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aesthetics (ĕsthĕtˈĭks), the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of art and the criteria of artistic judgment. The classical conception of art as the imitation of nature was formulated by Plato and developed by Aristotle in his Poetics, while modern thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, F. W. Schelling, Benedetto Croce, and Ernst Cassirer have emphasized the creative and symbolic aspects of art. The major problem in aesthetics concerns the nature of the beautiful. Generally speaking there are two basic approaches to the problem of beauty—the objective, which asserts that beauty inheres in the object and that judgments concerning it may have objective validity, and the subjective, which tends to identify the beautiful with that which pleases the observer. Outstanding defenders of the objective position were Plato, Aristotle, and G. E. Lessing, and of the subjective position, Edmund Burke and David Hume. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant mediated between the two tendencies by showing that aesthetic judgment has universal validity despite its subjective nature. Among the modern philosophers interested in aesthetics, the most important are Croce, R. G. Collingwood, Cassirer, and John Dewey.


See K. E. Gilbert and H. Kuhn, A History of Esthetics (rev. ed. 1953, repr. 1972); M. C. Beardsley, Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present (1965); H. Osborne, Aesthetics and Art Theory (1970); G. Dickie, Aesthetics: An Introduction (1971); A. C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (1986); D. Sumner, The Judgment of Sense: Renaissance Naturalism and the Rise of Aesthetics (1987).

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(PHILOSOPHY) the study of art and artistic appreciation. Among the topics considered by aesthetics is the extent to which our experience and appreciation of art is similar to or different from our experience and understanding of nature. A further question is whether the inherent qualities of the thing perceived or the contemplative experience itself is decisive in the experience. In the work of the FRANKFURT SCHOOL OF CRITICAL THEORY (e.g. ADORNO, BENJAMIN) or postmodernists (see POSTMODERNITY AND POSTMODERNISM), the focus of aesthetics has been relocated and radically expanded to include, as Lash (1990) puts it, ‘aesthetic signifiers in the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life’. In this, the ‘political nature of the aesthetic’ is increasingly affirmed and there is a refusal to see art as a separate order of life. This has the effect of making aesthetics central to the sociology of MASS CULTURE. See also SOCIOLOGY OF ART.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a branch of philosophy dealing with two related classes of phenomena—namely, the sphere of the aesthetic as a specific manifestation of man’s value relationship to the world and the sphere of man’s artistic activity.

The relation between the two divisions of aesthetics changed in the course of its history; aesthetics itself has been subject to varying interpretations, ranging from attempts to reduce it to the “philosophy of the beautiful” to its interpretation as the “philosophy of art.” It has been suggested more than once that aesthetics be divided into several independent scientific disciplines—a theory of aesthetic values, a theory of aesthetic perception, and a general theory of art. But experience has shown that the aesthetic values of the actual world and the latter’s embodiment in art are so closely related that it is practically impossible to study them in isolation. This has often led to another extreme, which is the identification of man’s artistic and aesthetic activities, whose interrelationship is actually quite complex. Thus, although the two divisions of aesthetics are organically related, each is relatively autonomous.

The first division of aesthetics deals with such questions as the nature and specific character of the aesthetic in the system of value relations; the objective laws of differentation of aesthetic values in their multiple modifications (such as the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the base, or the tragic and the comic); the dialectical relation between aesthetic values and aesthetic judgments on the one hand, and between aesthetic perception and aesthetically oriented practice on the other; the meaning of man’s aesthetic activity in public and private life and in different cultural areas; and the interrelation of the aesthetic and the artistic in the various spheres in which they are manifested, such as practical activity, contemplation, or people’s upbringing and education.

The second division of aesthetics is devoted to the specialized analysis of artistic activity. It is a science whose subject matter includes the origins of such activity, both phylogenetically and on-togenetically; its specific structural and functional character as compared to other types of human activity—that is, its place in culture; the relationship between the artistic process, the structure of the works of art in which that process is embodied, and man’s perception of the works themselves; the laws underlying the diversity of concrete forms (types, kinds, and genres of art) and modifications of artistic activity in the course of history (trends, styles, and methods); the traits that distinguish the contemporary stage in society’s artistic development; and the historical prospects for the development of art in the future.

