Aesthetics, Problems of

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The philosophical discipline of aesthetics deals with conceptual problems arising out of the critical examination of art and the aesthetic. Monroe Beardsley subtitled his 1958 book on general aesthetics Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, implying that aesthetics is about philosophical concepts that are usedoften unthinkinglyby critics of the arts, when they say that a work of art such as a painting is beautiful or has aesthetic value, that it represents some subject matter, has a well-composed form, is in a particular style, and expresses some emotion. But aesthetics also deals more broadly with the aesthetics of nature (Budd 1996, Carlson 2000) and gardens (Ross 1998), and with the aesthetic appreciation of objects and activities in everyday life (Dewey 1934). And even when focused on the arts, philosophical aesthetics is concerned with the philosophical problems that arise from the artist's point of view as well as the critic's. Thus creativity, expression, representation, form, and style are problems that can be addressed from the artist's point of view as well as the spectator's. Moreover, "the philosophy of criticism" does not do justice to the breadth of concerns addressed by philosophical aesthetics today. Some of the thorniest issues in aesthetics relate directly to problems in general philosophy: What is aesthetic value? Do the arts provide knowledge? Is there a special kind of aesthetic experience or aesthetic perception?

Most of the questions that come up in theorizing about particular art formsthe philosophy of literature, the theory of the visual arts, the philosophy of music, the philosophy of film, environmental arts and so onare general questions having implications for other art forms. Some theorists, however, think that the individual arts come with their own unique sets of philosophical problems (Kivy 1997). The problem of the experience and value of absolute music, for example, does not have a clear parallel in any of the other arts, including the other abstract arts (Kivy 1990). Authenticity is a particular problem in the performing arts such as dance and music. But for the most part, questions in the philosophy of art have general application across the arts. Thus the problem of the nature of fictional characters has usually been taken to be a problem about literature, but representational works of visual art also contain fictional people, objects and events (Walton 1990). Similarly, the question as to why people get emotionally involved with fictional characters may seem to be unique to films and novels (Carroll 1990, Currie 1990, Feagin 1996, Lamarque 1996), but it applies equally to fictions in works of visual art. Again, the question why people enjoy tragedies is not peculiar to tragedies: It is the same kind of question as the question why do people listen to sad music if it makes them feel sad (Davies 1994, Levinson 1990)?

This brief overview first discusses the aesthetic in general and then turns to problems peculiar to the arts. It ends with some general remarks about how aesthetics connects to more general questions about knowledge, emotion, and value. Some effort has been made to point out how the most important concepts of aesthetics came to be considered important. The tendency of late-twentieth-century philosophyespecially analytic philosophyhas been to treat the problems of aesthetics as timeless problems having correct answers that will be true of all art works and aesthetic experiences no matter where or when they occur. But if one approaches aesthetics with an eye to the historical background from which its characteristic problems emerged, one will have a better sense not only of what those problems are but also of the different ways they have been conceptualized and why.

The Aesthetic

What is the realm of the aesthetic? Should it be thought of as a special kind of pleasure, or, more broadly, as a special kind of experience, as a special type of judgment, as a special type of attitude toward the world, or as a special type of quality? All these options have been pursued. The term "aesthetics" derives from the Greek word aesthesis, meaning "perception." The German rationalist philosopher Alexander Baumgarten coined the term in 1735 to mean the science of "sensory perception," which was designed to contrast with logic, the science of "intellect" (Baumgarten 1954), and ever since, the term "aesthetic" has kept its connotation as having an essential connection to the perceptually discriminable.

Although German rationalism gave the field of aesthetics its name and a rationale, it was the British empiricists who established aesthetics as a philosophical discipline and who set the agenda for its subsequent development. The problem that chiefly exercised the eighteenth century thinkers in aesthetics was the nature of aesthetic pleasure and of aesthetic judgment, the judgment of "taste." If aesthetics were to be a serious philosophical discipline, then presumably there must be principles that would justify aesthetic judgments, and distinguish them from mere assertions of liking or disliking. At the same time it was taken for granted by the empiricists that aesthetic judgments depend on subjective feelings of pleasure. For Hutcheson (1973), Hume, and their successors, the aesthetic judgment was primarily a judgment that something is beautiful. So the challenge was to figure out if there was a special kind of pleasure that was the proper response to beauty or a special kind of judgment that was being made when one judged an object beautiful.


