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The Arts

Aesthetics and Philosophy: A Match Made in Heaven?

To introduce our art issue, Anja Steinbauer describes the troubled relationship between art and theory.

We might imagine aesthetics, the study of art and beauty, and philosophy as two unhappy partners in a failing relationship, coming to us seeking counselling. “You can’t give me anything”, aesthetics might complain, “you don’t help people appreciate art or beauty, you don’t make artists better at their creative activity. You have no contribution to make to the aesthetic experience whatsoever. I wish you’d simply get out of my life!” “You never listen to reason,” philosophy might grumble in reply, “You are just so messy, without principles. No universal truths to speak of.”

So what is the point of philosophical aesthetics? Why force aesthetics and philosophy together?

Scepticism about the merits and even the possibility of a philosophical aesthetics has been the subject of irreconcilable controversies among thinkers. It is by no means self-evident that problems of aesthetics should be an object of philosophy: many philosophers have held that issues relating to art and beauty cannot be the object of philosophical work. The rationalist thinkers simply denied aesthetics a place in their systems of thought, while positivist and neo-positivist thinkers argued that it could not be part of philosophical enquiry.

Although classical Greek philosophers commented about both art and beauty, they didn’t regard these problems as deserving a discipline of their own within philosophy. The classical tripartition of the subject into theoretical philosophy (what is there in the world and how can we know about it), practical philosophy (what should we do) and logic (how should we think) leaves open the question of where, if at all, aesthetics fits in. A philosophical aesthetics can be justified if it can be shown that it is meaningful to approach matters of an aesthetic nature philosophically. If this is the case, what are the implications for philosophy on the one hand, and for aesthetics on the other?

In recent times, a number of attempts have been made to determine the position of aesthetics. Thinkers such as Schelling and Nietzsche in their own ways sought to rehabilitate aesthetics to the degree that they even claimed this neglected field to be the highest form of philosophy. To most philosophers, however, reflections about aesthetics seem to be less important than epistemology or ethics. Even in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, it seems at first sight as if aesthetics came as an afterthought, made thematic only in the third of his famous three Critiques. However, it is in Kant’s system that aesthetics was for the first time assigned an autonomous place as a discipline within philosophy.

The importance of aesthetics to philosophy can, on reflection, not be denied: if philosophers want to explore what it means to be human, they must study this mysterious and significant ability of human beings to make aesthetic judgements. Why do we, for instance, claim that a sunset is beautiful? How do we decide this and what does it mean?

One of the most important questions asked by philosophical aesthetics – and one much discussed by contemporary thinkers – is that of the definition of ‘art’. The field is split between those who deny the possibility of there being necessary and sufficient conditions for something being a work of art, and the far greater group of those who have tried to lay down such conditions. The latter includes theories so diverse as Plato’s idea of art as representation (mimesis) and George Dickie’s institutional definition of art as “an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public.”

An interesting set of ideas about art, its context and its relation to philosophy comes from the American philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto. What makes something a work of art is not, says Danto, to be found by looking at its obvious properties. Danto believes that what “makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is.”

What are we, however, doing when we ask about the difference between a Brillo box in a supermarket and a Brillo box in an art gallery? Danto’s answer is that we are asking a philosophical question. Art now prompts us to do philosophy. Much of art today is about boundary testing of ‘art’: “Can this object be considered art?”, “What is art?” Danto argues that art is doing philosophy; art is collapsing into philosophy.

G.W.F. Hegel in the nineteenth century declared that art would in future no longer be a predominant mode of expression for human beings. Danto seems to agree: Art has nothing left to do. It has run itself out, and has as its only project a philosophical one, the definition of art. And that would much better be left to the philosophers.

Aesthetics and philosophy have been through some rocky times together, and it is likely that the debates about the nature of their relationship, their relative importance and limitations will continue. The marriage as such may be saved simply because the two partners need each other too much, but are they ever going to be happy?

© Dr Anja Steinbauer 2006

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