Aesthetics is the philosophy of art. Though not amenable to definition, art can be analyzed under various headings — representation, coherent form, emotive expression and social purpose.


Aesthetics analyses and attempts to answer such questions as: What is art? How do we recognize it? How do we judge it? What purposes do artworks serve? {1}

Why should we want to ask such questions at all? Well, firstly there is intellectual curiosity. Other professions are clear about their aims, so why not art? And if, as we shall see, there are no definitive answers, nothing that does not beg further questions, we may nonetheless gain insights into an activity that is human but very perplexing. Moreover, there are practical considerations. Daily in magazines, performances and exhibitions the frontiers of art are being extended, and about some of these efforts hangs the suspicion of a leg-pull, empty pretension, fraud on a long-suffering public. {2} If we ask: Is this really art, very often we are met with the retort: prove otherwise. Art is as it is, and you are just too dumb, bourgeois or ill-educated to understand that. If we could somehow draw a line, a cordon sanitaire, around true artistic expression, we could ensure that the lion's share of art-funding went to the better candidates — the sincere, the dedicated and the gifted who made a contribution to society. Surely real artists would not object, when the blind seem sometimes to be leading the blind?

Art is vastly oversupplied. Only the smallest percentage support themselves solely through their work, leaving the great majority to teach, review, or take menial part-time jobs. Such a situation would be monstrous in other professions. Lawyers, scientists, doctors, etc. have organized themselves into guilds with career structures, rates of pay, and a clear articulation of their public roles. Their communities share knowledge: the fruits of countless lifetimes of effort are tested, codified, and made ready for immediate application. Not for them to reinvent the wheel, or to venture forth without traditions, working practices and the helping hand of master to journeyman right to the base of the tree. Art may be marginalized in today's technological and consumerist society, but a clear notion of its objectives might help it back into the fold. {3}  

Definitions of Art

So, what is art, then? What (to adopt the philosopher's approach) are its necessary and sufficient conditions? Many have been proposed — countless, stretching back to ancient Greece — but one of the most complete is that of Tatarkiewicz. His six conditions are: beauty, form, representation, reproduction of reality, artistic expression and innovation. Will that do? Unfortunately, it is difficult to pin these terms down sufficiently, to incorporate them into necessary and sufficient conditions — do they all have to be present? — and to cover the aspect of quality. Even in the most hackneyed piece of commercial art we shall find these conditions satisfied to some extent. How do we specify the sufficient extent? {4} By common agreement, a consensus of public taste?

Take a less time-bound view and consider art down the ages? Then we have problems of shifting boundaries and expectations. The Greeks did not distinguish between art and craft, but used the one word, techné, and judged achievement on goodness of use. In fact not until 1746 did Charles Batteux separate the fine arts from the mechanical arts, and only in the last hundred years has such stress been laid on originality and personal expression. Must we then abandon the search for definitions, and look closer at social agreements and expectations? That would be a defeat for rationality, philosophers might feel — it being their role to arrive at clear, abstract statements that are true regardless of place or speaker. But perhaps (as Strawson and others have remarked) art may be one of those fundamental categories which cannot be analyzed further, cannot be broken into more basic terms. And there is always Wittgenstein's scepticism about definitions — that terms commonly have a plexus of overlapping applications, meaning lying in the ways words are used, and not in any fiat of God or philosophers.  

Aesthetic Qualities

Suppose, to take Wittgenstein's scepticism further, we dropped the search for definitions but looked to the characteristics of art, the effects and properties that were needed in large measure for something to establish itself as "art". What would they be? One would be beauty, surely — i.e. proportion, symmetry, order in variety that pleases. Beauty therefore comes down to feelings — not individual and transient feelings necessarily, but matters that ultimately cannot be rationalized? Yes, said David Hume and George Santayana. But then, said Wittgenstein, we should have to deny that aesthetic descriptions had any objectivity at all, which is surely untrue. We may not know whether to call some writing "plodding" or simply "slow-moving", but we don't call it energetic.

