art as autonomousOverview

Today's art can seem so suspect that some touchstone is needed. Beauty is a term difficult for philosophers to handle, and is generally replaced by "aesthetic qualities".


What makes something a work of art? How do we distinguish literature from everyday prose? What exactly is poetry? Habermas's distinction between problem-solving (science) and world-disclosing (art) takes us only so far. {1} Scientists and mathematicians also see themselves as making sense of the world, and equally employ the gifts celebrated of artists — passion, creativity and imagination in pursuing the work, clarity and persuasiveness in reporting the results. Nonetheless, science is a practical activity, a means to an end. We do not read scientific papers for the pleasure in seeing something well done, or place their mathematical expositions as a self-sufficient object on the wall.

Art, however, seems to present itself as an autonomous, self-enclosing entity. Immediately, before we have grasped its full nature, it seizes our attention. We find it arresting and engrossing, but also separate from us. Though we cannot master or possess it, art stirs us as other things cannot. And not always by argument since there can be few arguments to follow. Not wholly by truth, or accuracy of depiction, since we can be delighted by manifest absurdities. Not by its potential applications, as art is not generally useful in any direct way. By what then? The way it presents itself — by its coherence, balance, shape, rightful order: what an earlier age called "beauty" and we call aesthetic qualities. {2}


What is the first characteristic of a work of art? That it pleases us. Whatever else it does, be it interesting, informative, supportive of many worthy purposes, please us it must. And genuinely: we cannot be reasoned into subverting our emotions. But since many things give us pleasure — gratification of the senses, winning an argument, the sunlight on an early summer morning — we have also to ask what is specific about aesthetic pleasure. No one has been wholly successful in answering this question, but several attempts are still important. The chief forms of beauty, said Aristotle, are order, symmetry and definition {3} Beautiful things please by proportion, said St. Augustine. {4} Harmony in variety is beauty, suggested the painter William Hogarth. {5} A close association between perception of an object and the feelings it arouses in the mind, decided Hume. {6}

Kant went further. He distinguished three types of pleasure — in the agreeable, in the good and in beauty. The first was a matter of gratification, and here our preferences were simply matters of taste. Our pleasure in the good was important but not disinterested. Beauty, however, was an immediate and disinterested pleasure. To find something beautiful we must respond to it as it presents itself, without reasoning or analysis. There is nothing more fundamental we can appeal to, though we justify our feelings by pointing to aspects of that beauty.

And beauty is not mere feelings. Kant believed that, though the sense of beauty was grounded in feelings of pleasure, this pleasure was universally valid and necessary. Other people ought to feel as we do. Kant also stressed the disinterestedness of that pleasure. Just as human beings should never be treated as merely means to an end, so aesthetic pleasure comes from the sheer joy of deploying of our imagination: not for reasons of morality or utility or any other purpose at all. In a free play of our imagination we bring concepts to bear on experiences that would otherwise be free of concepts, thereby extending our pleasure in the world.

But the pleasure does not bring understanding. Art objects are valuable for their beauty and as sensory embodiments of ideas, but they do not convey what Kant was disposed to call knowledge. Hegel disagreed, however. Knowledge appears through our immersion in the world. We know when we see into, through and around, and it is these actions that give us knowledge. Like Kant, Hegel based freedom on human reasoning and self-restraint, but felt that Kant's categories of thought were a new Cartesianism, which separated man from his emotional nature. By a dialectic of reasoning, Hegel attempted to build on the inherent meaning of words, to argue that terms like "Mind" and "Being" represented reality because man over the centuries has found them indispensable.

The twentieth century has generally been hostile to these approaches. Philosophy naturally wishes to reduce judgement to reasoning, and the analytical schools have tried to further reduce reasoning to logic, and to replace private thought by measurable external actions. From this standpoint, the difficulties with "beauty" are these: How is the term to be defined? Given that beauty is an individual response, not a propositional statement, how can the term be given objective existence? And if we accept Hegel's notion that works of art express the "spirit of the age", and need an understanding of that age for their appreciation, how is "beauty" to be established as a timeless entity?

