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Beauty and Aesthetic Judgment. 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.

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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.
  • 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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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?
  • 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
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.
  • 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
We have seen many samples of artistic paintings. Can you confidently judge for yourself which is beautiful and which is ugly?
  • Or, are you completely indifferent to them aesthetically?
  • What about art forms in other modalities such as music, films, dramas, novels, poetry, calligraphy, dances, etc?
  • Do you have the impression: those I find pleasant, I just find them pleasant; if not, I don’t want to (and can’t) try to feel or judge otherwise.
  • The first reading we have is written by an Oxford philosopher: Sir Peter Strawson.
  • This paper helps us to get clear about what aesthetic appraisal really is and is not.
  • If you cannot get this kind of thing clear, then you run a great risk in pursuing art subjects in the university.
As mentioned, we form judgment in other non-art subjects and we have no problems with the relation between judgment and reasons and evidence.
  • But for art, aesthetic judgment can be messy: “It would be odd to say, ‘He didn’t really judge it as a painting; he judged it from a narrowly aesthetic point of view.’
The dissociation between the nature of the object and the nature of the judgment is especially acute in art.
  • Can we, for example, say that the commentator has a point if he judges the football game not as a football game?
The root problem, Strawson identifies, is the search for the commonality and difference between the objects under the so-called aesthetic appraisal.
  • Are there such items and features?
  • Should we look outside to the objects or look inside ourselves, our experience or emotions?
You probably have realized that, especially in the commentary on a art work, the elasticity and variety of the vocabulary used is intimidating, if not deceptive.
  • Recall how your teacher praises the performance of that piece of music as magical, surreal, majestic, just gets at the soul of men, etc. They can use as many adjectives as they prefer once their mind is set to give a positive appraisal of the work. But do you really believe that their words have concreteness?
  • Or, are they using those adjectives to report their degree of enjoyment?
Strawson, however, thinks that there is no particular relation between favorable assessment of a thing and enjoyment of that thing.
  • He further divides enjoyment into “spectator enjoyments” and “participant enjoyment”.
  • Most aesthetic activities are a mixture of the two.
So now, we have a threefold distinction:
  • 1. Aesthetic is more related to the quality of experience.
  • 2. Aesthetic is more related to the property of the artwork.
  • 3. Aesthetic is more related to the criteria of judgment.
He refers to the rather popular view that moral judgment can be founded on rules and principles whereas aesthetic ones have none.
  • If art work is unique, as people often claim, then what makes it good is of course not preceded by any standard or rule except itself.
  • But it really sounds odd to say that a great work of art is to be judged by its own standard.
  • So Strawson asks: is it better to explain that aesthetic judgment is nonconceptual?
We are caught in the dilemma of stressing the lack of descriptive criteria for aesthetic appraisal and the possibility of rule-conformity.
  • In the first option, art is unlearnable and mysteriously subjective.
  • In the second option, we run the risk of degrading the supremacy and uniqueness of art.
To put the dilemma in an art class: either the teacher is pretending to be a teacher where in fact he is cheating; or, he is trying to mass-reproduce art, which should properly belong to the factories.
  • Strawson describes the situation as: “the only method of describing a work of art which is both entirely adequate for the purpose of aesthetic appraisal, and does not use evaluative language, is to say ‘it goes like this’—and then reproduce it.
So, there may not be any shareable aesthetic properties for us to learn about, just as there may not be a shareable property between the beauty of this girl and another’s.
  • In other words, words such as beauty does not serve as a general term.
  • It may be just a shorthand way of referring to how one sees something in innumerable kinds of ways that are more or less expressive of the attitude of approving.
Remember that I earlier remarked that if we do have aesthetic judgment, we have it almost spontaneously. If this is true, then perhaps the aesthetic judgment we have is just a post-hoc reasoning to explain a natural instinct.
  • That’s why, especially in the business sector, we have been accustomed to praising something to the point of absurdity.
Isn’t it true in the case of art, we can come up with as many ways to see an object and then group them together, ad-hoc-ly of course, as the aesthetic property of the unique?
