An Essay on Glory, Beauty, and Love from Plato to NATO (or the Present)

In Ancient Greece, one of the great themes in literature and culture was the pursuit of glory (kleos).  In the earliest poem we have from this era, the Iliad, glory is to be found on the battlefield in aristocratic violence. Named, noble warriors like Achilles and Hector fight to the death and the one who is victorious receives glory in the form of a mixture of praise, awesome fear, and reputation. Glory, then, had a bloody dimension and was sometimes represented by a victorious warrior displaying the bloody amour or weapon or even the body of his defeated foe. Early Greek philosophers such as Plato were not immune to this preoccupation with glory. But Plato and others sought to foster a different tradition, one that centered on beauty and fecundity rather than death and violent conflict. Instead of the primacy of loving Homeric kleos, Plato sought to promote the loving desire for the beautiful (kalon).

In the great fourth century BCE dialogue the Symposium, Plato records a speech on love and beauty by the priestess and teacher of Socrates, Diotima of Mantinea. There is some plausibility to believing Diotima was the name of an actual philosopher as Plato seems to have rarely used names in his work that do not refer to actual people. If she was truly the source of the speech Plato records, Diotima is the most influential woman thinker in the world of ancient Greece and the history of what will come to be called aesthetics (see Figure 1). Diotima teaches us that we should first appreciate particular beautiful things such as a specific beautiful body. We are then naturally led to love greater, more general beauties. When you love a woman or man, you come to realize that women and men are loveable or worthy of love. It is important to appreciate this is a realization from the particular to the general. It has been said of Don Juan, the fictional but legendary libertine, that he loved all women but loved no woman. Because he began and ended at the general level, he failed to understand what it is to loveone woman. Diotima wants us to begin with a loving desire of a particular beauty and then ascend a ladder of loving desire until we come to absolute beauty. She offers the following portrait of an initiation into the practice of loving beauty:

“Well then, she began, the candidate for this initiation cannot, if his efforts are to be rewarded, begin too early to devote him to the beauties of the body. First of all, if his preceptor instructs him as he should, he will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body, so that his passion may give life to noble discourse. Next he must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other, when he will see that if he is to devote himself to loveliness of form it will be absurd to deny that the beauty of each and every body is the same. Having reached this point, he must set himself to be the lover of every lovely body, and bring his passion for the one into due proportion by deeming it of little or of no importance.”

We are to begin, then, in the material world but this leads us gradually to even higher beauties. It is as though the experience of a specific individual beauty opens us up to an irresistible love of greater beauty. Diotima continues:

“Next, he must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul, so that wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with and to cherish – and beautiful enough to quicken in his heart a longing for such discourse as tends toward the building of a noble nature. And from this he will be led to contemplate the beauty of laws and institutions. And when he discovers how nearly every kind of beauty is akin to every other he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment.”

The ongoing ascent then involves an emancipating, ever expanding philosophical, beautiful awareness of the nature of reality.

“And next, his attention should be diverted from institutions to the sciences, so that he may know the beauty of every kind of knowledge. And thus, by scanning beauty’s wide horizon, he will be saved from a slavish and illiberal devotion to the individual loveliness of a single boy, a single man, or a single institution. And, turning his eyes toward the open sea of beauty, he will find in such contemplation the seed of the most fruitful discourse and the loftiest thought, and reap a golden harvest of philosophy, until, confirmed and strengthened, he will come upon one single form of knowledge, the knowledge of the beauty I am about to speak of.”  (Plato 1994,  210a-e)

At the summit, the love naturally overflows with fecundity in which he or she gives birth to awesome creative productivity. The highest point of the beautiful involves a final transcendence of all images and the fulfillment of true virtue.

“If someone got to see the Beautiful, absolute, pure, unmixed, not polluted by human flesh or colors or any other great nonsense of mortality … only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images of virtue (because he’s in touch with no images), but to true virtue (because he is in touch with the true beauty).” (Symposium 211e-212a Janaway 2001, 9)

This ascension to the beautiful, and thus to true virtue, as a process and consummation of true love, stands in dramatic contrast to the Homeric desire for worldly fame and domination on a battlefield.

For Plato, beauty could be absolute and not dependent upon our desire.

“I do not mean by beauty of form such beauty as that of animals or pictures, which the many would suppose to be my meaning; but, says the argument, understand me to mean straight lines and circles, and the plane or solid figures which are formed out of them by turning-lathes and rulers and measurers of angles; for these I affirm to be not only relatively beautiful, like other things, but they are eternally and absolutely beautiful, and they have peculiar pleasures, quite unlike the pleasures of scratching.” (Plato and Jowett 1892)

Ultimately, the beautiful is recognized as an ideal form, which is itself beautiful and other things are beautiful by participating in the form. So, in the ladder of love described in Diotima’s speech that Socrates presents in The Symposium, the first object of love (a beautiful body) is a reflection of that higher reality, the beautiful itself, in virtue of which the first object is beautiful. Compared with the ideal form of beauty, our physical world of beauties is like a shadow land, hinting at a superabundant good that deserves our love.

While Plato (perhaps inspired by Diotima) spoke of beauty itself, he also thought of beauty as the proper object of love.  Love, for Plato and many of the ancient Greeks, involves desire or eros (which may or may not involve what we would call the erotic).  In the following myth or parable, love is pictured as the offspring of poros (the personification of plenty) and penia (the personification of poverty):

“So because Eros is the son of Poros and Penia, his situation is in some such case as this. First of all, he is always poor; and he is far from being tender and beautiful, as the many believe, but is tough, squalid, shoeless, and homeless, always lying on the ground without a blanket or a bed, sleeping in doorways and along waysides in the open air; he has the nature of his mother, always dwelling with neediness. But in accordance with his father he plots to trap the beautiful and the good, and is courageous, stout, and keen, a skilled hunter, always weaving devices, desirous of practical wisdom and inventive, philosophizing through all his life, a skilled magician, druggist, sophist.” (Plato 1989,  203c-d)

Eros, then, is full of energy and stealth, and even inclined to philosophy (the love of wisdom) while also feeling need and a keen lack of satiation or fulfillment. There is a sense in which a person who desires is always seeking what the person lacks. If you are strong now, it makes no sense (from a Platonic point of view) for you to desire strength. It is because we lack beauty that we seek it. And in so doing, we take the first step in the direction of the beautiful itself. It is a deeply Platonic thesis that has been defended down to our own day, that if something is good, it is good to love it. There is a sense, then, that if you love beauty, your love in some sense is itself beautiful. Platonists through the centuries have endorsed similar notions with respect to the virtues: to love wisdom is itself wise. As Plato suggests at the beginning of his masterpiece The Republic, the love of the good and the beautiful is an inherently youthful enterprise: it is not for those who are content with the loss of desire in old age, but for those at any age who are filled with restless desire or eros.