Many philosophers believe these questions can't be answered. They regard "beauty" as a standing concept, like truth, which cannot be based on grounds more fundamental. {7} They follow Wittgenstein in thinking definitions are futile, that instances of "beauty" are like those of "games", with no common characteristic but only an overlapping plexus of resemblances. {8} "Beauty", they say at last, is merely a vague term of approval for feelings, nature and works of art. {9}

But why then is beauty of such fundamental importance? Women, clothes, stately homes, works of art are all celebrated for this quality. We don't think beauty is their only excellence, or that works of art cannot include something of the difficult or harrowing — Beethoven's late quartets, or Grunwald's "Crucifixion" — but beauty does serve us as no other term will. Aquinas's definition as "that which pleases in the very apprehension of it" expresses a universal experience, and if philosophers have been unable to say something deeper, then the fault may lie at their door. Their language, with its crude reduction to utilitarian concepts, is unequal to the task. It is writers themselves — poets, essayists, art historians — who have furnished the useful insights and reflections. {10}

Aesthetic Qualities

But artists are not philosophers, and their insights do not add up to a coherent view. If we are concerned to understand art better, perhaps we should drop the term "beauty" and talk instead of aesthetic qualities? There is no essential, defining characteristic of art, let us say, but there may be several ingredients vital to all works of art. We could note that artworks are man-made, and that we contemplate or enjoy them in a special, somewhat disinterested way. We could agree that appreciation calls both on personal experience and social customs. And we could accept that in losing ourselves in artworks we also gain a sense of wholeness and reconciliation with the world. {11}

How persuasive is that? Paintings and sunsets give us similar feelings of pleasure, but sunsets are not man-made. Do we really approach works of art with disinterestedness, an amalgam of detachment and imaginative involvement that Kant insisted should contain no tinge of possessiveness or desire? What is the personal experience that music calls on, and what are the social customs we need to understand in a Greek sculpture, uprooted from its temple and bleached of its original bright colours? What possible sense of reconciliation and wholeness with the world did the music of Beethoven give Nazi concentration-camp commandants returning nightly from the systematic slaughter of their fellow human beings? And so on. To any simple list of aesthetic qualities the exceptions and qualifications are formidable. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Schopenhauer, Dewey, and Wittgenstein have added richness to our intellectual understanding of art, but their views conflict and diverge. Abstracted from our individual experience of art, do not our generalizations dwindle into contention? {12}

Perhaps there is another way of approaching aesthetic qualities. We know very well that a Russian icon or an African tribal mask were not primarily created as works of art, though they often appeal as such now. Perhaps we could discount their extrinsic aspects — the social context, the artist's intentions, their magical properties — and concentrate on what is the left, on the intrinsic aspects, which must surely be their aesthetic qualities. But the aesthetic qualities may depend on the non-aesthetic. Harmony, balance, power, sensitivity, etc. — all these are perceived through extrinsic particulars: this story, this prevailing tone, these patches of colour. We can recognize the intrinsic qualities, and explain our liking for an artwork in these terms, but attempts to isolate the essentially aesthetic end in circular arguments. {13}

But then all philosophic arguments run into difficulty if pushed far enough. Perhaps we should simply note the attributes of aesthetic experience and attempt some practical description, realizing that words are imperfect instruments for conveying truth and meaning? Monroe Beardsley {14} offered five such attributes: object directness, felt freedom, detached effect, active discovery and wholeness. The first is a willingness to be absorbed and guided by the artwork — not only by its immediate features, but by deeper matters: plot, symbolism, social attitude, etc. The second is release from extraneous circumstances. The third — "detached effect" — is similar to Bullough's "psychic distance" but not a necessary condition for aesthetic experience, simply a usual one. "Active discovery" is a central requirement, however, and refers to the cognitive element of aesthetic experience, our willingness to sort things out and make sense of the experience. By "wholeness", Beardsley originally meant completeness and coherence in the aesthetic experience, but later emphasized the coming together of intellect and emotion in an experienced continuum of the aesthetic experience, many works being too large and complex to be taken in at once glance, or even held in the mind as a unified aesthetic experience.

