All of us are involved daily in dealing with issues of what is beautiful, in choices we make, right up to systems and ideologies we evaluate, and criticize. On what basis are such determinations made? Complex issues are involved, with many related factors. In viewing works of art are our evaluations truly based on aesthetic considerations?
Aesthetics is, strictly speaking, a branch of philosophy that has occupied thinkers from Plato to the present day. It is defined as dealing with the nature of and judgments concerning beauty. It is also defined as the description and explanation of artistic phenomena and aesthetic experience by means of other sciences such as psychology, sociology, ethnology, or history. Neither philosophy nor other sciences has come to a definite agreement.
I will address this issue using Modernist aesthetic principals, with a focus on visual arts. I will only deal with manmade objects or events – natural beauty cannot be taken as a work of art.
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.
A well-known cliché illustrates the second position, and I will deconstruct it to make an argument for objectivity, essential quality and universality.
The cliché “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” first appeared in print in the 19th century in the book Molly Baum by Margaret Hungerford, an Irish novelist of popular, light, romantic fiction. Similar sentiments were expressed in the 3rd century BC in Greece, and were echoed by the philosopher David Hume and Shakespeare, among others.
As with all clichés, this one has some truth to it. It adamantly insists that aesthetics is purely subjective. The reader must decide if this is the only truth possible. To me, subjectivity as an idea and fact cannot exist without non-subjectivity, i.e., objectivity. Can light exist without dark? Is crime only a perception of the victim?
While this attempt at aesthetic evaluation by deconstruction may not bring definite results, the inquiry could be fruitful. It raises many questions. What is art? Who makes it? What is beauty? Who defines it? Who exactly is the beholder?
I will start by separating the cliché into four distinct components: work of art, artist, beauty and beholder.
The Work of Art
What is art? Few questions provoke such heated debate and provide so few satisfactory answers. The critic Roger Fry referred to “…Tolstoy’s marvelously original, and yet perverse and even exasperating book, What is Art?” If there are no definitive conclusions, there is still a good deal to be said. Art is first of all a word – one that acknowledges both the idea and fact of art. Without it, one might ask whether art exists at all; the term was not found in every society. Yet, art is made everywhere. Art, therefore, is also an object, but not just any kind of object. Art is an aesthetic object. So what makes a work of art beautiful?
A work of art is an event where an observer participates by the very process of observation. This interaction cannot be avoided. “…we learn to see only as much as is needful for our purposes. But this in fact is very little.”
The artist does not define, but challenges, the existing and accepted notions of beauty. The truly creative artist deals with vulgarity, and tragedy. Something may seem vulgar to professionals, because in their code of beauty vulgarity is not recognised nor are rules made for its acceptance. To the artist, no subject is taboo. Art is poetic and poetically irrational. Most beholders wait for the aesthetician’s explanation.
In the early 1900s one reputable painter wrote, “The art of painting is the art of imitating solid objects upon a flat surface by means of pigments.” Is that all? Plato, indeed, gave a similar account, and posed the question – is it then worthwhile? And, he proceeded to turn artists out of the ideal republic.  When does a representation of a landscape become a work of art?
Aesthetics are written conclusions or directives – but painting is not an appendage of literature. To Matisse, painters address the public to present their works, AND to reveal some of their ideas on the art of painting. He believed that the painter’s best spokesperson is the work, which belongs to its time and share its opinions, feelings and delusions.
So artists meet the world with their work. What is their aim? For whom do they make art? If the majority rejects it, they feel it.
Beauty has been defined as the quality or qualities that delight the aesthetic senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.
In addition to the artist, beholders include other artists, philosophers, professional aestheticians, art critics and curators – and people who are none of the above.
Nobody can be as interested in the making of art as the artist. Does the beholder possess the intensity of the artist? Does the artist deal with such things as taste and quality at all? What about the context?
