24 July 2020

What is aesthetically right or bad?

What is aesthetically right or bad?


We now accept that issues about aesthetics are basically subjective. But just because I like a painting, or a book, or a piece of furniture it does not follow and surely it cannot follow that others have to like them as well. After all we all agree that there are such factors that are supposed to determine what we like or don’t like: our physiology, upbringing, peculiarities, culture, experience and so on. In theory we should be happy with this state of affairs.


The problem is that philosophers still insist in finding the objective factor that would make aesthetics an objective discipline rather than the subjective behaviour and we are all supposed to accept this mindset. The immediate implication of the objective criteria for what is beautiful is that it takes away our freedom of choice from us and subjects us to some art police regime: and we all know how tasteless and unimaginative dictators can be.


But we also understand that the reason why we try to establish what is objectively beautiful is to bring some order in the world of beauty. When an undone bed with a potty next to it is considered a work of art and sold for hundreds of thousands some people might be justified to wonder whether we’ve reached the gates of hell.


One of the issues with the subjectivity problem is that what we subjectively claim to believe is beautiful, others cannot confirm our belief one way or the other. The private language model proposed by Wittgenstein does not work with a sort of “private aesthetic value system”. And one of the reason why there cannot be a “private language like argument” for aesthetics and beauty is that people usually have reasons and motives for saying they like something or not.   Whereas, I don’t need a reason or motives to use the word “beautiful” all I have to do is just use it correctly when I write or speak in English.


Unfortunately, there are other reasons why someone would like something, besides they genuinely get real pleasure from the aesthetics of the object. One of them is that they don’t want to contradict the received opinion: if people say the Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting then it is a beautiful painting, why argue. Of course, people may or may not enjoy a painting (I am using paintings for the sake of the discussion), but in many cases a painting might be an “investment” as they say. This explains why sometimes people’s opinion cannot add up to an objective criterion of aesthetics. If someone just invested a few million Euros in a painting it’s important for that person that people think it’s a beautiful painting.  


And consequently this is why maybe we cannot objectively say what is aesthetically good or bad. The question at hand is about objectivity since it includes those well known words “good” and “bad”. Good and bad are more serious when it gets to objectivity, more than whether something is pretty or ugly. So in what sense can we say that something is aesthetically good or bad?


To complicate the matter when we speak of beauty or aesthetics we immediately think of objects and things, a beautiful person, a nice paining, an elegant dress, an aesthetically beautiful piece of furniture and so on. However, there are many things we can attribute beauty  which are not things themselves such as a “beautiful goal”, a beautiful poem, a beautiful formula, a beautiful idea etc. If we have difficulty deciding whether a painting is beautiful or not, how more difficult is it going to be to decide whether a formula is beautiful. I will discuss this problem later on.


Coming back to our question, do we mean that something is aesthetically good if it meets some criteria or fulfils a function? Or does it mean that if something has objective aesthetic features then by definition it must be good? Indeed the Golden rule was supposed to be such an aesthetic criterion that would qualify most 2D visual objects as candidates of being aesthetically good. Some might argue that only paintings that follow the Golden rule qualify as art. Of course, there is nothing necessary about the golden rule, but like speech language accents, an accent has nothing to do with language. But if one insists on using an accent one better make sure one knows the proper language that goes with that accent. The same with say paintings, the Golden rule is not a necessary condition, but having a slanting horizon for a landscape or seascape is certainly not something of being good art.


What we have to consider now is whether the problem of aesthetic objectivity is a language problem? Historically a key tool of philosophers to understand concepts such as good, bad, beautiful and so on was to ask the question: What is x? Earlier I suggested that beauty can be subjective unlike a private language. Likewise, some things cannot be adequately answered by a type of “What is x?” question. Or, as in our case, it has serious limitations.


Sometimes, we have to ask a different question precisely the least often asked question “How to do x?”. This question falls within the ambit of applied epistemology* and Knowing How**.  This question is not exactly the same question as “Knowing how x is done”. You would appreciate this is a complex topic and I have no intention of going into a long discussion about it. However, what I mean by the question “How to do x?” is precisely knowing how x is done and actually doing it. This doesn’t mean that one single mistake implies that someone doesn’t know how to do X. By knowing how to do x we mean consistently doing x.


A painter might occasionally produce a dud, but most times they don’t. This might give us some form  of objectivity in aesthetics: we might not all agree whether a painting is beautiful, but we can all agree that a seascape must not have a slanting horizon. Becuase we know that the sea horizon is not slanting in real life. Our brain will object to a slanting horizon line if we are in tune with a painting or whatever. Something that is aesthetically bad will upset us.


But then look at the painting by Frans Hals, the Laughing Cavalier, which is at the Wallace Collection, London; the Cavalier seems to follow us with his eyes whichever way we look at him. Of course, we know that the painted eyes are not moving anywhere, and yet this is one of the most famous paintings ever. Indeed there is nothing wrong with the painting because by nature we look at the eyes of people. Certainly not any pair of eyes but a particularly pair of eyes drawn in a certain way: I’ll leave you to discover the secret in the Wikipedia entry under Laughing Cavalier.


Thus we may or may not think that the Laughing Cavalier is a nice painting, but if any artist wants the eyes of a portrait to follow the viewer there is only one way of doing it (read the Wikipedia entry). Today this technique is used in advertising, fashion, celebrity images and so on.


But there are limitations to any aesthetic objectivity, aesthetic objects tend to be 3D objects (paintings are 3D objects but that’s a different matter) and therefore subject to deterioration and the influence of other physical causes.  Take another two really world famous paintings: Las Meninas by Velázquez and Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. Millions of words have been written about these paintings but what is special about them is that the light of Las Meninas is the same light we see in Madrid every day. That light is Madrid.  And the same with the Girl with a Pearl Earring, the light falling on the face of the sitter from the window cannot be anything but a north European light.


But unfortunately when we see paintings we always see them under different light conditions from the one they were created under: if we’re lucky, a decent light in a museum might help. This is why most of Rembrandt’s paintings are always vivid and impactful: Rembrandt was the first Photoshopper in a modern light studio.


Rembrandt made sure that whatever the light conditions his paintings were seen under, they will always reflect that warm mesmerising glow of light. Compare this with the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. The real painting or images of it depict the deterioration and grime of the painting over the centuries. Can you imagine the radiant beauty of this painting if we could see it in Leonardo’s studio?  The impressionists were right, beauty is nature"".


We can come to some criteria about what is aesthetic objectivity,  therefore, right or bad. But when we see something beautiful or something ugly are we seeing real nature or some shadow of nature at the back of a cave?


Best Lawrence

(26-07-2020 corrected for typos)


*See for example: Argumentation Step-By-Step:  Learning Critical Thinking through Deliberate PracticeANN J. CAHILL AND STEPHEN BLOCH-SCHULMANElon University




**Knowledge How



Note: and then there is Plato’s question about function in The Republic, 352e till 353e



"" The impressionists really advocated the power of light and light as part of nature.


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