Genre and Social Expectations

Though contemporary art is often innovative and iconoclastic, it cannot be completely novel or it would not be understood. Biographies appear as books, and even the most outlandish installations and events develop from previous exhibitions. Social convention therefore plays a large part in what counts as art. Similarly with judgement, perplexity disappearing when we recognize a play as a black comedy rather than a true-to-life tragedy. Perhaps we should look for the characteristics of art in what knowledgeable people say, rather than anything we can find ourselves. In other words — to adopt an influential theory of George Dickie's {15} — art is a status conferred by the "art world".

But of course new difficulties appear. What are the artworld's qualifications? Even if we overlook the commercial links between critic and gallery, the suspicion that the art-market's promotions too often have profit in mind, we must still ask for the grounds of selection. Why is this object a work of art, and that not? And can something natural or utilitarian — driftwood or a public urinal — suddenly change into an artwork when members of the art-world decree it so? {16}

Aesthetic Distance

Let us backtrack and follow Kant's observation that our response to art is disinterested. The aesthetic response relies on a certain attitude, a detachment that Schopenhauer saw as loss of the individual will or self, and which Edward Bullough {17} called the detachment or "psychical distance". This "distance" removes the practical side of things, erects as it were an invisible frame round artistic expression, and makes aesthetic contemplation possible. Very likely, but what does the expression explain? Is it not simply an alternative to "attending", i.e. an unnecessary expression which overlooks the parts played by object and spectator in the experience? {18} We suspend belief. We know from the picture frame, stages, story title that these are not "real life" but something where greater wholeness and clarity will provide a more than compensating aesthetic pleasure? Very well, but then we have to look more closely at "attending", which involves us in further problems. Not only do the picture frames, stage, etc. signal to us that the art-object is "not for real" but the elements inside, the whole matter composing the object, are not representations of the real, but a complex series of codes that we learn to interpret and apply. This view, developed by Nelson Goodman, {19} links traditional aesthetics with linguistics and Structuralism, and questions any naive view of art as representation.

Intention and Artifact

What of the imitation or forgery made so skillfully that it is indistinguishable from the original? If the essence of art lies in its outward form, what is there to say that the imitation is not as fully a work of art as the original? Unless we know the object to be a forgery, i.e. we judge on other, privileged grounds, our aesthetic response will be the same. But we are not happy with the situation. The Chinese take a more tolerant line, but the west insists on having the original, rejecting the imitation out of hand. If there were no other way of demonstrating the point, it is clear that art does not depend entirely on form: other elements — expression and intention — also play their part.{20}

But some artforms are always reproductions. Drama, music and dance become alive and accessible only in performance. What then is the "real" work of art, the script or the performance, the modest amateur production or the glittering Broadway production? Richard Wollheim suggested grouping matters differently, distinguishing "types" from "tokens". {21} Particular examples are tokens, i.e. both script and performances. The generic unit is the type, of which all tokens are examples, but which cannot be reduced to them. The terminology is useful, and has been widely adopted, but the treatment ramifies into the questions that perhaps only philosophers enjoy discussing.

Form as Argument

If form is not a container but a shaper and organizer, then all it can arrange, surely, is aesthetic response? No, said the classical world. Form was an argument, something which led to assent rather than truth. {2} There were two ways of arguing: with dialectic and rhetoric. Dialectic was the private style, the discourse used by philosophers who live apart from the crowd, systematic reasoning for an expert audience. It was spare, lean and tough, the very style used later by the Royal Academy and then science. Rhetoric was the public style, expansive argumentation for a mixed audience, and therefore the instrument of practical wisdom. Dialectic was not superior to rhetoric, quite the contrary. The wellsprings of rhetoric lay in ethos, a demonstration of the refinement of moral character that was the goal of a liberal education. Philosophy was not based on unquestionable truths, but on implicit opinions which rhetoric attempted to extract and formulate more precisely. In all discourse — dialectic and rhetoric — there were five offices to fulfill: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. Form applied to each: there were well-tried, demonstrable ways of bringing about the effects required, these appealing as much to the mind as the ears. "The truth of the poet ", said Cicero, "is a very near kinsman to that of the orator, rather more heavily fettered as regards rhythm, but with ampler freedom in its choice of words, while in its use of ornament it is oratory's ally and almost its counterpart." {23}