Very well, do we need to enquire further into beauty? Probably, since it is a term useful and universal. {5} But contemporary philosophers have great difficulties in analyzing the term properly — i.e. into abstract, freestanding propositions that are eternally true. Art certainly speaks to us down the ages, and we should like to think it was through a common notion of beauty. But look at examples. We revere the sculpture of fourth century Athens, but the Middle ages did not. We prefer those marbles in their current white purity whereas in fact the Greeks painted them as garishly as fairground models. We cannot, it appears, ignore the context of art, and indeed have to show how the context contributes. Clearly, beauty is not made to a recipe, and if individual artworks have beauty, they do not exemplify some abstract notion of it.

Dangers of Aesthetics

Artists have therefore been somewhat chary of aesthetics, feeling that art is too various and protean to conform to rules. Theory should not lead practice, they feel, but follow at a respectful distance. Put the cart before the horse and theory will more restrict than inform or inspire. Moreover professionals — those who live by words, and correspondingly have to make words live for them — are unimpressed by the cumbersome and opaque style of academia. Any directive couched in such language seems very dubious. For surely literature is not made according to rules, but the rules are deduced from literature — rationalized from good works of art to understand better what they have in common. And if theorists (philosophers, sociologists, linguists, etc.) do not have a strongly-developed aesthetic sense — which, alas, they often demonstrate — then their theories are simply beside the point.

But theory need not be that way. Rather than prescribe it may clarify. No doubt, as Russell once wryly observed, philosophy starts by questioning what no one would seriously doubt, and ends in asserting what no one can believe, but creative literature is not without its own shortcomings. Much could be learnt by informed debate between the disciplines, and a willingness of parties to look through each other's spectacles. Obtuse and abstract as it may be, philosophy does push doggedly on, arriving at viewpoints which illuminate some aspects of art.

Art as Representation

What is the first task of art? To represent. {6} Yes, there is abstract painting, and music represents nothing unless it be feelings in symbolic form, but literature has always possessed an element of mimesis, copying, representation. Attempts are periodically made to purge literature of this matter-of-fact, utilitarian end — Persian mysticism, haiku evocation, poesie pure, etc. — but representation always returns.

How is the representation achieved? No one supposes it is a simple matter, or that codes, complex social transactions, understandings between speakers, genre requirements etc. do not play a large if somewhat unfathomed part. Our understanding is always shaping our experiences, and there is no direct apperception of chair, table, apple in the simple-minded way that the Logical Positivists sometimes asserted. Words likewise do not stand in one-to-one relationships to objects, but belong to a community of relationships — are part, very often, of a dialogue that writing carries on with other writings. Even when we point and say "that is a chair", a wealth of understandings underlies this simple action — most obviously in the grammar and behavioural expectations. The analytical schools have investigated truth and meaning to an extent unimaginable to the philosophically untutored. They have tried to remove the figurative, and to represent matters in propositional language that verges on logic. Very technical procedures have been adopted to sidestep paradoxes, and a universal grammar has been proposed to explain and to some extent replace the ad hoc manner in which language is made and used. Thousands of man-lives have gone into these attempts, which aim essentially to fashion an ordered, logically transparent language that will clarify and possibly resolve the questions philosophers feel impelled to ask.

Much has been learnt, and it would be uncharitable to call the enterprise a failure. Yet language has largely evaded capture in this way, and few philosophers now think the objectives are attainable. Even had the goals been gained, there would still have remained the task of mapping our figurative, everyday use of language onto this logically pure language. And of justifying the logic of that language, which is not the self- evident matter sometimes supposed. There are many forms of logic, each with its strengths and limitations, and even mathematics, that most intellectually secure of human creations, suffers from lacunae, areas of overlap and uncertainties. But that is not a cause for despair. Or for embracing the irrationalism of the Poststructuralists who assert that language is a closed system — an endless web of word — associations, each interpretation no more justified than the next. But it does remind us that language becomes available to us through the medium in which it is formulated. And that literature of all types — written, spoken, colloquial, formal — incorporates reality, but reconstitutes it according to its own rules.