The Legacy of Platonic Beauty

The Platonic philosophy of beauty has an important legacy through the medieval ages and early modern philosophy.  The link between pleasure and beauty and the idea that beauty involves an authoritative value is one that has endured.  Consider, for example, this characterization of the beautiful from Francis Hutchison in the 18th century in which beauty (which he links with harmony) is experienced as a real phenomena that has its own integrity and power to demand our recognition and pleasure:

“And farther, the Ideas of Beauty and Harmony, like other sensible Ideas, are necessarily pleasant to us, as well as immediately so; neither can any Resolution of our own, nor any Prospect of Advantage or Disadvantage, vary the Beauty or Deformity of an Object: For as in the external Sensations, no View of Interest will make an object grateful, nor View of Detriment distinct from immediate Pain in the Perception, make it disagreeable to the Sense; so propose the whole World as a Reward, or threaten the greatest Evil, to make us approve a deform’d Object, or disapprove a beautiful one; Dissimulation may be procur’d by Rewards or Thretnings, or we may in external Conduct abstain from any Pursuit of the Beautiful, and pursue the Deform’d; but ourSentiments of the Forms, and our Perceptions, would continue invariably the same.” (Hutcheson 1725)

And the notion of the Platonic ladder has plausibility on several fronts.

A climbing of the Platonic ladder involves growing out of one beauty and traveling upwards to a greater beauty. Arguably, such an expansion or growth may be understood in terms of taking pleasure in higher goods. It appears that when you love someone or something and you take pleasure in him or it, you do seem to expand your identity.  To take a trivial example, if you take great pleasure in a sports team, you might well be able to use the possessive pronoun: Manchester United (or the Yankees or the Mets) is my team.  Many of the ancient philosophers held that it is the very nature of pleasure to expand the soul and they likewise held it as the nature of pain or suffering to contract the soul (Sorabji 2000). Perhaps when one comes to love higher beauties, there is a sense in which these higher beauties become yours by delighting in them—even to the extent of garbing yourself in team jerseys that read “Favre” or “Puckett.”

Second, there is a natural sense in which when you love something, you are committed or at least inclined to think that objects resembling what you love are also worthy of love.  It would be at least peculiar to love one woman and then not to believe that other women are worthy of love or loveable. It is difficult to imagine loving only a single object and not also loving its properties, properties that can be exemplified by others.

Also the concept of beauty as an objective feature of the world has had followers throughout the history of ideas.  The twentieth century British philosopher G.E. Moore developed the following famous thought experiment to bolster the idea that beauty can exist on its own without observation:

“Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful. Imagine it as beautiful as you can; put into it whatever on this earth you most admire – mountains, rivers, the sea, trees and sunsets, stars and moon. Imagine these all combined in the most exquisite proportion so that no one thing jars against another, but each contributes to increase the beauty of the whole. And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it just one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to you for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as my be, without one redeeming feature… [Now imagine that not] any human being ever has or ever by any possibility can live in either, can see and enjoy the beauty of the one and hate the foulness of the other. … Supposing them quite apart from the contemplation of human beings; still is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly?” (Moore 1929,  83)

If Moore is right, beauty does not require any beholder.

The Platonic philosophy of beauty and love also support two substantial positions.  First, one is able to give an answer to the question of why you should love the things that you find to be beautiful.  You love them because the beautiful is good.  This account may not seem very illuminating, but it does represent an important, live philosophical thesis that there are some basic, irreducible values. In a Platonic framework one can explicate some of the implications of goodness (if x is good, x ought to be loved), but the good or goodness cannot be explained in more basic categories (as in, “Water is H2O”). Second, because Platonic philosophy equates the beautiful and the good, the problem of evil beauty (the idea that evil may be beautiful) does not arise. In this way, Platonic theory is much in keeping with cultures throughout the globe and over great arcs of time. As Stephen David Ross observes there is a widespread historical testimony to the link between beauty and goodness. Michael Kelly offers this overview:

“In the earliest cultures known, before written history, and in China, Egypt, the Islamic world, and sub-Saharan Africa, beauty was and still is a term of great esteem linking human beings and nature with artistic practices and works. Human beings – men and women – their bodies, characters, behaviors, and virtues are described as beautiful, together with artifacts, performances, and skills, and with natural creatures and things: animals, trees, and rock formations. In such cultures beauty, goodness, and truth are customarily related. Ancient Greece and China were no exceptions. In the Confucian tradition, Kongzi (sixth to fifth century BCE) emphasized social beauty, realized in art and other human activities. Two centuries later, Daoism united art and beauty with natural regularity and purpose, and with human freedom.” (Kelly 1998,  237)

The Platonic link between beauty and goodness may seem deeply attractive in terms of value theory.  In modern times, we perhaps often think that a villain can be attractive or alluring, but this may be due to only a partial realization of the object in question.  So, you might admire or find Satan fascinating in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but then there might be two things going on.  What you admire truly is admirable.  Imagine it is Satan’s defiance and independence that you admire. Such attributes may well indeed be valuable and beautiful.  But then when you take seriously what Satan does in the poem it is hard to sustain the positive judgment.  Sin emerges from Satan’s head in the form of a woman whom he then rapes.  The child that is borne to Sin is called Death who then rapes its mother.  When the details are worked out, there is no beauty here: taken on the whole, Milton’s Satan is pretty ugly. Consider an analogy. Imagine you observe an atomic explosion over a city.  You see a huge mushroom cloud climb nine miles in the air.  The cloud seems to you sensuous and billowy.  Is this a major conflict that unsettles the Platonic account?  Perhaps not, for you can see that the shape is indeed beautiful, but the incendiary death of thousands or millions of people is profoundly ugly.  This is not a case, then, of when the same object in the same respect is both bad and beautiful or good.

Plato’s link of the beautiful and the good led him to question the good of works of art that depict evil.  As we will come to further explore clearly in the next chapter, many of the ancients saw art works as imitations (mimetic) of the events they depict.  When you depict the Trojan War in a play, you wind up imitating the Trojan War.  This has some warrant.  After all, if you did not imitate the war but undertook an actual war, you would not really be engaged in theatre.  Art works have to have some removal from the scene which they are portraying.  The actual Trojan War (assuming for the moment that it actually took place) could not itself be a play.  On this imitation view, it seems that if something is good, the imitation of it is or can be good, but the converse is also plausible: if something is evil, then the imitation of it is evil.  This thesis laid the groundwork for a Platonic critique of tragedy, including a critique of Homeric poetry with its celebration of violent glory.

We may be highly reluctant to follow Plato in his critique of tragedy (and we will take note below of how his critique may be met) but at the outset his thesis has some plausibility. Imagine that it is bad for a mother to believe her son is a lion and then, in a frenzy, tear him limb from limb and to carry his head back to her city as a trophy. If this is bad, isn’t it bad to imitate? But this is precisely what the 5th century BCE dramatist Euripides stages in his tragedy The Bachae in which Agave is induced by Dionysus to dismember her son, Pentheus. Assuming it is wrong for a woman to poison her husband’s mistress (whom he intends to marry) and kill her children, doesn’t it seem at least not good when, in the play Medea, the character Medea murders her rival and kills her children? If theatre consisted of no more than the imitation of evil, wouldn’t we find this deeply problematic, perhaps revealing a form of sadism or a desire to revel in that which is repugnant to non-violent personal and civic life?