The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce saw art as vision or intuition, rather than any physical object or range of objects. The artist produces an image or picture. Beholders turn their eye in the direction that the artist points out, and reproduces in themselves the artist’s image.
Roger Fry believed that the beholder’s reaction to a work of art includes the consciousness of purpose, the consciousness of a peculiar relation of sympathy with the artist in order to arouse precisely the sensations we experience. And, this recognition of purpose is an essential part of the aesthetic judgment proper.
Fellow critic and contemporary Clive Bell believed that, “The starting point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion. The objects that provoke this emotion are works of art.” He called this the aesthetic emotion.
In the book Art, published in 1914, he asked: Is there an essential quality in works of art that distinguish them from all other classes of objects? Only one answer is possible – significant form. Significant form is relations and combinations of lines and color combined in a particular way, as are certain forms and relations of forms.
Abstract art, justified by analogy with music, could be expressive. It is art with forms that signify, represent and remind us of nothing, which arouses us as deeply and strongly as music has always been able to do. Can a disinterested contemplation of line, mass, space, light and shade, color and composition evoke the aesthetic emotion? Before a work of art, people who feel little or no emotion for pure form find themselves at a loss. They are deaf at a concert.
Who can get a purely visual satisfaction from looking at a picture? The figure represented may be dear to us and awaken the most delightful memories, but the picture may be ugly. On the other hand, the picture may be beautiful, but the figure represented abominable, or the picture itself, which we approve as beautiful, may not get the attention it deserves, owing to its being the work of an enemy or a rival. All this may lead to a confused and disquieted aesthetic interest. Does the image represent the concept? Is the beholder making an aesthetic evaluation?
Since the nature of an artistic experience deals with such imprecise matters as taste, quality or expressiveness, there has never been unanimity of opinion. Complicating matters further is the fact that taste seems to be conditioned solely by culture. And taste is so varied that absolute qualities in art will continue to elude us. Therefore, we cannot escape viewing art in the contexts of time and circumstance.
Earlier I asked, can light exist without dark? Further, can the conditioned exist without the unconditioned? Does state of mind make a difference? In viewing a work of art, do we take into consideration the social, cultural, economic and political? Who controls taste? What are the rules? Who sets them? By now we should be convinced of the invention of tradition – mostly pure artifice by the dominant culture.
Who sets the rules? Who tells us what is beautiful and what is not? At an exhibition we view the curator’s opinion. A work of art is a commodity awaiting a buyer. The curator may be challenged. For the Paris Exposition of 1855, Gustave Courbet built his own pavilion and displayed The Painter’s Studio. Equally important, in 1863 Emperor Napoleon III allowed a Salon des Refuses, in response to the appeals of artists working in ways unacceptable to the official Salon. Among the more than 2,500 submissions that failed the academic standards set by the jury was Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Eleven years later, the Modernist movement took its next decisive step by mounting their own exhibition. One shocked, reactionary critic called the painters mere “Impressionists.”
Beware of the critic whose reputation depends on the power to impress the public with a semblance of knowledge, and the artist who attempts to do the same with skill and technical swagger.
The exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ was held in Munich in 1937. Representative work of the avant garde was presented as evidence of corruption, madness and “cultural Bolshevism” – the work, as Hitler put it, of “fools, liars and criminals who belong in insane asylums or prisons.” He blamed Judaism for taking possession of those means and institutions of communication which form, and thus finally rule over, public opinion. Art had become an international communal experience, and he wanted a German art, an art with eternal value. Such artists were pitiful misfortunates, suffering from eyesight deformation – and of great interest to the Reich’s Ministry of Interior. Hitler left no doubt that sooner or later such artists would be liquidated.
Who influences the beholder of beauty? If beauty is determined subjectively, the assumption is that there are no outside influences. So is it genetically determined? Obviously false – to wit, influences such as family, education and media. Thus, even if the determination of beauty is individual, it is not necessarily subjective. There is a false assumption that no standards are created. There are standards, conformity and value placed on objects. Are any deviations allowed? Is any 14th-century painting of the Virgin Mary not beautiful? Francis Fukuyama wrote of the end of history. Is there then an end of beauty?