  • But for Strawson, this whole enterprise of justification fails because either it depends on evaluative properties we need to explain (that is, the so-called descriptive properties are deceptive) or the listener is left in the dark as to how those terms are to be applied a particular work.
Strawson’s essay is no doubt rich and illuminating. But although it is written in simple English, his ideas can only be grasped if you read it very slowly. This is because he has a tendency not to make strong assertions, the ones you tend to have in a senate, or in quarrels.
susan sontag
Susan Sontag
  • The extra reading by Sontag is very easy to read and is especially valuable to students studying art, media studies and literature.
  • The central theme of Sontag’s paper is clear: to do away with interpretation.
  • So what is so bad about interpretation?
  • According to Sontag, we are now all too habitual to understand a work of art, or even any piece of work, by interpreting it.
  • It may be fair to say that most of the stuff students learn is about interpreting.
getting what lie behind the work
Getting What Lie behind the Work
  • For example, your teacher will teach you to look for the meaning of the texts or art works by trying to decode the symbolization, see what the characters stand for, what the authors/artists have in mind when they do this or that.
  • That is why we all want to learn the true morals of a story, the mind of a director, the hidden agendas, etc.
over interpretation
  • For Sontag, this is just killing the work and our interest in it.
  • Over-interpretation is a deep problem of our society, especially for the academic people.
  • These academics waste the time of their students by leading them away from the work.
  • Have you ever encountered a teacher telling you to be civilized by reading the subtext of a popular movie such as that made by Stephen Chow?
It doesn’t really matter whether Chow had those grand ideas in mind when he shot the movies: he needs not know anything about postmodernism or feminism in order to make a movie about postmodernism and feminism.
  • It is not the work itself that matters; rather, it is what the teachers can get out of the work that matters.
  • That explains why all those movies in the syllabus are ‘bad’ movies by common standard.
  • Academically appreciating a movie is just to use it to produce ideas to keep the teachers look learned.
  • Sontag thinks that this bad trend has a lot to do with Plato’s representationalism: art is just imitation or representation.
  • Through the representation, we want to see beyond it to get the stuff behind.
  • Thus, Sontag says that interpretation is impoverishment.
  • Interpretation makes something manageable and comfortable: students are so happy to read the handout about what the text means so that they all throw away the work itself.
Of course, the picture given by Sontag is pathetic: teachers and students wasting each other’s time by ignoring the things they should focus on.
  • So, Sontag advocates an abandoning of interpretation to rehabilitate our natural faculty of the aesthetic sense, or even common sense.
But in reacting against interpretation, some people just go over the line to deliberately perform foolish, ugly works.
  • It is just like a child rebelling against her parents by cutting her own wrist.
  • Sontag thinks that that kind of deliberately inferior art is no answer.
  • In most aspects, such works are worse than the interpretation.
  • The proper attitude to get in touch with art is to stress transparence.
  • Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.
  • In other faculties of taste, we have such experiences.
  • For example, we do not put sauce on our food in order to appreciate the original taste of the food; in music, there is a tradition calling for ‘unplug’, etc.
  • In our household, we just hate to have too many grand but needless decorations.
Only by doing so can the true artistic form be visible to us.
  • Our task is to “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more”.
  • Reduce content and we can find the thing and its form.
  • There is the choice between what the work means (those that can allow you to get marks in an exam) and what the work really is.
Sontag’s idea is direct and fresh. She is not only countering Plato’s belittlement of our senses, she is also demonstrating how to understand Hume’s idea of the elusive aesthetic taste as a distrust of dogmatism.
  • To be truly human is already sufficient to be sensitive to what is beautiful. Our corrupted aesthetic sense is due to the pollution of ideas by scholars who have to make a living by contaminating the work of art they appropriate for their selfish purposes.
Maybe you judge Sontag to be too bitter and harsh. Or maybe she expresses what you have suspected all along.
  • Why not read what the clever poet Oscar Wilde says on similar matters?
  • “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”.