Challenging Platonic Aesthetics

The Platonic tradition in aesthetics has been challenged on many fronts. A helpful way to further explore the resources and vulnerability of Platonic aesthetics is to consider the Platonic vision of beauty in light of a series of objections. Let us consider six objections. The first four may be less deep than the final two.

One problem with Platonic aesthetics involves the very notion of the beautiful or beauty as an ideal form and the thesis that the beautiful things we observe are beautiful because they participate in our exemplifying this form. While I believe that a general Platonic view of ideals and abstract objects is defensible, much can be salvaged from Platonic aesthetics if we bracket the idea of an ideal form as well as the idea that objects have beauty in the sense that beauty is an objective property like size and shape. This one difficulty does not seem very deep. For those who have trouble anchoring beauty as a feature of an object itself, one may have recourse to referring to beauty as the normative relationship of that which ought to give rise to aesthetic delight.  To remain Platonic this relationship needs to be seen as something that ought to occur.  So, just as the following would not do as definition of being funny:

X is funny if X causes an observer to laugh

The following would not do for beauty

Y is beautiful if Y causes an observer aesthetic delight

The first definition does not work because it would mean nitrous oxide would be funny for, after all, it makes one laugh.  The addition that is needed is that X is funny if it ought to give rise to laugher, and similarly beauty involves fitting aesthetic delight. Y is beautiful if it ought to cause observers to have aesthetic delight in Y. W. D. Ross adopts such a normative view of beauty.

The view to which I find myself driven, in the attempt to avoid the difficulties that beset both a purely objective and a purely subjective view, is one which identifies beauty with the power of producing a certain sort of experience which we are familiar with under such names as aesthetic enjoyment or aesthetic thrill. (Ross 1930, 127)

Aristotle (who was Plato’s student for 20 years) seemed inclined to see beauty in terms of perceptual relations. His specific reflections about perceiving beauty emphasize the framework of observation.

“Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either in a very minute creature, since our perception becomes indistinct as it approaches instantaneity; or in a creature of vast size — one, say, 1,000 miles long — as in that case, instead of the object being seen all at once, the unity and wholeness of it is lost to the beholder. Just in the same way, then, as a beautiful whole made up of parts, or a beautiful living creature, must be of some size, but a size to be taken in by the eye, so a story or plot must be of some length, but of a length to be taken in by the memory. As for the limit of its length, so far as that is relative to public performances and spectators, it does not fall within the theory of poetry. If they had to perform a hundred tragedies, they would be timed by water-clocks, as they are said to have been at one period. The limit, however, set by the actual nature of the thing is this: the longer the story, consistently with its being comprehensible as a whole, the finer it is by reason of its magnitude.” (Aristotle 1984,  1450b37-1451a11)

So, for Aristotle, rather than the beautiful being an abstract form, beauty seems definable in light of proper beholding and in relation to the observer’s memory, vision, and other cognitive powers. Treating beauty as a proper or fitting relationship need not completely undermine Moore’s thought experiments of the two worlds. Even if no human being actually visits these worlds, arguably it is the world Moore describes as beautiful that should be loved; love of the one world is fitting in contrast to the world described as ugly.

A second difficulty involves the Platonic ladder.  When you love another person, do you love her properties or the person herself?  This question may not matter, but under some circumstances this question seems quite serious.  Imagine you are attracted to a person because of her beauty based on her humor, intelligence, and elegance.  You even come to love her.  But imagine one day she loses her humor, intelligence, and elegance.  What happens to the love?  From a Platonic point of view, it seems that the object of love has disappeared.  Or, imagine she retains her qualities, but you meet someone with even greater beauty in terms of her humor, intelligence at the level of genius, and an elegance that positively sends you into rapture.  Again, the Platonist seems not able to fully account for why you might still love and be faithful to your beloved, no matter how the properties fall out or are not matched.

There may be a way around this.  Arguably, persons are not bundles of properties, but we are subjects with properties or, as it were, propertied subjects. This may allow for anchoring one’s attention on the individual. Perhaps a single person, Beatrice, might be the locus of our first encounter with beauty and it is due to this history and her particular configuration of beauty that you remain loyal to her no matter what other beauties are exemplified. In Diotima’s speech, the higher we climb the ladder of love, we come to look back at the foundational, initiatory beauties as “of little or of no importance.” But is this necessary? Platonists in the Christian tradition stressed the vital importance of loving both heavenly and earthly goods. The loving of higher goods can even enhance or magnify our valuing of temporal, passing goods (for a defense of such Christian Platonism, see Hedley 2008).

A third difficulty lies in the Platonic concept of love as craving or desire.  On this view, it seems that if you are with your beloved, and quite content, you cannot be loving him.  Imagine you are Odysseus or Penelolpe after being away from your beloved for 40 years.  As in Homer’s Odyssey, you would probably want to do the three things they do in the poem: share stories, make love, and sleep.  But in such a state of contentment, wouldn’t it be odd to conclude that you no longer love each other?

Like the earlier impediments, this may not be a deep problem, for one may also understand love to be manifested in or defined by delight or pleasure.  Thus, simply taking pleasure in the beloved may count as love. If desire must still be present for there to be eros, perhaps this could be articulated in terms of lovers always desirous of extending their time together.

Fourth, does Platonic aesthetics entail a negative view of some of the best theatre ever, Greek tragedy? Aristotle has given us a way to retain some Platonic aesthetics without condemning tragedy. Aristotle did not question the thesis that if something is bad then its imitation is bad, but he sought to defend tragedy and the depiction of evil as good for purposes of education and wisdom. Aristotle claimed that tragedy can involve catharsis (Greek for cleansing or release). Controversy has arisen over whether Aristotle thought of catharsis as a purgation (a release of ill emotions) or as a purification of one’s mental and moral life. The first view has been (amusingly) called the enema thesis. On this view, the Bacchae and Medea may help us to release our pent up, darker emotions. On the purification thesis, Euripides’ tragedies help train us to beware of uncontrolled frenzy and revenge.

Two more difficulties need to be faced:  Plato claims that goodness creates the ground of love, but some have claimed that love itself can provide its own reasons for valuing objects.  Second, philosophers have worried about how to objectively find out what is beautiful.  We seem to find great variety over time.  And in the midst of such variation, we may wind up with experiences that seem to cut against the Platonic thesis that goodness and beauty are always together.

The objection that love can generate its own reasons has been advanced by Harry Frankfurt. The first depicts the Platonic-Diotima position in which love responds to goodness, and then he proposes that love itself can create its own reason to care for something or, in Frankfurt’s case, to care for his children. I cite him in length:

“Love is often understood as being, most basically, a response to the perceived worth of the beloved. We are moved to love something, on this account, by an appreciation of what we take to be its exceptional inherent value. The appeal of that value is what captivates us and turns us into lovers. We begin loving the things that we love because we are struck by their value, and we continue to love them for the sake of their value. If we did not find the beloved valuable, we should not love it.

This may well fit certain cases of what would commonly be identified as love. However, the sort of phenomenon that I have in mind when referring here to love is essentially something else. As I am construing it, love is not necessarily a response grounded in awareness of the inherent value of its object. It may sometimes arise like that, but it need not do so. …

It is not necessarily as a result of recognizing their value and of being captivated by it that we love things. Rather, what we love necessarilyacquires value for us because we love it. The lover does invariably and necessarily perceive the beloved as valuable, but the value he sees it to possess is a value that derives from and that depends upon his love.

