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What Is a Philosophy of Art?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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A philosophy of art is the discussion of what constitutes art. Such philosophical thought is known as aesthetics. It covers beauty, taste and creation, but when boiled down to it, aesthetics is one simple question: what is art? The answer often depends on the individual’s opinion, and a large number of philosophers have ventured to answer it in their own way.

The greatest controversy in the modern philosophy of art is its definition. Philosophers wonder if art can be defined at all, or even if it should be. The classic definition of art is of an object given significance beyond its function, set apart from everyday objects and which is designed with the visual and not the functional in mind. Some of these works are culturally-specific while others are universal.

The question has vexed intellectuals across civilizations and across time. Greek philosopher Plato believed art was the truest combination of beauty and harmony. Philosophical thought concerning art in Europe is derived from Greece. The world has also been influenced by Egypt, Persia, India and China, with each country spreading its own ideas beyond its borders. In turn, each culture has influenced each other as well.

The classic definition fits well with Leo Tolstoy’s own thoughts on the matter. His philosophy of art was that art captured the feelings of the artist and relayed those feelings to the viewer. In this case, the art is objective because the feelings are set in place and cannot be changed.

Francis Hutcheson, however, believed all art was subjective. In his philosophy, aesthetics were literally in the eye of the beholder. According to Hutcheson’s model, one man’s unmade bed is another person’s Tracy Ermin piece of art, and one man’s cow in formaldehyde is another person’s Damien Hurst classic.

Eli Siegel went one step beyond subjectivity by removing the role of the artist’s conscious loading of meaning. Siegel believed that all real-world objects were beautiful. In this way, the Sistine Chapel is on par with a warehouse and a Ming vase with an Iron Age cooking pot. His philosophy of art became known as aesthetic realism and begged the question, how much craft is required to make something artistic?

Religion has also had an effect on art and the philosophy of art. Religious beliefs have affected what constitutes art and what is deemed acceptable. In this case, it would be aesthetic ethics. For example, Islamic tradition believes that God produces perfect art, whereas mankind’s works are flawed. The Japanese, on the other hand, with their tradition of wabi sabi, believe that man’s inherent faults are present in his artistic works and are what make them beautiful.

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