views updated May 08 2018


The term has been used in several significantly different ways since it was first introduced by A. G. Baumgarten (Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus, 1735), who defined it as "the science of sensory cognition." In one more recent but well-established use (as in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Cleveland), it embraces all comparatively broad and searching questions about art, its nature, conditions, and consequences, and is roughly equivalent to the philosophy and psychology of art. Many modern thinkers maintain a sharp distinction between psychological aesthetics, considered as a branch of empirical psychology, and philosophical aesthetics. Of these thinkers, some regard the latter as a special application of philosophical analysis to those problems that arise from reflection on the presuppositions and methodological principles of criticism, i.e., the description, interpretation, and evaluation of works of art. Others would define philosophical aesthetics as the investigation of the nature of art, of beauty, and of aesthetic value.

Each of the arts (and, it might be added, certain aspects of nature and of man) presents its own special problems to the aesthetician, for example, the alleged "meaning" of music, the relation between representation and design in visual art, and the relevance of truth and credibility to the greatness of literature. But there are also general problems that cut across these special ones. The aesthetic study of literature may begin with an examination of the foundations of literary criticism and with such questions as: Are explications of poems objective and interpersonally valid? What reasons can be given for judging a poem to be good, or better than another poem? Such questions, persistently pursued, lead to fundamental problems about the essential nature of poetry and of literature, about the relation of literature to the other arts, and about the values that may be ascribed to art in general. This article reviews three of these broad problems.

Theories of Art. The concept of the fine arts as a special class (comprising such major arts as painting, sculpture, architecture, music and literature as well as hundreds of minor arts, such as flower arranging and the fashioning of jewelry) is a modern achievement. It first clearly appears in Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe (1746), by the Abbé C. Batteux, and in D'Alembert's Discours préliminaire to the Encyclopédie (1751). The formation of this concept made it possible to state one of the fundamental aesthetic problems in the modern way: What is the common and central character of works of fine art (or art, for the purposes of the present discussion)? Much of the thinking about aesthetics in the past 200 years has been a search for a general theory of art. But the earliest sustained reflections on aesthetic problems, by Plato and Aristotle, as well as later medieval and Renaissance discussions of the similarities and differences among the arts, had led to important ideas (such as the idea of "imitation," Batteux's "single principle") that could be put to use by later aestheticians.

The various answers to the question, What is art?, may be placed in three main categories, though it will be evident that within each category there are many divergent views; and it must be borne in mind that individual philosophers may straddle two theories.

Referentialism. It was plain to those who first philosophized about art that at least some works of art are partly derivative from what is to be found in the world: the sculptor gives his figure a recognizable human visage; the dramatic poet presents the words and deeds of actual or possible people. The theory that art is essentially mimesis (still, for want of a better term, translated as imitation) was a reasonable generalization from these observations, since ancient visual art was representational and ancient music was wedded to dance and song. Under Plato's dialectical manipulations, mimesis took on several senses most prominently and pejoratively, the sense that the artist makes an image (phantasma ) or deceptive semblance (see Soph. 236B; Tim. 19D; Gorg. 46365; Rep. 600C). In Aristotle's use of the term (Poet. 1447a, 1460b), as applied to poetry and painting, no such denigration is implied.

Whatever else it has come to meanand it has meant many things in the course of its long history imitation involves some kind of reference of the work of art to the outside world by means of an important similarity between them, though with something left out or added (abstraction or distortion). Thus hegel's view that art embodies the Ideal in sensuous form (see Philosophy of Fine Art, tr. F. P. B. Osmaston, London, 1920, 1:53, 77, 154) and schopenhauer's that art embodies the Platonic Ideas (see The World as Will and Idea, book 3, tr. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, 4th ed. London, 1896, esp. 1:231, 252, 272) may be regarded as variants of the same theory (see plato; platonism). Sophisticated 20th-century versions of the theory of "imitation" hold that a work of art is an "iconic sign" [see C. W. Morris, "Esthetics and the Theory of Signs," Journal of Unified Science (Erkenntnis), Leipzig, 8:13150] or "presentational symbol" (see S. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, Cambridge 1942). A musical composition, for example, is said to designate a type of mental state or process in virtue of its kinetic similarity to its referent; in this view, every work of art is or contains a reference to the world outside it.

Expressionism. The source of the artist's creative impulse was the subject of speculation in the earliest times, as for example by Homer and Hesiod, who ascribed it to divine inspiration. Plato's observations on the "madness" or "frenzy" of the poet (see Phaedrus 245A; Ion 533E, 536B; Meno 99C) emphasized the artist's irrationality and lack of genuine wisdom. In this light a work of art has been understood by many as a manifestation, or objectification, of its creator's feelings.

The view of art as essentially expression of emotion was widely accepted during the Romantic period (cf. Wordsworth's description of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," 1800 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads ). In a more complicated form, as developed by Benedetto croce (Estetica, Milan 1902) and clarified by others (e.g., R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, Oxford 1938), the expression theory has become a pervasive influence in 20th-century aesthetics. Croce's identification of expression and intuition is variously interpreted; but his primary thesis, that through the act of expression the artist becomes able to articulate his own feelings and impressions, has been widely accepted.

Formalism. The self-containedness and self-sufficiency (that is, the high degree of unity and order) of works of art were somewhat emphasized by St. Augustine (see Vera Relig. 23.59; 41.77; Musica 1.13.28; Ordine 2.15.42; Lib. Arb. 2.16.42). Drawing on suggestions from Plato (Philebus 64E, 66AB) and Plotinus (Enneads 1.6.2), he developed the connection between beauty, order, and numerical proportion and related art to the divine order. The same interest in the internal nature of the aesthetic object is seen in St. Thomas's three conditions of beauty, integritas sive perfectio, debita proportio sive consonantia, and claritas (Summa theologiae 1a, 39.8; cf. 2a2ae, 145.2, 180.2).

These formal conceptsbut detached from metaphysical and theological contextscommended themselves to some 19th-century aestheticians who were eager to defend the autonomy of art against various encroachments: the neo-Hegelian reduction (or elevation) of art to a sensuous form of religion and philosophy; the realist theory that art is a mirror of social and cultural conditions; the socialist theory that art exists mainly to promote justice and human understanding. Eduard Hanslick, in his highly significant work, Vom Musikalisch-Schöne (Leipzig 1854), argued that the beauty of music is peculiar and internal to it, not depending on its relation to anything else.

This so-called formalist theory was generalized to the fine arts by Clive Bell (Art, London 1914) and Roger Fry (Vision and Design, London 1920) and has been defended in various qualified versions. Its insistence that literary works, for example, should be respected as objects in their own right has inspired such movements as Rus-sian formalism of the prerevolutionary and early postrevolutionary period, and the New Criticism of England and the United States, and it is reflected in such works of the phenomenological school as Roman Ingarden's Das Literarische Kunstwerk (Halle 1930).

Highly generalized theories like the foregoing are not always incompatible with each other. Indeed, they may be construed as attempts to answer different questions: the first group, questions about the semantics of art; the second group, questions about the pragmatics of art; and the third group, questions about the syntax of art (to borrow the terminology of C. Morris, "Foundations of the Theory of Signs," Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Chicago 1938). Nevertheless, these positions reflect significant differences of opinion about the factors that are basic and decisive in art; and the critic's assumptions about the precise nature and degree of autonomy that can be ascribed to art will have consequences for his practical criticism.

Aesthetic Value. The existence of criticism as a distinctive intellectual activity appears to presuppose that there is a certain "point of view" from which aesthetic objects are most appropriately regarded (the aesthetic point of view) and a special kind of "value" (aesthetic value) to be found, or at least looked for, in them. Criticism has almost always been taken to include the evaluation, or appraisal, of aesthetic objects, issuing in such judgments as "The Windhover is a good poem," or "This is a poor painting," which are normally supported by reasons ("The poem is subtle and profound," "The painting is disorganized"). Many of the fundamental issues in the philosophy of criticism concern the logic of critical reasoningwhether, for example, originality or success in fulfilling the author's intention ought to count as a relevant and convincing ground for judging a work to be good.

