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"Aesthetic" redirects here. For the 19th century art movement, see Aestheticism.

Aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, is the study of beauty and taste. It is about interpreting works of art and art movements or theories. The term aesthetic is also used to designate a particular style, for example "Japanese aesthetics".

As well as being applied to art, aesthetics can also be applied to cultural objects. Aesthetic design principles include ornamentation, edge delineation, texture, flow, solemnity, symmetry, color, granularity, the interaction of sunlight and shadows, transcendence, and harmony.

The word aesthetic is also an adjective and adverb relating to cosmetology and medicine, as in aesthetic medicine.

Also spelt æsthetics and esthetics, the word is derived from the Ancient Greek αἰσθητικός (aisthetikos, meaning "esthetic, sensitive, sentient, pertaining to sense perception"), which in turn was derived from αἰσθάνομαι (aisthanomai, meaning "I perceive, feel, sense").[1]

History of aesthetics in western philosophy[edit]

The idea of the aesthetic developed from the idea of taste and beauty. Before the early 1700s, thinkers developed general theories of proportion and harmony, detailed most specifically in architecture and music. An extended, philosophical reflection on aesthetics emerged with the widening of leisure activities in the eighteenth century.[2]

In the 1700s, Edmund Burke and David Hume tried to explain aesthetic concepts such as beauty with empirical evidence, by connecting them with typical individuals' responses. They sought a basis for an objectivity of personal reactions.[3]

In the 1800s psychologist Wilhelm Wundt showed that interest is generally related to complexity of stimulus. To arouse interest an object should be neither boringly simple nor overly complex; thus complexity could be an objective measure. It is now known, for instance, that judgments of facial beauty in humans are a matter of averageness and symmetry.[2]

The analysis of individual experience and behavior based on experiment is a central part of experimental aesthetics, a field founded by Gustav Theodor Fechner in the 1800s.

Immanuel Kant insisted that aesthetic concepts are essentially subjective, but have some objectivity since feelings of pleasure and pain can be universal responses to certain stimuli.

Recently theorists have been interested in ways that aesthetic concepts are constructed out of social mores and practices. Evaluations of beauty may well be linked to desirability, economic, political, or moral value. One might judge a Lamborghini to be beautiful partly because it is desirable as a status symbol, or we might judge it to be repulsive partly because it signifies for us over-consumption and offends our political or moral values.[4]

As late as 1912 it was normal in the West to assume that all art aims at beauty, and thus that anything that wasn't trying to be beautiful couldn't count as art. The cubists, dadaists, Stravinsky, and many later art movements struggled against this conception that beauty was central to the definition of art, with such success that, according to Danto, "Beauty had disappeared not only from the advanced art of the 1960s but from the advanced philosophy of art of that decade as well."

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics. John Berger continued in this direction with Ways of Seeing, in which he criticizes traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images.

In 1946, William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published the essay The Intentional Fallacy, in which they argued strongly against the relevance of an author's intention, or "intended meaning" in the analysis of a literary work. For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; importation of meanings from outside the text was considered irrelevant, and potentially distracting. In another essay, "The Affective Fallacy," which served as a kind of sister essay to "The Intentional Fallacy", Wimsatt and Beardsley also discounted the reader's personal/emotional reaction to a literary work as a valid means of analyzing a text. This fallacy would later be repudiated by theorists from the reader-response school of literary theory. Ironically, one of the leading theorists from this school, Stanley Fish, was himself trained by New Critics. Fish criticizes Wimsatt and Beardsley in his essay "Literature in the Reader" (1970).[5]

In 1959 Frank Sibley wrote that aesthetic concepts were not rule- or condition-governed, but required a heightened form of perception, which one might call taste, sensitivity, or judgment.