The concept of beauty was an heirloom of ancient and Medieval philosophy. For Plato (1953), only the Idea of Beauty is really beautiful, since everything else is only beautiful in one respect or at one time rather than another or by comparison with one thing and not another. Beautiful people and things can only approach the Form of Beauty. The Medievals, under the influence of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, thought of beauty, the good, and other perfections, as true in the strictest sense only of the highest level of reality. Christianity echoed this idea in the doctrine that beauty is one of God's perfections. In this framework the beauty of the world is derivative from "an image and reflection of Ideal Beauty" (Eco 1986, p. 17). Augustine, for example, believed that a person possesses beauty of body or soul only to the degree that he or she approximates God's perfect beauty. Such a conception of beauty is a far cry from the way it has come to be thought about in modern aesthetics.

Since the Enlightenment, beauty has by and large no longer been regarded as having or being an ethical or religious value. Instead, the eighteenth-century empiricists thought of it simply as the capacity of an object to produce a particular kind of pleasurable experience. The judgment that something is beautiful was the paradigm of what they called the aesthetic judgment or judgment of taste. If, however, the judgment that something is beautiful is not to be a mere statement of liking or preference, then there must be a standard of taste, a principle of justification for claims that something is beautiful which nevertheless preserves the insight that judgments of the beautiful are based on subjective feelings of pleasure. It is this formulation of the problem of beauty and the aesthetic that has come down to us and which continues to exercise theorists.

The Aesthetic Judgment

The empiricists rejected the idea that there are universal standards of beauty: The great variety of beautiful things suggests that there are no general canons or rules of beauty as assumed by some classical writers in the Renaissance. Hutcheson thought that the classical idea of "unity in variety" is the one property that reliably evokes aesthetic pleasure (Hutcheson 1973), but whether something has the right degree of unity or variety is itself problematic. Hume famously solved the dilemma by arguing that we are all so constituted as to be pleased by the same sorts of objects in nature and works of art but that we do not all have the same background of experience, delicacy of taste, good sense, ability to make comparisons and lack of prejudice that we ideally could and should have (Hume 1985). Those who have these abilities in the highest degree are the "ideal critics" to whom the rest of us should defer about what is beautiful, and in theory these ideal critics will all agree with one another. Even Hume himself, however, suspected that this would not do entirely, pointing out that younger people have different tastes from older, and that people from one culture might take no pleasure in the art of another if the values it assumes and promotes are sufficiently alien. Today, Marxist critics, reader-response theorists and feminist critics have all emphasized the difficulty of generalizing about the responses of perceptive critics with different background assumptions and points of view.

Kant and Formalism

After Hume, Kant (2000) gave an equally famous a priori argument that judgments of taste, though based on subjective feelings of pleasure, lay claim to universality because the pleasure in question is neither pleasure in the sensuously pleasing nor pleasure in the useful, but a disinterested pleasure that arises from the harmonious free play of imagination and understanding, which are cognitive faculties common to all rational human beings. Since it derives from these shared abilities, this pleasure is itself shareable and communicable. Kant thought that an aesthetic judgment is disinterested because it is not addressed to anything in which we have an interest or personal stake but instead is a judgment about the form of an object. The object of aesthetic judgment is "purposiveness without purpose," the appearance something has of having being harmoniously put together for some end even though it lacks any specific end. Kant's examples of aesthetic judgment are drawn primarily from the beauties of nature such as the shape and sweetness of the rose, but his ideas were influential in fixing attention on the formal aspects of art works as well. Kant himself emphasized the role of art works in producing "aesthetic ideas," but critics who focus exclusively on the early part of the Critique of Judgment have found there a justification for the view that with respect to both nature and art, the aesthetic judgment or judgment of taste is directed exclusively to formal qualities. This idea no doubt ultimately derives from the classical notion that measure and symmetry are important or even definitive of beauty.