To justify the critic's appeal to certain reasonsor, in other words, his use of certain criteria of judgment seems to require the discrimination, or isolation, of aesthetic value. Once we are clear concerning what sort of goodness is to be sought in art, we can ask what features of the work are likely to enhance or to diminish that goodness. This is essentially the procedure followed by Aristotle when he asked what is the proper pleasure (oikeia hedone ) of tragedy, and proceeded to analyze those elements of tragedy that bear upon its tendency to provide this pleasure (see Poet. 1453b, 1459a, 1462b).

The attempt to work out a satisfactory account of aesthetic value encounters a number of very difficult problems, some of them pervasive in general value theory, some of them peculiar to aesthetics. They can be only very briefly indicated here.

Value and Beauty. Is aesthetic value the same as beauty? Until the concept of the sublime came to be considered seriously and carefully in the 18th century, judgments of aesthetic value were characteristically stated as judgments of beauty. In this usage, "This is a beautiful poem" means the same as "This is a good poem." Beauty is today more often considered as a ground of aesthetic value (the painting is good because it is beautiful), but not necessarily the sole ground, since expressive distortion may approach ugliness (or, some would say, achieve it); yet its power and vitality may make the painting great. (On this issue, contrast J. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, tr. J. F. Scanlan, New York 1930, with S. C. Pepper, Aesthetic Quality, New York 1937.)

Value and Naturalness. Is aesthetic value natural or nonnatural? For some, to give a naturalistic definition of aesthetic value is to equate it with a psychological fact, such as giving pleasure or being desired. Whether it is inherently fallacious to propose such a definition has been much discussed. Many philosophers contend that a normative term (such as value or good) can never be reduced to nonnormative terms (such as pleasure or satisfaction), for any of several reasons: (1) that normative terms refer to a special nonempirical property, (2) that normative terms have a commending function that is absent from nonnormative terms, (3) that normative terms express attitudes and nonnormative terms do not. Others hold that a naturalistic definition framed with sufficient carethat is, by qualifying the conditions of the pleasure, or the nature of the satisfaction, involvedcan correctly indicate what a normative term actually means in ordinary usage.

ValueObjective or Subjective? The objectivist regards the aesthetic value of an object as an internal property of it, which it possesses independently of any relation to a human perceiver who enjoys, approves, or admires it. The subjectivist takes aesthetic value to consist in some relation between the object and the perceiver (including the reader). The principal defense of subjectivism is that it is difficult to conceive of an object as having any value apart from some interest that is taken in it or apart from some desire that is satisfied by it. Objectivism, on the other hand, is often supported by the claim that it provides the only escape from relativism.

ValueRelative or Nonrelative? To say that aesthetic value is relative is to say that there can be two persons, one of whom says that a work of art is good and the other that it is not good, yet without really contradicting each other. If aesthetic value is objective, then it is not relative; but the subjectivist can choose between relativistic and nonrelativistic definitions. For example, if the subjectivist can first formulate the concept of the "perfect critic," as one who has all the desirable qualifications we could ask for in a criticsensitivity, learning, sympathy, impartiality, etc.then he might define the term "has aesthetic value" as "would be approved and admired by a majority of all perfect critics." This definition is subjective, but it is not relative, since whenever A says that a poem is good in this sense and B denies it, A and B are contradicting each other, no matter who A and B may be. On the other hand, the subjectivist might define aesthetic value in relation to a particular culture or historical epoch; by this definition, when a critic praises a poem, he is saying that it is, or will be, or under certain conditions would be, enjoyed and approved by sensitive people in his own culture. According to such a definition, if A and B belong to different cultures, they cannnot contradict each other by respectively affirming and denying that the poem is good.

The relativist usually argues that tastes vary and that what can be enjoyed by some people cannot be enjoyed by others; he urges that our definition of aesthetic value reflect this fact. In rebuttal it may be pointed out that there are all sorts of factors that affect this variability and no particular definition can accommodate them all. The only safe recourse for the relativist, then, is complete personal relativism, which transforms the critical judgment "This is a good poem" into something like "I now like this poem." This personal definition does bring out the alleged "noncognitive" features of critical evaluations: that their utterance reveals the speaker's attitude, his desire to commend something, or his hope of influencing others. But it seems to leave out the logical features of critical evaluations that allow disputes to arise over them; and it is implausible to claim that the personal definition correctly describes what most people mean when they praise poems.

Value a Capacity? It is also argued that we must distinguish between aesthetic value as something available to those properly prepared for it and the actual realizations of this value in experience. This distinction can be preserved by defining aesthetic value as the capacity to provide a certain kind of (presumably desirable) experience or a certain kind of (desirable) pleasure. This instrumentalist definition of aesthetic value would be subjective, but nonrelative; it would not be a naturalistic definition, since a normative term (desirable) would be retained in the definiendum. Then critical disputes over, say, the merits of a poem, would concern the question how great an aesthetic experience (or how intense an aesthetic pleasure) can be obtained from it under optimum conditions. If someone actually does derive a genuine aesthetic experience of some magnitude from the work, that will be sufficient evidence of its aesthetic value. If no such experience occurs, the critic may be able to show, by an analysis of the work, either that it is unlikely to occur or that it may occur in more adequately prepared perceivers. In any case, it will be possible to support the critical evaluation by reasons. But the appeal to such reasons will presuppose, what the aesthetician must also at some point justify, that the aesthetic experience is itself desirable.

Aesthetic Experience. The experience of listening to music or contemplating a painting is more different from the experience of reading a poem or novel than these are from each other. This is evident to the careful observer, even though there is much that we do not yet understand (but hope in time to learn by psychological investigation) about the exact nature of these experiences. The aesthetician asks whether there is such a thing as an aesthetic experience common to all the arts. It is important to know this if we wish to group all the arts together in one genus, and especially if aesthetic value is to be defined in terms of aesthetic experience.

There is general agreement that aesthetic experience is characterized at least by unusually intense absorption in a phenomenal objectin visual or auditory patterns or, in the case of prose fiction, the ostensible world of the work. Beyond this, the chief point at issue is the remoteness of aesthetic experience from the experiences of everyday life. A number of questions and positions are on hand, difficult to sort out satisfactorily. They range from Clive Bell's claim (in Art, 37) that there is a unique "aesthetic emotion"the response to "significant form"utterly different from any other emotion and owing nothing to life experiences, to I. A. Richards's contrary insistence (Principles of Literary Criticism, London and New York 1924, chapters 2, 32) that art differs only in degree from other things in its effects upon us.

"Moving" Quality of Art. Ancient and medieval philosophers were aware of something puzzling about the state of mind induced by works of art. That this response involves the emotions in a central way was suggested (and deplored) by Plato, who noted the excited state of the rhapsode (in the dialogue Ion ) and of the theater audience (Rep. 60310). When psychological aesthetics came into its full development during the 18th century, a major aim of British aesthetic investigation was to explain the characteristic effects of artits capacity to move us and the special sort of enjoyment it provides. Various contributions to a solution of this problem were made by J. Addison, in his account of the "pleasures of the imagination" (Spectator, Nos. 409, 41121; 1712), by F. Hutcheson (An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, London 1725) and by E. burke (A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, London 1756), and by A. Alison (Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, Edinburgh 1790), among many others. These writers aimed to discover (some of them with the aid of associationist psychology) the nature of our feelings about the beautiful and the sublime and the basis of our pleasure in these qualities.