Consider the love of parents for their children. I can declare with unequivocal confidence that I do not love my children because I am aware of some value that inheres in them independent of my love for them. The fact is that I loved them even before they were born – before I had any especially relevant information about their personal characteristics or their particular merits and virtues. Furthermore, I do not believe that the valuable qualities they do happen to possess strictly in their own rights would really provide me with a very compelling basis for regarding them as having greater worth than many other possible objects of love that in fact I love much less. It is quite clear to me that I do not love them more than other children because I believe they are better.” (Frankfurt 2004,  38-9)

Frankfurt offers an extensive further point about the parent-child relationship,

“It is not because I have noticed their value, then, that I love my children as I do. Of course I do perceive them to have value; so far as I am concerned, indeed, their value is beyond measure. That, however, is not the basis of my love. It is really the other way around. The particular value that I attribute to my children is not inherent in them but depends upon my love for them. The reason they are so precious to me is simply that I love them so much. As for why it is that human beings do tend generally to love their children, the explanation presumably lies in the evolutionary pressure of natural selection. In any case, it is plainly on account of my love for them that they have acquired in my eyes a value that otherwise they would not certainly posses.” (Frankfurt 2004,  40)

How might Diotima or Plato reply?

Part of Frankfurt’s philosophy of love make sense. It would be odd if parents based their love for their children on the belief that theirs are the most beautiful children they have seen. Even so, Frankfurt does not seem to appreciate the good or beauty that accounts for his love: the good of patrimony or, more broadly, the good of parentage. Arguably, it is good and beautiful to give birth to and raise children. That is a good to be loved, rather than something that becomes good only when it is loved. More importantly, it would be odd to think one’s children’s value stemmed from the love of parents. This would entail that if the parent was damaged and not able to love, the children would have not value (at least no value to the parent). But, it seems to make sense to claim that in such unfortunate circumstances, the children are still of great value and should be loved by the parent when he or she recovers.

The final difficulty, and perhaps the most important lies in the apparent fluctuation of our aesthetic judgments, the variation of what it is that we find beautiful.  The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume is the figure who most famously seemed to lay the groundwork for the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“A thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right because no sentiment represents what is really in the object . . . beauty is no quality of things themselves; it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity where another is sensible of beauty and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment without pretending to regulate those of others.” (Hume 1965,  Of the Standard of Taste)

Hume did not, however, hold that anything goes in terms of aesthetics and judging art. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it is important that the beholder actually sees and experiences the art or natural object (a candidate to be judged beautiful). Sometimes misinformation, faulty sensory organs, prejudice, egotism (you like painting x because you painted it), lack of emotional maturity can obscure and utterly undermine aesthetic judgment. Hume himself seemed to think that there would (or should?) arise some convergence on recognizing what we judge to be beautiful and excellent in art:

Whoever would assert an equality of genius between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Teneriffe or a pound as extensive as the ocean. Though there may be found persons who give preference to the former authors, no one pays attention to such a taste and we pronounce, without scruple, the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous.” (Hume 1965,  Of the Standard of Taste)

Some philosophers have extrapolated from Hume an ideal aesthetic observer theory, according to which an ideal observer of some state of affairs (this could be a work of art or a natural object) would be one that was impartial, knows all fact about the state of affairs, and affectively grasps all its emotive features. From that vantage point, the state of affairs is beautiful if it gives rise to aesthetic delight in the ideal observer, whereas it is ugly if it gives rise to displeasure (or disgust) (Taliaferro 1990).

This account may well identify necessary conditions for aesthetic observation, but what is missing is the Platonic, normative authority involved in beauty: that which is beautiful ought to be an object of pleasure in a fair-minded observer. Still, even if we settle for Hume and an ideal observer theory, we might secure a couple of rungs up Diotima’s and Plato’s ladder. We would not be approaching pure beauty, but would not be left without any guidance in apprehending a host of beauties with aesthetic pleasure.

The Platonic heritage has made a comeback in the late 20th century with the recession of some narrowly scientifically oriented philosophy (variously called positivism or verificationism). One of the leading figures to spearhead a Platonic revival is Iris Murdoch. In The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch writes movingly about the curative, emancipatory character of beauty.

“Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience amid changes of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.” (Murdoch 2007,  82)

Consider Murdoch’s Diotima-Platonic vision of love and the good which stands in sharp contrast to Frankfurt’s account of love and the value he places on his children.

“I think that Good and Love should not be identified, and not only because human love is usually self-assertive. The concepts, even when the idea of love is purified, still play different roles. We are dealing here with very difficult metaphors. Good is the magnetic centre towards which love naturally moves. False love moves to false good. False love embraces false death. When true good is loved, even impurely or by accident, the quality of the love is automatically refined, and when the soul is turned towards Good the highest part of the soul is enlivened. Love is the tension between the imperfect soul and the magnetic perfection which is conceived of as lying beyond it. (In the Symposium Plato pictures Love and being poor and needy.) And when we try perfectly to love what is imperfect our love goes to its object via the Good to be thus purified and made unselfish and just. The mother loving the retarded child or loving the tiresome elderly relation. Love is the general name of the quality of attachment and it is capable of infinite degradation and is the source of our greatest errors; but when it is even partially refined it is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to Good and joins us to the world through Good. Its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good. It is a reflection of the warmth and light of the sun.” (Murdoch 2007, 100)

In Murdoch’s valorization of beauty, we have returned to the font of Platonic aesthetics. Her work suggests that the final case for beauty must rest on experience. In our experience of the beautiful and the good do we apprehend that which truly does demand our rapturous, loving desire?

Today the word “art” is used in a way so that someone may rightly claim to point to an object on a wall and refer to it as “art.”  In fact, in the wide-open, wild west discourse on art today it seems that almost anything can be called “art.” This state of affairs is far different from the history of art from ancient Greece up until (roughly) the 1960s. For the ancients, “art” as a term would be a way of referring to a “work of art,” the product or result of art.  The root Latin term is ars, and in Greek it is techne; “art” refers to a principled way of producing artifacts. In the ancient world, if one were going to point to ars or art you would point to someone making things in a principled manner like a carpenter. Poesis (from which get “poetry”) was the term used to refer to the creating or making of objects, including works of art.  The thesis that a work of art or (simply) art is artificial is one of the most enduring tenets in the history of the philosophy of art.  Let us first consider the ancient concept of art, and then examine the major accounts of what makes an object a work of art.