At any rate, Kant has, perhaps unjustly, been seen as the main source of formalism, the idea that the most or only important features of a work of art are its formal qualities. To twentieth-century critics of painting such as Clive Bell and Clement Greenberg, this means that only color, line, and shape, and their inter-relations are of aesthetic importance and that content is aesthetically irrelevant. In music it is the doctrine that only structure is important. In literature, formalists have emphasized the structures of plots in narratives and the use of imagery and other rhetorical devices in poetry. There is something to be said for formalismit draws people's attention to what is truly artistic in a work of art, the "art" with which it is put togetherbut it assumes a distinction between form and content that is very difficultperhaps impossibleto make out.

Bell (1914) thought art could be defined as "significant form," suggesting that two paintings can imitate or represent the very same thingthe Virgin, say, or a field full of cowsyet one can be art and the other not, because of the way the artist has rendered the form of the work. Bell was part of the Art for Art's Sake movement that swept England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The emphasis on form is congenial to critics of the abstract arts such as architecture and instrumental music, but it is far less plausible for such arts as literature and photography. Moreover, as has often been pointed out, Bell seems to be defining good art rather than art simpliciter, and in defining good art, he is attributing to it his own favored criterion of value.

Aesthetic Qualities, Aesthetic Experience, Aesthetic Attitude

In the early eighteenth century the paradigm of an aesthetic judgment was taken to be the judgment that something is beautiful; and the beautiful was explained in terms of pleasure. In the later part of the century, however, the notion of aesthetic judgment was expanded to include judgments of the picturesque and the sublime, but the judgment of the sublime is no longer wholly pleasurable. Burke described the source of the feeling of the sublime as "whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger" such as vastness, power and obscurity (Burke 1909, p. 36).

Once aesthetic judgments were no longer directed solely at the beautiful, the way was clear for thinking of the aesthetic not as one particular kind of pleasure or as one particular kind of judgment, but rather as a certain kind of quality of an object. Beauty and sublimity might then be merely two among a much broader class of aesthetic qualities, such as "dainty," "garish," "delicate," "insipid," and so on. One question raised by expanding the range of aesthetic qualities is whether all aesthetic qualities are correctly describable as formal qualities. Frank Sibley, who initiated the modern discussion of aesthetic qualities, includes on his list of examples not only clear-cut examples of formal qualities, such as "graceful" and "garish," but also qualities such as "melancholy," which are usually thought of as expressive properties, a special subset of aesthetic qualities (Sibley 1959).

Interestingly, very similar questions arise in connection with aesthetic qualities as formerly arose about beauty: Are they intrinsic or mind-dependent qualities? And if they are mind-dependent, do they behave like colors which are perceived similarly by everybody with properly functioning eyes, or are they more like the taste of curry or cilantro, which is perceived as delicious and piquant by some and disgusting by others? Is there a set of ideal critics, as Hume proposed, whose faculties are keener than those of the rest of us and who should be the true judges of aesthetic qualities? These are questions that are still being hotly debated.

The notion of a special aesthetic pleasure or aesthetic perception has also broadened since the eighteenth century into the more general concept of aesthetic experience. John Dewey is partly responsible for this change in emphasis. He wanted to stress the importance of having "experiences" in daily life that have the same wholeness, richness, and sense of integration that are characteristic of our encounters with works of art. Other theorists (for example, Schopenhauer [1958] and Stolnitz [1960]) have insisted that what marks out the aesthetic is a special kind of attitude, that should be taken to works of art but that can in theory be taken to anything whatsoever. It turns out that the aesthetic attitude has many of the features of an aesthetic judgment: It is a special kind of disinterested contemplation, often taking the form of an object or art work as the focus of attention.

