The Swing

History of Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art

The existence of art as a defined form and concept has a complex story, dating well back into human prehistory. By the time ancient civilizations flourished in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, India, China, and elsewhere, art -painting, sculpture, poetry, music, architecture- existed abundantly. In the history of Western thought on art, there have been many advances and discussions of beauty in ancient philosophical writing. These discussions of beauty and their relation to art forms were not clearly defined or valued as a critical study. The study of art as a more defined form and the advancement of ideas about the aesthetic of art originated in the eighteenth century, becoming a distinct philosophical topic. In this section, I will evaluate the evolution of artistic style, aesthetics and the philosophy of art. The philosophy of art has promoted both the internal and external relationship of beauty, nature, and creation.

The Beginning of Aesthetics in Art

The eighteenth century was an era that promoted the concept of aesthetics and originated the topic of art and nature. During the first decades of modern philosophy, the term aesthetics arose as a valuable tool to understand taste, imagination, and natural beauty. The term “aesthetics” was created and defined, courtesy of Alexander Baumgarten in 1735. Baumgarten introduced a new approach toward viewing art in his work “Aesthetica”. He established a new critical approach in which art theorists became interested in the study-rather than mere creation- of the beauty and inspiration in nature, art, and other human artifacts.

Baumgarten began a new discipline of understanding art through a moral rather than exclusively aesthetic framework. This approach did not focus on the features of the object that made them attractive but rather, attempted to understand the human reaction to art and what made these reactions possible. The creation of the philosophy of aesthetics was thus, an attempt to characterize the collective or individual judgement that an object (art piece) is valued. Art criticism created a broader understanding of art as an experience or containing a special set of values that directly correlated to the concept of the aesthetic.

Art before the Eighteenth Century

The art revolution in the 18th century is characterized by the transition from Rococo and Baroque to Neoclassicism. Baroque art that emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries, primarily characterized as depicting depth, three dimensionality, radiant colors, and emphasizing faith in church and state power. Baroque art was complex, intense, and was illusionist. The light and dark contrast produced a focus on three-dimensionality and dramatized the themes of lightness and darkness. The painting and sculptures were inspired to promote the Catholic Church during the Protestant reformation. The image below is an example of a  Baroque-style painting. Diego Valazquez uses the contrast of light and dark and images of Spanish royalty.

Baroque style
Painted in 1586 by El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz illustrates a Spanish legend.

Rococo as an art form arose in France at the turn of the 18th century, during the Enlightenment period. Rococo, originally inspired by Baroque art, diverted away from the symbolism of church and power. The Rococo art movement replaced the light and dark contrast to visualizing light as a central theme and depicting all forms of society, rather than a focus on the elite and the divine. The following image is an example of Rococo art, where light is more present and the images are lighter as well as a picnic of love.

Rococo style painting
Jean Antoine Watteau, “The Feast of Love,” 1718-19.

The Artistic Revolution

The Enlightenment in Europe was a period during the late eighteenth century through the early nineteenth century. A passion was aroused for ancient art and Renaissance, drawing from inspiration from classical artworks. New archeological discoveries encouraged an emphasis on historical significance and revival. One prominent development was the surveying and excavation in the mid 18th century of the ancient Roman city Pompeii, buried by Mount Vesuvius in the 1st century. The unique portrayal of Roman and thus Greek history that was discovered there, reintroduced ancient art and excitement. Neoclassism stepped into a new and revolutionary role as a widespread movement in painting and other visual arts, beginning in the 1760s. The neoclassical art took the form of recent archeological relevance, basing a lot of its inspiration on Greek and Roman themes. Pierre-Jaques Volaire’s was one of the great eighteenth century artists who found inspiration in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The style illustrates the Neo-classical agenda, adhering historically classic techniques and themes.

Mount Vesuvius
Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s painting An Eruption of Vesuvius by Moonlight (1774).

The Neoclassical era  was a step away from the Rococo style that dominated Europe previously. A new birth of science, historical discovery, and new societal attitudes was a strong basis for new artists to reimagine art and its forms. Neoclassical artists preferred straight lines over curves and color and a more generalized abstract approach. The historical and cultural significance of this time frame contributed to artists adopting different themes and subjects to focus upon. The Neoclassical painting styles used moral themes from traditional Roman history, concerning subject matters such as heroism, simplicity, and romantic tragedy. Painters attempted to emphasize the importance of setting; depicting subjects in specific costumes or detail to ensure as much historical accuracy as possible. The intention of Neoclassical artist was not only to create, but rather, to inform and reimagine history. “The Oath of Haratii” is considered by art critics to be one of the best known Neoclassical paintings. The story comes from an old legend about a conflict between the Romans and their revival. The men shown in the painting represent both sides of the dispute; Rome and Alba. The illustration is another great example of Roman history in Neo-classical inspiration.

Neoclassic art
Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, 1784

The Rise of Aesthetics in the Eighteenth Century

The emergence of Neoclassical art created a new philosophical discipline which began to view art in a radically different way. The reexamination of history, literature, painting, sculpture, and agriculture formed a basis for contemporary theorists concerned with finding the meaning and function of art. The enlightenment period put value on both new and old styles, but the functions of these differences created new questions about art creation and how it is valued. The biggest questions in philosophy ask what and why.

