To both man-made and natural creations, humans assign an aesthetic, a measure of our attraction to the creation. An aesthetic is not an attribute of the creation itself, but an attribute of our perception, and hence a product of mind. As with all such metaphysical notions, its real basis is in human biology.
An aesthetic can be positive or negative. Beauty is our simple term for a sufficiently positive aesthetic that it registers in our conscious as something attractive. Its effect on us can range from memorable to transcendent.
Aesthetics, formerly a branch of philosophy and increasingly a branch of neuroscience, is the term we use for the study of how our attractions to objects are formed, our human assessment process. At the process’ core are our individual human values rooted in our emotions (personality) and our culture (manifested by the imprint of familiar perceptions on our brains).
Aesthetics increasingly discovers linkages between sensory perceptions and human emotions. Many emotions swirl around our reactions to something we value, in addition to our emotional reaction to the thing itself and its relative beauty. We may experience admiration for its human creator or awe of its natural creator. We may experience satisfaction with ourself for seeking out the experience, and gratefulness for our good fortune. We may experience a feeling of smallness in the presence of greatness. We may feel the emotions of the artist transmitted through the art to us. We may experience a closeness with someone with whom we share the experience.
While we focus on emotions directly linked to an artistic aesthetic, we should remain aware that there is a broader emotional landscape against which these specific aesthetic valuations are occurring, related to both one’s personality and the culture in which we are embedded. A corresponding set of negative emotions may surround perceptions of negative aesthetic. In either case, the background emotions will serve to heighten the aesthetic valuation.
Aesthetic valuations are complex and personal in nature. This tells us that aesthetics will be different for each perceiver, as we know well from the aphorism ‘beauty is in the eye (brain) of the beholder’. That beauty is relative to the observer is evidenced by the differences in artistic taste between different people: preference for flamboyance or understatement, realism or abstraction, pastel or primary, refined or primal, kitchen sink-ism or minimalism. Such conscious preferences are grounded in underlying tendencies pre-wired into our intellects and personalities. For example, some will gravitate to the newest thing easily, while others will resist the unfamiliar; some will be stimulated by complexity, while others will shrink from it.
There may be subtle differences between aesthetics of natural and human creations. For example, we have many levels on which to value objects of our own creation, while our attraction to natural phenomena arises more primally from our deep relationship with other living beings and with the earth that makes them possible.
Man-made beauty is measured by the human appeal of a creation beyond function and necessity. Perceived beauty is the sum of many preference discriminators implicit in the observer. If there be universals in assessing beauty in Western culture, they were possibly identified by the classical Greeks, whose eminent philosophers argued for absolute characteristics of beauty deriving from the harmonious (proportional) relationships between parts which coordinate to create a pleasing, sensuous unity. This may now seem more a definition of perfection than of beauty.
In spite of our individual preferences, it is easy enough to agree with those early philosophers on the presence of some canonical attributes of beauty as expressed by universally admired art. Yet it is also evident that we can find beauty beyond such universals, for example in asymmetry and indefiniteness (see my Rambling regarding my attraction to the beauty in the imperfect). And art continues to challenge us to look beyond these traditional attractions and find new sources of beauty.
Artists will attempt to stretch our aesthetic preconceptions beyond historical, personal, and cultural comfort zones, say through production of inharmonious, disproportional relationships, reaching for a wider palette of expressiveness. When art aspires to transcend a traditional beauty, the trick is to avoid rendering less beauty in the process.
If familiar beauty within a genre seems diminished by a progressive artistic development, without sufficient recognizable aesthetic compensation, evidence shows a resulting decrease in the audience. The artist is well served in such cases to make known the art’s objectives. Audiences will also need to work harder to appreciate the new mode of expression and to expand their own aesthetic sense to find value in the new. If the compact between artist and observer had not admitted this flexibility over the centuries, we should have had no artistic progress to date.
Sometimes we cannot assign a positive aesthetic to a human creation, even with serious reflection. Perhaps our personality is not sympathetic with the artist’s. Perhaps a work extends a genre’s normative aesthetic beyond a point we can reach. Then, we must remove the creation from our further consideration. But we need to use care not to exclude too much. Other works by the artist may work well for us. Other works in a genre may provide joy.
We can notice two kinds of valuation underlaying aesthetics: abstract merit and personal attraction. Merit is the domain of ‘evaluators for the rest of us’ (critics) who use their reputations to assert their values over the aesthetics of an art form. They pronounce judgement of relative value within the genre. Critics cannot ignore their own personal preference discriminators when assessing merit. But the critic tries to some extent to base valuation on adherence to the genre’s normative aesthetic.
This might lead us to two conclusions. It would be best to average the opinions of several critics to reduce personal bias when reviewing their claims of merit. More importantly, we, the appreciators of art, need not be concerned at all if our first choice does not match the critics’ merit award. It is we, not the critics, who by active appreciation give repeated new life to the artist via our interest, understanding, and valuation of a work.