Detachment of Aesthetic Experience. It was Kant (Critique of Judgment, Berlin 1790) who attempted a radical separation of aesthetic enjoyment from ordinary enjoyments and identified the experience of beauty as one in which we take "pleasure without interest" in an object exhibiting "purposefulness without purpose," an object capable, by its form, of arousing the "free play" of the reproductive imagination in harmony with the general cognitive conditions of the understanding. By emphasizing this disinterestedness of aesthetic experience, Schopenhauer made of art an escape from the horror of life under the dominion of the Will to Live, with its ceaseless alternation between boredom and unsatisfied desire. He described aesthetic experience as a state of "will-less contemplation" of timeless Ideas, when the drives are laid temporarily to rest, as the self loses consciousness of itself and is no longer constrained to view the world under the "principle of sufficient reason."

This opposition between the aesthetic point of view and the practical point of viewbetween, for example, the painter's and the real-estate developer's way of looking at a landscapehas been widely emphasized in modem aesthetics. Several writers have stressed the "isolation" and "detachment" of aesthetic experience, its wholeness and self-sufficiencynotably E. Bullough in his famous paper "'Psychical Distance' as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle" (British Journal of Psychology, 5, Cambridge 191213, 87118). An object, according to Bullough, is psychically "distanced" when disconnected from ordinary practical needs and ends and regarded for its surface qualities and internal form. Near-ly any object can be so regarded, but aesthetic objects are designed to facilitate this response, though they differ considerably in their degree of distance, ranging from geometrical abstraction to pictorial realism.

Intensity of the Aesthetic Experience. Schopenhauer's emphasis on denial of the Will was violently rejected by Nietzsche (see the posthumously collected notes, The Will to Power, tr. A. M. Ludovici, 2d ed., New York 191011). Art, he insisted, does not induce resignation but "affirmation" of life in all its aspects; it is an expression of the Will to Power. Later writers have tried to make room for something of this view in stressing the intensity of aesthetic experience, its "heightened consciousness" and the sense of increased vitalitynot the absence of emotion, or its release, but its ordering into a harmonious tension. This has been called "synaesthesis," the balance or poise of impulses, opposed without frustration (see I. A. Richards et al., The Foundations of Aesthetics, London 1922, 7291).

Attempted Synthesis. A significant attempt to do justice to these divergent (though not necessarily incompatible) points, as well as others, is that by John Dewey in Art as Experience, New York 1934, especially chapter 3. Dewey's aim was to show how the special traits of aesthetic experience, those we cherish most, grow out of a natural setting, as intensifications of traits found valuable in all experience. The organism interacts with its environment, doing and undergoing. Sometimes stretches of continuing experience take on an unusual degree of completeness: the impulses that are aroused at the start run their course; there is consummation and fulfillment. Then we have, not just experience, but "an experience." And when an experience is controlled by attention to sensuous quality, and takes on a pervasive and distinct character, it is aesthetic experience, continuous but articulated, coherent but rhythmic, dynamic, cumulative, and inherently satisfying.

The Thomistic Tradition. This tradition also, as carried on by a number of contemporary thinkers (see e.g., J. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism ; É. Gilson, Painting and Reality, New York 1957), has aimed to do justice to the dominant traits, as well as the wide range, of aesthetic experiences and to correct other accounts by keeping more firmly in view the intellectual aspect of aesthetic enjoyment. St. Thomas's pregnant definition of beauty as id quod visum placet (Summa theologiae 1.5.4 ad 1; cf. 1a2ae, 27.1) implies that in the perception of beauty, the exquisite intelligibility of the object, its possession of a form proportionate to the intellect itself (proportio sive consonantia ), affords that delight mixed with exaltation that characterizes aesthetic experience. This relation to the cognitive faculty, which is essential to beauty, explains its restriction to sight and soundwe derive sensuous pleasure from perfumes, for example, but odors are not (strictly speaking) beautiful.

General Conclusion. These theorists and others have guided us to an understanding of many important features of aesthetic experience, though some questions remain unsettled. Roughly speaking, we can locate the peculiar character of that experience in the combination of two distinguishable objects of delight. First, we respond to pattern or gestalt as such; we desire the perception of order: symmetry, geometrical regularity, rational arrangement. Second, we respond to human qualities that emerge in the phenomenal field: to embodied energy, calmness, joy, force, tenderness, etc. With the first is connected the unity and repose of aesthetic experience; with the latter, our capacity to be moved and shaken. Works of art differ enormously according to which aspects are dominant. But speaking generally, in art we confront and cognize a complex of elements and relations making up, through formal cooperation, a satisfactory whole. Out of this whole emerge certain qualities, of various degrees of intensity, that engage our attention and our feelings. In a way subtly different from the feeling of ordinary life, we are lifted to a fresher and more vital plane of awareness, the joy of the spirit answering to the radiance of the object.

See Also: art (philosophy); beauty.

Bibliography: Among the useful anthologies in English are e. vivas and m. krieger, eds., The Problems of Aesthetics (New York 1953). m. m. rader, ed., A Modern Book of Esthetics (3d ed. New York 1960). m. weitz, ed., Problems in Aesthetics (New York 1959). w. elton, ed., Aesthetics and Language (New York 1954). w. e. kennick, ed., Art and Philosophy (New York 1964). a. hofstadter and r. kuhns, eds., Philosophies of Art and Beauty (New York 1964). k. aschenbrenner and a. isenberg, eds., Aesthetic Theories (New York 1965). a. sesonske, ed., What Is Art? (London 1965). On the history of aesthetics, see k. e. gilbert and h. kuhn, A History of Esthetics (rev. ed. Bloomington 1953). m. c. beardsley, A Short History of Western Aesthetics (New York 1965). e. de bruyne, Études d'esthétique médiévale, 3 v. (Bruges 1946). a. fontaine, Les Doctrines d'art en France (Paris 1909). s. h. monk, The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in 18th Century England (New York 1935; Ann Arbor pa. 1960). e. cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, tr. c. a. koelln and j. p. pettegrove (Princeton 1951). w. j. hipple, The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory (Carbondale, Illinois 1957). g. morpurgo-tagliabue, L'Esthétique contemporaine (Milan 1960). On classical and contemporary problems of aesthetics, see m. c. beardsley, Aesthetics (New York 1958). f. e. sparshott, The Structure of Aesthetics (Toronto 1963). j. stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism (Boston 1960).

[m. c. beardsley]


views updated May 14 2018


The creation of art

Meaning and understanding in art

Effects of art on viewer or audience


Although the term aesthetics has other special meanings, it has come to refer, in the context of social science, to the whole body of generalized inquiry especially relevant to the arts. Aesthetics is the study of man’s behavior and experience in creating art, in perceiving and understanding art, and in being influenced by art. Work in aesthetics thus far has been principally concerned with music, literature, and the visual arts, paying little attention to the performance aspect of even these arts. The scope of the subject is greater, however.

The creation of art

In common with other human activities, art raises many questions about motives, skills, and other conditions leading to novel and socially valuable creations. These questions have been broadly investigated; and results show that creativity, whether in the arts or elsewhere, has some common origins in personality and environmental circumstances and that there are also distinctive influences on creativity in distinct areas.

Another set of problems or questions deals with whether, and in what ways, a work of art embodies the manner in which the artist perceives or understands the world. Visual representational art, for example, could be claimed to embody the way the artist perceives that which is represented; if less persuasively, the same argument could be applied to nonrepresentational art. A closely reasoned case for this view is presented by Arnheim in his book Art and Visual Perception (1954), which emphasizes the influence of the medium (and the artist’s manner of using it) on the interaction between the perception of the world and the making and perception of objects. Going beyond the work of artists, he applies his reasoning to the visual productions of children, making sense of developmental sequences in children’s art by demonstrating that what children produce is in a very real sense a portrayal of what they see. At a more complex level, it is often assumed that works of art embody the artist’s understanding of the world. There has, as yet, been little attempt to examine this common critical assumption with the methods of psychology or social science.