It should be noted that aesthetics was never limited to the mere study of the objective laws governing man’s aesthetic and artistic apprehension of the world. In one way or another, aesthetics has always guided such apprehension by formulating definite criteria of aesthetic judgment and programs of artistic activity. The relative weight of this normative element in aesthetics has varied over time (as can be seen, for example, by comparing the normative aesthetics of classicism to the antinormative aesthetics of romanticism); in one way or another, however, the scientific and cognitive functions of aesthetics are always intertwined with its valuational, regulative, and ideological functions.

The long historical process of the rise and development of aesthetics was determined by a number of factors—namely, the ideological and sociopsychological positions of various classes and social groups as expressed and theoretically substantiated in aesthetics; the changing character of the object of study—that is, of the subject matter of aesthetic culture and artistic practice; the nature of the philosophical doctrines that form the background or the basis of aesthetic theories; and the positions characterizing such related disciplines as literary and art scholarship, psychology, and sociology.

Aesthetic thinking arose in earliest antiquity as part of the mythological consciousness of preclass society. When analyzed, the myths of various peoples are seen to be imprinted with man’s initial conceptions of the various arts’ origin and role in people’s lives and of the connection between art and beauty (as exemplified in the ancient Greek myth of the Muses led by Apollo Musagetes). Aesthetics proper, however, did not emerge before the development of theoretical scientific thought.

In the first stage of its development, which in Europe lasted until the mid-18th century, aesthetics was not yet an independent scientific discipline and did not even have a name of its own. In antiquity, for example, aesthetic problems might be treated from the philosophical point of view—as they were by the Pythagoreans and by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; or they might be discussed in treatises dealing with the theory of various types of art, such as the works of Polyclitus, Gorgias, Vitruvius, and Horace. Nevertheless, many of the profound ideas set forth by these early thinkers laid the foundations for the whole subsequent development of European aesthetic thought. (Oriental aesthetics followed a different course, with only occasional contacts with European aesthetics.)

Medieval Christian aesthetics used spiritualist concepts as the theoretical basis of aesthetic phenomena; the structure of art was interpreted from the symbolic point of view by such thinkers as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. It was only in the age of the Renaissance that aesthetic thought threw off the bonds of theology and took on its secular, humanist, and realistic orientation. This, however, led to the gradual loosening of the ties between aesthetics and philosophy, which from that time based itself directly on the natural sciences and showed little interest in aesthetic and artistic issues. Practicing artists, on the other hand, did have an interest in such issues, inasmuch as the radical changes in artistic methods called for theoretical substantiation. Accordingly, most of the aesthetic problems of the time were discussed in treatises on art written by major artists, such as L. B. Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, and A. Dürer, and by theorists in various types of art.

In the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries, the question of the nature of beauty and art was still discussed in theoretical treatises dealing with the different varieties of art (for example, in the works of N. Boileau, C. Sorel, and M. V. Lomonosov) or in works of art criticism (such as those of J. Bodmer, J. Breitinger, and D. Diderot). As a result of the orientation of aesthetics toward the practice of art, the primary emphasis was on the theoretical substantiation and defense of specific artistic methods, styles, and trends, such as mannerism, classicism, the baroque, and realism.

The clash between different artistic programs—such as the struggle between Diderot and G. E. Lessing over realism or the polemics between the partisans of classicism and of the baroque in Italy and Spain—clearly reflected the struggle between ideologies. The ideology of the Enlightenment gave particular impetus and scope to the theoretical elucidation of the new paths of art, giving rise throughout Europe to the movement known as Enlightenment aesthetics (represented by Diderot and J.-J. Rousseau in France, Lessing and J. J. Winckelmann in Germany, and A. Shaftesbury and H. Home in Great Britain). In spite of its strength, the movement was still quite heterogeneous in its philosophical and artistic concerns.

The growing interest in art and in its ability to mold man’s view of the world led to the attempt to contrast the various forms of art (for example, by J. B. Dubos and J. Harris) and later to the notion of the unity of all the “fine arts” (as exemplified by C. Batteux and M. Mendelssohn). Arising in this context was the question of taste, which was viewed as a specific psychic mechanism enabling man to perceive and evaluate beauty and the fruits of artistic creativity. This was the point of convergence of art scholarship and philosophy, the latter having increasingly come to include aesthetic problems in its field of inquiry (as in the treatises of G. Vico, C. A. Helvétius, Voltaire, D. Hume, and E. Burke). In the mid-18th century, A. G. Baumgarten, a follower of G. W. von Leibniz, demonstrated the need for a separate branch of philosophy to deal with these questions, along with ethics and logic, and he called this branch “aesthetics,” or the “theory of sense-derived knowledge.” Out of this theory, Baumgarten developed an integrated and coherent doctrine about beauty and art—beauty being defined by him as the “perfection of sense-derived knowledge,” and art as the embodiment of beauty.