Making works of art, from the Ancient World to the present

Plato recognized many practices as arts – shipbuilding, carpentry, chariots – as these possess a techne or technique.  He questioned, however, whether poetry posseses any techne that would link the poet to the good.  By his lights, the poet does not even grasp her or his own practice, but is, rather, like someone possessed by a spirit and lacking in self-understanding and self-control.  In the Ion, Plato offers this portrait:

“For of course poets tell us that they gather songs at honey-flowing springs, from glades and gardens of the Muses, and that they bear songs to us as bees carry honey, flying like bees. And what they say is true. For a poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind and his intellect is no longer in him.” (Ion 534a-b Janaway 2001, 10)

Poets inspire each other as they form a kind of conductor, passing on inspired energy. Plato explains the nature of contagious inspiration to the poet Ion:

“One poet is attached to one muse, another to another (we say he is “possessed,” and that’s near enough, for he is held). From these first rings, from the poets, they are attached in their turn and inspired, some from one poet, some from another: some from Orpheus, some from Musaeus, and many are possessed and held from Homer. You are one of them, Ion, and you are possessed from Homer. And when anyone sings the work of another poet, you’re asleep and you’re lost about what to say; but when any song of that poet is sounded, you are immediately awake, your soul is dancing, and you have plenty to say. You see it’s not because you’re a master of knowledge about Homer that you can say what you say, but because of a divine gift, because you are possessed.” (Plato 1983,  536b-c)

The link between inspiration and being divinely possessed is preserved in the etymology of the English term “enthusiasm” which comes from the Greek for being possessed by a god (enthousiasmos). Plato’s concept of poetic inspiration was perhaps influenced by the way the ancient poets invoked muses (inspiring goddesses) to assist them (as in the opening lines of the Iliad and Odyssey).  Plato reasoned that poets qua poets do not seem to have a techne in the way a shipbuilder does.  He thought that if you want to know about shipbuilding, you should go to a shipbuilder, chariots, go to a maker of chariots.  But why expect a poet who writes of ships and chariots to know about these? A warrior would seem to be a better resource if you wish to know about war, rather than poets.

Plato may have a point, but what he is missing is that so many of the ancient had first-hand experience of chariots and ships and war and the many themes in the Greek tragedies.  So, Aeschylus fought in the Battle of Salmis (Euripides is believed to have been born on the day of victory) and Sophocles was selected to participate in celebrations of the victory. Eurpides would have been well acquainted with the Battle of Melos, one of the more notorious battles of the whole Peloponnesian War. In 415 BCE, the Athenians assaulted Melos and, when the Melians surrendered, the Athenians killed all males who could bear arms, and enslaved all the women and children. Euripides’ play The Trojan Women, a tragedy composed in the same year as the battle, may be read as a critique of the Athenian treatment of the Melians. In brief, the tragic poets were not unfamiliar with their subjects.

As testimony to the authenticity of the ancient poetic treatments of war, one may take note of how modern soldiers have been able to resonate with Homeric poetry. Consider this extraordinary portrait of the warrior Achilles who his outraged at the killing of his beloved friend Patroclus.

“No, these lips shall not taste one morsel of food, nor of wine drink, While my companion and friend, cut down by the spear of the foeman, Lies at the door of my tent with his comrades lamenting around him. Truly for such things care I have none in my soul, but I think of Slaughter and carnage and gore, and the death-panggroanings of heroes.” (Homer 1867,  Book XIX, ll. 195-199).

This mixture of anger and grief resonated fully with poet and soldier Patrick Shaw-Stewart (1888-1917) who wrote “Achilles in the Trenches” of the awful 1915 battle at Gallipoli.

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
if otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o’er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.  (Knox 1920,  159-160)

Arguably, poets and other artists have their own aesthetic sensibility that may enable them to see what we neglect.  Doestoevsky was not a psychologist, but he may have understood the unconscious long before Freud.  Insofar as artists in general or poets in particular cultivate their affective observation – the ability to grasp emotive or affective properties – perhaps they are better enabled to convey the terror of battle, the brooding multiple layers of self-awareness, and so on. Later in this chapter, we will consider a further reply to Plato’s question of whether poetry is a true making of works of art.

Plato was not just critical of poetry, but he also had critical reservations about representational art, painting especially. To understand his critique you have to be willing to entertain that there are ideal forms such as the form treebedtable, and so on for all types of things, and that particular, concrete cases of trees and beds are appearances or reflections of these ideal forms. The painter who then paints a representation of particular trees and couches is thereby making an appearance of an appearance. The artist is thereby twice removed from the ideal form.

“Yes, he said; but they would be appearances only.

Very good, I said you are coming to the point now.  And the painter too is, as I conceive, just such another—a creator of appearances, is he not?

Of course.

But then I suppose you will say that what he creates is untrue.  And yet there is a sense in which the painter also creates a bed?

Yes, he said, but not a real bed.

And what of the maker of the bed?  Were you not saying that he too makes, not the idea which, according to our view, is the essence of the bed, but only a particular bed?

Yes, I did.

Then if he does not make that which exists he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence; and if any one were to say that the work of the maker of the bed, or of any other workman, has real existence, he could hardly be supposed to be speaking the truth.

At any rate, he replied, philosophers would say that he was not speaking the truth.

No wonder, then, that his work too is an indistinct expression of truth.

No wonder.

Suppose now that by the light of the examples just offered we enquire who this imitator is?

If you please.

Well, then, here are three beds: one existing in nature, which is made by God, as I think that we may say—for no one else can be the maker?

There is another which is the work of the carpenter?

And the work of the painter is a third?

Beds, then, are of three kinds, and there are three artists who superintend them: God, the maker of the bed, and the painter?

Yes, there are three of them.

God, whether from choice or from necessity, made one bed in nature and one only; two or more such ideal beds neither ever have been nor ever will be made by God.

Why is that?

Because even if He had made but two, a third would still appear behind them which both of them would have for their idea, and that would be the ideal bed and the two others.

Very true, he said.”  (Plato 1994,  596e-597d)

Plato seems to castigate painters and other representational artists as somehow only dealing with shadows of shadows.  How might this critique be answered?

The Platonic thesis that artists merely traffic in imitations and appearances may seem quite deflationary, but there are some ameliatory considerations. First, for the ancients “imitation” (mimesis) was broadly construed and can be understood more generally as artists making representations or interpretations of objects and not merely copies. Also, for Plato and especially Aristotle imitation was understood to be key to education. (Plato’s dialogues may be read as part of the goal to encourage us all to imitate Socrates.) And whatever disparagement of sensory experiences Plato fostered may be seen as having a positive effect.  This latter point is worth pausing over.

Partly because Plato distrusted sensory experience, he was less prone to trust his empirical observations of the status quo and conclude that women were, by nature, subordinate in all matters to men. Aristotle, who observed the marginalization of women from power thought this was natural, whereas Plato thought that there is no natural obstacle preventing women from being great rulers. It might also be noted that some modern painters may be seen in the Platonic tradition insofar as they seek to represent ideal forms. Arguably, formalist art is in the Platonic tradition, with its stress on nonrepresentational formal abstract shapes and colors. See, for example, the work of Piet Mondrian (see Figure 3).

