Aesthetics | Definition, Examples, Characteristics, History, Types



Aesthetics Definition

Aesthetics is a study of philosophy of the beautiful, taste and fine arts. It originated from Greek form ‘aiesthetikos’ which has to do with sense-perception as a source of knowledge. Baumgarten was the first scholar who used the term ‘aesthetics‘ in Europe. According to him, it deals with pleasurable activity of pure contemplation. He defined aesthetics “as the science of how things are known via senses.” Some critics and scholars call aesthetics as the standards of taste, judgement of taste etc.

In modern time, the word ‘aesthetics’ means:

  1. The study of all aesthetic phenomena
  2. The study of the perception of such phenomena.
  3. The study of art which are artistically worthwhile.

Aesthetics History

The term aesthetics was coined by Baumgarten in 1735. In the early 18th century, Joseph Addison too had written an article (essay) on ‘The Pleasures of Imagination.’ Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher towards the end of 18th century made great contribution to the theory of aesthetics. Kant was a formalist who focused more on the form than the content. His theory of beauty had four aspects:

  1. Freedom from concepts
  2. Objectivity
  3. The disinterest of the spectator
  4. Its obligatoriness.

For Kant, concept denotes ‘purpose’ or ‘aim’.

In the experience of the pure beauty, there are always objectivity and universality. Disinterestedness is freedom from subjectivity and self. Pure beauty does not gratify sensuously but in an intellectual way. It engages our attention in such a way that there are no further concerns than contemplating the object itself. It makes us rise above ourselves. Judgements of pure beauty initiates the appreciator into the moral point of view. Thus beauty becomes the symbol of morality.

Judgements of aesthetic value depend on our human ability to discriminate objects on sensory level. Aesthetics examine what makes things beautiful, sublime, cute, silly, entertaining or disgusting. Aesthetic judgements go beyond sensory discrimination. Kant said that enjoyment is the result when pleasure arises from sensation but to judge something, one needs to have a capacity for reflection. Judgements of beauty are sensory, emotional and intellectual all at the same time.

Aesthetic judgements are linked to emotions and they are partially embedded in our physical reactions. For example, seeing something sublime creates a reaction of awe. It gives physical reactions like widened eyes, open mouth or event increased heart rate. Aesthetic judgements may be culturally conditioned. Evaluations of beauty are connected with desirability. The judgements of aesthetic value may be linked to economic, moral or political value. Thus aesthetic judgement are based on senses, emotions, intellectual opinions, will, desires, culture, preferences, values, subconscious behaviour, training, instinct and so on.

Many critics and thinkers link between aesthetic goodness and ethical or moral goodness. However, the connection between these is partial, not whole. Paintings, films or even literature depict tragic or disgusting pictures of the world and yet they do provide aesthetic pleasure. Very often, the ugly and depraved make way for catharsis of these emotions.

Aesthetics Characteristics

There is also one problem whether there are aesthetic universals. The answer is often positive which says that there are some universal characteristics shared by all human beings. Some scenes or motifs certainly contain the feeling of beauty and aesthetic joy forever. For example mother with the child. Denis Dutton has identified seven universal features.

  1. Expertise or virtuosity
  2. Non-utilitarian pleasure
  3. Style
  4. Criticism
  5. Special focus
  6. Imagination

Artists, critics and thinkers have defined art differently. Adorno said that there is nothing self-evident in art. Art is of considered an abbreviation of creative art or fine arts. Some are practical and applied which are not pure arts e.g. cooking (culinary arts). Leo Tolstoy said that what makes something art or not is how it is experienced by the audience and not by the intention of its author.

Regarding the goals of art too, there are many different arguments. The Dadaist Tristan Tzara said that the function of art is the destruction of mad order and cleanliness of the individual. In the same manner, the value of art is debated endlessly. Does it only please or instruct? Does it give moral message and make us better? Is it a tool of education, training, indoctrination or enculturation? The answer are-

“Yes, sometimes, not necessarily.”