Art as Emotional Expression

Suppose we return to simpler matters. Art is emotionally alive. We are delighted, elated, suffused with a bitter sweetness of sorrow, etc., rejecting as sterile anything which fails to move us. But are these the actual emotions which the artist has felt and sought to convey? It is difficult to know. Clearly we can't see into the minds of artists — not in the case of dead artists who have left no explanatory notes, and not generally in contemporary cases where artists find their feelings emerge in the making of the artwork. Then, secondly, we wouldn't measure the greatness of art by the intensity of emotion — unless we accept that a football match is a greater work of art than a Shakespeare play. And thirdly there is the inconvenient but well-known fact that artists work on "happy" and "sad" episodes simultaneously. They feel and shape the emotion generated by their work, but are not faithfully expressing some preexisting emotion. {7}

Some theorists have in fact seen art more as an escape from feeling. Neurotic artists find their work therapeutic, and hope the disturbance and healing will also work its power on the audience. And if Aristotle famously spoke of the catharsis of tragedy, did he mean arousing emotions or releasing them — i.e. do artists express their own emotions or evoke something appropriate from the audience? Most would say the latter since raw, truthful, sincere emotion is often very uncomfortable, as in the brute sex act or the TV appeal by distraught parents. Whatever the case, art is clearly a good deal more than emotional expression, and at least requires other features: full and sensitive representation, pleasing and appropriate form, significance and depth of content.

Form and Beauty: The Autonomy of Art

And so we come to form. Beauty we have glanced at, but if we drop that term, so troublesome and unfashionable today, there remains organization: internal consistency, coherence, a selection and shaping of elements to please us. And please us the art object must — genuinely, immediately, irrationally — by the very way it presents itself. How exactly? Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Croce, and dozens of contemporary philosophers have all made important contributions, but the variety of art makes generalization difficult, and explanations are naturally couched in the philosophic concerns of the time.

But something can be said. Art presents itself as an autonomous, self-enclosing entity. The stage, picture frame, etc. give an aesthetic distance, tell us that what is shown or enacted serves no practical end, and is not to be judged so. We are drawn in — engrossed, enraptured — but we are also free to step back and admire the crafting, to exercise our imagination, and to enjoy disinterestedly what can be more complete and vivid than real life. {8} Is this autonomy necessary? Until the present century most artists and commentators said yes. They believed that harmony in variety, detachment, balance, luminous wholeness, organic coherence, interacting inevitability and a host of other aspects were important, perhaps essential. Many contemporary artists do not. They seek to confront, engage in non-aesthetic ways with their public, to bring art out into the streets. Successfully, or so the trendier critics would persuade us, though the public remains sceptical. Modernism is taught in state schools, but Postmodernist has yet to win acceptance. {9}

Art as a Purposive Activity

Art, says the tax-paying citizen, is surely not entertainment, or not wholly so. Artists aim at some altruistic and larger purpose, or we should not fete them in the media and in academic publications. We don't want to be preached at, but artists reflect their times, which means that their productions give us the opportunity to see our surroundings more clearly, comprehensively and affectionately. And not only to see, say Marxist and politically-orientated commentators, but to change. Art has very real responsibilities, perhaps even to fight male chauvinism, ethnic prejudice, third-world exploitation, believe the politically correct. {10}

Artist-Centred Philosophies

With the advent of psychology, and the means of examining the physiological processes of the human animal, one focus of attention has become the artist himself. Indeed, Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood felt that the work of art was created in the artist's mind, the transposing of it to paper or music or canvas being subsidiary and unimportant. But the transposing is for most artists the very nature of their art, and few conceive work completely and exactly beforehand. John Dewey stressed that knowledge was acquired through doing, and that the artist's intentions were both modified and inspired by the medium concerned. For Suzanne Langer the artist's feelings emerged with the forms of expression — which were not feelings expressed but ideas of feeling: part of a vast stock which the artist draws on, combines and modifies. Of course there is always something inexplicable, even magical, about good writing. It just came to me, says the writer: the words wrote themselves. That and the intertextuality of writing — that writing calls on and borrows from other pieces of writing, establishing itself within a community of understandings and conventions — led Roland Barthes to assert that the writer does not exist, that writing writes itself. Certainly writing is inextricably part of thinking, and we do not have something in our minds which we later clothe in words. But most writing needs shaping, reconsidering, rewriting, so that the author is not some passive, spiritualist medium. Moreover, though we judge the finished work, and not the writer's intentions (supposing we could ever know them exactly) it is common knowledge that writers often have a small stock of themes which they constantly extract and rework: themes which are present in their earliest efforts and which do indeed reflect or draw substance from their experiences. Biography, social history, psychology do tell us something about artistic creations. {11}

