What Is Artistic Beauty?

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Kelley Rubben Dr. Marck L. Beggs, Director M.L.A. Program Admissions Essay January 6, 2001 What is Artistic Beauty? From the beginning of time, men and women have scrutinized, categorized, and compared components of their surroundings in an attempt to better understand their world. In the Bible’s Genesis account, Adam, seemingly in appreciation of Eve’s uniqueness and beauty, poetically proclaims her, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.”[Gen. 2:23 NIV] Much later, artists, writers, and philosophers have sought to understand beauty, balance, and perfection -- the sublime. Their struggle to define perfection and to set standards of beauty was termed aesthetics or, “the science of the beautiful,” in 1753 by German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. Baumgarten was considered the first modern philosopher to approach the question of beauty systematically, introducing the term aesthetics and defining the experience of beauty as the sensory recognition of perfection. [Danto 1]. The works of his contemporary, Immanuel Kant, express the notion that beautiful objects are without a specific purpose and that judgments of beauty are not expressions of mere personal preference but, rather, universal. Similarly, Encarta defines aesthetics as: A branch of philosophy concerned with the essence and perception of beauty and ugliness, dealing with the question of whether such qualities are objectively present in the things they appear to qualify, or whether they exist only in the mind of the individual; hence, whether objects are perceived by a particular mode, the aesthetic mode, or whether instead the objects have, in themselves, special aesthetic qualities. Philosophy also asks if there is a difference between the beautiful and the sublime. [Danto 1] However, even with a definition at hand, arriving at a consensus on precisely what constitutes beauty and perfection is nearly impossible. Ultimately, beauty is “in the eye of the beholder.” For the sake of argument, in this discussion, beauty will be limited to the perception of color, sound, form, and words and with the emotional responses to these elements as experienced within works of art, literature, and music.djtsidffjpoidffjsaosafdsafsadf In his discussion of what he calls “dependent beauty,” Immanuel Kant implies that the use of an ornamental or beautiful object in some way affects its aesthetic qualities. In some situations, an object is a beautiful adornment, but in a different setting, that same object would be viewed as inappropriate or even grotesque. In Critique of Judgment Kant differentiates: Much that would be liked directly in intuition could be added to a building, if only the building were not [meant] to be a church. A figure could be embellished with all sorts of curlicues and light but regular lines, as the New Zealanders do with their tattoos, if only it were not the figure of a human being. And this human being might have had much more delicate features and a facial structure with a softer and more likable outline, if only he were not [meant] to represent a man, let alone a warlike one. [Leddy 1 / Kant 1987]. [ Therefore, cultural norms set the parameters for what is accepted as beautiful, though the boundaries are constantly expanded by new artistic expressions that push the limits of acceptability within a society. These “avant-garde” artistic creations frequently depict themes, images, or subjects considered “taboo” in a particular society. Exhibited and marketed as artwork, the creations will either be rejected, or they will be accepted as modern art, thus expanding the boundaries of what can be considered art. [Wilson, 2 / Parsons and Blocker].dd In the world of physical art, such as sculpting and painting, traditional aesthetics of the 18th and 19th centuries proposed that artistic beauty was an imitation of nature. Yet, while the works of realist, impressionist, and neoclassical painters like Jean Francois Millet, Claude Monet, and Benjamin West who strove to capture lifelike detail in their works are unquestionably beautiful, this exact mirroring of nature is not a requirement of beauty. Much art (particularly modern art) fails to imitate anything, yet often the obscure creations beautifully capture an intangible feeling or emotion. Viewers perceive the work as beautiful based on their reaction to the form and colors which create a mood. Another example of how art can be independent of nature exists in the fact that artistic beauty has the potential to accomplish something that nature cannot. Art has the ability to capture ugliness and beauty simultaneously. For example, an exquisite painting of a gruesome battle or of an ugly face is still beautiful. [Danto 2]. If a painting is unpleasant or disturbing, is it still art? Can that art still be beautiful if it upsets us? [Wilson, 1]. British statesman and writer Edmund Burke identified beauty with delicacy and harmony. Yet, he equated the sublime with vastness, obscurity, and a capacity to inspire terror. [“Burke, Edmund” 1]. Therefore, the aesthetic in art does not necessarily mimic the beautiful in nature; it may, at times, beautifully portray the macabre. Famed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose works express the idea that all in life is basically tragic, expressed the belief that artistic creations had the capacity to transform any experience into something of beauty that could manipulate the horrors of life so that they could be contemplated with enjoyment. [Danto 2]. Though individual tastes vary when defining what is beautiful, any work of art that has the power to arouse strong emotion in the viewer can be said to be an aesthetic masterpiece. A similar idea can be found in the literary critiques of American author Edgar Allan Poe, whose insightful literary critiques established fundamentals that helped American literature to gain world recognition at a time when it was only just emerging. Poe outlines two criteria that he believed must be present in order for a literary work to achieve greatness: a literary work must have “high literary value” and must focus on a single strong emotion to elicit an emotional response from the reader. Poe identifies the strongest emotion as sorrow. To him, the most sorrowful thing was the death of something beautiful, an idea which can be seen in his poems “To Helen,” and "Annabelle Lee.” The persona in each poem expresses grief over the death of his beautiful beloved. Even though styles of writing and subject matter have changed from the middle ages to modern times, these two criteria appear to be key to the “livability” of a literary work. Those poems, novels, and short stories that have stood the test of time and are today constitute the body of great literature have transcended time periods and trends because they elicit an emotional response (pleasant or otherwise) and are of a high literary value. Similarly, what constitutes “greatness” and “beauty” in music is highly subjective. If physical beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then most assuredly, musical beauty is in the ear of the listener. However, the music that has endured for hundreds of years and which constitutes a body of musical masterpieces shares the key aesthetic criteria -- the ability to elicit an emotional response from the audience. The complex arrangement of sounds, and in some music, the combination of meaningful lyrics in addition to musical sounds, creates a mood. Some music expresses deep sorrowful melancholy like an Edgar Allan Poe poem. Other music rouses enthusiasm like Frederick Remington sculpture. Music can inspire a listener and inflame him, cause him to feel mournful, or lull him to sleep. In Republic, Plato “went so far as to banish some types of artists from his ideal society because he thought their work encouraged immorality or portrayed base characters, and that certain musical compositions caused laziness or incited people to immoderate actions.” [Danto 1] Though tastes in music vary perhaps even more so than preferences in art and literature, whether a listener likes his music loud or soft, classic or contemporary, alone or at a concert, listeners have one thing in common: they choose music that holds meaning to them -- that in some way sp

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