What is beauty in art?
Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of beauty and taste.
The term “aesthetics” is derived from the Greek word “aesthesis” meaning perception.
What constitutes beauty has been and still is a much debated topic, especially in art. In Grecian times, Aristotle thought beauty was about function and proportion. In 1735, the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten posed the question “What is beauty?” and introduced the word “aesthetics” to describe his process of understanding of what makes something beautiful or ugly and how we make these judgments. Since then, others which have sought to tackle the question have given many different definitions varying throughout time depending on cultures and perceptions of the world.
Art just like Beauty is a word first and foremost, and words and concepts change their meaning through time. Where art once meant craft and excellence, with Romanticism it started meaning originality. Modernism brought its own set of questions: Can you paint movement? Cubism and Futurism. Can you paint the non-material? Abstract Expressionism and so on.
Later, the philosopher Immanuel Kant tried to clarify what aesthetics meant in his work Critique of Judgment, in which he attempted to work out how to analyse beauty. He concluded that there is no scientific rule for determining what beauty is and that there is no proper definition as it is subjective for each and everyone.
In truth, beauty doesn’t really exist. It is far too abstract and personal. It requires a viewer and a context, our appreciation of certain shapes, sounds or combinations over others is nothing more than preference. We have all come across sayings such as beauty is skin deep, is not only skin deep, is in the eye of the beholder, comes from within and so forth. The American writer Jean Kerr said “I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin deep. That’s deep enough. What do you want – an adorable pancreas?”
But beauty is not just a visual experience which is why beautiful art doesn’t have to be visually pleasing. If it makes your stomach churn, your eyes avert themselves in discomfort, think about things you’d rather not and evoke an emotion, however displeasing, then it is art.
The fundamental difference between art and beauty is that art is about who has produced it, whereas beauty depends on who’s looking. Do I like Picasso’s work? No – there are exceptions to this. Do I think it’s beautiful? No, my understanding makes it beautiful. Do I think it is art? Undeniably so and I will defend Picasso against anyone that would dare say that he is anything less than an artist. Which brings me back to my initial question, what is beauty in art? The only answer I can ascertain for sure is the emotions and reactions it provokes within the beholder. It’s less about the eye and more about the guts. Art is a visual language, sometimes more powerful than any words.
Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) isn’t meant to be art, I don’t qualify the object in itself as art. However, what elevates Duchamp to the status of artist on this particular piece is the whole thought process, the questions he sought to answer and those that plagued us, and continue to do so. That is why, in my opinion, that piece can be given the title of art, because at some point in the last century these questions thrust in the face of the art community became pertinent and relevant. And we answered in our own ways, whether positively or negatively it doesn’t matter, what does is that it didn’t leave us indifferent.
Context and emotional response are what makes art beautiful.