The idea that works of art are mimetic has a rich history through the Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari summarizes a popular 16th century position:  “Painting is simply the imitation of all the living things of nature with their colours and designs just as they are in nature” (Vasari 1978,  46). Figure 4, a bronze sculpture of Zeus, would have been seen as a prime example of mimetic art, a statue that imitates how a god appears.The mimetic tradition, however, faced difficulties. It did not seem to speak to the fact that artists do not simply seek to copy or re-enact or make a verisimilitude of their subject matter. Artists seek to idealize or critique their subjects or invent subjects that seem to go beyond mere imitation (Pegasus). Imitation also seems to involve resemblances, but it becomes problematic in identifying what sorts of resemblances may be involved. Does a two dimensional portrait painting on canvas in a frame really resemble its object? Arguably, we pick out what counts as a relevant resemblance (a portrait might give me an idea of how Queen Victoria looked shortly after her coronation) due to learned conventions. Some mid-twentieth century aestheticians turned decisively against the resemblance-imitation theory on the grounds that works of art involve reference, as in linguistic denotation.  On this view, works of art function more like different linguistic statements that reference objects rather than mirrors that offer us a reflection of what we might otherwise see directly without the aid of a mirror. Nelson Goodman, for example, likened representation to a language you must learn. Just seeing a painting of Queen Victoria would be no more helpful than understanding the sentence, “Queen Victoria was married to Prince Albert,” unless you understood the “language” of pictorial representation and the English language.

The idea that art is mimetic has its defenders, but because this model for what is a work of art did not seem to get at the affective and expressive nature of art-making, new models were advanced historically.


From art as expression to art as the embodiment of emotions

As noted above, most philosophers have viewed works of art as artifacts.  Kant and Hegel are worth noting for their adept endorsements of the artifactuality of art. Kant:

“For though we like to call the product that bees make (the regularly constructed honeycombs) a work of art, we do so only by virtue of an analogy with art; for as soon as we recall that their labor is not based on any rational deliberation on their part, we say at once that the product is a product of their nature (namely, of instinct), and it is only to their creator that we ascribe it as art.”  (Kant 1987,  170)

Hegel offers this way of differentiating works of art from objects in nature that are beautiful but not by human artifice:

“The torch-thistle, which blooms for only one night, withers in the wilds of the southern forests without having been admired, and these forests, jungles themselves of the most beautiful and luxuriant vegetation . . . rot and decay equally unenjoyed. But the work of art is not so naively self-centered; it is essentially a question, an address to the responsive breast, a call to the mind and spirit.” (Hegel 1975,  71)

Granting the arifactuality of art and the realization that more is at stake than mimesis, what may be identified as central to art?

In the modern era, some philosophers proposed that works of art involve the expression of feelings.  The 19th century novelist (and philosopher of art) Leo Tolstoy was a foremost advocate of this view.  He held that in most works of art, an artist has a feeling and then conveys that feeling to audiences through words, material objects, signs.  He used the somewhat unattractive term “infection” to describe the role of the artist.  Artists infect their viewers or listeners with their feelings.

Tolstoy’s account does seem to cover some works of art, including his own novels.  Even so, it faces some difficulties of being either too broad or too narrow.  It may be too broad in the sense that ordinary emotional communication would then be works of art.  As we have seen in the Introduction, some philosophers (including R.G. Collingwood) are prepared to think that all speech acts are works of art.  There may be grandeur to that view (which we will return to below) but at least initially it seems to run counter to the ways in which we normally think of works of art.  The worry is that if every expressive act is a work of art, would we have a way to identify what is special about works of art?  And Tolstoy’s account may be too narrow in the sense that some artists may feel either no particular feelings in their art-making (minimal art or art that seems explicitly based on an absence of feeling) or perhaps even quite different feelings than those expressed in their artwork.  An angry artist may only produce works that “infect” observers with passive contentment.  Actors may engage in method acting but not necessarily. Moreover, it seems that works of art may have emotive, aesthetic features even if no actual persons present are having the relevant feelings.  We can well imagine that the titanic conclusion of Beethoven’s ninth symphony would still be joyous even if all of the musicians and members of the audience were in a deep, soulless depression.

The latter case has prompted philosophers to think that works of art actually embody feelings.  Susanne Langer developed a rich aesthetic in which works of art embody the forms of human feeling.  Paintings, poems, sculpture, dance, music and so on, may be seen as expressive of a host of emotions from anger and love to disappointment, confusion, and joy.  Arguably, the joy we hear when listening to the “Ode to Joy” is not simply a felt association of the music with joy; rather, we can hear the joy in the music.

This expressive account may seem to invite a kind of aesthetic animism—the idea that works of art themselves have feelings.  Some art theorists do not shy away from such animism. W.J.T. Mitchell (University of Chicago) wrote a book called, What Do Images Want?  Answer: they want you to look at them.  An expressive account of works of art can enhance (or at least it does so in my experience) one’s encounter with works of art.  Here is an experiment: When you next see a work of art, engage it in “conversation.” Ask, how is it feeling?  Apart from possibly being embarrassed in front of a museum guard, I wager that in some cases your experience may surprise you.  Instead of seeing a painting (for example) as a cold or dead object, it may reveal a host of feelings.  There is something shy about some works of art, while others are boastful.  Obviously, we are now dealing with metaphors (the painting isn’t shy, literally), but for all that the experience of a work of art can be experienced as rife with emotive, affective features.

Both the communication and expressive accounts of works of art have merit.  Some advocates of a communication model point out that sometimes an artist needs to find the words, shapes, and movements in making works of art in order for an artist to fully grasp what she is seeking to communicate.  This surely does capture what some artists report.  And the expressive model does seem to capture the evocative, rich experience we can have with artwork.  Still, more work is needed to elucidate the nature of art.  Arguably, lots of gestures and things have expressive features, e.g. my office right now can plausibly be experienced as a kind of mysterious, troubling academic wilderness, but it’s not thereby a work of art.  Let us turn to one of the most substantial modern theories of art that sees art in terms of aesthetic experience.


Works of Art and Aesthetic Experience

In the twentieth century there emerged a pervasive stance that identifying works of art involved aesthetic experience.  In one version, X is a work of art if and only if X was made to be the object of aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience was defined in contrast to practical experience.  To have an aesthetic experience, one needs to step back or detach oneself from the urgency and practical preoccupations of life.  In a very famous example, Edward Bullough asks us to imagine a dangerous fog at sea.  When we experience the fog as an occasion for danger, we are not in the position of aesthetic experience.

“Imagine a fog at sea: for most people it is an experience of acute unpleasantness. Apart from the physical annoyance and remoter forms of discomfort such as delays, it is apt to produce feelings of peculiar anxiety, fears of invisible dangers, strains of watching and listening for distant and unlocalised signals. The listless movement of the ship and her warning calls soon tell upon the nerves of the passengers; and that special, expectant, tacit anxiety and nervousness, always associated with this experience, make a fog the dreaded terror of the sea (all the more terrifying because of its very silence and gentleness) for the expert seafarer no less than for the ignorant landsman.” (Bullough 1912)

However, once the practical and dangerous conditions pass, we are then able to appreciate its aesthetic qualities.  We might then take note of the sensuous nature of the fog, its silky quality and so on.

