Exploring the meaning of the term "aesthetics"

When we discuss the aesthetic aspects of experience, we are employing "aesthetic" as an adjective that relates to the noun "experience". Aesthetic can also be used as a noun when it becomes a central topic for discussion; e.g., when we are engaged in the study of aesthetics. Reviewing the following three groups of questions will help to clarify the meaning of "aesthetics" as a domain to be investigated.

  • What are the subject and the theme of a particular work of art?
  • How are illusions of space and volume created?
  • What ideas and/or emotions are being expressed?

  • What social conditions existed when this particular work was created?
  • What artistic style is associated with this painting?
  • Who created this work of art?

  • How do ordinary and master works of art differ?
  • Why do works of art evoke emotional responses?
  • How are works of art different from other objects?

Which of these groups of questions relate to the area of aesthetics? The first group is concerned with identifying formal and expressive qualities in specific works of art, which implies engaging in art criticism. An interest in the socio-cultural context of particular works characterizes the second set of questions, which relate to art history. It is only the last set of questions that can be associated with the types of issues addressed by aestheticians, philosophers who study systematically the nature of art. When we discuss and argue and write about possible answers to these types of questions, we are engaged in activities that have occupied some philosophers for over 200 years. Philosophy is a field that is usually divided into three specialized areas:

  • speculative philosophy - concerned with metaphysics (first principles and causes) and epistemology (methods for gaining valid knowledge)
  • applied philosophy - relating philosophical concepts and methods to other fields (philosophy of science, philosophy of education, philosophy of history, etc.)
  • practical philosophy - concerned with ethics (worth of human actions, and judgments of what is right and good) and aesthetics (defining the nature of beauty and art, formulating principles governing its production and evaluation).

The area of aesthetics can be divided into five groupings of issues, questions and problems that are usually addressed by philosopher-aestheticians. When approached in ways that are relevant to particular groups, these areas can also be investigated by non-philosophers; e.g., students ranging from the primary grades through graduate school can also address the following questions in terms of their own levels of sophistication.

1) Defining what is and what is not art: what conditions must be present for something to be called art? what concepts enable us to identify qualities in works of art and the nature of its aesthetic form? what meanings can be conveyed by works of art?

2) Engaging in the aesthetic encounter and making valid responses to works of art: what is the nature of aesthetic experience? what are appropriate ways for looking at art? what does a work of art express?

3) Identifying standards and making critical judgments about art: what are the differences between personal preferences and objective judgments? can there be a set of standards for what is beautiful? how do we distinguish between beauty and ugliness?

4) Clarifying the role of the artist and the creative process: how does making art differ from other activities? what does it mean to be expressive, imaginative, or original?

5) Exploring the nature of the art world, and the relationships between art and ideology and morality: how do the meanings in works of art relate to the artist's culture? is art amoral? apolitical? are art forms part of other values? how does the "art world" relate to other cultural institutions?

There are, of course, no single "right" answers to these questions. It is when searching for the most logical, relevant and reasonable explanations and conclusions that one expands his or her understanding of and appreciation for the nature and values of art.