Aesthetics thus entered its second stage, in the course of which it was transformed into a separate branch of philosophy; its independent development was essential in order for philosophy to offer a satisfactory explanation of culture, human activity, and social history. The course mapped out by Baumgarten was followed by the major representatives of German philosophy and culture—I. Kant, J. G. Herder, F. Schiller, J. W. von Goethe, F. W. von Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel.

Undeniably, the romantic movement of the early 19th century, having enriched aesthetics with the discovery of the many objective laws of art that were inaccessible to the rationalist and metaphysical thinkers of the Enlightenment, was undermining with its antirationalism the basis of aesthetics as a systematic scientific theory. Hegel, however, overcame these tendencies—so dangerous to scientific aesthetics—by restoring the status of reason and opening up before it the dialectical path to knowledge. He constructed an impressive doctrine of aesthetics in which theoretical analysis was organically combined with the historical approach to man’s artistic activity and to its development and place in culture. Hegel thus brought to its conclusion the stage—initiated by Baumgarten—in which aesthetics had evolved as a branch of the encyclopedic and all-encompassing philosophy grounded in the idealist world view.

The third stage in the history of aesthetics, which began after Hegel, has been marked by bitter struggle between different methodological and ideological orientations. The ideological struggle produced three distinct trends in the aesthetic thought of the 19th and 20th centuries: bourgeois aesthetics, democratic aesthetics, and proletarian socialist aesthetics.

Bourgeois aesthetics used a variety of methods to substantiate aestheticism and the principles of “pure art,” or “art for art’s sake”; this group ranges from the Parnassians and K. Fiedler’s school to J. Ortega y Gasset and H. Read. Democratic aesthetics took two forms—as expressed in the theories of the Utopian socialist thinkers, ranging from P. Proudhon to L. N. Tolstoy, and in the revolutionary democratic conceptions of the Russian thinkers V. G. Belinskii, A. I. Herzen, N. G. Chernyshevskii, and N. A. Dobroliubov; both groups advocated the principles of realism, holding that the arts must be closely tied to the actual life of society and must be critical of bourgeois reality. Proletarian socialist aesthetics was formulated by K. Marx, F. Engels, and V. I. Lenin; important contributions to its development were made by F. Mehring, P. Lafargue, G. V. Plekhanov, A. V. Lunacharskii, A. Gramsci, G. Lukács, and many other Marxist-Leninists in various countries of the world.

The philosophical and methodological diversity of 19th- and 20th-century aesthetics stems from its reliance on different philosophical doctrines, such as the various forms of objective idealism (F. T. Vischer and V. S. Solov’ev), subjective idealism (A. Breton), positivism (H. Spencer, H. Taine, and J. Dewey), intuitionism (B. Croce and H. Bergson), anthropological materialism (the aesthetics of Feuerbach and of the Russian revolutionary democrats), phenomenology (N. Hartmann, R. Ingarden, and M. Dufrenne), and existentialism (J.-P. Sartre and M. Heidegger).

Another aspect of the differentiation of aesthetic doctrines in this age is the attempt to link aesthetics to one or another specific science. This gave rise to the psychological aesthetics of G. Fechner and T. Lipps, the physiological aesthetics of A. Grant Allen and V. V. Veliamovich, the psychoanalytic aesthetics of S. Freud and J. Lacan, the sociological aesthetics of M. Guyau and C. Lalo, the aesthetics of art criticism of E. Hanslick and H. Sedlmayr, the semiotic aesthetics of C. Morris and U. Eco, the cybernetics and information aesthetics of A. Moles and M. Bense, and the mathematical aesthetics of G. Birkhoff. Finally, 19th- and 20th-century aesthetic doctrines may be differentiated according to the particular artistic or literary trend whose theoretical basis they constitute—for example, critical realism (H. Balzac and the Russian revolutionary democrats), naturalism (E. Zola), symbolism (Viacheslav Ivanov and A. Belyi), or abstractionism (W. Kandinsky).

