Aesthetics and Art: An Important Distinction
While sometimes we lament or disparage the labels we confer onto objects or people, labels or distinctions can be useful. In our distant past, simple labels proved important for survival. Knowing which plants are “healthy” and which are “poisonous,” for instance, was crucial for our continued existence. And we need some labels, names, or distinctions to formulate ways of speaking about objects, situations, or people. Problems often arise when we use labels to reduce something into its simplest form. We can use labels with the disclaimer that they do not present a complete picture.
Aesthetics is a widely misunderstood word. People in design often equate it with something being “pretty.” And other people regularly conflate it with art. Philosophers strive to understand the world, and one important piece of that is to make distinctions. Yet when it comes to aesthetics, they are guilty of spending most of their time talking about art. While ideas about art overlap and connect with aesthetics, they are distinct. Entangling these two fields is not only a problem in philosophy, it is prevalent in neuroaesthetics and other types of empirical aesthetics, as scientists Marcos Nadal and Martin Skov point out in their article “A Farewell to Art: Aesthetics as a Topic in Psychology and Neuroscience.”
While both terms—aesthetics and philosophy of art—are inevitably flexible to allow for future ideas and objects to enter their respective folds, the distinctions between them can help clarify their primary focal points. Prior to explaining what each entails, we should note that there was a time when the two might have been even more intimately enmeshed, where the main focus of art was aesthetics. But even Hegel (1770-1831) begins his lengthy Lectures on Aesthetics by pointing out that he is really talking about art, but he conforms to people’s “misuse” of the word aesthetics. So, the conflation of these words is not new, but their separation is something that people continue to overlook.
Philosophers often address the broadest questions of a field or context. Rather than beginning with a specific object and asking about its aesthetics, they begin with broad concepts like beauty or taste. This is a generalization as their are exceptions, but Plato exemplified this practice of asking about core concepts and exploring how people use those ideas. Concepts, like justice, law, and knowledge, serve technical functions in certain fields or professions, but they also have wider implications. And we need to know how to think about them, in order to apply them in concrete contexts.
When it comes to aesthetics, philosophers try to understand concepts like beauty, taste, aesthetics experience, and the sublime. Going back to the precedent set by Plato, we see that he handled the questions of beauty and art in order to try to understand their foundational meaning. What comprises beauty? Are their any conditions that guarantee beauty or make it more probable to appear? Attempts at answering these questions has been ongoing, but asking them in our current situation helps clarify what we think. When examining the nature of beauty, for example, we can see that it shows up in many different places, not just art.
When it comes to philosophy of art, philosophers address questions and ideas exclusively focused on art or artists, which occasionally leads them to connect art and aesthetics. The main focus on art causes them to delve into the nature, purpose, and value of art. But also ideas about the artist, such as whether artists have any ethical responsibilities in their art-making.
I realize that I have not “defined” aesthetics and philosophy of art in any conclusive way here. That is intentional. As we begin looking into the history of aesthetics, themes and ideas from either field will appear, sometimes as distinct and other times as intimately connected. I want to allow the ideas to unfold, but it is also important to be aware that these are distinct categories of thought, even when they seem to be almost synonymous. Rather than trying to give a rigid definition, I wanted to only show that they are distinct and the general range of ideas that each encompasses.
We will begin diving into the world of Plato next time!
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