidegger’s theory of art that, in the wake of Romantic philosophy, insisted that the truth of art precedes that of science, and that the latter cannot operate without the former. Adorno, often seen as Heidegger’s antipode, advances pretty much the same idea thirty years later.

Aesthetics Today

One of the difficulties we face when trying to describe philosophical aesthetics today is that the boundaries of the subject have become rather permeable. This is mainly due to the fact that in the past three decades many academic fields like art history, musicology, literature and film studies have taken a theoretical turn and have begun to explore their own foundations. This often centres around questions regarding the nature of the object of study and the possible approaches to this object. These, however, are matters traditionally pondered by philosophical aesthetics. On the one hand, philosophy’s inquiry was certainly enriched by this renewed interest in the arts that was almost forced upon the philosophers by their colleagues in the other humanities departments. On the other hand, a good number of writers on literary theory etc. have dabbled in aesthetic questions without sufficient knowledge of the tradition and without clear notions of the problems at hand. Still, we would be hard put to sort truly philosophical aesthetics from the self-reflective texts of those disciplines that formerly used to treat their object mainly historically. Even within the work of one author, we might not be able to decide what is philosophy proper and what is commentary on art. Take Adorno, for instance: are his writings on the philosophy of new music, on opera or on Beethoven studies in musicology or philosophical aesthetics? Is there any reason that we should consider Jacques Derrida’s musings on deconstruction and art part of philosophical aesthetics, if we have to assign Peter Eisenman’s statements on his deconstructive architecture to the pile of artistic self-commentary? It seems obvious that we won’t be able to neatly separate texts which are philosophical from texts which are merely theoretical in a general sense. It also appears clear, however, that we wouldn’t gain much if we did know how to draw the line.

No matter how we label them, we are still able to distinguish a number of projects, concerns, movements and trends in contemporary reflections on art. Much like in artistic practice, though, none of the simultaneously existing possibilities seems to dominate – or if so, not for very long. Should we decide that we need more than a variety of aesthetics to select from, we might have to get used to the idea that we cannot disconnect the inquiry into art from our other philosophical concerns. This, however, is hardly a popular notion in the contemporary discourse.

Marxism and Feminism

Faced with this crowd of modern aesthetic approaches, it is difficult to know where to begin, but I shall start by considering the offspring of marxist aesthetics. The marxists have given up on the idea that an overarching social theory with powers of prediction is desirable or possible, but still they want art to have some function in the criticism of unfair social practices or dangerous tendencies of our society. A social and political agenda is also clearly expressed in the several versions of feminist aesthetics. They all argue that sensual perception is gender specific and due either to biological facts (sex) or social formation procedures (gender). The first wave of feminist aesthetics goes back to the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millet and examines the portrayal of women in art. (Silvia Bovenschen as a late student of the Frankfurt School continues this project). A second wave of feminist aesthetics shifted the questions to the differences of production of art by women. In France, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray advocated an écriture fèminine, and the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva associated the linguistic symbol with patriarchy and the pre-linguistic state with the feminine into which artistic creativity has to tap.

Green Aesthetics

Another version of a politically-oriented aesthetics with only one central concern is the aesthetics of ecology. This seems one of the more vibrant sub-genres at present. After Kant, few aesthetic theories tried to deal with natural beauty. Hegel explicitly excluded it from his aesthetics, and it was only brought back by Adorno in 1970. Ecologist aesthetics sees itself in the tradition of natural aesthetics, although it often advocates a return to a pre-modern, pre-Renaissance concept of nature and the landscape. Nature, the argument runs, must not be considered an object of contemplation, but rather the environment upon which we depend. Several theoreticians of ecological aesthetics take their clues from Heidegger or from Herbert Marcuse’s concept of nature as being a subject and thus being endowed with its own rights. As one practical consequence of ecologist aesthetics, landscape architecture and the art of gardening have experienced an increased estimation. Some aestheticians concerned with the destruction of nature, however, walk a fine line between philosophical argumentation and an advocacy of atmospheric improvements that tend towards a certain anti-intellectualism. (Gernot Böhme)

Postmodern Aesthetics

While the aesthetics of ecology turns to nature and regards technology as one of the problems, much postmodern aesthetic theory sees technology, especially in the form of new media, as the prime object of investigation. The basic assumption with this type of aesthetics is that our reality more and more turns out to be a fiction, a theory we might label ‘aesthetic constructivism’ (because there are several other types of constructivism around). If this holds true, though, it is easy to see that aesthetics is no longer the discipline that analyses art, but now it is called upon to think through the fictional nature of our reality. (Wolfgang Welsch)

Closely connected to this position is the one that analyses electronic media under the aspect of aesthetics. The sociologist Jean Baudrillard sees an aesthetics of simulation at work in today’s world in which the traditional aesthetic object has been dissolved in the process of its circulation through the media that takes place with ever increasing speed. This circulation, however, becomes aestheticized in turn, so that aesthetic judgments refer no longer to objects, but only to their electronic representations and the process of representation itself. Paul Virilio draws the consequence to again define aesthetics as a theory of perception of primarily space, time and velocity. Perception in the age of electronic media, however, is characterized by discontinuity and disfunctionality. Digital media have destroyed sensual perception, yet at the same time they provide us with a prosthetic replacement.