Scientific analysis of aesthetics[edit]

Initial image of a Mandelbrot set zoom sequence with continuously colored environment

In the 1990s, Jürgen Schmidhuber described an algorithmic theory of beauty which takes the subjectivity of the observer into account and postulates: among several observations classified as comparable by a given subjective observer, the aesthetically most pleasing one is the one with the shortest description, given the observer's previous knowledge and his particular method for encoding the data. This is closely related to the principles of algorithmic information theory and minimum description length. For example: mathematical beauty. Another example describes an aesthetically pleasing human face whose proportions can be described with very little information, drawing inspiration from less detailed 15th century proportion studies by Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer. Schmidhuber's theory explicitly distinguishes between what is beauty and what is interesting, stating that the latter corresponds to the first derivative of subjectively perceived beauty. The premise is that any observer continually tries to improve the predictability and compressibility of the observations by discovering regularities such as repetitions and symmetry and self-similarity.

Mathematical considerations, such as symmetry and complexity, are used for analysis in theoretical aesthetics. The fact that judgments of beauty and judgments of truth both are influenced by processing fluency has been presented as an explanation for why beauty is sometimes equated with truth.[6] Recent research found that people use beauty as an indication for truth in mathematical pattern tasks.[7]

Computer scientists have attempted to develop automated methods to infer aesthetic quality of images. Typically, these approaches follow a machine learning approach, where large numbers of manually rated photographs are used to teach a computer about what visual properties are of relevance to aesthetic quality. The Acquine engine, developed at Penn State University, rates natural photographs uploaded by users.[8] There have also been relatively successful attempts with regard to chess and music.[9]

In Evolutionary aesthetics, the basic aesthetic preferences of humans are argued to be a product of evolutionary adaptations.[10] For example, body symmetry may be valued in physical attractiveness because it may indicate good health.

Aesthetic systems[edit]

Japanese aesthetics[edit]

Sōji-ji, of the Soto Zen school

The study of Japanese aesthetics started a little over two hundred years ago in the West.[when?] The Japanese aesthetic is a set of ancient ideals which underpin much of Japanese cultural and aesthetic norms for what is considered tasteful or beautiful. While seen as a philosophy in Western societies, the concept of aesthetics in Japan is seen as an integral part of daily life.

Indian aesthetics[edit]

Indian aesthetics evolved with an emphasis on inducing special spiritual or philosophical states in the audience, or with representing them as symbols.

Chess aesthetics[edit]

Chess aesthetics, or beauty in chess is appreciated by both players and chess composers. In some tournaments there are prizes for brilliancy (not just for winning a match). There are books published featuring chess problems or puzzles that emphasize their aesthetic aspect. Factors about a game or move sequence (also referred to as a combination) that might cause it to be regarded as 'brilliant' include: expediency, disguise, sacrifice, correctness, preparation, paradox, unity, and originality.

Music aesthetics[edit]

In the pre-modern tradition, the aesthetics of music explored the mathematical and cosmological dimensions of rhythmic and harmonic organization. In the eighteenth century, focus shifted to the experience of hearing music, and thus to questions about its beauty and human enjoyment.

Mathematical beauty[edit]

Mathematicians consider mathematical beauty to be a desirable quality in their work. Comparisons are often made with music and poetry.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2016-02-01. 
  2. ^ a b "Aesthetics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Retrieved 2016-02-01. 
  3. ^ "Aesthetic concepts". Retrieved 2016-02-04. 
  4. ^ Korsmeyer, Carolyn ed. Aesthetics: The Big Questions 1998
  5. ^ Leitch, Vincent B. , et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  6. ^ Reber, R, Schwarz, N, Winkielman, P: "Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: Is beauty in the perceiver's processing experience?", Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4):364-382
  7. ^ Reber, R, Brun, M, Mitterndorfer, K: "The use of heuristics in intuitive mathematical judgment", Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15(6):1174–1178
  8. ^ "Aesthetic Quality Inference Engine - Instant Impersonal Assessment of Photos". Penn State University. Archived from the original on 9 May 2009. Retrieved 21 June 2009. 
  9. ^ Manaris, B., Roos, P., Penousal, M., Krehbiel, D., Pellicoro, L. and Romero, J.; A Corpus-Based Hybrid Approach to Music Analysis and Composition; Proceedings of 22nd Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AAAI-07); Vancouver, BC; 839-845 2007.
  10. ^ Shimura, Arthur P.; Palmer, Stephen E. (January 2012). Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience. Oxford University Press. p. 279. 

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