Aesthetics Versus Philosophy of Art

It has become increasingly common to use the word ‘aesthetics’ when really talking about art. While it is true that many works of art are beautiful or have other aesthetic properties, most people claim to deny that aesthetics is a necessary component of art. One just has to think about Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917); he claimed to make art without aesthetics.

What is surprising to me, as a philosopher, is that many philosophers also seem to conflate these categories when they use aesthetics and philosophy of art interchangeably. Many philosophers might acknowledge this distinction when being really technical, but, in regular discourse, they seem to use aesthetics as interchangeable with philosophy of art.

I assert that while having some overlap, aesthetics and philosophy of art are distinct, and this distinction is important. I’m not trying to defend this here; I just want to make this distinction.

Aesthetics involves theories about beauty, taste, the sublime, and aesthetic experience. While these can apply to art, it is not necessary that they do. These terms are more broad in that they apply to nature, fashion, culture, and the everyday.

Philosophy of art is more focused on questions specifically about art: the nature of art, the value of art, the purpose of art, and others. Some theories of art (e.g., aesthetic theories) may have a strong connection with aesthetics. While others, (e.g., institutional theories) might have a weaker connection, if any, to aesthetics.

Keeping these distinct will help them become clearer when we are specifically talking about one. But further, most people think that aesthetics, especially beauty, is not necessary for art. If so, then we need to stop speaking about art as if it is necessarily connected with aesthetics. Or stop speaking about aesthetics, as if it necessarily includes art.

An article that helps to delineate this distinction is published on 1000-Word Philosophy: “Aesthetics vs. Art” by Brock Rough


2 thoughts on “Aesthetics Versus Philosophy of Art

  1. Your last line troubles me. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of your argument. Perhaps it is just an unfortunate phrasing. When you say, “Or stop speaking about aesthetics, as if it necessarily includes art” it sounds like you are leaving open the possibility that aesthetics DOES NOT include art.

    Surely you are not saying that aesthetics can dispense with art? If even some art has aesthetic qualities doesn’t that make at least that art a matter for aesthetics to consider? The fact that not all art is an aesthetic consideration doesn’t mean that art is necessarily not aesthetic. It would be like saying that because not all food tastes good we don’t ever need to think about how food tastes when we talk about food.

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    1. Yes, exactly. I am not saying aesthetics precludes art. I am saying that when people speak about aesthetics, they seem to necessarily imply art. But art is only one possible facet of aesthetics. When speaking about aesthetics, there may or may not be a connection with art. Yes, aesthetics considers art sometimes, but not all times. Some discussion of aesthetics deals with science, nature, business, etc. and has nothing to do with fine art.

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