The Theory of the Arts: Imitation and Representation

The idea that poetry and painting are arts of imitation derives from Plato, who likened imitations to shadows and reflections, and as such, he thought, led away from rather than toward the truth. Aristotle, too, thought that the arts of poetry and painting were imitations of reality, but, unlike Plato, he thought that we learn from imitations and that we take pleasure in doing so. Plato and Aristotle were the first in the western tradition to theorize about poetry and painting as arts of imitation, but they did not think of them as a special category of "fine arts" or Art with a capital "A." The Ancient Greeks had no concept of "the aesthetic" (Sparshott 1982). The arts of painting and sculpture were varieties of technē or craft. The word "art" derives from the Latinized form of the Greek technē, meaning a "corpus of knowledge and skills organized for the production of changes of a specific kind in matter of a specific kind," like the arts of cobbling or leatherwork (Sparshott 1982, p. 26). The art of poetry had a more important educational role as a source of moral education but it too is an art of imitation. In the Renaissance and the Enlightenment under the influence of Aristotle and his descendants in the classical period, it became a commonplace that poems and paintings imitated or represented the world.

The first attempt to systematize the fine arts came in 1746 when the abbé Batteux grouped together poetry, painting, sculpture, dance and music under the rubric of the imitation of beautiful nature. This was a revolutionary idea in that it categorized together craftsmen such as sculptors and painters with the more highly educated poets, and implied that all the practitioners of the fine arts provided representations of the world that were potential sources of knowledge (Kristeller 19511952). Once the idea of the fine arts was established, it was possible to search for traits that they all have in common, and the search for a definition of the fine arts and eventually of "Art" was born.

From the beginning, the search for a definition has been challenged by the multiplicity of the arts. Thus the idea that the arts imitate or represent beautiful nature may have seemed plausible in the age of Pheidias and Praxiteles who made realistic but highly idealized sculptures of the human body, and similarly in the High Renaissance when the beautiful paintings of Raphael and Leonardo imitated the beautiful female form in their paintings of the Virgin, but the arts of "pure" music and dance are not obviously imitating anything. Architecture, too, is only exceptionally an art of imitation. In the eighteenth-century synthesis of the fine arts as arts of the imitation of beautiful nature, we see an attempt to fit together two different conceptual traditions, on the one hand the new empiricist concern with aesthetic judgment, the judgment of beauty, and on the other hand the classical ideaderived from Plato and Aristotlethat the fine arts are arts of imitation. Although buildings, dances and music do not fit very well under the description of arts of imitation, they can certainly be beautiful by satisfying the formal demand for "unity within variety." We see here the beginnings of a clash which lasts to our own day, roughly speaking, the clash between thinking of the arts as aspiring to beauty of form or as seeking to show us the way things are in the world.

The idea that the arts are all arts of imitation has seemed more and more far-fetched in the contemporary world, where a tendency toward abstraction is the rule in the visual arts, and even literature has drawn attention to its formal aspects rather than the story it tells. Perhaps in some very broad sense the arts are "about" the world, but even this has been denied by some defenders of "absolute music" who see it rather as a means of escape from the world (Kivy 1990).

At the same time the notion of "imitation" has come under attack as an account of representation. Many works of art, such as representational paintings, photographs, films, and sculptures represent the world, but it does not seem right to say that they imitate it. The role of convention and style is too important in all these genres to make a comparison with a mirror image plausible. Widely discussed theories of pictorial representation include Ernst Gombrich's view that the history of realistic painting is a history of "making and matching" (Gombrich 1960), and Richard Wollheim's theory that pictorial representation rests upon a prior capacity people have for "seeing in" (Wollheim 1987). In literature, a distinction has been made between literary narratives that talk about the world in some sense but arguably do not represent it and literary dramas that do represent the world, but perhaps not in quite the same sense that pictures do. Kendall Walton thinks that representations in general should be analyzed in terms of the concept of what a work prescribes us to imagine (Walton 1990). When, for example, we encounter a pictorial representation of a water mill, we imagine of our act of seeing that it is a seeing of a watermill. His controversial theory of photography holds that, in contrast to paintings, we do not merely imagine but really see the object photographed that appears in the picture (Walton 1984).


