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What Is a Philosophy of Art?

A philosophy of art explores the nature and value of art, questioning what defines it, its purpose, and its impact on society. It examines the relationship between beauty, expression, and cultural significance. By understanding art's philosophical underpinnings, we gain deeper appreciation and insight. How might your perception of art change when you consider its deeper philosophical context? Join the conversation and explore further.
Mark Wollacott
Mark Wollacott

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.

Plato believed art was a true combination of beauty and harmony.
Plato believed art was a true combination of beauty and harmony.

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.

One philosophy of art holds that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is no more beautiful than anything else.
One philosophy of art holds that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is no more beautiful than anything else.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the philosophy of art?

The philosophy of art, also known as aesthetics, is a branch of philosophy that explores the nature of art, the experience of artistic creation and appreciation, and the concepts of beauty and taste. It addresses questions about the definition of art, the role of the artist's intention, the relationship between form and content, and the ways in which art influences and reflects culture and society.

Why is the philosophy of art important?

The philosophy of art is important because it helps us understand the significance and value of art in human life. It provides a framework for analyzing and interpreting artistic works, and it can inform our judgments about what is considered art. By examining the philosophical underpinnings of art, we gain insights into cultural identity, human creativity, and the complex interplay between art and emotion, thought, and ethics.

How does the philosophy of art differ from art criticism?

While the philosophy of art deals with broad theoretical questions about the nature and purpose of art, art criticism focuses on the evaluation and interpretation of specific artworks. Art critics often apply philosophical concepts to analyze and critique art, but their primary goal is to assess the quality and meaning of individual pieces, whereas philosophers of art are more concerned with general principles and theories.

Can the philosophy of art help in understanding contemporary art?

Yes, the philosophy of art can be particularly helpful in understanding contemporary art, which often challenges traditional notions of what art is or should be. Philosophical inquiry can provide context and frameworks for interpreting avant-garde and conceptual works that might otherwise seem inaccessible or perplexing. It encourages viewers to consider the intentions behind such works and the broader cultural or political messages they may convey.

Are there different approaches within the philosophy of art?

Indeed, there are several approaches within the philosophy of art, each with its own perspective on what constitutes art and its value. Some of the main approaches include formalism, which emphasizes the form and aesthetic qualities of art; expressionism, which focuses on the artist's expression of emotion; and institutionalism, which considers art to be defined by the context provided by art institutions. These and other theories offer diverse lenses through which to view and understand art.

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    • Plato believed art was a true combination of beauty and harmony.
      By: Dimitrios
      Plato believed art was a true combination of beauty and harmony.
    • One philosophy of art holds that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is no more beautiful than anything else.
      By: demarfa
      One philosophy of art holds that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is no more beautiful than anything else.