by Erez Ben-Akiva
Within the context of critical theory, aesthetics essentially refers to the formal analysis of beauty and also the philosophy of art. The theory of beauty has often also included a study into the concept of sublimity, which philosopher Edmund Burke described as “delightful horror” (Slater). Theorists of beauty most notably tend to debate how one experiences and judges aesthetic experience. For instance, the concept of sublimity has been identified as an experience of the aesthetic that elicits something more akin to pain than pleasure (Slater). The philosophy of art, meanwhile, often focuses on identifying the definition of what exactly is art as well as analyses of various aspects of art. Philosophers of art, such as Immanuel Kant, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde, also question art from a metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political, and semiotic perspective. It is important to note, however, that while the terms aesthetics and art are consistently used interchangeably, some scholars offer that not all aesthetics are art and not all art is aesthetic (Gilgen). For instance, movements like the early 20th-century Dadaism demonstrated that works of art do not necessarily require beauty or aesthetical qualities.
On that note, the study of aesthetics also engendered the field of Aestheticism. In general, the Aestheticism movement asserts that art is autonomous. That is, art needs to be appreciated and examined at face-value (or, put a different way, for its own sake) rather than insisting art had a social, moral, or political purpose. In fact, aestheticism arose in resistance to comments made by John Ruskin in the 19th-century that art, at its best, serves a moral end. The eminent philosopher Immanuel Kant, in particular, was a significant influence on aestheticism. Namely Kant, in Critique of Judgement, argued that judgements made of aesthetics were not cognitive, and thus lacked logic and objectivity. Rather than being a cognition, Kant saw aesthetical judgements as intuitions of one’s imagination. Put more succinctly, Kant’s philosophy distanced any type of moral reasoning from aestheticism, which was a highly influential development for the field. Like Kant, aestheticists maintain that art serves no end but itself. Walter Pater, for one, expressed the notion of “art for art’s sake” in the conclusion of Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Bristow). Oscar Wilde, clearly influenced by Pater’s work, similarly expressed in a series of lectures throughout the late nineteenth-century that art must be perceived and judged for itself and nothing else.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Hackett Publishing, 2010.
Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Wilde. The Collected Works. Metheun Publishing. 1908.
Bristow, Joseph. "Aestheticism." The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, edited by Michael Ryan, Wiley, 1st edition, 2011. Credo Reference, http://libproxy.union.edu/login?auth=shibboleth&url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/wileylitcul/aestheticism/0?institutionId=5120. Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.
Gilgen, Peter. "Aesthetics." The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, edited by Michael Ryan, Wiley, 1st edition, 2011. Credo Reference, http://libproxy.union.edu/login?auth=shibboleth&url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/wileylitcul/aesthetics/0?institutionId=5120. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021.
Slater, Barry Hartley. “Aesthetics.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/aestheti/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021.