The artist’s personality

The argument that a close relationship exists between motivational themes in an artist’s personality and the themes in his work has been made in a number of psychoanalytically oriented interpretations. Because there are fuller and more explicit statements of motivational themes in literary works of art, such interpretations have been more commonly made of the work of poets, novelists, and dramatists than of composers or visual artists. To the person trained in scientific criteria of evidence, such work is necessarily lacking in conviction, but it is replete with hypotheses that might be tested in other ways.

The effort to read an artist’s personality in his work is parallel to the clinical psychologist’s effort to read a patient’s personality in his responses to projective tests. Indeed, some projective tests require the patient to be an amateur artist, producing stories or pictures. If it be useful to consider under aesthetics amateur as well as professional art, the interpretation of these tests is a problem in aesthetics. In any event, the two efforts—penetrating to the personality of both artist and nonartist—face the same uncertainties. The very scoring of the document may be excessively subjective; once scored, the method of interpretation may be obscure and controversial. Attempts to objectify the scoring of projective tests have been many. A similar attempt has been made to render explicit and objective the analysis of works of art for purposes of inference about the personality of the artist. Notable work of this sort has been done by McCurdy in analyses of work by Shakespeare, D. H. Lawrence, the Brontës, and others, which he has summarized briefly in a recent publication (1961, pp. 413–427).

An even more basic problem becomes evident here: What assumptions are to be made about how characteristics of the artist are reflected in his work, and under what circumstances? The psycho-analytic “case studies” of artists and more controlled analyses, such as those by McCurdy, depend upon such assumptions; but these assumptions are not always the same and are not adequately tested in these single case studies. A major problem is to distinguish or determine when the artist’s manifest characteristics will be expressed and when his latent characteristics will be expressed.

Empirical studies of personality factors. In research on productions by nonartists, the aforementioned problems have been studied. For example, in a study of graphic productions by college women, Wallach and Gahm (1960) have found that in those women who have little conscious anxiety the amount of expansiveness, as opposed to contraction, in their work is directly related to the extent to which they are socially extroverted, as opposed to introverted; whereas in those who have a great deal of such anxiety, expansiveness and extroversion are negatively related. A variety of similar findings justify a tentative generalization: For personality characteristics not subject to great interference by anxiety, guilt, or other sources of conflict, simple consistency between manifest behavior and characteristics of imaginative production tends to be the most conspicuous relationship; for those personality characteristics present to some degree in everyone, but inhibited from normal, direct expression by anxiety, guilt, or other sources of conflict, a compensatory or inverse relationship is more likely.

This generalization surely provides a better guide to thinking about probable relationships between the personality of artists and the characteristics of their productions than is provided by the vague idea that there is some kind of consistency. Yet knowledge has not advanced to the point where even such a generalization can be stated with perfect confidence, but clarification is to be expected in coming years from continuing work with projected techniques.

Simultaneously, comparable techniques may come to be applied to the work of genuine artists. No amount of study of nonartists will tell us for certain what relations are to be found between the personality and work of artists themselves. Perhaps the secret of successful artistry lies partly in the ability to sever the usual motivational connections between self and imaginative product.

Societal factors in art

The questions considered about the individual artist in relation to his work can be extended to the societal level. Are variations in modal personality to be found among the determinants of variations in artistic creativity from one people or one epoch to another? Do the artistic productions of a society express the ways of perceiving and understanding that characterize its typical member? Can important motives in the personality of a typical member of the society be inferred from inspection of its works of art? These and similar questions are posed by many humanistic scholars. There have, as yet, been few attempts to apply to them the comparative and systematic approach of social science, except that very useful beginnings have been made in answering the third question.

Empirical studies of societal determinants. The most convincing beginning, because it includes several parallel studies of sequences of change, covering different societies and different centuries but yielding similar findings, is a set of studies reported by McClelland (1961, chapter 4). A single theme is investigated here, that of concern with achievement. McClelland and his associates have systematically sampled bodies of literature and graphic art from several societies at periods of economic growth, peak, and decline. These samples have been scored by methods developed for measuring concern with achievement as an individual personality variable. Although the findings are not perfectly uniform, they tend to show that there is an increase in achievement themes during periods of economic growth and a decrease in achievement themes in advance of a decline in economic growth. This relationship between long-term economic change and the expression in art of a motivational theme that is obviously relevant to economic productivity supports the view that the art produced in a society at a given time is expressive of themes that occupy members of the society.

Art productions of preliterate societies also permit quantitative study. A pioneer effort in this direction is that of Barry (1957), who found evidence that complexity of style in the visual art of preliterate societies was positively related to a motivational characteristic, the degree of anxiety likely to be produced by traditional child training practices. His analysis of features of style has been used by Fischer (1961) to demonstrate several relationships between structural characteristics of societies and stylistic features of their art, relationships that support the assumption that art gives symbolic expression to the thoughts and wishes of members of a society. For example, the relative predominance of curved versus straight lines may be thought of as possibly symbolizing femininity versus masculinity. Fischer provides intriguing hypotheses about personality as mediating a relationship between this variation and social structure. In a society offering solidarity and security to a particular sex (for example, men in a patrilocal society), that sex might be free to enjoy artistic symbolization of the opposite sex as objects of erotic fantasy; when, on the other hand, a particular sex is placed in a relatively insecure position (for example, men in a matrilocal society), it might be interested in artistic fantasy that provides a model or ideal pattern of its own sex. The correlations obtained between features of social structure and of art support this hypothesis.

Meaning and understanding in art

What do works of art mean? Philosophical aestheticians have offered a variety of answers to this perennial question. Modern psychological theory offers new constructs to use in its exploration, and psychological research permits an observational test of any resulting hypotheses that have clear empirical meaning.

For most of the verbal and visual arts, meaning is not an obvious problem. Referential meaning (by linguistic convention in the case of literature and by similarity to the person or place represented in the case of some visual art) and the meaning derived from practical use, most conspicuous in architecture, provide a ready commonsense answer to the question of what these arts mean.


The meaning of music is more obviously a problem, and it has been examined psychologically. Pratt (1931), for example, has argued that an important element in the meaning of music (although he did not use the word meaning in this way) derives from the similarity between musical structure and human emotional experience: “Music sounds the way an emotion feels” is the way he summarized his view at a later time. Thus music is in part iconic, like visual art, but without specific reference. The iconic quality of music might be likened to the iconic quality of the color, lines, and forms in an abstract painting, insofar as they aptly symbolize a state of emotion.

A later treatise by Meyer (1956) on the meaning of music, drawing upon modern developments in psychology and communication theory, describes the emotional portion of the meaning of music as simply one way of viewing the structure of the music. A musical composition arouses in the listener a series of expectations that are either fulfilled or delayed or frustrated. Emotional terms are one way of describing such a series of arousals, delays, and resolutions.

Discussions of what is the meaning of music must be viewed as prescriptive as well as descriptive. They are concerned with what music means to some hypothetical ideal. But when one at least momentarily tries to take a purely descriptive approach, it is of course apparent that different listeners or viewers bring to the experience diverse kinds of meaning.

Empirical studies of inherent meaning

A survey of research based on a specific formulation of this diversity has been provided by Valentine (1962, pp. 54–58, 85, 130–135, 196–209). It shows clearly that people find differing meaning both in a complete work of art and in its simplest elements. It also shows, not surprisingly, that the kinds of meaning inherent in the work itself are more prominent in the experience of people who seem most appreciative of the given art and that extraneous kinds of meaning are more prominent in the experience of those less appreciative.

