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How to Start Learning About Aesthetics
Three ways to improve your knowledge about aesthetics, art theory, and the philosophy of art.
Do you want to have a more educated opinion on art, film, literature, or another creative field? Perhaps you find the idea that “all art is just subjective” to be deeply unsatisfying? Or maybe you’ve wondered what makes one film, book, building, or painting better – or more beautiful – than another?
Then you should study aesthetics, the branch of philosophy concerned with such questions. In this post, I’ll cover a few resources to help you get started.
Welcome to On the Arts, the guide to art and aesthetics. Join us as we explore fine art, architecture, fashion, film, and other forms of creativity.
What is Aesthetics, Exactly?
Before we jump in, you might wonder: what is aesthetics, anyway? It seems like a confusing topic without a clear definition. Perhaps this is because the word itself is used in at least three different, but very related, ways:
(Philosophical) Aesthetics – The branch of philosophy which concerns the arts (painting, film, sculpture, etc.) and sensory experiences like thunderstorms, eating an expensive meal, or walking through a haunted house. Although the arts play a major role in aesthetics, not all aesthetic experiences come from artworks. Many come from nature – viewing a beautiful sunset, for example.
Aesthetic – A collection of artistic items with a specific name and certain characteristics. Cottagecore and goth are both aesthetics. These are sometimes referred to as “Internet aesthetics” to differentiate them from #1 above, but there is nothing inherently Internet-based about them, and many aesthetics have developed entirely offline or before the Internet existed at all. For example, "The Wes Anderson Aesthetic” or “The Counterculture Aesthetic.”
Aesthetic (Surgery) – Medicine relating to plastic surgery, botox injections, skincare, or other appearance-focused procedures are referred to as “aesthetic medicine.”
In this post – and in virtually all philosophical writing – the word aesthetics implies the first definition. Unfortunately, the second definition seems to be the more widespread one, so I recommend using “philosophical aesthetics” when researching this topic.
Put simply, just as physics is concerned with the physical world and political philosophy is concerned with politics, aesthetics is concerned with our sensory experiences.
This becomes easier to understand when you learn the origin of the word aesthetics itself, which comes from the Greek aisthētikós, meaning, "perceptive, sensitive, pertaining to sensory perception.”
One thing to keep in mind when studying aesthetics: unlike some other topics, there is no obvious chronological starting point or hierarchy of knowledge in aesthetics. If you’re studying Italian history, for example, you might start with the Romans and work your way to the present. No such direct path exists in aesthetics.
Instead, it’s better to pick a question (“What is art?”), a topic (“painting”) or a particular artwork (“The Mona Lisa”) and start from there. While there are some more important concepts – like beauty, taste, the sublime or mimesis – these are by no means prerequisites.
So, if you want to learn about aesthetics, where should you start?
Skip the Books (at First)
Unfortunately, there aren’t any great introductory books on aesthetics. Most of them are aimed at university students and are therefore too dry and academic – and quite expensive, too. If you insist on getting one of these, go for an anthology that contains multiple essays. Here are a few good ones:
Other books like Oxford’s A Short Introduction to Aesthetics aim to be approachable, but tend to be biased, disorganized, or not written for someone entirely new to the topic.
So, instead of buying a book on aesthetics (at least until I write one), I recommend doing three things:
Examine a particular artwork
Ponder aesthetic questions
Read free online resources (including On the Arts)
1. Examine a Particular Artwork
The easiest way to start “thinking aesthetically” is to pick a film, book, painting, building, or other work of art that you are familiar with – and analyze it. What makes it good? What makes it not good? Why do you think it’s good or bad? Does the book/film/painting have any deeper philosophical ideas, and if so, how does it portray them?
Focus on giving reasons for your opinions and not retreating to, “That’s just my opinion,” or “It’s a feeling I have.”
Then, search online for writing that discusses the work using keywords like “philosophy,” “aesthetics” or “theory.” Chances are, there are at least a few blog posts or academic papers talking about it. Read them and see how the author’s observations relate to your own.
2. Ponder Aesthetic Questions
Aesthetics, like any philosophical topic, shouldn’t be only about reading the opinions of others. It should also involve thinking about the matter at hand yourself and, if possible, discussing it with others.
Here are some good questions to ask yourself or others:
What makes something beautiful – and what makes it ugly? Should artists strive to make beautiful artworks, or is beauty less important than some other value like truth or justice?
Can we separate the art from the artist? If a bad person creates an amazing piece of art, what should we do? Conversely, does being an ethical person make your art better?
What is the societal purpose of an art gallery or museum? Who should decide what goes inside a publicly-funded museum? If something is in an art gallery, does that make it art?
How does money relate to art? Is an expensive painting more important than an inexpensive one?
Can we compare different art forms? Is painting better or worse than sculpture? How does photography relate to film? Are video games works of art?
How does human biology impact what we consider attractive or beautiful? And how much aesthetic importance should we give these scientific observations?
Should artists aim for realism and avoid abstraction? What does “realistic” even mean in the context of a two-dimensional painting?
3. Read Free Online Resources
Finally, here is a comprehensive list of free online resources about art theory, aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and related subjects.
Plato’s Ion and Aristotle’s Poetics
Plato’s dialogue Ion is often considered to be one of the first philosophical discussions on the arts. In the dialogue, the characters discuss whether actors and performers have true knowledge about the things they are portraying. You can read it for free at Standard Ebooks.
Aristotle’s Poetics is one of the most influential literary works of all time. It is about dramatic theory, poetry, literary theory, and similar topics. You can read it for free on Gutenberg.org. There is also a guide to the work on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Tolstoy’s What is Art?
Leo Tolstoy, famous author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, also wrote quite a bit about art. His book What is Art? provides a unique perspective on aesthetics from a practicing novelist, unlike most theorists, who tend to be academics or philosophers. You can read What is Art? for free at Standard Ebooks.
While imperfect and sometimes lacking in reliable sources, Wikipedia is a reasonably decent starting point for articles on aesthetics.
The Outline of aesthetics page has a number of useful links, as well.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) has dozens of articles on art and aesthetics, including one on Aesthetics itself. While it is nominally aimed at academics, the IEP is fairly accessible and should be understandable by most people.
Aesthetics in Continental Philosophy – The term “continental” refers to a tradition in philosophy focusing on 18th-20th century thinkers from the European continent. It is typically juxtaposed with “analytic” philosophy.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The SEP is considered by many to be the gold-standard of philosophy encyclopedias. Conveniently, their articles are all free to access. However, do keep in mind that these are intended for an academic audience and may be overly technical at times.
Unlike the IEP and Wikipedia, there is no “Aesthetics” page in the SEP. Instead, there are dozens of entries on various aesthetics-related topics.
Aesthetics for Birds is a blog written by philosophers and aestheticians. It’s updated somewhat infrequently but has a wealth of interesting articles and interviews.
Contemporary Aesthetics is an open-access journal covering a wide variety of aesthetic topics.
The Journal of Aesthetics and Culture is another open-access journal covering aesthetics.
Although the page is full of ads and the site design itself is a bit confusing, the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Aesthetics is thorough.
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