Art as a Communal Learned Activity: Craft

The invention of printing reduced the importance of memory and delivery in literary production, only invention, arrangement and style remaining of the classical mores. Perhaps until the sixties in England, when emphasis shifted to uninhibited "free expression", the artist was seen as his own severest critic, shaping his work with unremitting labour to a worthy if unattainable standard of perfection. Modernism notwithstanding, the glories of English literature suggested no great need for radical invention. Henry Newbolt said: "The more a writer struggles to invent the less he is likely to create. His true way is a different one; he finds his material among the accumulated stories of the race, whether ancient or modern; he sets to work to reject all that he judges unnecessary or unfit, to add all that is lacking; and finally, without effort, almost without consciousness of his power, he endows his work with his own personal quality in the act of making it serve his own purpose." {24}

Newbolt's patriotic outpourings soon fell from vogue, but sober craftsmanship continues to be an important theme in many of today's do-it-yourself guides to art, both books and courses. {25} Dance, painting, creative writing, drama — a glance through any adult education prospectus will show the popularity and astonishing range of courses offered, where a generally older generation is introduced to the rudiments of the art in question by tutors who are often artists themselves. Quality varies, and tutors have learned not to expect the dedication, the developing imagination, the willingness to learn, and go on forever learning and improving, that marks out the true professional. But the results express the individuality of the participants, and bring undoubted pleasure to themselves and family. Given the ease of word-processor, and speed with which it may be written, poetry is especially popular.

Anti-aesthetics of Postmodernism

Very different is the professional art scene. We are often uncertain at a poetry reading as to whether the introduction is continuing or the poem begun. And exhibits in galleries have become so inconsequential as to be sometimes thrown out by cleaners, gallery staff or even fellow artists. {26} Clearly, much of contemporary art is non-aesthetic. It aims to broaden the concept of art, to make it an everyday, democratic and unsettling experience. If the specific pleasures of art disappear, so be it. Those pleasures were often elitist, calling on a privileged education to appreciate previous artforms and an unearned leisure to indulge their further development. And where art leads, philosophers, critics and social commentators must follow. It is extraordinarily difficult to discern the significant in the diversity of contemporary activity, and theories which attempt to do so are often unconvincing or parasitic. The "But is it art?" jibe may linger, but the artists themselves are serious, as must be the gallery-owners and publishers to induce a sophisticated public to part with hard-won cash.

Art at the cutting edge today, whether the performing, visual or literary arts, seems a rejection of much of what previously characterized the enterprise. Meaning is indeterminate, fragmented or shifting. There is no message as such, or even subject matter beyond what the artwork creates. Previous art-forms, concepts and terminology are combined playfully, as a collage or montage of images that are not required to make sense of the outside world. Even the artist is self-effacing, leaving his productions to speak as their audience pleases. But if such art appears democratic, inviting audience participation, its appeal is nonetheless to a fashionable minority who have the use of wide cultural reference. {27}

Does this reduce art to entertainment, a distraction for a restless, easily-bored urban society? Possibly so, but art is only reflecting its times, the plurality of a consumer society. Does this not make artists into performers? Inevitably so, but how could it be otherwise? A few artists — initially fortunate perhaps, but then increasingly driven by commercial pressures to water down and repeat their work — do reap success, if success means money, critical acknowledgement and social prominence. They use, and indeed have to use, the promotion of the art markets — the official media, the establishment, the various underground movements of competing cliques — since independence threatens the system and invites reprisals. Those not so fortunate in the first place, the great majority of artists, must stay ever-hopeful or marginalized. Art, both for its creation and appreciation, requires exorbitant amounts of time, and time in bustling western democracies is a scarce commodity. Naturally, with so much on offer, the public needs guidance — hence the streamlined criticism, shallow advertising, artistic fads and fashion. Tens of thousands of man-hours go into a film's production, but that film is written off by its audience in a few minutes of predictable comment in the foyer afterwards. No more is wanted, as there beckon a dozen new ways of filling time.

