We all see things as beautiful or ugly. • The judgment is almost instantaneously in some cases: we don’t reason to judge that something is beautiful or not. • Of course, I am only talking about cases where we in fact have a personal response. But in most cases, we don’t have a clear aesthetic responses to things. For example, most of your teachers’ faces won’t aesthetically appeal to or challenge you.
Taste • It is normally for us to call aesthetic response or judgment a matter of taste. • People who make some weird judgment are sometime accused of having bad tastes. • So, is it so bad to be accused of having bad taste? • And, is the purpose of the art courses here and in secondary school a way to upgrade your taste?
So do we want to credit our countrymen as having very good taste when they flog to LV or Prada to buy the goods? • But we wonder why some of them look so bad in those smart outfits?
Beautiful or Agreeable? • The clothes we choose are ones that are beautiful, or at least aesthetically agreeable, to us. • The same for our choice of spouse. • It is often said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. • If this proverb is true, does it mean that aesthetic judgment is entirely subjective? • Students often believe that not only arts, but also opinions in non-science subjects are subjective.
How Subjective? • The absolute subjective view seems untenable: the beauty we find is in the objects. • So there must be something in the beautiful objects that make us find them beautiful. • That something is usually understood as the property of an object, the aesthetic property. • The problem is what is an aesthetic property, viz. how is it different from the ordinary properties of objects such as color, weight, charge, etc.
There are many kinds of judgment • 1. Objective: this paper weighs 2 grams. • (We can back up our judgment by referring to the reading on a scale.) • 2. Moral: this act is good. • (We can explain our judgment by saying that many people are pleased by his act.) • 3. Instrumental: Studying in SPACE is useful for my future. • (We can elaborate by saying that 71% of SPACE graduates get into a university.)
But how can we back up our aesthetic judgment such as “This painting looks beautiful”?
Some say that in art, natural endowment is essential. This means that if you are not gifted to have the artistic sense, you cannot become a good artist or a competent critic of art. • Those who have attained grade 8 in piano and yet have no special liking for classical music should appreciate this point. • We believe that some gifted people are really moved by art: you need to be moved, deeply affected, by art in order to see the beauty there.
That is why sometimes we hear people say that art is a matter of emotion: if you happen to be roused by it, you are prone to call your response aesthetic. This is commonly seen in our evaluation of a movie, a story, a piece of music. • But why can’t we call the emotional response to a ride in the rollercoaster in Ocean Park, the bloody scene in a vampire movie, or the thrills in gossiping aesthetic? After all, we may even enjoy the latter kind of experience much better and more intensively.
Objective Vs Subjective • Now we are in a dilemma: it is reasonable to say that aesthetic judgment is subjective and it is also reasonable to say that what is beautiful is in the objects.
Plato • Plato has a very strange theory about beauty: the Form of beauty is not in the objects or in our judgment. Rather it is a suprasensible 'thing‘, which he called the Form, in a heaven not touchable by us. • An artist's task is merely to imitate the Form of beauty. • Hence, producing work of art is inferior to reasoning in philosophy. • Compare imitation with copying files in a computer.
In the Symposium, Plato presented the idea that beauty is the object of love. • There he invites us to agree that we should be educated to learn the true beauty in a stepwise manner. • First, we should realize that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body. • Then, we should learn that there is beauty in various kinds of knowledge. • The final step is to experience beauty itself, that which is not embodied in any medium.
The Form of Beauty • Plato clearly separated the world of senses (intelligible world) from the suprasensible one. • In the intelligible world, we use our five senses to perceive objects. But we can also have the power of contemplation to grasp the nonsensuous. • For example, we can all see a triangle drawn on a paper. But we also grasp the Form of triangularity. Remember that there is no perfect triangle in the world of senses.
Imitation is Inferior • In the Republic, Plato further attacked the artists as engaging in inferior activities. • For example, when an artist draws a painting of a scenery, he is just imitating the beauty of the actual scenery. But the scenery itself, if beautiful at all, is also an imitation of the perfect Form of beauty in the suprasensible realm. • As a result, the artist’s imitation is twice removed from true beauty: increasing the number of copying reduces the authenticity.
Probably no one nowadays will agree to Plato's view. • But at least, Plato's theory is closer to the objective view of beauty because beauty is not a matter of taste and individual judgment.
Natural Beauty • There are many different artistic media and forms: literary, visual, music, natural, etc. • Perhaps it is best to start with natural beauty. • If you go to China and find the scenery of the Yellow Mountain beautiful, you judge that some natural things, the mountain, beautiful. • The first question is whether a natural thing just exists and is produced by no particular people with artistic gift or intention. If so, how can a natural thing be beautiful?
Intention • One might respond that beautiful things need not be produced by someone and as a result our aesthetic judgment should not count intention in. • Some might say that nature is beautiful because God makes it so and thus we find nature beautiful inasmuch as we find God great.
The second question is the relation between natural and non-natural beauty. • Do people use natural beauty as a paradigm for beauty and that non-natural beauty is an approximation to natural beauty? • But it is not true that a poem has any resemblance to nature. • So it seems that we should not put special emphasis on nature: natural beauty is just part of visual beauty.
Mystical Feeling • Note that when we gaze into the night sky and exclaim: “Wow!” we might just be praising the greatness and mystery of nature. Of course, people do conflate between these two forms of sentiment.