This ability to stand back from the practical circumstances came to be seen as a hallmark of works of art.  The novelist Balzac notes how it is by stepping back that he was able to more freely enter imaginatively into the lives of others:

“On hearing the people of the street, I was able to wed myself to their life; I felt their rags on my back; I walked with my feet in their torn shoes; their desires, their needs, everything passed into my soul passed into theirs…” (Honere de Balzac, Parker 1916, 16)

Schiller testified to a similar way in which withdrawal can allow for a more expansive purview:

“As long as man… is merely a passive recipient of the world of sense, i.e., does no more than feel, he is still completely One with that world; and just because he is himself nothing but world, there exists for him no world. Only when, at the aesthetic stage, he puts it outside himself, or contemplates it, does his personality differentiates itself from it, and a world becomes manifest to him because he has ceased to be One with it.” (Schiller, Wilkinson, and Willoughby 1982, 183)

As Guy Sircello points out, it is through detachment that we can even take on board some otherwise violent subjects.

“We might say of Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (either version, but especially the one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) that it is calm and aloof. Yet it is quite clear that the depicted scene is not calm and that no one in it, with the possible exception of Romulus, who is directing the attack, is aloof. It is rather, as we say, that Poussin calmly observes the scene and paints it in an aloof, detached way.” (Sircello 1972, 20)

The definition of works of art as being the object of aesthetic experience has several implications.

First, it secures the artifactual nature of art: works of art must in some sense be intended.  So natural objects –objects not made intentionally—would not be works of art.  They could be found objects (objet trouvé) but then they become works of art because someone (the artist) selects them for viewing.  (Even so, the selection would seem to have to require the artist giving the objects some kind of frame or context.  Just roping off some part of a forest and claiming this is your creation would seem to not make the grade.)  some of Andy Goldworthy’s work come close to this, but (so far) he always introduces some sculptural elements. Works made by persons or things not intending the objects for aesthetic appreciation such as paintings made by nonhuman animals, the severely mentally damaged and very young children would not be clear cases of works of art.  Alternatively, if one could show that some nonhuman animals, the severely mentally damaged or very young children could conceive of making objects for the sake of aesthetic experiences, they may all qualify as artists. Alternatively, the aesthetic definition of art may be able to accommodate such objects on the grounds that they have been identified by artists or curators as objects for aesthetic experience. In this case, a curator may function as an artist insofar as she identifies objects for aesthetic purposes.

Second, the aesthetic model seems to be able to accommodate objects that have a practical use and yet have rich aesthetic features.  Consider, for example, Shaker furniture.  A Shaker chair may function as a chair and yet it has elegance, even beauty.  Here one can endorse a binocular or both/and view.  The chair qua piece of furniture has a practical function and insofar as it is not made to be an object of aesthetic experience, it is not a work of art.  But insofar as it was made to be observed aesthetically (and is so observed), the object can function as a work of art.  Timing may enter into when an object is a work of art.  Nelson Goodman’s title for a clever paper is telling: “When Is a Work of Art?” The chair may be may be merely a chair as you gather around a table for a meal, but it can become a wall sculpture once you stop using it as merely a piece of furniture.

This aesthetic account of works of art has vibrant advocates today.  Indeed, after some objections and a brief excursion to look at some promising alternatives, this chapter will conclude with a modest defense of the aesthetic model.  But it does indeed need defense for several reasons.

“First, there is the problem of works of art that seem to be profoundly anti-aesthetic.  The classic exchange is Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal that Duchamp selected to be mounted as a work of art (see Figure 5).  It seems that the whole point of the work of art is to oppose aesthetics, not support it.  Or consider John Cage’s composition 4’33” consists of one or more performers being on stage for four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.  And then there is Robert Rauschenberg’s piece ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ in which he took a drawing by de Kooning, erased it, and then titled and exhibited the work as his own.  Timothy Binkley concludes that contemporary art is no longer tethered to aesthetic experience.  ‘Art in the twentieth century has emerged as a strongly self-critical discipline.  It has freed itself of aesthetic parameters ad sometimes creates directly with ideas unmediated by aesthetic qualities.  An artwork is a piece; and a piece need not be an aesthetic object, or even an object at all.'”(Binkley 1996, 89).

Second, aesthetic experience (as customarily described) seems extraordinarily vague.  George Dickie’s title of a famous paper is representative of a skeptic’s counter-move: “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude.”  Efforts to pin down exactly what counts as an aesthetic experience versus a non-aesthetic one are notoriously difficult.

Third, aesthetic attitudes or experience (when it is described) seems too passive, whereas many works of art involve problem-solving, moral challenge, and so on.

Fourth, it has been argued that the aesthetic model and the others we have considered (art as mimesis, communication, expression) assume there is an essence to works of art.  Some philosophers regard this thesis as not just suspect but stultifying.  Why not adopt a more open-ended model that gives greater liberty to the art world?  In fact, why not call into question the notion that art has to be an artifact?  After all, it seems a bit strained to claim that Duchamp madethe artwork Fountain. And in Erased de Kooning Drawing it seems that Rauchenberg actually destroyed a work of art rather than made one.

Let us consider such a move to a more open-ended concept of artwork and then return to see whether the aesthetic model can be sustained in response to the above multiple objections.


The art world and the definition of a work of art

In Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis, Dickie contends that almost anything can become art if the art world confers upon it this status of “art”(Dickie 1974).  This is surely quite open-ended. The main components of the art world are described as follows:

1.  An artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making of a work of art.

2.  A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public.

3.  A public is a set of persons the members of which are prepared in some degree to understand an object which is presented to them.

4.  The artworld is the totality of all artworld systems.

5.  An artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an artworld public.”  (Dickie 2004,  58)

Dickie’s characterization of art and the artworld may seem suspiciously circular – as in making a claim like “art is what artists make” (compare “science is what scientists do). But his account singles out the artworld as a self-identified, interwoven, observable system with its art market, museums, art criticism, and so on. Dickie’s account is functional and procedural, offering a guide to locating works of art.

Arthur Danto also advanced an open-ended definition of artworks as objects that are recognized as art by the artworld, but he offered a more substantial picture of the nature and role of artworks. Danto claimed that works of art have place in art history and they are about the world in a way that ordinary objects are not.

I suggest Danto’s account has more to offer in terms of substance, though both his and Dickie’s are promising. They still, however, seem to face challenges.  Against Dickie: Why think of works of art as essentially institutional? Why can’t there be works of art quite independent of whether there are any institutions in play to recognize such works? Dickie’s account seems to leave us in the dark about why it is that the Artworld recognizes some objects as art and not others. When a museum or art center or gallery decides to exhibit an object as art, they may well consider past and present practices of art institutions, but if we ask why these institutions did what they did, we seem to be on an unhelpful regress for did these institutions only act in virtue or what other institutions did? This is doubtful (Beardsley 1982,  12 5-143).  One of the difficulties facing the institutional theory is that it leaves the art world itself with no guidelines and it leaves the individual artist without guidelines as well.  Consider Binkley’s more individualist definition of art: “To be a piece of art, an item need only be indexed as an artwork by an artist…Anyone can be an artist.  To be an artist is to utilize (or perhaps invent) artistic conventions to index a piece” (Binkley 1996, 96).  This may sound liberating, but doesn’t this drain the concepts of being an artist and work of art of all meaning?  And contrary to Danto, if art history seems essential to recognizing artworks, what about the first artwork? Did it only become an artwork until it was discovered? Arguably, the concept of a work of art needs to be broader than one that requires institutional or historical identification.