Ancient Aesthetics

Ancient art was based on the civilization of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Indus Valley Civilization and China. They had their own characteristic styles. Greeks saw human physique as beautiful and admired it in their arts. They expressed naked, muscular bodies with poise, beauty and correct proportions. Plato felt that beautiful objects include proportion, harmony and unity. Aristotle saw the elements of beauty in order, symmetry and definiteness.

Western Aesthetics

Western medieval art was essentially Roman Catholic. It was religious in nature. Its purpose was also to teach the content of religion to the people. Then there was a shift from medievalism to Renaissance. Art again began to focus on this-worldliness rather than other worldliness. From the late 17th to early 20th century, Western aesthetics underwent a slow revolution which we may call ‘modernism.’ For Baumgarten, aesthetics is the science of sense experiences, a younger sister of logic. Beauty for him was a perfect kind of knowledge. These German and British thinkers emphasised beauty as the key-component of art and of the aesthetic experience. Kant called aesthetic experience of beauty as a judgement of a subjective but universal truth. Schiller believed that appreciation of beauty is the most perfect reconciliation of the sensual and rational aspects of human nature. Hegel said that all cultures manifest through art which is objective revelation of beauty. Schopenhauer called aesthetics as the matter of pure intellect.

Post-modern Aesthetics

In post-modern period, Croce suggested that expression was central to art. Marshall McLuhan suggested that art always functions as a counter-environment. Adorno felt that art has to confront culture industry. Arthur Danto described the reaction to art as kalliphobia– the fear of art. Lyotard reinvoked Kantian: distinction between taste and sublime.

Islamic Aesthetics

Islamic Art creates an immediate visual impact. It emphasized the decorative functions of art like geometry patterns, floral patterns etc. Calligraphy is central to Islamic Art. Figural imagery is also an important aspect of Islamic Art. Indian Aesthetics evolved with an emphasis on spiritual or philosophical states in the audience. Chinese art has been influenced by Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. In Dao, there is an organic view of nature which believes that it includes all reality. Moreover, nature itself is self-creative and it results in beauty and harmony. It believes that all things have vitality, energy of life called ‘chi'(qi). Artists are supposed to capture this specific ‘chi’ of a thing. Confucius emphasized the role of arts and humanities.

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African Aesthetics

African aesthetics emphasize the qualities of luminosity, youthfulness, self-composure, clarity of form and resemblance to a human being. Aesthetics apply to the forms of art like films, television, video, plastic arts, cartography, music, performing arts, literature, gastronomy, neuroesthetics, industrial designs., architecture, fashion designs etc. There are three ultimate modes of beauty :

(1) Sensuous beauty

(2) beauty of form

(3) beauty of meaning or expression.

John Ruskin in his Modern Painters described the forms of beauty viz.

(1) Infinity

(2) Unity

(3) Repose

(4) Symmetry

(5) purity

(6) Moderation.

Indian art

Indian art evolved with an emphasis on inducing spiritual states in the bhavakas (spectators, readers, appreciators). Kapila Vatsyayan wrote, “Classical Indian architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music and dancing evolved their own rules conditioned by their respective media, but they shared with one another not only the underlying spiritual beliefs of the Indian religio-philosophic mind, but also the procedures by which the relationships of the symbol and the spiritual states were worked out in detail.” In Pan-Indian philosophy, the Supreme is represented as Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram (That is, truth, good welfare and beauty). These trio is also the pre-requisite of art.

Indian Aesthetics

In Indian aesthetics, Natyasastra was regarded as the sixth Veda. ‘Natyasastra’ presents the aesthetic concepts of rasas and their associated bhavas. Later Anandavardhana added ‘the ninth Rasa’ called ‘Santa Rasa’ which arises from its bhava, weariness of the pleasures of the world.


Aestheticism is an art movement that supported the emphasis on aesthetic values more than socio-political themes for literature and art. In England, it was spearheaded by Pre-Raphaelite poets. In Europe, it was pioneered by French symbolists who stood for ‘Art for Art’s Sake.’ In other arts also, aesthetic movement took place emphasizing beautiful aspects more than utilitarian aspects and moral aspects of these arts and even crafts.

2 thoughts on “Aesthetics | Definition, Examples, Characteristics, History, Types”

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