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. Andrew Bowie's Aesthetics, Autonomy in David Cooper's (Ed.) A Companion to Aesthetics (1992).
2. Chapters 2 and 4 of Oswald Hanfling's (Ed.) Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992).
3. Aristotle's Metaphysics in R. MacKeon's (Ed.) The Basic Works of Aristotle (1941).
4. St. Augustine's De Musica in A. Hofstadter's Philosophies of Art and Beauty (1964).
5. William Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty (1969 edn.).
6. David Hume's Of the Standard of Taste in J.W. Lenz's (Ed.) Hume's Essays (1965).
7. Mary Mothersill's Beauty in Cooper 1992.
8. B.R. Tilghman's But is it Art? (1984).
9. James Cargile's Beauty entry in Ted Honderich's (Ed.) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995).
10. Christopher Butler and Alastair Fowler's Topics in Criticism (1971) for examples.
11. Chapter 4 of Hanfling 1992.
12. Chapter 1 of Hanfling 1992.
13. pp. 57-67 in Hanfling 1992.
14. Monroe Beardsley's Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958).
15. George Dickie's Art and the Aesthetic (1974).
16. pp. 24-39 in Hanfling 1992.
17. Edward Bullough's Aesthetics (1977).
18. George Dickie's Aesthetic: An Introduction (1971). Also pp. 157-165 in Hanfling 1992.
19. Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (1976). Also chapter 6 in Hanfling 1992.
20. pp. 9-110 in Hanfling 1992.
21. Richard Wollheim's Art and its Objects (1980). Also pp. 80-97 in Hanfling 1992.
22 Thomas O. Sloane's Rhetoric, Logic and Poetry: the Formal Cause in C.A. Patrides and R.B. Waddington's (Eds.) The Age of Milton (1980). Also C. Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca's The New Rhetoric (1969).
23. Cicero. De Oratore. 1. xvi. 70.
24. Quoted in A.F. Scott's The Poet's Craft: A Course in the Critical Appreciation of Poetry (1957).
25. Robert Wallace's Writing Poems (1987).
26. Chapter 1 of Hanfling, and Chapters 1 and 12 of Passmore 1991.
27. Ihab Hassan's The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987). Also Alex Callinos's Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (1989) and Roger Scruton's The Politics of Culture and other Essays (1981) for more critical views. Hassan has an extensive bibliography.

Internet Resources

1. Aristotle.
. Short introduction.
2. Aristotle Poetics: a bibliography.
. Extensive listing, though works not generally online.
3. Philosophical Beauty: The Sublime in the Beautiful in Kant's Third Critique and Aristotle's Poetics. Richard Gilmore. Paper at 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston. Aug. 1998.
4. The Site for Research on William Hogarth (1697-1764). Articles and bibliographies on all aspects of Hogarth's work.
5. Immanuel Kant.
. Brief introduction.
6. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Theory of Aesthetics and Teleology (The Critique of Judgment). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
7. Aesthetic Perspectivalism and the Nature of Art: Two proposals attempting to develop a theology of the Arts. Robert Kemp. Jun. 2003.
. Art from a Christian perspective, with a summary of key contributions.
8. 'Psychical Distance' as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle. Edward Bullough 1912. Online excerpts from the classic paper.
9. Nelson Goodman. NNA. Tribute by Curtis Carter.
10. Vim and rigor: the work of author Nelson Goodman. W.J.T. Mitchell. May 1999.
. Introduction to range of Goodman's interests.
11. Richard Wollheim. NNA. Berkeley obituaries.
12. On the Emotions. Chapter One of Wollheim's 1999 book, with review.
13. Cicero on Oratory. Sanderson Beck. 2003. Excerpts from his book Ancient Wisdom And Folly.
14. The Cicero Homepage.
documents/Cic.html. Texts, biography and bibliography.
15. Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art. Arthur Danto. 1983. . Excerpts stressing the intellectual nature of aesthetics.
16. Towards a unified theory of beauty. Jennifer MacMahon. Oct. 1999.
Beauty as the experience of the principles involved in the construction of perceptual form.
17. The British Avant-Garde: A Philosophical Analysis. Deborah Fitzgerald. August 1998. Attempts a defence in terms of Wittgenstein's notion of "seeing as".