So after all, what is the nature of beauty? What is that we feel when we find something beautiful? • Is it sufficient to say that the aesthetic sentiment is just a very general pleasant feeling? • We might find sitting in a roadside cafe pleasant. So what is in common between this pleasantness and the pleasantness when we listen to Mozart's music?
It is often said that one needs aesthetic training: one needs to be given exposure to what is universally judged to be beautiful. If you study fine arts, you will appreciate that after training by your professors, you would start to appreciate the beauty of the 'ugly' paintings of Picasso. • Of course, we tend to believe what the experts say. But are you suspicious about the strange taste of the professors? • Are you merely conditioned, or forced, to agree with what the professors say? • This sort of things never happen in other subjects: you will not accuse your chemistry professor of forcing you to appreciate that carbon forms covalent bonds.
Consensus • It is also presumptuous to say that there is a universal consensus of great works of art. People, even experts, often disagree. It is likely that the great works of the great artists are great just because we are reluctant to downgrade the great artists. • You might politely say that you can't help find that Picasso painting ugly. A nice professor would reply: “Sure, you are still a novice. In time, you will change your mind. All you need is more training.”
The problem is: if the training is just to make me conform to expert judgment, and not at all related to truth, then I might just remember the judgments of the experts. • But if you are learning to perform art, that kind of attitude wouldn't work. • It is because even if you can memorize all the techniques, say in playing the piano, you still need to 'know' how to play with style and eloquence. You simply don't believe that even if you play the piano without flaw, you can play as beautifully as Lang Lang does.
Antithesis between Beauty and Ugliness • In our society, we are aware of the phenomenon that trendy 'beauty' is often a reversal of what we previously regarded as ugly. • Consider those who put on makeup to make themselves like ghosts, pierce their belly and nose, sing the tuneless rap, etc. • If the reversal of aesthetic norm is genuine, then either we believe in absolute subjectivism or we have to agree that two separate sets of criteria about the same thing, though incompatible, are internally consistent.
Intuitive Response • Imagine you have neither learned any art theory, nor acquired any norms about what is beautiful. Now you come across a painting and you spontaneously judge that it looks nice. So what is the basis of your natural response? • You can compare the situation as when you were five years old and pointed at a certain Miss HK on the TV screen and exclaimed : “Ugly, ugly!” • Were you comparing her with your sister and mother? Probably not; for it is really rare to have one's mother more beautiful than the ugliest Miss HK. And, if your response is really using your mother as a standard, then most likely, most of the faces you see on TV should be aesthetically agreeable to you.
Faculty of Aesthetic Taste • So is there a faculty of taste in us? • We don't need to learn that some food tastes good. But do we need to learn what beauty is. If something is beautiful, it should be able to elicit our feeling of pleasantness spontaneously. • Some 'difficult' pieces of art are not initially agreeable to us just as some food is not initially agreeable to our taste. • But in general, the beautiful things are agreeable to our aesthetic taste just as French fries is agreeable to our gustatory sense.
We have five senses. • Do the ‘agreeable’ in the five senses have something in common? • If so, that is the essence of beauty. • If not, we have different senses of beauty superficially united by the name 'beauty'. • But we also hear people say that a certain mathematical proof as beautiful. • So, is there non-sensible beauty?
The suprasensible beauty is what unites the sensible beauty, according to Plato. • If something is suprasensibly beautiful, then a human being should find it beautiful by the senses. • Kant, the famous German philosopher, thinks that there is a dimension of beauty called the sublime, that which is beyond comprehension. • For example, human find the infinite awesome and beautiful. That is why we are captivated by the cosmos.
Some philosophers are not so positive about the suprasensible beautiful. • For them, aesthetics is about human culture and culture is a contingent development of practices and norm. • For example, it is just an accident that in the Tang dynasty people found fat women beautiful. • People tend to be strongly constrained by what the majority has agreed about.
The Artworld • Some philosophers think that the culture where art is developed the ‘art world’. • Normally the artworld consists of the art works, the artists, the art critics and the general public. • What is beautiful is a result of the dynamic interrelationship among these. • For example, a work is produced by someone and an influential art critic gives positive comments on it, and then the public agree with what the critics says. As a result, that piece of work is labelled as a work of art.
Marcel Duchamp • The most famous example is Duchamp's toilet, a real toilet in your house. • The fact that Duchamp put his toilet in a museum and signed it makes that ordinary toilet a work of art. • That means that the toilet is a work of art only in a particular context. • Duchamp's toilet loses its artistic aura once it is put in your house.
If the theory of artworld is true, there is nothing intrinsically special about a piece of art. • If Mozart's music is used as your mobile phone's ring tune, it immediately becomes a cheap piece of music. • Mozart's music is to be appreciated in the music hall, or to be played by the best hi-fi instrument in the best acoustic environment.
Thomas Aquinas • The famous medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas reverted Plato’s emphasis on the other-worldly. • For him, beauty is that which pleases when seen; it is also capable of calming our desires. • There are several important conditions of beauty: perfection (unimpairedness), proportion (harmony), and clarity. • So instead of the mysterious contact with the Platonic Form, we have the actual sensuous knowledge of the beautiful things in our own world.
After Aquinas, the philosophical study of beauty prospered in the eighteenth century. A German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten first used the word ‘aesthetics’ as the name of the field of the philosophical investigation of beauty. • From then on, the focus has been on the objective basis of the judgment of beauty and the human faculty of taste.