Viewer-Centred Philosophies

Given that artists find themselves through their work, and do not know until afterwards what they had in mind, it may be wiser to look a art from the outside, from the viewer's perspective. We expect literature, for example, to hold something in the mind with particular sensitivity and exactness, and to hold it there by attention to the language in which it is formulated. Special criteria can apply. We feel terror and pity in the theatre, but are distanced, understanding that they call for no action on our part. We obey the requirements of genre and social expectations, making a speech on a public platform being very different from what we say casually to friends. We look for certain formal qualities in art — exactness, balance, vivid evocation, etc. — and expect these qualities to grow naturally from inside rather than be imposed from without. We realize that art produces a pleasure different from intellectual or sensuous one — unreflective enjoyment, but one also pregnant with important matters. Change one feature and we know instinctively that something is wrong. How? Perhaps as we instinctively detect a lapse in grammar, by referring to tacit rules or codes. Nelson Goodman argued that art was essentially a system of denotation, a set of symbols, even a code that we unravel, the code arbitrary but made powerful by repeated practice. {12} Edwin Panofsky suggested that symbols could be studied on three levels — iconic (the dog resembles a dog), iconographic (the dog stands for loyalty) or iconological (the dog represents some metaphysical claim about the reality of the physical world). {13} Hence the importance of a wide understanding of the artist and his times. And why no appeals to good intentions, or to morally uplifting content, will reason us into liking something that does not really appeal.  

Art as Social Objects

But can we suppose that content doesn't matter? Not in the end. Art of the Third Reich and of communist Russia is often technically good, but we don't take it to our hearts. Marxist philosophers argue that art is the product of social conditions, and John Berger, for example, regarded oil paintings as commodities enshrining values a consumerist society. {14} Hermeneutists argue that the art produced by societies allows them to understand themselves — so that we have devastating judgements skulking in the wartime portraits of Hitler, and in scenes of a toiling but grateful Russian proletariat. They are untrue in a way obvious to everyone.

But if society ultimately makes the judgements, who in society decides which artistic expressions it will commission and support? Not everyone. Appreciation requires experience and training — in making quality judgements, and in deciding the criteria. Some criteria can be variable (subject matter), some are standard (music is not painting) and some are decided by the history of the art or genre in question (paintings are static and two-dimensional). But additionally there are questions of authority and status. Institutionalists like George Dickie say simply that an object becomes art when approved sections of society confer that status on it. {15} But that only shifts the question: how can we be sure such sections are not furthering their careers in the cozy world of money, media and hype? Ted Cohen could not really find such rituals of conferral, {16} and Richard Wollheim wanted the reasons for such conferral: what were they exactly? {17} Arthur Danto introduced the term " artworld" , but emphasize that successful candidates had to conform to current theories of art. Individual or arbitrary fiats were not persuasive. {18}

But are there not more important considerations? However portrayed in the popular press, artists lead hard lives, for the most part solitary, unrecognized and unrewarded. What drives them on? Vanity in part, and deep personal problems — plus, it may be, a wish to overcome feelings of inadequacy deriving from youth or the home background. But artists are not always more febrile or bohemian than others, or at least the evidence of them being so is open to question. {19} When asked, artists usually speak of some desire to make sense of themselves and their surroundings. They feel a little apart from life, and do not understand why the public can skim over the surface, never troubling itself with the deep questions that cause elation, anguish and wonder. Literature, say writers, brings them experiences saturated with meaning, in which they perceive the fittingness of the world and their own place within it. The concepts of their own vision are inescapable theirs, and they can only hope these concepts are also important to the society from which they draw their support and inspiration.