In the Romantic period, artists and writers began to describe themselves not as merely imitating an inert reality but as expressing their own emotional perspectives on the world. Poetry, wrote Wordsworth in a famous phrase, is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" that are "recollected in tranquility" (Wordsworth 1963, p. 260). After the imitation theory, the next great attempt to define Art was the theory of art as expression. Kant had stressed the role of imagination in art, and the role of the genius that "gives the rule to art" (Kant 2000, p. 187), i.e. who makes up his own rules rather than obeys conventional canons. The Platonic notion of the craftsman who knew how to craft sculptures or poems and who was creative only insofar as he was inspired by the gods, gave way to the idea of the artist who used his creative imagination to come up with novel expressions of novel ideas and emotions.

Kant's notion that the mark of genius is to come up with "aesthetic ideas" was taken up by Hegel, who argued that art is one of the modes of consciousness whereby man reaches knowledge of Absolute Spirit; specifically it is that mode of consciousness whereby ideas are embodied in some sensuous form. For Hegel, then, art was an important means to knowledge, but it was a special kind of knowledge that could not be detached from the medium in which it is conveyed. The theorists of expression, including the idealist R. G. Collingwood and the pragmatist John Dewey, echoed some of these ideas, insisting that artistic expression is a cognitive activity, a matter of elucidating and articulating emotions (Collingwood 1938, Dewey 1934). Like Hegel, they seemed to think that the emotional attitude embodied in a poem or painting was unique to that poem or painting: Any change in color or line in a painting, any change in imagery or rhythm in a poem would change the emotion expressed. Some theorists stressed not so much personal expression as the communication of emotion from one person to another (Tolstoy 1960).

Just as the definition of art as the imitation of reality fits well with eighteenth-century poems and paintings, so the theory of art as expression fits best with Romantic and Expressionist poetry, music, sculpture and painting. Once again architecture is a problem: Most buildings do not seem to express the personal emotions and attitudes of their makers.

The concept of expression has proved malleable, however. More recent theories include Goodman's view that expression is metaphorical exemplification (Goodman 1976). In this sense a work of architecture can express some of its aesthetic properties, its gracefulness, its minatory look, its wit, and it can literally exemplify its mass, its solidity, and perhaps its style. Likewise, a piece of music can metaphorically exemplify its melancholy or jovial character. Other theorists have argued that expression is nothing but the possession of a certain sort of aesthetic property (Hospers 19541955), namely expressive properties such as "melancholy," "jovial," "witty," and "lively," and have disputed about whether these properties are possessed metaphorically or literally (Davies 1994). In this discussion, too, we see a clash of different conceptual traditions. The idea that art is expression is far removed from the notion that art has a special set of aesthetic properties called "expressive" properties.

The idea that art has expressive properties is not a very surprising revelation, but it does have the advantage of being true across a wide range of art works. By contrast the Romantic, idealist theory of art as expression fits poorly with most of the works made before the end of the eighteenth century. And although twentieth century modernist artists thought of themselves as "embodying" ideas and emotions in a medium just as Collingwood recommended, in the postmodern world artists seem to want to convey their ideas by any means possible rather than "embodying" them in a carefully constructed work of Collingwoodian expression. At the same time, however, many artists continue to talk about expressing themselves in their work.