Marxist aesthetics is fundamentally different from all other 19th- and 20th-century aesthetic trends in that it is built on the philosophical foundations of dialectical and historical materialism and serves as the theoretical platform of socialist realism; among those who have participated in its formulation, in addition to the classic authors of Marxism-Leninism and art theorists, are such major artists and writers as M. Gorky, S. M. Eisenstein, B. Brecht, J. Becher, L. Aragon, and R. Fox.

In our own time, Marxist-Leninist aesthetics is growing in prestige throughout the world. In the socialist countries it is the theoretical basis for cultural development through the arts and for the aesthetic education of the working masses. Throughout its history, Marxist-Leninist aesthetics has sought to perfect itself in the accomplishment of these tasks, and it has developed along with scientific thought, philosophy, and contemporary art; it fights against dogmatic and revisionist distortions, and it masters complex and systems-analysis approaches that help overcome any type of onesidedness in the interpretation of aesthetic problems. Admittedly, many of these problems are yet to find unequivocal solutions, and they give rise to lively theoretical discussions—for example, on the relationship between the natural and the social in the sphere of aesthetic values, on the basic social functions of art, and on the nature of realism; but the general outline of the Marxist theory of aesthetics today is clear enough for anyone to discern.

Marxist aesthetics starts from the proposition that man’s practical activity is the basis of his aesthetic relation to the world. In the course of social labor man develops the ability, unknown to animals, to create and to apply aesthetic criteria to everything “in accordance with the laws of beauty” (see K. Marx in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 42, p. 94). As a result, man begins to discover a variety of aesthetic values in society and in nature—such as beauty and grandeur, harmony and drama, tragedy and comedy. Thus the sphere of aesthetic laws and of aesthetic principles and criteria extends far beyond the limits of art; this means that man’s aesthetic activity in the socialist society cannot be limited to artistic activity but must range, without exception, over all spheres of life. Accordingly, aesthetic education cannot be reduced to artistic education—that is, to molding man’s attitudes toward art or using the arts as means of education; it must be made an organic part of education in all its forms, including work training, moral and political instruction, and physical education—this being a prerequisite for the development of an integrated, harmonious, and well-rounded personality.

Marxist-Leninist aesthetics shows that art plays a special role in the achievement of this goal, inasmuch as it combines various ways in which man can be influenced, including the aesthetic and the moral; in other words, because it molds man as a whole rather than affecting him one-sidedly. This is the conclusion reached by aesthetic science through its study of the origins and development of the arts and examination of their structure and social functions.

The arts are born of the need to preserve cultural continuity, to accumulate human experience, and to transmit such experience from generation to generation and from society to the individual. By supplementing and purposefully expanding the actual experience of the individual, art serves as a powerful means of spiritually molding each new member of society; it helps him assimilate the values, norms, and ideals accumulated by culture and correspending to the needs of a particular society’s way of life or of a particular class, ethnic group, or social milieu. Thus the arts dialectically combine what is common to all mankind, what is historically subject to change, and what is specific to particular nations, classes, and individuals. This dialectics is embedded in the system of social and aesthetic coordinates used in Marxist-Leninist aesthetics to describe each separate artistic phenomenon—namely, historical specificity, national distinctiveness, class character, narodnost’ (connectedness with the people), partiinost’ (party spirit), and uniqueness.

The underlying social function of art determines the way the artist represents reality, which in aesthetics is called the artistic image. The artistic image is the smallest indivisible “cell” of the artistic “tissue” imprinted with all the basic attributes of art; it is a form of cognition and simultaneously of evaluation of reality, expressing the artist’s attitude toward the world. The artistic image joins together the objective and the subjective, the material and the spiritual, the external and the internal; it is a reflection of reality and at the same time transforms it, since it must express the unity of the object and the subject and therefore cannot merely be a copy of its prototype in life. Finally, by transmitting to people what the artist wants to say about the world and about himself, the artistic image simultaneously assumes a double function—of a specific poetic, ideological, or aesthetic meaning and of the particular sign conveying that meaning.