In the face of such diversity is there any constancy in the meaning of works of art and in their elements, except for conventional meanings one learns in becoming expert in a particular artistic tradition? This problem, too, is considered in psychological research—most notably and persistently that of Hevner—summarized by Valentine (1962, chapters 3, 4, 10, 13). That part dealing with music also is described by Farnsworth (1958, chapter 5). This research shows, for the general student population from which the subjects were drawn, that variations in hue, brightness, and saturation of color; in pitch, rhythm, and other features of music; and in metrical pattern, choice of phonemes, etc., in poetry produce reasonably dependable variations in connotative meaning. Several of these studies compare students especially knowledgeable in a particular art with those possessing little background in it. The general finding is that there is somewhat greater agreement among those most expert in an art than among those least expert, but that the difference is surprisingly small; there is clearly a tendency toward agreement on connotative meaning even among people with relatively little experience with a particular art. All the subjects necessarily have had some exposure to the artistic traditions of our society, and these studies leave open the question of whether the agreed-upon connotative meanings are conventional, dependent upon only this minimum of experience, or whether they are instead based on a natural appropriateness of various colors, rhythms, etc. as metaphorical expression of varying human emotions, accessible to any observant person regardless of his cultural background.

Universality or cultural relativity?

It is to be hoped that with new concepts and techniques available there will be a real attack on the problem of universality versus cultural relativity in meaning. Already in some studies of connotative meaning of concepts (cf. Osgood 1960), evidence is available that some (and decidedly not all) connotative meanings are remarkably constant from one culture to another. This work has not been oriented toward aesthetics, and as yet it provides no knowledge about crosscultural variation in connotative meaning of works of art and little about their elements. The problem of cultural relativity versus universality even applies to the elements of literature, despite the conventionality of language. The fact that it does may be illustrated by the lively controversy about whether the connotative meaning of various phonemic contrasts has transcultural validity. The same kind of question may be asked about more complicated aspects of the linguistic materials of literature, for example, features of metrical pattern such as may be incorporated in any system of meter, the difference between repetitive use of sounds and highly varied use of sounds, etc.

Perception and art

Understanding a work of art must, whatever its meaning may be, begin with the act of perceiving. The psychology of perception, principally developed in connection with momentary experience, has been mainly applied thus far to the visual arts. The most notable application of the psychology of perception is Arnheim’s (1954). His book provides an invaluable treatment of one after another aspect of perceptual processes as they relate to the artist’s vision, to what he is representing in his work, and to how it is perceived and understood by others. Throughout the book, Arnheim struggles against the naive assumption that what is perceived is simply an automatic representation of an objective reality. Instead, he emphasizes that perceiving is an active process, complex in character and diverse in outcome, although understandable in terms of general principles.

There has been no comparable thorough attempt to apply knowledge of perception to the understanding of the other arts. Pratt, however, in his book on music (1931), made effective use of the knowledge of hearing. The gestalt psychology of perception may have strengthened his assurance— at a time when atomism predominated in psychology—that each musical interval has a distinctive perceived quality and that to treat auditory experience simply as a series of discrete events would be fatal.

The understanding of a work of art goes, of course, beyond perception. In the past, aestheticians have had relatively little assistance from the psychological study of higher mental processes in their attack upon further problems in understanding the arts. Some years ago Ivor A. Richards (1929), using techniques but few conceptual tools from psychology, reported a brilliant study of how readers understand poems. The psychology of cognition has now advanced to a point where it may help in subsequent research.

Effects of art on viewer or audience

The effects claimed for art are many, and sometimes contradictory. Dramatic presentation of human violence has been thought by some to purge the viewer of latent aggression and by others to incite him to similar violence. Cultivation of fine artistic appreciation has been claimed to awaken fine sensitivity to the nuances of human feeling and thus develop useful participants in society, or, on the other hand, to produce an effete withdrawal. The establishment of the long-range effects of art, social and moral, may be assisted by social science. Indeed a contribution has already been made, although to date extensive investigation has been confined to the immediate effects of art.

The immediate effects principally studied are two: liking versus disliking and aesthetic evaluation or judgment.

Research on likes and dislikes

Research on likes and dislikes is the oldest kind of quantitative research in aesthetics. In the early days of experimental psychology, much work was done on the extent to which different colors, different forms, etc. were liked or disliked. This work has continued and has revealed that there are some remarkable uniformities, as well as interesting differences, among people responding to these simple stimuli. The uniformities may in time be convincingly shown to have a significance for response to works of art, but they have not as yet.

Likes and dislikes in response to works of art have also been directly investigated, mostly among the general or the school population rather than among experts. Such studies suggest that liking or disliking is often determined by relations between personality characteristics of the viewer and the thematic structure or style of the work of art. These studies have not been highly unified in their attack on the underlying theoretical problem of exactly how a person’s impulses or emotions are changed through interaction with works of art. This research, like the research on expression of the artist’s personality in his work, needs clarification in relation to basic psychological processes.

Personality factors in liking and disliking. Thus far, research on likes and dislikes has dealt mainly with general aspects of personality in relation to general type or style of art preferred. This research illuminates old questions and concepts, as shown by Knapp’s work (1964) on personality characteristics associated with preference for each of three types of visual art. Among the college students he studied, Knapp found liking for realistic representational paintings associated with practicality and worldliness. Geometric abstract paintings tended to be liked by intellectual and inhibited students. Expressionist abstract paintings tended to be liked by those who might be described as imaginative, impractical, and sensitive. Knapp suggests that the orientation of these three kinds of person is extremely reminiscent of the classical definitions of Apollonian, Pythagorean, and Dionysian orientations. Here is confirmation of the importance on the contemporary scene of a traditional classification of value orientation and a promise of relating it to psychological understanding of relevant personality characteristics.

A similar inquiry, by quite different methods, is found in psychoanalytically oriented writing on the gratifications people obtain from the arts. In these discussions, the quality of the work of art as such is rarely mentioned and has little relation to what is said; the work of art is treated as though it were the viewer’s own fantasy and is supposed to offer him the same gratifications as a spontaneously produced fantasy of his own.

Aesthetic evaluation

A contrasting kind of inquiry has been directed at studying some sort of distinctively aesthetic appreciation of works of art. Indeed, some of the early research on likes and dislikes had this orientation; it was supposed that through some method of averaging, variable personal reactions would be eliminated and a universal and genuine aesthetic tendency would be revealed (Eysenck 1957, chapter 8). But the likes and dislikes of experts in an art, or their evaluative judgments, provide a more reasonable criterion for aesthetic quality; and, as Peel (1945) has shown, the stimulus correlates of such judgments may differ greatly from the stimulus correlates of the general likes and dislikes of nonexperts. Child (1962) found, moreover, that college students who agree with student consensus about works of art are not the same students as those who agree with expert consensus and that the personality correlates of these two kinds of agreement are not at all the same. In this and subsequent research among college men, Child found that those who agree with expert evaluation of visual art tend to show an active, inquiring orientation to the world; tolerance of, or even liking for, complexity, ambivalence, and unrealistic experience; and independence of judgment rather than conformity.

Recent advances in the psychology of knowing increase chances that the complexities involved in genuine aesthetic experience may come to be usefully analyzed with the concepts of general psychology. Berlyne’s treatment (1960) of interestarousing variables in experience illustrates the beginning of such a movement. Here seems to lie the special promise of future work in aesthetics—improved understanding of aesthetic experience through application not merely of the methods of social science but also of basic concepts and principles adequate to the complexities of the task.

Irvin L. Child

[Other relevant material may be found in the articles listed underArt.]


Arnheim, Rudolf 1954 Art and Visual Perception. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Barry, Herbert 1957 Relationships Between Child Training and the Pictorial Arts. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 54:380–383.

Berlyne, D. E. 1960 Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Child, Irvin L. 1962 Personal Preferences as an Expression of Aesthetic Sensitivity. Journal of Personality 30:496–512.