The Institutional Theory of Art

The imitation theory, the theory of art as form, and the expression theory all seem incapable of providing a definition of art that covers all those things that people in Western societies generally want to count as art. Consequently, some have despaired of the possibility of defining art at all, and have retreated to the position that "art" is a "family resemblance" concept in Wittgenstein's sense (Weitz 1956). The more popular move, however, has been to look for a definition which does not appeal to "exhibited" properties such as the form of a work, its representational content or its expressive qualities, but rather to historical or contextual features of the work. Arthur Danto has proposed that we count something as art if there is an artistic theory behind it that links it to the history of art (Danto 1964, 1981). Just as the theory of art as imitation had its origins in the classical world and the theory of art as expression in the Romantic period, so Danto's theory is a response to the conceptual art of the late twentieth century, art that does not necessarily embody or exemplify its meaning but which needs to be decoded by those who have an understanding of "the artworld"an "atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art"in virtue of which the work counts as art (Danto 1964, p. 580). Again, the theory is most appropriate to works of "high" art that are made within and in recognition of the contemporary institutions of art. Work of folk artsuch as the tattoos and walrus tusk carvings of the ancient Inuitdo not fit very easily into this definition, because folk cultures often do not have a concept of "Art" as was developed in the West in the eighteenth century.

George Dickie has taken the concept of the artworld to refer not to a body of theory but to a particular group of peopleartists, curators, art critics, museum-goersand has argued that, roughly speaking, something is art if it is the sort of thing that is designed to be presented to members of the artworld (Dickie 1984). But if we understand the artworld is this way, then once again the theory will not happily apply in cultures where there are no curators, critics or museums, and nothing approaching an "artworld." Modern attempts to surmount this problem (Levinson 1990, 1996; Carroll 2001) have emphasized the historical dimension of art and art appreciation: Perhaps we can define art in terms of the kinds of intention with which art works have traditionally been made or by the kinds of responses they have traditionally invited.

Meaning and Interpretation

In insisting that art works require an artistic theory to justify them, Danto is emphasizing that all art works have artistic meaning and require interpretation : One cannot just contemplate the beauty of an artwork; one needs to grasp the ideas that lie behind it, ideas that may not even be manifest in the aesthetic surface, at least until the artist or her surrogate has pointed them out. In Goodman's Languages of Art, art works are conceived of, by analogy with language, as symbols in different kinds of symbol system. As in Danto's theory, art is meant to be interpreted and understood, rather than merely contemplated and appreciated. The idea that works require interpretation fits well with the ethos of modernism. Modernist works are often difficultone thinks of The Wasteland or the works of Schoenbergand they need to be interpreted. Postmodern works may sometimes be more playful but often they too are mystifying unless you know the theory behind them, for example the stories of Italo Calvino or the late works of architecture by Peter Eisenman.

But what is it to interpret a work of art? In the late twentieth century there developed a sharp divide between the approach taken by analytic philosophers of literature who tend to stress the importance of understanding the author's probable intentions in constructing a work (Levinson 1996, Stecker 2003) and the various approaches taken by continental thinkers. German reception theory saw interpretation as primarily determined by readers' responses rather than the artist's intentions (Iser 1978). Thinkers in the structuralist and poststructuralist tradition emphasize the importance of how readers or viewers decode or deconstruct art works, thereby uncovering an abundance of possible meanings permitted by the interweaving structures of a text as well as by their interactions with further texts (Barthes 1974, Derrida 1974). Marxist, Freudian, and feminist theorists have reinterpreted works from the past from the perspective of the contemporary reader's assumptions, that might well not have been shared by the author of the work. In both analytic and continental traditions, however, the importance of taking account of the cultural context of artist and reader has been stressed.

The rage for interpretation has even reached the aesthetics of nature. Instead of just contemplating the beauties of a waterfall, a flower or a mountain, it has been argued that we should base our appreciation on scientific knowledge about what we are looking at (Carlson 2000) and that the more we know about it the more aesthetically pleased we will become. To others this seems doubtful about much of our experience of nature (Budd 1996). They could argue that the Romantics who first fostered interest in the wilder aspects of nature were no experts in the sciences of botany or geology, but were deeply moved by nature all the same.


The question of interpretation is closely bound up with the ontological status of art works. What is it that we are interpreting when we interpret a work of art? On the face of it, paintings and sculptures and works of architecture are individual physical objects, whereas novels, symphonies, etchings and digital art works are types or abstract objects of some kind (Wollheim 1980). In addition, some arts are performing arts, requiring a performance in order to be experienced (Davies 2001). Performance arts such as dance and music raise additional questions about the authenticity of modern performances of older works. If performance practice has changed radically from when a piece was composed, are we really experiencing the work itself, a modified version of the work, or a wholly new work bearing some resemblance to the old?

