The ancient Greeks were the pioneers in establishing the fundamentals of many areas of human inquiry. They were the first to write history in an analytical sense. Likewise, in philosophy, mathematics, and science the Greeks believed that human intelligence could explain the unknown.
Plato and Aristotle created the first and most important viewpoints on aesthetics. How is one to judge whether a work of art is of high quality or not? Plato’s philosophy was metaphysical. He believed that material objects were a reflection of a spiritual reality which exists in a higher, immaterial plane. This recalls the Buddhist notion of maya. In his Theory of Forms Plato posits that what we see around us consists of imperfect manifestations of the perfect, the metaphysical. A physical table would be an inferior reflection of the perfect Form of a table. A painting of a table would be a “third remove” and even more inferior compared to what Plato would consider the real, metaphysical table. According to this reasoning any work of art, by its nature, was of low merit.
In “The Republic” Plato creates one of the first utopias. He considers what role artists and writers would play in his ideal society. He argues that the poet is “the counterpart of the painter, for he resembles him in that his creations are inferior in respect of reality and …his appeal is to the inferior part of the soul.” This leads Plato to argue that creative expression is dangerous. “Its power to corrupt, with rare exceptions, even the better sort, is surely the chief cause for alarm.” Plato believed that creative expression could drive people to behave in socially unacceptable ways. Thus, Plato sees the necessity for censorship. What people experience needs to be guided because they cannot be trusted. They are vulnerable to unwelcome influence from creative expression. The belief that ideas and images require censorship has continued from Plato’s day to the present. Many in the United States hold to this view. In the world at large the contents of a novel can bring the author a death sentence, as is the case with Salman Rushdie.
Despite the fact that Aristotle was a student of Plato his aesthetic viewpoints were radically different from those of his teacher. He did not endorse a metaphysical perspective. He believed in empiricism, the view that knowledge derives from sense experience. Thus, what we perceive around us is real, not the pale reflection of a higher realm. In his “Poetics” Aristotle wrote about what he considered the most important features of tragic plays. “Tragedy is essentially an imitation…of action and life.” Here Aristotle establishes one of the key Western aesthetic viewpoints: creative expression should be realistic in style. Greater realism equals higher quality.
Another desirable component of a tragedy is structure. “A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes.” It needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. To Aristotle’s analytical mind this would support clarity of expression. An excellent tragedy requires “incidents arousing pity and fear wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions….Whenever the tragic deed…is done within the family…by brother on brother…by son on father…these are the situations the poet should seek after.” This recalls Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Aristotle saw stimulating emotion as beneficial whereas Plato was concerned that this would trigger unwelcome behavior.
The writer’s “function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen.” Therefore, “poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” Here Aristotle argues that the writer can be insightful in addressing issues of universal significance, such as the nature of human nature.
Taken together Aristotle’s viewpoints form the basis of one of the fundamental Western aesthetic standards. The best creative expression should be realistic in style, should have specific features such as structure, should engage issues of universal importance, and (when appropriate) stimulate catharsis. Aristotle’s ideas have been influential from his day to the present. They can be seen in the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance periods, among others. Thus, many contemporary perspectives and concerns regarding creative expression can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle.
Where is beauty located? Aristotle would say that beauty resides in the object itself. Thus the beauty of a sculpture or a temple would derive from considerations such as its mathematical proportions. If a temple had 6 columns across the front then a desirable number of columns along the side would be 13 (2x + 1). The sculptor Polykleitos took this same approach in developing an influential set of proportions for the figure.
This objective viewpoint was challenged in the 18th Century by David Hume and others. In “Of the Standard of Taste” Hume supported a subjective viewpoint on Aesthetics when he wrote that “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them and each mind perceives a different beauty.” If this is so then how can one judge whether a work of art is of high quality or not? “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste: a rule, by which the various sentiments of man may be reconciled.” According to the subjective approach everyone is entitled to their own judgment. How can aesthetic disagreements be resolved? Is the work of Thomas Kinkade to be judged as of high quality or not?
Hume argues that the judgments of some critics are superior to those of others. The excellent critic will have an elevated sense of perception, will be objective, and will practice comparison to arrive at a conclusion. “The…verdict of such…is the true standard of taste and beauty.” Hume offers a solution to formulating persuasive judgments of aesthetic quality when the subjective view predominates. His approach is as valuable today as it was in his own time.
Immanuel Kant is one of the most influential Western philosophers. In his “Critique of Judgment” he presents aesthetic ideas which are a radical departure from what had gone before. He argues that there are two types of beauty: accessory versus free. Accessory beauty requires a concept. It has a function and is intended to do something such as communicate a religious or a political message. Free beauty does not have a concept and Kant sees it as superior to accessory beauty. “The foliage on borders or on wallpaper, etc, mean nothing on their own, they represent…nothing…and are free beauties. When we judge free beauty (according to mere form) then our judgment of taste is pure.”
Here Kant helped to establish an aesthetic standard based on abstraction in contrast to the standard of excellence based on realism. This opens the door to the notion of art for art’s sake where a painting is created to be contemplated aesthetically rather than having a mundane function. This leads to the view that abtract art is superior precisely because it is freed from practical considerations. Kant was writing in 1790 and his viewpoint is remarkable considering that he did not have abstract art to base his point of view on. He had to rely on the decorative designs which could be found on wallpaper.
Clive Bell wrote “Art” in 1914. He wanted to give philosophical support to Postimpressionism in Britain. If art is not representational, if the degree of realism is not the key to determining its quality, then what is? Bell answered this by proposing the conept of significant form. Significant form is a quality in which “lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions…people who cannot feel pure aesthetic emotions remember pictures by their subjects; whereas people who can, as often as not, have no idea what the subject of a picture is…they are concerned only with lines and colors…but from these they win an emotion more profound and far more sublime than any that can be given by the description of facts and ideas.” Thus Bell joins Kant in seeing abstract art as superior to representational art.
Creative expression in recent times is very diverse. The realism of a Mark Tansey or a Kevin Kelly exists along with the abstraction of a Nancy Graves or a Paige Williams. It is valuable to have an awareness of the origins of some of the most important aesthetic perspectives. This informs and enriches an appreciation of the contemporary.
Jay Zumeta, Professor in the Department of Liberal Arts, has taught for many years at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.