Key players who also set rules are the beauty and fashion industries ably assisted by the advertising industry. Highly gender biased, their job is to make women ‘beautiful.’ Products such as Fair and Lovely make the dark feel insecure. In fact, these industries specialize in insecurity. There is constant and incessant change, modification, acceptance and rejection of products, a process that itself conditions consumers. Can we assume that the beholder makes an independent decision bereft of influence or response? Do we accept the advertising industry’s claim that ‘we respond to individual wants, not shape them’?
Kitsch has won. By kitsch is meant “popular, commercial art and literature, with their magazine covers, illustrations, advertisements, pulp fiction, comics, tinpan alley music, Hollywood movies etc.” – the folk art of our time. “Fantasy resides in film stars, perfume ads, beauty and the beast situations, terrible deaths and sexy women. The sexy model is shaped by datable fashion as well as by timeless lust. Thus, the mass arts orient the consumer in current styles, even when they seem purely, timelessly erotic and fantastic. They give us perpetual lessons in assimilation.”
We live in a world where a beautifully executed military maneuver kills hundreds of people. An artistic image can depict a morally praiseworthy or blameworthy act, but the image itself, as such, is neither. But if art is beyond morals, the artist is not.
Hitler’s favorite film director Leni Riefenstahl, writing in Cahier’s Du Cinema in 1966, insisted that “Triumph of the Will” was only a documentary. Actually, it is a hypnotic rendering of the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg in 1934, one of the most impressive pseudo events ever staged for camera. After the war she insisted that she was not a Nazi party member, but she was placed in an internment camp. She claimed that she had made “a purely historical film.” No one can dispute the impact of the startling compositions and editing, grand design, power and structure of certain sequences. Some of the depicted camps were designed as streamlined factories intended to incinerate races and bodies of individuals, by the millions.
Finally, does gender play a role in aesthetics? I believe that there are more differences among women than between men and women. Does a poor painting by a woman artist get accolades over a good painting by a male artist, if the beholder is a woman? Should the beholder recognise the distinction? I see Frida Kahlo first as a great artist and not as a great woman artist. Gender is a system of assigned meaning, and gender roles are socially and not biologically determined. After all, Margaret Hungerford’s quote referenced the beauty of a woman, as did Shakespeare. Similarly, how many women beholders are aware of great women artists such as Suzanne Valadon, Kathe Kollwitz, Olga Rozanova or Agnes Martin? Obviously, regardless of gender, the beholder’s level of cultural education (of their culture and others’) is crucial.
“Appreciation of visual form is something which must be acquired. It is only that which is seen clearly, which can hold some meaning for us.”
 Kristen L. Zacharias, “World of the Body,” answers.com.
 Roger Fry, “An Essay on Aesthetics” (1909), in Charles Harris and Paul Wood, eds, Art in Theory 1900-1990, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1992.
 Roger Fry, “An Essay on Aesthetics.”
 Clive Bell, “The Aesthetic Hypothesis,” (1914), in Charles Harris and Paul Wood, eds, Art in Theory 1900-1990.
 Anthony F. Janson, History of Art, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1991.
 Clive Bell, “The Aesthetic Hypothesis.”
 Adolph Hitler, “Speech Inaugurating the ‘Great Exhibition of German Art’” (1937), in Charles Harris and Paul Wood, eds, Art in Theory 1900-1990.
 Lawrence Alloway, “The Arts and the Mass Media,” in Charles Harris and Paul Wood, eds, Art in Theory 1900-1990.
 August Endell, “The Beauty of Form and Decorative Art” (1897-98), in Charles Harris and Paul Wood, eds, Art in Theory 1900-1990.
*This essay appeared in - OPTIONS, 42, 2009*