Goodman distinguished allographic from autographic art forms, the former being identifiable as a structure or sequence of symbols, such as a novel, and the latter being identifiable only by means of the history of production of the artwork (Goodman 1976). One problem with this distinction is that even allographic art works may need to be distinguished by their history of production (Levinson 1990): if Smith in 2005 composes what we identify as Beethoven's Fifth in total ignorance of the "original" Beethoven's Fifth, he would on Goodman's view have composed the very same symphony. But if we take seriously the idea that a work of art is partly identified by when, where, and by whom it was made, then it would seem that Smith's "Fifth" is a different work. Confirming this conclusion is the fact that Smith's Fifth has different artistic and aesthetic qualities from Beethoven's, being conventional and derivative, predictable and old-fashioned.

Works of art are cultural objects, objects with cultural significance, so they cannot be treated simply as individuals like tables and chairs on the one hand or like abstract types such as the standard meter on the other. Whether a work of art is an individual or a type, it has to be identified partly by means of the cultural context that spawned it, hence the importance of the artist's intentions and the historical, geographical, and intellectual context in which the artist operated (Margolis 1999). From this point of view, interpretation is necessarily bound up with ontology. Not everyone agrees, of course. But those who think that ontological questions should be kept separate from questions about interpretation have some difficulty in explaining how this is to be accomplished.

Art and Knowledge

If art works are symbols that need to be pored over in order to release their meanings, then it is reasonable to expect them to advance our cognitive skills and to reveal truths about the world. This claim, however, has been controversial ever since Plato, who famously rejected the claims of poetry to knowledge, arguing that shadows and reflections lead away from rather than toward the truth. Aristotle, on the other hand, argued that poetry is more philosophical than history, because it is about universals rather than particulars, the probable rather than the actual (Janko 1987).

In the classical period, when the arts were thought of as arts of imitation, art works could be a means to knowledge in a very straightforward way: If a painting of Napoleon's Coronation is an imitation or representation of the coronation, then it can inform the world at large that Napoleon has been crowned emperor, what the event looked like, and how important it was. The absolute Idealists, however, made far weightier claims for art: For them it was a mode of knowledge of absolute Spirit. Shorn of its idealist underpinnings this idea can be seen to be a variety of a very old idea: that the artist is a special person with special insight into reality. In the Romantic period, when the arts were thought of as expressions of the artist's attitudes and emotions, the knowledge art works could be expected to provide was knowledge of the emotions, both the artist's and our own. The artist worked out his emotions for us in such a way that we can recreate them in imagination and thereby arrive at self-knowledge.

Current theories about the cognitive value of art are less ambitious. The tendency is to emphasize that works of art are not the best conduits for propositional scientific knowledge, but that they can teach us in other ways. Goodman stressed how paintings, sculptures, films and the other visual arts can teach us to become more adept at making perceptual discriminations of various kinds (Goodman 1976). Literary works in particular have often been thought to provide us with moral knowledge, knowledge of moral truths that can be expressed in propositional terms, as well as knowledge of how to live, how to balance different goods, how to treat one's friends and how to make moral decisions. Novels, films, plays and short stories are thought to be tailor-made to educate our emotions and teach us moral values (Nussbaum 1990, Robinson 2005). On the other hand, if we try to abstract what moral truths are taught by a great work of literature, the best we can often come up with is some banality that may not even be true: King Lear teaches us that love is exhibited in deeds, not words, Anna Karenina that misery ensues if you abandon your husband and children.

