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Why Do We Need Art Theory?

Painting has two aspects, the inspirational/conceptual/aesthetic and the craft. Both are needed if the work is to go on pleasing the informed observer. They are also interdependent. New techniques encourage new perspectives, and vice versa.

On the River Oka by Abram ArkhipovArt aesthetics is the philosophy of art, and naturally tries to arrive at statements about representation, coherent form, emotive expression and social purpose that are universally true, independent of context and speaker. Unfortunately, that very generality means that aesthetics can often be used to justify a very doubtful piece of work.

But aesthetics is not reviewing, and still less art criticism. Criticism asks: How is this effect achieved? How significant is it? How does it compare with similar works? Criticism is an arduous task, and requires knowledge, sensitivity and expository skill. Reviewing is more ephemeral, and aims primarily to entertain. Journalistic skills are essential, but they do not usually unsettle or extend our appreciation of artworks. Indeed the pressures of the job often requires the reviewer to simply accept the importance of the exhibition, and commend it to the public.

That does not make reviewers insincere, nor necessarily unreliable. Most will have a degree or two in art history, and will know far more about even the old masters than the average gallery goer, painters included. But it does mean, to stay ahead in a notoriously competitive profession, that reviewers must always concern themselves with trends, fashions and personalities.

It is by forming a theoretical bedrock to the complex and ever changing world of the visual arts, that aesthetics becomes important. Reviewing ultimately rests on art criticism, and this in turn probes the aesthetic grounds of our judgment.

Practical Importance of Art Aesthetics

For the practicing painter, a nodding acquaintance with art aesthetics will help to:

1. Provide a vocabulary necessary for describing or promoting work among colleagues and reviewers. To know aesthetics is to understand where the trendier criticism is coming from — and so engage with it or prepare a defense.

2. Explain their work to themselves. Painters think through painting, but even they need to occasionally step back and see their work in the larger context of European art.

3. Rethink their aims and interests. Contemporary art aesthetics, though resting on contentious ground, will generally provide more suggestion and inspiration than the abstruse word-spinning of art magazines.

4. Understand better the art of the past, which is illuminated by theories that may now seem strange, but can be modified for contemporary concerns.

5. Serve as a prophylactic against the preposterous and stultifying, reestablishing a solid tradition to which all artists belong.

6. Suggest new avenues of development, which may combine past techniques with new perspectives.

Aesthetic Theories

Aesthetic theories can be approached from many directions. Here is a simplistic introduction, pointing up names that viewers may wish to research in books or the Internet.

Artist-Centered Philosophies

Dewey and other intentionalists considered art to be the product of a creative process. The conscious intention of the artist was important, as was his interaction with the medium. Tolstoy saw art as the transmission of emotion, though he probably meant the ability to arouse emotions in the viewer since there is no simple correspondence between a painting and how the painter felt while painting it. Bouwsma located expression within objects, which represent the characteristics of people under some emotion, just as weeping willows mimic sorrow.

Langer felt that feeling emerges from the form, which are ideas of feelings, not feelings themselves. Art symbolizes human experience. Because art was essentially an irrational activity, an irresponsible expression of emotion, Plato banned poets from his Republic. Aristotle disagreed, replying that art was natural activity, and it catharsis served a therapeutic function. Croce thought the crucial element in a work of art was the idea in the artist's mind.

Viewer-Centered Philosophies

Some philosophers have emphasized taste, which is a special perceptiveness and sensitivity. Everyday concerns are set aside on these occasions, and we do not call the police when we see murder on the stage, for example. Feagin thought we feel pleasure at being able to respond in this way. Iseminger felt that the sadness exists simultaneously with the pleasure. Bullough talked about underdistancing and overdistancing oneself from a performance or work of art. Against an aesthetic view, Dickie has argued that viewers simply look at different things, i.e. rather than look differently.

Others have concentrated on the formal qualities of a work of art. We attend differently to things like color, rhythm and composition, but expect them to grow from inside rather than being imposed from without. Aesthetic experience seems immediate, moreover, bypassing thought, though Goodman thought that even here the emotions functioned cognitively.

Philosophies of Representation and Expression

Most philosophers accept that representation is not resemblance. Gombrich has argued that visual representation involves manipulating signs, so that the language of art is more than a loose metaphor. Signs have a history, a tradition: they have to be learnt. Panofsky believed that icons in art can be studied on three levels: iconic (the dog resembles a dog), the iconographic (dog stands for loyalty), and iconological (some metaphysical claim about the reality of the physical world). Goodman rejected the theory of resemblance but favored one of denotion: symbols used in painting may be arbitrary and conventional, but looking at painting meant unraveling a code.

Philosophies of Artistic Objects and their Contexts

Formalist philosophers emphasize intrinsic properties of the work of art rather than what it represents, so defending modern art against criticism that it doesn't depict the world as it really appears. Nonetheless, many paintings do depict some aspect of life or convey some attitude or message, and it is idle to suppose they don't or weren't intended to. Content matters.

Marxist philosophers see art as produced in certain social conditions and argue that it needs to be seen in terms of those conditions. Berger thought that oil paintings are commodities that depict a consumerist society. Benjamin also believed that art mirrors culture.

Institutionalists like Dickie stressed that an object becomes an artwork when society or recognized sections of society confer that status on it. Cohen didn't see the rituals of conferral anywhere, and Wollheim couldn't find reasons for such a conferral. Danto introduced the term artworld but said the candidate must conform to a theory about what art is.