Eysenck, hans J. 1957 Sense and Nonsense in Psychology. Baltimore: Penguin.

Farnsworth, Paul R. 1958 The Social Psychology of Music. New York: Dryden.

Fischer, J. L. 1961 Art Styles as Cultural Cognitive Maps. American Anthropologist New Series 63:79–93.

Knapp, Robert H. 1964 An Experimental Study of a Triadic Hypothesis Concerning the Sources of Aesthetic Imagery. Journal of Projective Techniques and Personality Assessment 28:49–54.

McClelland, David C. 1961 The Achieving Society. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

McCurdy, Harold G. 1961 The Personal World: An Introduction to the Study of Personality. New York: Harcourt.

Meyer, Leonard B. 1956 Emotion and Meaning in Music. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Osgood, Charles E. 1960 The Cross-cultural Generality of Visual–Verbal Synesthetic Tendencies. Behavioral Science 5:146–169.

Peel, E. A. 1945 On Identifying Aesthetic Types. British Journal of Psychology 35:61–69.

Pratt, Carroll C. 1931 The Meaning of Music. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Richards, Ivor A. (1929) 1956 Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. New York: Harcourt.

Valentine, Charles W. 1962 The Experimental Psychology of Beauty. London: Methuen.

Wallach, Michael A.; and Gahm, Ruthellen C. 1960 Personality Functions of Graphic Constriction and Expansiveness. Journal of Personality 28:73–88.


views updated Jun 08 2018



The philosophy professor and writer Jerrold Levinson defines aesthetics as the branch of philosophy devoted to conceptual and theoretical inquiry into art and aesthetic experience (Levinson 2003, p. 3). What makes an experience an aesthetic one is a contentious matter, however, and is indeed one of the main subjects of the theoretical inquiry. Nonetheless, there is general agreement that people experience something aesthetically when, for example, they find it beautiful, elegant, or vulgar. Levinsons definition, which is a fairly orthodox one, indicates that aesthetics developed out of different, though overlapping, concerns: for art, and for an allegedly distinctive type of human experience. The two are different because not only artworks, but also natural scenes and objects encountered in everyday life (coffee-machines, say), may be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, such as garishness or symmetry. In addition, not all philosophical questions about artworks are about their aesthetic properties (e.g., questions about the role of poets intentions in determining the meaning of poems). The two concerns overlap, however, because the identification of an artworks aesthetic qualities is often an important ingredient in its appreciation.

Levinsons definition blends two early and different ways of using the term aesthetics. Derived from a Greek word for sensation, it was first introduced by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten in 1735 as a name for the science of how something is sensitively cognized (Baumgarten 1954, §16). The scope of the term was later restricted by Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgement (1790), to sensation-based judgements of taste or beauty. For Kant, aesthetics had nothing peculiarly to do with art. G. W. F. Hegel, however, doubted the possibility of a general science of beauty, and in his Lectures on Fine Art in the 1820s he equated the term with the philosophy of fine art.

Of course, although aesthetics was an eighteenth-century coinage, the discipline it refers to has an ancient pedigree. Plato and Aristotle, for example, addressed such paradigmatically aesthetic topics as beauty and the role of emotion in art.

Reflecting the divergent approaches of Kant and Hegel, later aestheticians have often been divided between those focused primarily on the philosophy of art and those concerned with understanding the character of aesthetic experience. Attention of the latter sort has tended to concentrate on an examination of Kants characterization of aesthetic experience as disinterested, as disengaged from cognitive and practical interests, and therefore sensitive solely to the appearances and forms of things.

Within philosophy, the status of aesthetics is disputed. For some it is a relatively discrete subdiscipline, while for others it is necessarily parasitic on the insights of other areas of philosophy, including metaphysics. Some thinkers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, have held that its place is central, since aesthetic concepts such as style and elegance are involved in ethical reflection on the good life and even in philosophical reflection on scientific method.

The relation of aesthetics to the social sciences is also disputed, but many philosophical questions about art and aesthetic experience are certainly closely related to social-scientific issues, and aestheticians often invoke the findings of social science. One such question is What is art? John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, for example, argued against timeless conceptions of art. They maintained that the modern concept of art is a nineteenth-century product that reflects the predilections of a dominant and leisured social class. A related theme was developed in Pierre Bourdieus social critique of such distinctions as that between aesthetic and less pure pleasures.

Several issues concerning aesthetic experience, especially that of beauty, also engage with cultural anthropological ones. Thus, there has been considerable debate about whether there are broadly universal standards of, say, womens beauty, explicable perhaps in terms of evolutionary factors, or whether such standards are relatively local ones, explained instead as functions of cultural pressures exerted by advertisers and the fashion industry. While aestheticians both contribute to and draw upon such empirical debates, most of them also maintain that these debates involve conceptual and evaluative issues that it is not for empirical enquiry to settle, but that instead call for philosophical analysis.

SEE ALSO Bourdieu, Pierre; Cultural Studies; Culture; Distinctions, Social and Cultural; Literature; Music; Preferences; Psychology; Tastes


Baumgarten, Alexander. 1954. Reflections on Poetry. Trans. K. Aschenbrenner and W. Holther. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Cooper, David E., ed. 1992. A Companion to Aesthetics. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.

Levinson, Jerrold, ed. 2003. The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

David E. Cooper


views updated Jun 11 2018


AESTHETICS The term "aesthetics" has no equivalent in Indian thought. One could perhaps coin a word Saundarya Shāstra, roughly translated as "treatise on beauty," or use Alamkara Shāstra, "treatise on rhetoric." Can a single theory be used as a criterion for judging and understanding the arts of India—written, visual, and performing? Is there any underlying unity to the arts, since no one text can be said to encompass all art forms? Although some classical arts do derive their antecedents from Bharata's Nātya Shāstra, the earliest extant text on the arts, this text, as the name suggests, was concerned with dramaturgy and, by extension, dance and music. The problem is exacerbated in the visual arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting, since these disciplines have individual texts dedicated to their exposition. However, furrowing through this mass of textual prescriptives and descriptives, some concepts and terms seem to emerge as common. Of these, beaconlike, is rasa—that word which brings to mind a multitude of sensations through taste, emotion, and delight.

The term rasa, in its most widely employed sense, means the sap or juice of plants, an extract or fluid. In its secondary sense, rasa signifies the nonmaterial essence of a thing, the best and finest part of it, like perfume. As essence, it is described as ātman (soul), or the giver of life to a literary work, which is the body. In its tertiary sense, it denotes taste, flavor, or relish, often yielding pleasure. As in the case of a taste like sweetness, there is no knowing of rasa apart from directly experiencing it. The final and subtlest sense, however, is the application of the word to art and aesthetic experience, in which it becomes synonymous with ānanda, the kind of bliss that can only be experienced by the spirit.

Rasa, as one of the foremost criteria of art criticism, has been theorized, developed, and commented upon by innumerable savants and rhetoricians over the centuries. Starting with Bharata, author of the supposed second-century Nātya Shāstra, and ending with that intellectual giant of the eleventh century, Abhinava Gupta of Kashmir, rasa runs through a gamut of meanings.