The origin of aesthetic value recognized the topics of taste, imagination, and natural beauty as a basis for understanding aesthetic judgement and art experience. What is taste? Is there a standard of taste and beauty in art appreciation? What is the relationship between one art form and another? The revolution of Neoclassical art opened a Pandora’s Box of questions for eighteenth century thinkers. The emergence of art perception placed a new aesthetic value on art and what it means to experience it. Pandoras box was a mythical legend in Greek and Roman history. The story goes that Pandora released all evil into the world by opening a forbidden vase. Bernard Picart was an exceptionally talented eighteenth century engraver. He embodies the beautiful tragedy of Pandora and her secret box through his sculpting.

Bernard Picart’s Pandora’s Box, an original etching and engraving, Temple of the Muses.

The Aesthetic Experience

Aesthetic value exists not only in art. There are many examples of everyday things that illustrate the nature of an aesthetic.  The decoration in a stylish cafe or both a visually appealing and tasteful meal could have aesthetic value. Consider sitting down to eat at a restaurant. The restaurant has soft jazz playing in the background, a candlelit dinner is in front of you and your food comes both well decorated and delicious. The aesthetic judgement is positive and pleasurable. The food and the music itself may not be aesthetic, but the experience that these properties cause, and the value of these sensations are an aesthetic experience.

 Aesthetic Theory and Judgment

Eighteenth century understandings of “aesthetic judgements” were called judgements of taste, causing an important question of whether an aesthetic is objective in value. David Hume, an enlightenment philosopher, contributed a great amount of thought to the value of judgement and taste. Writing in 1993. He thought that judgement of taste has, essentially, a “subjective aspect, being “derived” from individual reactions to pleasure and displeasure. Hume applied the understanding that the value of an object cannot be “good” or “bad” in an objective sense because, to put into the simplest of terms, each their own.

Aesthetic theory concerned shifts from examining whether or not art fits into traditional categories to explaining how art relates to man. The emphasis on historical value and variation of old and new styles, suggests that aesthetic appreciation is independent and self-sufficient. The reimagination of taste occurred along with a shift in social, cultural, and economic systems.The eighteenth century saw a decline in the patronage system and a new direction for middle-class values; freedom. Freedom to create, freedom focused away from the church and hierarchy. The Enlightenment diversified the creation of art by allowing a more diverse spectrum of style and taste; the changes in society and the importance of a more fluid time frame was a defining factor in how philosophers understood art and its functions.

 The Aesthetic Value of Art

The philosophy of art touches on a broader question and analysis of art. What makes art and why was an exciting new issue for philosophers in the eighteenth century and is still a remarkable debate. If aesthetic value in art is subjective, what then makes a work have artistic value? There must be a distinction between artistically valuable properties and other valuable properties. The new theories of philosophy of art had to differentiate artistic and non-artistic value. To understand the nature of art, it first had to be defined. A clearer definition of this abstract concept attempts to identify more clearly the difference between art and non-art. The aesthetic understanding of art can be explained as a creation for aesthetic value. However, it can be argued that not all art creates an aesthetic experience.

The variety of art created over time has required a more fluid approach to artistic experience. Some art pieces may even depict ugliness, such as the experience of war. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica for example, is a collection of disturbing and even horrifying images of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Viewing such a painting in itself, may not be a pleasurable experience, but the appreciation and context, connects the object with an art form. Philosophers of art have explored the importance of cognition and value in art. Art can explain or commemorate an event or idea and present both knowledge and understanding. The theory of taste and recognizing the “rules” in artwork was thus both a new and abstract dilemma.

Picasso painted Guernica at his home in Paris in response to the 26 April, 1937, bombing of Guernica.

The Importance of the Philosophy of Art

In the history of philosophy, the rise of aesthetics was a particularly interesting field of thought. The earliest understanding of aesthetics was based on then-current eighteenth century thought but also led to other great branches of philosophy such as moral, epistemological, or metaphysical. The basis of understanding art as a philosophical form was to try to understand the value and judgements that have historically been places on art creation. The experience of art and the dramatic changes that occurred throughout the early eighteenth and nineteenth century proves to be momentous in the emergence and understanding as art and its forms.

Art in Anthropology

Art is a phenomena that has been one of the most important expressions of human emotion and history. The idea of the aesthetic and formation of the philosophy of art created an important trend to understand the deeper meaning of art and its connection to the individual. The introduction of “taste” and “judgment” is revolutionary to art criticism and the contemporary conditions that art is seen through. The time frame between Neoclassism and the introduction of the philosophy of art is a critical period for both artistic viability and philosophical relevance. The effect of this period on creation and thought has laid a foundations  for contemporary art and what it means for individuals to relate to nature and our surroundings.

The anthropology of art studies and analysis of the wide range of creation that has been produced universally and historically. To truly understand and culture and its history one of the first places to find this knowledge is through art. Art is representative and deliberate. The importance of this article is to stress the intersectionality of art evolution, philosophical theory, and human society. Anthropologists of art, much like philosophers of art, interpret the importance of art as an evolutionary form for society, culture, and history.

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