Structuralists claim that artworks have their own structures, but that these also reflect the structures of the society in which they originate. Deconstructionists assert that, quite to the contrary, we simply don't have access to all the contexts necessary for understanding of art and aesthetic experience. They try to bring out the ideological principles at work in texts and utterances, and reflect on the power inherent in artistic and other statements.

Philosophies of Interpretation

How do we know if an interpretation is good, or even correct? Perhaps we cannot know for sure, particularly the intentions of a little-known artist now long dead, but we can tell which interpretation results in a fuller, richer aesthetic experience. Ellis thought the best criticism was the most inclusive. Viewers cannot be reasoned into pleasure, it is worth noting, only reasons suggested for pleasure already experienced.

Philosophies of Value

Tolstoy was a moralist: art had to help us to live better lives. Those who read good novels or looked at good paintings were more able to put themselves in other people's shoes because they understand better both the people and their world. Art made us more sensitive and imaginative. Eaton suggested a distinction. Aesthetic experience is experience of intrinsic features of things or events traditionally recognized as worthy of attention and reflection. Aesthetic value is the value of a thing or event has due to its capacity to evoke pleasures associated with its attention and reflection.

Traditional Function of Art

By accepting that the arts have to a. please the eye, b. clarify, intensify or otherwise enlarge our experience of life, and c. act as witness to the nature of the times and places that produce them, many would summarize the functions of art as:

1. Painting are representations of reality that give order, value and significance to objects or scenes depicted.

2. The objects and scenes become available in this form through the medium of depiction.

3. The objects and scenes are themselves of visual interest — both through previous paintings, and the value society places on them per se. Both content and rendering are important.

Traditional Painting Today

Direct painting was a nineteenth-century innovation, made possible by new technology and imposed by a shrinking market for labor-intensive commodities. Paint could be stored in metal tubes, and by working out of doors, or on contemporary subjects, the artist could escape the stifling Academy system. At the same time, because the emerging middle classes had not the money for elitist manufactures, nor perhaps the leisure to acquire a connoisseurship to appreciate them, there naturally grew up a class of art critics to suggest how they might collect these friendly and modest works of art. The mechanics of painting is not an exciting subject to write about, and art critics were not generally artists anyway, except perhaps literary artists, so that painterly qualities were apt to be overlooked. Originality of conception, authenticity of expression, boldness of approach — these were what captured the imagination of intelligent critics, and could be related to larger themes. Any history of modern art will portray the battles and the shifting perspectives that lead to the art-world we recognize today. The process is complete, and much of art has become the plaything of its commentators. Traditional skills are not recognized in the national press, which rapsodizes over installations, landscape sculpture and the like.

Few can support themselves entirely by traditional painting: they teach, receive help from spouses or run art-stores. But if they can't pay their way in a consumerist society, they do like to feel that their achievements are worthwhile, that they are producing something useful and which their fellow practitioners can admire. What can they do when their efforts will never receive approbation from an art establishment that worships at other shrines? Or when they will never be bought by the larger institutions or corporations that by handling public funds must be guided by these authorities?

They must create a new public for their works, just as the Impressionists and Moderns did before them. That means returning to painting as painting, reclaiming its objectives from an intelligentsia whose power lies in handling concepts that impinge only tangentially on art objects. No wizardry in words will enable the art critic to tell the good from the indifferent in painting. That ability comes from a deep love of the subject, backed by years of looking and firsthand experience. The useful critic knows not only what is good and bad in a painting, but how the bad can be put right. A sound start to that knowledge is provided by the experience of painting, most particularly with the methods of the established masters who met practical problems with practical solutions.

Oil painting revitalized will not be an art of the past. Nor should it be academic, where an all-pervading finish and attention to detail makes the work too tight and self-conscious. The great masters were innovatory in their time, and so must be the contemporary artist. But what serious artists could profitably do is reexamine the past methods of oil painting. They are not limiting in theme. They do not inhibit originality. And they are not always time-consuming. Titian may have been a slow worker, but his approaches were streamlined for rapid execution by Tintoretto and Veronese, who had pressing commissions to fulfill. Something similar could be achieved by contemporary artists, and works created that deserve to be treasured. Since all original work is difficult to sell at first, until promoted by critics and art galleries, there is every incentive to paint two outstanding canvases in place of ten rather indifferent ones, and to achieve that end more readily with the varied and powerful techniques of earlier painters.

Further Reading

You can see the differences between aesthetics, reviewing and art criticism by consulting the following:

1. Aesthetics Online. American Society of Aesthetics site, with free articles and news on the American aesthetics scene.

2. Art Critical. Typical art criticism and reviewing of contemporary work.

3. 'Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction' edited by Oswald Hanfling. Blackwell. 1992. A readable introduction to a difficult subject.

4. EBTX. Elements of successful painting: a (somewhat opinionated) online course.

5. Medieval Theories of Aesthetics [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

6. The Role of Theory in Aesthetics: Morris Weitz

7. 40 Books That Art History Buffs Love - Accredited Online

8. April 2012 - S+ART

9. Artspeak Glossary - Art Relish - MTWTFSS

10. Abstraction and Representation on Equal Terms - A Studio Visit with Denise Green - artcritical

11.  History of Modern Art: Minimalism - Make your ideas Art

12. Medieval Theories of Aesthetics [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]


Das, Avi and Payton on Aesthetics...


'On the River Oka' by Abram Arkhipov. 1890. The State Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow. A composition built on interlocking shapes and a largely analogous color scheme of orange-yellow, orange and orange-red.