These difficulties invite us to cast another glance back to the aesthetic model.


Back to aesthetics!

Let’s reconsider the aesthetic model.  By way of tightening up the concept of aesthetics without risking a stultifying account, I propose that the aesthetic may be taken (as suggested in the Introduction) to refer to affective or emotive properties.  As such, almost any experience whatsoever may have some aesthetic dimension.  What distinguishes works of art from ordinary objects is that works of art are made for the sake of such experiences.  One more condition must be added: Works of art are made for the appreciation of such experiences.  “Appreciation” need not involve enjoyment or pleasure, but it must involve an evaluative component.  Gary Iseminger defines appreciation succinctly:

“Appreciation is finding the experience of a state of affairs to be valuable in itself.” (Iseminger 2004,  36)

Let’s now go through the objections.  What about anti-aesthetic art?  I suggest that there is an aesthetic to being anti-aesthetic; its features include emotions like boldness, challenge, affrontery, abrasiveness, coldness, humor.  Consider some of the most severe, apparently anti-aesthetic works of art. What about Duchamp’s Fountain or John Cage’s 4’33” or “Erased de Kooning Drawing” or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (a replica in different sizes of a cleaning product). These still have affective features involving play, self-consciousness; they are designed to stimulate reflection on art and culture.  John Cage seems to have recognized the unavoidability of what we may call aesthetics.  Cage claimed “There is no such thing as empty space or an empty time.  There is always something to see, something to hear.  In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot” (Cage 1996, 149).  I also suggest Rauschenberg’s piece succeeds (if it does) due to the felt affrontive (offensive) tone of the piece.  The piece would not be interesting unless it was experienced as transgressive.

Consider what may be called anti-philosophy philosophy.  Wittgenstein’s later writings have been interpreted as arguing against philosophy, at least against its historical character.  But insofar as the anti-philosopher engages in philosophical arguments it is difficult to see that he has left philosophy behind. Similarly supposed anti-aesthetic art seems to itself have aesthetic dimensions, even if those features are subversive, violations of the status quo, and questioning. This response to anti-aesthetic art also seems to push back against the objection that the aesthetic model is overly passive.  After all, there seems to be an aesthetic involved in problem solving, thinking and acting morally, and so on.  Appreciable affective properties are especially important in artwork that is confrontive and invites observers to engage in self-questioning.

Finally, if aesthetic experience and appreciation are given sufficient breadth, there is no danger of confinement or art theory holding back the art world.  Such breadth can also explain why some philosophers like Collingwood might well think of life itself or one’s speech as works of art.  While there is some reason to resist such a promiscuous use of the term “work of art,” one can indeed appreciate the affective dimensions of someone’s life and their speech.  One may well contemplate a lifetime as beautiful or a blend of beauty and ugliness.

This broader concept of aesthetics may further assist us in replying to Plato’s objection that poetry lacks a techne. On the aesthetic model, the artist is someone who is skilled in aesthetic invention and observation. She or he is able to resonate with and creatively represent, communicate, express, and imitate aesthetically charged objects and events.

The aesthetic model does not thereby shun other models which may be themselves seen to have aesthetic features. There is something freeing about Dickie’s account (though I also think one can also find it narrowing: imagine you make aesthetically charged objects that certainly look like works of art, but you have no ability or opportunity whatsoever to present to the artworld public, you are shunned by the totality of all artworld systems, and so on). Danto’s model’s recognition that works of art are about the world seems quite right in at least many cases; Duchamp’s Fountain is about the artworld. The aesthetic model can fully recognize this and appreciate the affective components of how the artwork references the world.

The scope of the aesthetic model can also encompass models of art we have not enough space to cover. Sigmund Freud, for example, analyzed works of art as waking dreams. Yet another model of art likens artwork to play or pretense (make-believe). All these have their own affective or emotive tones that may be appreciated for their own sake and for the light they can shed on some works of art.

In further reply to Plato, I end with a poetic portrait of a Homeric ideal bed. The setting is the marriage bed of Odysseus and Penelope. They have been apart twenty years. After such a long absence they did the three things any couple would long to do: make love, share their stories, and sleep together. To enable all three, Athena (Athene) kept the sun from rising and thus extended their night together. If there was an ideal bed in ancient Greek literature, I wager the following is quite a good account of it. And who better to praise such a bed than a poet?

“So they conversed together. Meanwhile Eurynome and the nurse prepared their bed with clothing soft, under the light of blazing torches. And after they had spread the comfortable bed, with busy speed, the old woman departed to her room to rest; while the chamber-servant, Eurynome, with torch in hand, brought them to their chamber and then went her way. So they came gladly to their bed of early days. And now Telemachus [the son of Odysseus and Penelope], the neatherd and the swineherd stayed their feet from dancing and bade the women stay, and all betook themselves to rest throughout the dusky halls.

But while the pair joyed in their new-found love, they joyed in talking too, each one relating: she, the royal lady, what she endured at home, watching the wasteful throng of suitors, who, making excuse of her, slew many cattle, beeves, and sturdy sheep, and stores of wine were drained from out the casks; he, high-born Odysseus, what miseries he brought on other men and what he bore himself in anguish, — all he told, and she was glad to listen. No sleep fell on her eyelids till he had told her all.

He began with how at first he conquered the Ciconians, and came thereafter to the fruitful land of Lotus-eaters; then what the Cyclops did, and how he took revenge for the brave comrades whom the Cyclops ate and never pitied; then how he came to Aeolus, who gave him hearty welcome and sent him on his way; but it was fated that he should not reach his dear land yet, for a sweeping storm bore him once more along the swarming sea, loudly lamenting; how he came to Telepylus in Laestrygonia, where the men destroyed his ships and his mailed comrades, all of them; Odysseus fled in his black ship alone. He told of Circe, too, and all her crafty guile; and how on a ship of many oars he came to the mouldering house of Hades, there to consult the spirit of Teiresias of Thebes; how he looked on all his comrades, and on the mother who had borne him and cared for him when little; how he had heard the full-voiced Sirens’ song; how he came to the Wandering Rocks, to dire Chary bdis and to Scylla, past whom none goes unharmed; how then his crew slew the Sun’s kine; how Zeus with a blazing bolt smote his swift ship, — Zeus, thundering from on high, — and his good comrades perished, utterly, all, while he escaped their evil doom; how he came to the island of Ogygia and to the nymph Calypso, who held him in her hollow grotto, wishing him to be her husband, cherishing him, and saying she would make him an immortal, young forever, but she never beguiled the heart within his breast; how then he came through many toils to the Phaeacians, who honored him exceedingly, as if he were a god, and brought him on his way to his own native land, giving him stores of bronze and gold and clothing. This was the latest tale he told, when pleasant sleep fell on him, easing his limbs and from his heart removing care.

Now a new plan the goddess formed, clear-eyed Athene, when in her mind she judged Odysseus had enough of love and sleep. Straightway from out the Ocean-stream she roused the gold-throned dawn, to bring the light to men.” (Homer 1921,  Bk. XXIII, ll. 263-364)