It is sufficiently clear that rasa for the early thinkers has only an aesthetic form. It is, on one level, the content of art, as a sentiment, mood, or emotion. This led to the development of the eightfold scheme of rasa. On the other level, rasa is the joy resulting from an indescribable aesthetic experience, variously called alaukika (otherworldly) and chamatkara (wondrous). The purpose of art creation is clearly entertainment and moral instruction. By the time of Abhinava Gupta, rasa takes on a metaphysical dimension. By championing a ninth rasa based on the mood of equanimity and tranquillity, in which the knowledge of one's soul forms the fulcrum, Abhinava's philosophical leaning is evident. Art now has the power to give a sense of liberation, or moksha. The experience of rasa, or what is called rasānubhava, transforms from mere joy to a state of undifferentiated bliss called ānanda, analogous to Brahman, the Supreme Reality in Vedānta. To these aesthetic and metaphysical aspects of rasa, the bhakti (devotion) resurgence, spearheaded by the fifteenth-century Bengal Vaishnava saints, added a new impetus. This movement, characterized by a deep passionate love for the divine, expressed itself in terms of human relationships. Lover and beloved, sacred and profane, mystical and carnal merge into a vocabulary of distilled adoration. Krishna becomes the conventional lover, heroic warrior, and religious Godhead, and Rādhā is the beloved, the cowherdess, and the divine soul. Rupa Goswamin, follower of the fifteenth–sixteenth century saint Chaitanya, borrowed the existing rasa phraseology to create his own version, making it into a tenfold scheme, which, however, did not survive the scrutiny of the rhetoricians.

The fountainhead of the rasa theory is Bharata's sūtra or aphorism in the Nātya Shāstra: "Vibhāva Anubhāva Vyabhichāri Samyogāt Rasa Nishpattih" (the coming together of vibhāva, anubhāva and vyabhichāri bhāva creates rasa). The implicit term is bhāva, which means "mood" or "mental state." Each of these factors makes up a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Vibhāva is any condition that excites or develops a particular state of mind, which then becomes the actual cause or determinant of the creation of art. There are two kinds of vibhāva: ālambana, or stimulants, and uddīpana, or excitants. Examples of ālambana vibhāva are characters in a work of art such as heroes and heroines, messengers, villains, companions, jesters, servants, and so on. Thus the heroes and heroines poetically called Nāyaka and Nāyikā, as chief protagonists in a work of art, are decisively classified and codified in infinite detail. Based on minute observation and experience, their physical, emotional, and mental states, especially in various situations of love, are tenderly captured and conventionalized, thus becoming essential subjects for all art forms. Poets, dancers, and painters alike favor the Abhisārikā Nāyikā, or "one who boldly goes out to meet her lover to keep her tryst." Uddīpana vibhāva are factors that enhance the underlying mood or sentiment. The actions and behavior of the characters, their ornamentations, manners, and body language are all examples. Deflections, postures, and gestures are suggestive of an inner state. Metaphors and similes from nature used to express a mood are also examples of uddīpana vibhāva, such as the languorous caress of a gentle breeze or dark monsoon clouds as poignant reminders of past togetherness. Anubhāva are the consequences, the physical reactions, and the external manifestations or indications of a feeling by appropriate gestures. Some anubhāva include līlā (when one imitates a loved one), vibhrama (extreme fluster), and lalita (gentleness in behavior). The eight sāttvika bhāva, or temperamental states, are also part of the anubhāva. These include becoming rooted to a spot, perspiration, shock, goosebumps, change of voice, trembling, change of color, weeping, and fainting. Vyabhichāri bhāva are mental reactions, ancillary or subordinate feelings, and moods that are transitory. These are also called sanchāri bhāva and are generally thirty-three in number. Some examples are nirveda (mental anguish), mada (intoxicated state), moha (perplexed condition), garva (extreme pride), and vridā (shyness).

An artwork, according to this theory, would have one major mood permeating it, with the other transitory moods serving only as embellishments. This dominant mood is called sthāyī bhāva and is both universal and latent. When the vibhāva, anubhāva, vyabhichāri bhāva come together in an appropriate manner in an artwork, this predominant, latent, and universal sthāyī bhāva is aroused and transformed into rasa. The principle of auchitya, or appropriateness, governs the rules of technique such as line, proportion, measure, color, and design. These, if correctly followed, would necessarily lead to the proper delineation of a mood, as illustrated in Table 1. Rasa is therefore both the aroused sthāyī bhāva as well as the experience of the arousal. To the eight rasas, a ninth was added. This was shānta, or tranquillity, its sthāyī bhāva being shama (to be calm) or nirveda (world-weariness). The tenth rasa, championed by the Bengali saints, is bhakti rasa, with its sthāyi bhāva as madhurā rati, or mystical love. Of all these, one sentiment dominates; a work of art propels a spectator forward, or becomes the occasion of a rasa experience.

Of all the rasas, the early rhetoricians and later writers on poetics give preeminence to shringāra, calling it rasa rāja (king of the sentiments) or rasa pati (lord of the sentiments). The depiction of the amorous sentiment in all Indian art—visual, performing, and literary—is bold, uncompromising, and celebratory of life. From the works

The eight-rasa system 
Sthayi bhava Rasa
SOURCE: Courtesy of author.
Rati: LoveShringara: Amorous
Has: LaughterHasya: Humorous
Shoka: SorrowKaruna: Compassion
Krodha: AngerRaudra: Wrathful
Utsaha: EnergyVira: Heroic
Bhaya: FrightBhayanaka: Fearful
Jugupsa: DisgustBibhatsa: Revulsion
Vismaya: AstonishmentAdbhuta: Wondrous

of Kalidasa, the renowned fourth-century Sanskrit poet, to Konarak and Khajuraho (medieval temples), one sees a plethora of this sentiment in all its subtle nuances and in the infinitely varied forms of love, both in union and separation.

The Jain rhetoricians have declared the primacy of vīra rasa, or the heroic sentiment. The firmness, patience, determination, and fortitude of the characters portraying this sentiment reaffirm Jain values. The jina (one who has conquered) images in sculpture and painting convey an air of quiet authority and energetic dignity.

The chief goal of creativity, literary or otherwise, is to produce rasa, which is not raw emotion but emotion depersonalized, divested of all the accidents of circumstance; it is emotion represented and distilled by art. Those artworks that are found wanting of rasa are considered flawed. As a result, all the techniques enunciated in the manuals of each art form are based on principles through which these rasa states can be evoked. These principles are evident in the rules of proportion in architecture; in the detailed formulations of the principles of tāla (measurement) and bhanga (stance) of Indian sculpture; in the relative disposition and proportion of color and perspective in painting, in the patterns of the division and combinations of the movements of the major limbs (anga) and the minor limbs (upānga) in dancing; and in the use of shruti and swara (notes) in a given mode (rāga) to create a particular mood in Indian music (Vatsyayan, p. 6).

The artist, through his or her pratibhā, or creative genius, endeavors to create a form through the language of structure, arrangement, and composition. The possible choices are often minute, the prescribed form strict. But for the greatest of them, these prescriptions lead to enormous creative energy. A point to be remembered is that rasa necessitates the use of symbols and the power of suggestion. Permeated with emotion, these creative works then find a resonance in the empathetic critic. Such a sensitized spectator or reader, called sahridaya, must be both a rasika (an emotionally mature individual) and a rasajna (a discriminating aesthete). The act of detached contemplation of a mood is what makes the artistic experience delightful.

Rasa, according to traditional definition, is thus the aesthetic experience of an artistically engendered emotion. It cannot be experienced at the level of the mundane or empirical because it belongs to the world of art. Life provides the raw material, and actual experiences are the springboard for the artist, whose creation is unique and unlike anything in real life. Yet, like emotions in real life, aesthetic emotion too needs a cause. It too expresses itself through different shades of reactions, and it is built up through different shades of the dominant mood. There is a crucial difference, however, between actual emotion and the aesthetic one: while the cause and effects of worldly emotions are personal, the aesthetic mood suggests the universal through stylized depiction. An important point to be noted is that rasāsvāda, or the tasting of an aesthetic mood, is always pleasurable, regardless of the emotion portrayed. Therefore rasa is one, or ekarasa. The nine variants are based on the human responses to a situation.