Art and Emotion

Goodman has suggested that in our appreciation of art works, the emotions function cognitively. This is an idea first found in Aristotle, who argues that the goal of tragedy is to evoke a catharsis of pity and fear. Although the meaning of "catharsis" has been much debated, nowadays it is usually thought to imply that the evocation of pity and fear is an aid to understanding, not just a fortuitous accompaniment of the tragedy. Aristotle is replying to Plato's denunciation of the art of tragedy as evoking emotions that weaken the moral fiber.

Goodman's idea is more general than Aristotle's. It suggests that understanding any kind of art work may be accomplished in part by having our emotions aroused. For example, feeling surprised, bewildered, and finally relieved by the way the themes and harmonies behave in a piece of music may alert us to the form or structure of the piece (Meyer 1956). Having our emotions aroused by the gradual unfolding of the plot of a novel may draw our attention to important structural high points. But in the literary case our emotions may also help us to understand not just the works of art themselves but also something of life itself. In responding sympathetically to how the characters are feeling and responding and what the significance of their various situations is, we learn what it is like to be in various unfamiliar situations. Responding sympathetically to characters in a novel can give us practice in understanding other people in real life (Feagin 1996, Carroll 2001). More generally, imaginative engagement with works of literature, film, painting and so on can broaden our imaginative horizons.

The Expression Theory insists that art works do not merely arouse emotions in audiences but also express emotions themselves. This means that an art work can contain a point of view or attitude that gets articulated in the work (Robinson 2005), as, for example, Wordsworth's famous poem articulates the emotions of a stranger, a wanderer, who feels "lonely as a cloud," but becomes happy when he comes across a joyous crowd of daffodils. Paintings too can contain such emotional points of view, for example Monet's The Seine in Thaw, painted after the death of his wife Camille, which Wollheim sees as an expression of mourning (Wollheim 1987).

Art and Value

Views about the value of art vary depending on what the essential features of art are taken to be (Budd 1995). For formalists, the value of art is likely to be purely aesthetic, the provision of aesthetic pleasure or aesthetic emotion (Bell 1914). Expression theorists value the arts for their ability to articulate the artist's emotions (Collingwood 1938, Dewey 1934) or to communicate emotions from one person to another (Tolstoy 1960). Cognitive theories of art stressing the meaning and interpretation of art works stress the cognitive values of art, its ability to improve our perceptual and emotional awareness of the world (Goodman 1976, Langer 1953). Of these kinds of value, aesthetic value seems to be a genuinely intrinsic value and a value intrinsic to art. Increased understanding and improved communication among people are no doubt intrinsic goods also, but they are not unique to the arts. By contrast, theories of art that define art in terms of its cultural context or the institutions that surround it do not seem to explain why art has value.

One problem that has been much discussed returns us to the origins of aesthetic theory in the eighteenth century. The question is whether the aesthetic value of the arts includes other sorts of value. Most thinkers on the subject have rejected the idea that monetary value has any bearing on aesthetic value, and most have also distinguished between the aesthetic value of an artwork and its value as a historical or archeological document. But there is no clear consensus on whether the value of art includes moral value, or whether we should keep a sharp divide between the realms of the moral and the aesthetic (Lamarque and Olsen 1994, Gaut 1998). Those who think that art works are primarily designed to provide aesthetic experiences (Beardsley 1958, Iseminger 2004), are more likely to think that moral value is irrelevant to aesthetic value. But to those who think that the arts are rich repositories of values of all sorts, including cognitive and emotional values (Goldman 1995), moral value will be just one more source of artistic value in a work.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Aesthetic Judgment; Aesthetic Qualities; Aesthetics, History of; Aristotle; Art, Value in; Batteux, Abbe Charles; Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb; Beardsley, Monroe C.; Beauty; Collingwood, Robin George; Continental Philosophy; Danto, Arthur; Dewey, John; Empiricism; Enlightenment; Feminist Aesthetics and Criticism; Goodman, Nelson; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hume, David; Hutcheson, Francis; Kant, Immanuel; Neoplatonism; Plato; Plotinus; Rationalism; Renaissance; Romanticism; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Sibley, Frank; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann; Wollheim, Richard.


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Jenefer Robinson (2005)