An antithesis to this postmodern media theory can be found in the compensation theory of Joachim Ritter and Odo Marquard. They argue that traditional works of art very well have a function in today’s world. Precisely because reality becomes more and more fictionalized in the process of continuous modernization and change, art preserves the traditions without which we cannot orient ourselves and without which no individual or communal life could take place.


In the context of postmodern aesthetics we should also take note of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s renewed emphasis on the sublime, which had been a central aesthetic category of the 18th century, but disappeared from the discussion with the end of idealism. Lyotard regards as sublime any clash of two argumentative positions that cannot be reconciled by recourse to common underlying structures of argumentation and thus has to remain open. Such sublimity points towards an absolute that also manifests itself in abstract painting.

Another French export in aesthetic theory is the deconstructive approach to art. The term was coined by Jacques Derrida in reference to Heidegger’s concept of destruction that aimed at the unearthing of the meaning of a term that got lost during the history of Western metaphysics. Deconstructive philosophy was popularized in university literature departments in the U.S., although it is a reading operation that is applied to all philosophical disciplines. Derrida’s reflections on aesthetics are characterized by a criticism of the notion of presence in representation. He emphasizes the element of blindness in all visual representation as a moment of failure embedded into the very origin of every picture. Thus, no artistic object can ever transmit the fullness of meaning or presence that we are taught to expect to find in it. The American critic Paul de Man advances similar insights as an antihermeneutical poetology. In his view all texts, but especially literary ones, are self-subversive. Drawing on the Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel’s notion of irony, he argues for an undecidability of all readings, because every reading constructs a meaning while at the same time undercutting it rhetorically.

Analytic Aesthetics

Finally, we must take a look at the aesthetic positions that the analytic branch of philosophy has developed in the past few decades. Analytic aesthetics can be understood as a metatheory of art discourses and aesthetics that aims at an analysis not of works of art themselves, but of propositions about art and beauty. In general, it proposes the establishment of criteria under which we are justified to use the term art when we refer to objects. Nelson Goodman advanced his theory of art in form of a theory of symbols. Art, just like science, is seen as one possible symbolic relationship to the world, and thus aesthetics should be understood basically as a version of epistemology. Richard Wollheim suggested that our understanding of art is analogous to our understanding of language, although works of art possess a greater freedom of interpretability. Arthur Danto, a philosopher who is also a renowned art critic, was brought to aesthetics through his encounter with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. Danto realized that no perceptible quality of this object distinguished it as art from its non-artistic counterpart (the brillo box in the supermarket). He concluded that it is ultimately the interpretative community (the art world) that determines whether we may refer to something as art or not. George Dickie developed this argument into an institutional theory of art, against which Wollheim in turn took a stance. Whereas Goodman wanted to bring back aesthetics into epistemology, Danto and Dickie reduced it to the ontological question.

Prospects of aesthetics

One can’t help feeling that a certain arbitrariness has invaded the field of philosophical aesthetics and turned it into something of a playpen for a multitude of theories of art. Is it true that we will have to embrace this hotchpotch of aesthetics as a manifestation of pluralism and in the name of equality of theories? Interesting and illuminating as many of these approaches are, they also seem to suffer from their self-limitation. Such limitation to the feminist or ecological cause, to digital media as prime carrier of aesthetic content, to undecidability as outcome or to the ontological question, however, might strike us as unsatisfactory given the emotive potential of art, its claims to truth and its insistence on moral relevance. We might want to argue that these aspects of aesthetics should continue to be a matter of debate among aestheticians.

Although philosophy will probably not find itself in a position again where it can present itself as a coherent system that allows for the integration of all its sub-genre, the divorce of aesthetics from other branches of thought like epistemology, ethics, metaphysics and political philosophy has probably rendered aesthetics a bit sterile. A reduction of the aesthetic to the ontological, as in some analytic philosophy, can also not satisfy. If aesthetics wants to survive its present popularity, it will probably have to reconsider those aspects of its tradition that linked it to morality, religion, truth, reconciliation of the divided self, political promise and storage of cultural memory. In the present heydays of aesthetics, it could be humbling to reflect that while art certainly is one of the most mysterious and enchanting expressions of our human existence, it might not be the most important one.

© Kai Hammermeister 1999

Kai Hammermeister wrote his dissertation with Richard Rorty, has published a number of pieces on aesthetics and a book on Gadamer that also deals a lot with art theory, has taught doctoral seminars on aesthetics, and is currently writing a critical history of German aesthetics from Kant to Adorno for Cambridge University Press.

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