This unique structure of the artistic “tissue” makes art in one respect similar to science, in another respect to morality, in a third respect to the products of technology, and in a fourth respect to language; nevertheless, art retains its sovereignty inasmuch as it is the carrier of a particular kind of information that is inaccessible to all other forms of social consciousness. Therefore the relationship between art and other ways in which man achieves mastery over the world is based on the dialectics of mutual attraction and mutual repulsion, whose specific forms are determined by different sociohistorical, class, and ideological requirements. Sometimes, for example, art is closely bound to religion and is antagonistic toward science; at other times, on the contrary, it is viewed as a cognitive method akin to science and inimical to religion; and at still other times, art is seen as different from all other types of nonaesthetic and utilitarian activity and is regarded as a game.

In the socialist society, Marxist-Leninist aesthetics guides the arts toward the dialectic solution of any given contradiction—that is, it encourages artistic creativity to strengthen as much as possible its ties with ideology, science, technology, sports, and the various means of communication and at the same time to affirm the specific nature of its artistic, poetic, and aesthetic attributes.

The general principles according to which the artistic image is structured are variously refracted in each of the many different forms, types, and genres of art and literature. Accordingly, every specific means of artistic activity has a distinctive content and a distinctive form, determining its particular ability to influence man and its particular place in the artistic culture. This is why literature, music, the theater, and painting, under different historical and cultural circumstances, have played different roles in the spiritual life of society; and for the same reason, works in the epic, lyric, and dramatic modes have varied in their relative weight at the various stages of development of the arts, as have the genres of the novel and novella, narrative poem and symphony, historical painting and still life.

Aesthetic theory has been inclined during any particular age to absolutize the specific relationship existing between the arts at the given time. As a result, a particular form, type, or genre of art has been exalted at the expense of the others and has been viewed as a kind of “ideal model” of a work of art, presumably expressing most fully and vividly the very essence of artistic creativity. This kind of one-sided approach has been successfully overcome in the Marxist science of aesthetics, which with increasing consistency has been advocating the principle of the equality of all forms, types, and genres of art and at the same time revealing why any particular one might be predominant during a given period in history. Aesthetics can thus illuminate, first, the general laws that govern art in all its specific forms; second, the morphological laws governing the transition from the general to the particular and individual; and, finally, the historical laws underlying the uneven development of the various forms, types, and genres of art.

Aesthetics reaches its theoretical conclusions and generalizations by drawing on comprehensive studies of the arts carried out in various disciplines—art and literary scholarship, psychology, sociology, semiotics, and cybernetics. Aesthetics, however, is not absorbed by any of these disciplines; it retains its philosophical nature, which enables it to construct an integral theoretical model of artistic activity. This model may be viewed as a specific system consisting of three elements—creative process, work of art, and artistic perception. The relationship between them is a special form of communication that is essentially different from scientific, business, and technical communication, inasmuch as works of art are made to be perceived by man as an individual, with all his unique life experience, his individually formed consciousness and feelings, his own set of associations, and his own inimitable spiritual world. A work of art therefore demands the perceiver’s coauthorship, empathy, deep experiencing, and personal interpretation.

The sociological approach to the arts has established the definite role of social factors in determining the inner world of all the personalities involved in the “artistic dialogue”—the personality of the artist, author, or composer, of the performer (actor or musician), of the protagonist in the work of art, and of the reader, listener, or viewer; consequently, the influence of the arts on the human soul is a form of the social education of the individual, or an instrument of socialization. Accordingly, aesthetics reveals the world of the arts today as a specific sphere in which are manifested the overall sociohistorical collisions of our age and the struggle of two opposing social systems, representing the bourgeois and communist ideologies.

The theory of socialist realism formulated by Marxist-Leninist aesthetics is of tremendous practical importance. The mission of socialist realism is to guide creative activity on the course that will match the interests of the communist society—molding its members into well-rounded and harmoniously developed human beings who will be the bearers of civic high-mindedness, moral virtue, political consciousness and conviction, social activism, and psychological sensitivity. To the extent that the basic principle of the socialist society is the unity of the interests, ideals, and aspirations of the entire people and the uniqueness of each individual—to that extent the unity of creative methods in the art of socialist realism is a precondition for its wealth of artistic styles, while its narodnost’ and partiinost’ are organically linked to creative freedom.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(sometimes US), esthetics
1. the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of such concepts as beauty, taste, etc.
2. the study of the rules and principles of art
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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