We have come a long way, but only scratched the surface of aesthetics. Large sections (the nonrepresentational arts, the ontology of art objects, the history of aesthetics) have not received even a mention. But here are the starting points at least for further reading in the difficult but very rewarding original sources. Also the beginnings of answers to questions that surface continually in the writing and appraisal of poetry: What do poems attempt? Why don't the strongest feelings produce the best writing? Why is originality important, but not all-important? Why is poetry so marginalized in contemporary society, and what can be done to correct matters?

The answers will not be definitive. Philosophy does not finally settle anything, but can untangle the issues involved, suggest what has to be argued or given away if a certain position is held. Philosophical questions pass ultimately beyond rational argument (the finding of bad reasons for what we instinctively believe, one philosopher called his subject) into preferences, outlooks, experiences. It would be surprising if they didn't. And more surprising if we could use one small part of our faculties to explain the rest, though that is very much what mathematics, science, logic and linguistic philosophy have attempted. But if reason has its dangers, the sleep of reason may be worse.  

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Oswald Hanfling's Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992) for a readable summary. Also entries in David Cooper's A Companion to Aesthetics (1995).
2. Roger Scruton's The Politics of Culture and Other Essays. (1981), Chapter 1 of John Passmore's Serious Art (1991) and Chapter 4 of B.R. Tilghman's But is it Art? (1987).
3. Brian Appleyard's The Culture Club: Crisis in the Arts. (1984) and Ian Gregson's Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement (1996).
4. W. Tatarkiewicz's A History of Six Ideas (1980) and Chapter 1 of Hanfling 1992.
5. Mary Mothersill's Beauty entry in Cooper 1995.
6. Crispin Sartwell's Representation entry in Cooper 1995, Chapter 6 of Hanfling 1992, and Chapters 6 and 7 of Passmore 1991.
7. Chapter 5 of Hanfling 1992, and Malcolm Budd's Emotion entry in Cooper 1995.
8. Crispin Sartwell's Realism entry in Cooper 1995.
9. Ihab Hassan's The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. (1987).
10. Chapter 11 of Hanfling 1992.
11. Chapter 10 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986).
12. Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art (1968).
13. Edwin Panofsky's Iconology and iconography: An introduction to the study of Renaissance art in Meaning in the Visual Arts (1970). Also John Hyman's Language and Pictorial Art entry in Cooper 1995.
14. pp. 24-25 in Passmore 1991.
15. George Dickie's Art and the Aesthetic (1974)
16. Ted Cohen's Aesthetic and Non-Aesthetic (1973).
17. Richard Wollheim's Art and its Objects (1980).
18. A.C. Danto's The Artworld (1973). Also Chapter 1 of Hanfling 1992 for references 15-18.
19. Albert Rothenburg's Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes (1990).

Internet Resources

1. American Society of Aesthetics. Free samples of papers; otherwise $70/year subscription, which includes back issues in electronic form. Excellent listing of aesthetics resources and websites.
2. Aesthetic Interestedness and the Uncertainty Principle in Musical Meaning. Richard Stains. 1998-2001. Urges a multi-disciplinary approach, one that recognises psychological and sociological perspectives.
3. Canadian Aesthetics Journal. . Free online papers from Spring 1996.
4. The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. . Online journal for the counter-culture in politics and aesthetics.
5. Aesthetics and Visual Culture. Emphasis on the visual arts, but providing a good listing of sites.
6. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Free online encyclopedia, with good search facilities and detailed entries.
7. Ethical Aspects of Aesthetics. . Select listing of books and sites.
8. American Transcendental Aesthetics. Website on the thought of Thoreau and Emerson, and the poetry it inspired.
9. Aesthetics. . Open Directory's listing of sites. NNA
10. Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art. Arthur C. Danto. Feb. 1983. Introduction to the importance of aesthetics.