The nature of aesthetic experience has been pursued within the framework of recognized schools of philosophic thought, leading to a view that the state of being which art experiences evoked was a state akin to that of spiritual realization (Brahmānanda sahodarah). The experience is not a phenomenal happening or a perception induced by cognitive processes operating in the empirical context, but one in which the mind finds full repose. The beautiful is the experiencing of any mental process at its most intense point. According to Abhinava Gupta, who combined the best of aesthetics and philosophy within the Kashmir Shaivist framework, even though there is at times an objective consciousness, there is also a state of complete self-forgetfulness, since the subject is fully merged and absorbed in the objective factor. One who experiences this is infused with the throbbing pulsation of a mysterious and marvelous kind of enjoyment, which is uninterrupted, ceaseless, and replete with a feeling of satiety. This is how Abhinava describes chamatkāra, or wonder.

The followers of Vedānta have described rasa in negative terms. It is not an object of knowledge, not an effect, not permanent, not known in the present or future, and the experience is neither direct nor indirect. The validity of its existence is its experience. This is neither an ordinary worldly one, nor a false one, nor indefinable, nor resembling a worldly apprehension, nor anything superimposed upon that. In other words, it is alaukika, or otherworldly.

Rashmi Poddar

See alsoDance Forms ; Kashmir Painting ; Literature ; Miniatures ; Music ; Nātyashāstra


Anandavardhana. Dhvanyaloka. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.

Chakravarti, S. C. Philosophical Foundation of Bengal Vaisnavism. Kolkata: Academic Publishers, 1969.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. The Dance of Shiva. New Delhi: Sagar Publications, 1987.

De, Sushil Kumar. Early History of the Vaisnava Faith and Movement in Bengal. 2nd ed. Kolkata: General Printers, 1942.

Kaviraja, Visvanatha. Sahitya Darpana. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986.

Masson, J. L., and M. V. Patwardhan. Santarasa and Abhinavagupta's Philosophy of Aesthetics. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1985.

Miller, Barbara Stoler. The Gita Govinda of Jaideva. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984.

Pandey, K. C. Abhinavagupta: An Historical and Philosophical Study. Varanasi: Chowkhambha Sanskrit Series Office, 1963.

Poddar Rashmi. "Rasa and Ananda: A Visual Discovery." Ph.D. diss., University of Bombay, 1996.

Rajan, Chandra. Kalidasa: The Loom of Time. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1989.

Siegel, Lee. Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions as Exemplified in the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva. Mumbai: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts. 2nd ed. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1977.


views updated Jun 27 2018

AESTHETICS, AmE also esthetics. A branch of philosophy concerned with the understanding of beauty and taste and the appreciation of art, LITERATURE, and STYLE. It seeks to answer the question: is beauty or ugliness inherent in the object in question, or is it ‘in the eye of the beholder’? The term aesthetic often refers to responses, judgements, and statements that are subjective and emotive rather than objective, clinical, and detached. These have social power, and serve a variety of rhetorical ends, such as asserting a point of view (What thrilling words!; That accent is ugly), presenting opinion as fact (Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the world), seeking to persuade (Don't you think he speaks very coarsely? Doesn't she have a delightful voice!), seeking to coerce (You really must learn to appreciate the classics), dismissing the unacceptable (Can't they write better than that?), and asserting or maintaining stock responses, especially of a social, ethnic, or linguistic kind (BBC English is the best English; I really like her soft Irish lilt; I don't like her Irish brogue).

The ability to appreciate and produce language that is considered aesthetically pleasing (or at least adequate) has been associated with such concepts as ‘refinement’, ‘culture’, and ‘cultivation’. A refined or cultured person is widely taken to be able to distinguish the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, and to know when it is not right to make such judgements at all; it is also often considered that the less cultured or the uncultured should learn, gladly or grudgingly, from such a person. Ability with language has been ascribed to divine inspiration or grace, to good breeding or the right social background, to the right kind of teacher, to proper observance of the rulings of a group with privilege and authority, or to a mix of these. By and large, good taste has traditionally been considered to have an absolute form: some people have it or approximate to it; others do not have it or are deficient in it. Sometimes, creative speakers and writers may be seen as having great skill but deplorable taste in how they use that skill.

Sociologists of language generally consider that a sense of the correctness, goodness, or beauty of something results from exposure to the norms and expectations of a community: the individual learns or fails to learn how to respond in terms of the values of the group. Aesthetics, from this point of view, is relative, and good taste varies from community to community. A sense of the acceptable may be more fully reinforced in the centre or heartland of a society than at its periphery, where other societies may exert an influence. When distinct groups (tribes, nations, classes, religions, and speakers of certain languages or varieties of a language) are neighbours, become mixed, or are in competition, uncertainties about aesthetic and other values arise, along with problems of choice. These may lead to a search for security in terms of fundamentals (good religion, good grammar), may prompt an eclectic pragmatism (a certain thing is good in one place but not in another; is sometimes good and sometimes not), or may offer greater or less confusion (with no clear conception of what is good or bad, or with uneasily shifting conceptions). Whatever the case, however, people constantly make aesthetic judgements and often institutionalize them in terms of praise or abuse, compliments or insults, affectionate or dismissive names, and a wide range of judgemental expressions such as (for language) the adjectives bad, good, harsh, lovely, PLAIN, and PURE. See ACCENT, DESCRIPTIVISM AND PRESCRIPTIVISM, EDUCATED AND UNEDUCATED, HARD AND SOFT, STYLE, USAGE.


views updated May 18 2018

aesthetics (Gk. aisthēsis, perception) Specialized branch of philosophy concerned with the arts. Plato's classical formulation of art as a mirror of nature was developed by Aristotle in his Poetics. As a distinct discipline, aesthetics dates from Alexander Baumgarten's Reflections on Poetry (1735). Common problems in aesthetics include a definition of beauty and the ascribing of artistic value. For Plato and Aristotle beauty is objective, it resides in the object. While Plato argued that art represented the form of particular objects, Aristotle believed that art imitated a universal essence through a particular form. David Hume argued that the value of art was dependent on subjective perception. In Critique of Judgement (1790), Immanuel Kant mediated between the two, arguing that artistic value may be subjective, but it has universal validity in the form of pleasure. Later philosophers, such as George Santanyana and Benedetto Croce, focused on art as a socially symbolic act.


views updated May 29 2018

aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which deals with the nature of art and of artistic judgment. Some of the central questions of aesthetics focus on the beautiful: under what circumstances it may be said to exist, what criteria are to be used to judge the beautiful, and whether or not these criteria apply equally to literature and music.

There are two traditional views concerning what constitutes aesthetic values. The first finds beauty to be objective, that is, inherent in the entity itself. The second position holds that beauty is subjective, in that it depends on the attitude of the observer. Immanuel Kant argued that judgments of taste, as he called aesthetic judgments, rest on feelings, which, though subjective, have universal validity. The instrumental theory of value, an extension of subjectivism, holds that the value of art consists in its capacity to produce an aesthetic experience.

Kristen L. Zacharias

See also art and the body; beauty.


views updated May 08 2018


Aesthetics is the aspect of axiology that deals with the intrinsic value found in people's immediate sense experiences or their responses to sense experiences: judging them ugly, beautiful, or sublime. Aesthetics, which focuses on the uniquely particular, contrasts with science, which focuses on the general laws those particulars illustrate. Aesthetic theories can be about experiences of natural objects and events, but are usually concerned with art works and artistic creations. Aesthetic judgments are usually said to be disinterested, an enjoyment of the unique content of an immediate experience for its own sake. Marxists, postmodernists, and feminist theorists disagree, however, claiming that all such judgments are expressions of an interest.

see also axiology; beauty; value; value, scientific

george allan


views updated May 23 2018


This entry consists of the following articles:

philosophical aesthetics
visual aesthetics


views updated May 11 2018


The Encyclopedia features two very detailed survey entries, Aesthetics, History of, and Aesthetics, Problems of, as well as the following entries: Beauty; Humor; Metaphor; Tragedy ; and Ugliness.