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Aesthetics (also esthetics and æsthetics) is the subfield of philosophy concerning beauty and art.

An aesthetic (also esthetic and æsthetic) is the philosophical theory of a particular school of philosophy concerning beauty and art; for example, "he despised the aesthetic of minimalism".

Aesthetics in history and philosophy

Thinkers and sages over the world have pondered beauty and art for millennia, but the subject was formally distinguished as an independent philosophical discipline in the 18th Century by German philosophers. Before this period authors viewed the study as inseparable from other main topics, such as ethics in the Western tradition and religion in the Eastern.

The word in English was not widely used until the beginning of the 19th Century. It comes from the German ästhetisch or French esthétique, (both from the Greek αἰσθητική meaning a perceiver or sensitive) and mainly facilitated translations of Immanuel Kant. He called it "the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception". Elsewhere the philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten had taken it in German to mean "criticism of taste". Despite Kant's efforts to correct Baumgarten, this definition survived and Baumgarten is credited with inventing this modern use of the term. Thus, aesthetics is also an important part of critical theory.[1]

The meaning of aesthetic as an adjective may be illuminated by comparing it to anaesthetic, which is by construction an antonym. If something is anaesthetic, it tends to dull the senses or cause sleepiness. In contrast aesthetic may be thought of as anything that tends to stimulate or enliven the senses.

It is also a popularly used noun meaning "that which appeals to the senses". In this sense, for example, the aesthetics of mathematics would refer to those things in mathematics which appeal to the senses, and not necessarily a body of philosophical principles on the subject. Similarly, it can be used as an adjective to mean "appealing to the senses," as in "This room is very aesthetic."

When aesthetics was established as a field of study, it emphazised beauty, taste, transcendence, and the sublime. Aesthetically appealing objects were beautiful in and of themselves. What was considered to be beautiful was distinguished from the sublime. Beautiful art might fall into the category of what we think of today as pretty, pleasant, pleasing to the eye. Sublime images, on the other hand, were awe-inspiring. Dramatic scenes from nature such as vast mountainscapes, the dazzling sea, or light shining through forested trees might produce an experience of the sublime. (Kant; Schiller). In the English tradition, this distinction received a memorable expression from Edmund Burke.

Aesthetics in the arts

Visual arts

The field of aesthetics has enjoyed a rebirth in recent years. Modern art, particularly post-WWII up through the 1980s, in fact strongly reacted against notions of beauty. Some theorists (Hal Foster) have described this as an "anti-aesthetic." As media such as painting were deconstructed and explored to their very foundational or essential elements, creating an aesthetically beautiful work was no longer the key. Instead, artists focused on conceptual questions such as 'what is art?' or 'who defines art?' For instance, the artist Joseph Beuys used materials such as heavy dark felt, dirt, logs, bones and sticks, all of which might be considered to be quite "ugly" by traditional understandings of beauty and aesthetics.

Art today might be said to be more embracing, or at least better engaged with, current notions of the beautiful or sublime. Theorists such as Jeremy Gilbert discuss how the intensification of capitalism and new technologies might be developing a new notion of sublimity. Visual culture theorist Johanna Drucker suggests that contemporary artists recognize their complicity with the dominant ideologies of beauty and aesthetics, and may simultaneously critique and embrace these aesthetics. The art of Vanessa Beecroft provides an example of this. She uses mannequins and models whose body types reflect the standards of beauty held by the fashion, entertainment and media industries. Her work can be interpereted both as embracing and critiquing such standards.

Within the visual arts aesthetic considerations are usually associated with the visual sense. However, the presence of a painting or a sculpture is also perceived spatially by recognised associations and context, and even to some extent by the senses of smell, sound and texture. The form of the work can be subject to an aesthetic as much as the content.

In painting, the aesthetic convention that we see a three dimensional representation rather than a two dimensional plane is so well understood that most people do not realise that they are making an aesthetic interpretation. This notion is the basis of abstract impressionism.

Some aesthetic effects available in visual arts include variation, juxtaposition, repetition, field effects, symmetry/asymmetry, perceived mass, subliminal structure, linear dynamics, tension and repose, pattern, contrast, perspective, 3 dimensionality, movement, rhythm, unity/Gestalt, matrixiality and proportion.


Main article: Aesthetics of music.

Music can affect our emotions, our intellect, our body and our psychology; lyrics can assuage our loneliness or incite our passions. As such, music is a powerful art form with an aesthetic appeal that is highly dependent upon the culture in which it is practiced.

Some of the aesthetic elements expressed in music include lyricism, harmony, hypnotism, emotiveness, temporal dynamics, resonance, playfulness, and colour (see Musical development).

Good practice of aesthetic principles of music can manifest themselves in use of subtlety, depth, dynamics and mood. Aesthetics in music are highly sensitive to their context: what sounds good in modern American rock would sound terrible in the context of the early baroque age.

Performing arts

Performing arts appeals to our aesthetics of storytelling, grace, balance, class, timing, strength, shock, humor, costume, irony, beauty, drama, suspense, and sensuality. Whereas live stage performance is usually bound by the physical reality at hand, film performance can further add the aesthetic elements of large-scale action, fantasy, and a complex interwoven musical score.


Encompassing poetry, short stories, novels and non-fiction, authors use a variety of techniques to appeal to our aesthetic values. Depending on the type of writing an author may employ rhythm, illustrations, structure, time shifting, juxtaposition, dualism, imagery, fantasy, suspense, analysis, humor/cynicism, and thinking aloud.

In literary aesthetics, the study of affect creates an awareness of the deep structures of reading and receiving literary works. Affect refers to the emotional sense created in the reader or receiver of a literary work. These affects may be broadly grouped by their mode of writing, and relationship the reader assumes with time. Catharsis is the affect of dramatic completion of action in time. Kairosis is the affect of novels whose characters become integrated in time. Kenosis is the affect of lyric poetry which creates a sense of emptiness and timelessness.


Although food is a basic and frequently experienced commodity, careful attention to the aesthetic possibilities of foodstuffs can turn eating into gastronomy. Chefs inspire our aesthetic enjoyment through the visual sense using colour and arrangement, as well as our senses of taste and smell using spices, diversity/contrast, anticipation, seduction, and decoration/garnishes.

Aesthetics in the sciences

Information technology

The push to make all aspects of information technology as user-friendly as possible has led to a number of advances during the study of human-computer interaction. The design of the graphical user interface has been shown to have a great effect on productivity and the design of the computer hardware has seen unappealing boxes develop into common devices that no longer seem out of place in a living room. Software itself has aesthetic dimensions ("software aesthetics"), as do information-technology-mediated processes and experiences such as computer and video games.

Digital aesthetics

A distinct digital sensibility by which to judge the appeal of the appearances of digital environments such as browsers, websites and other digital icons, as well as visual and aural art produced exclusively with digital technologies. *Digital culture

Mathematics (including Programming)

Main article: Mathematical beauty.

Most mathematicians derive aesthetic pleasure from their work, and from mathematics in general. They express this pleasure by describing mathematics (or, at least, some aspect of mathematics) as elegant. Sometimes mathematicians describe the creative activity of mathematics as an art form. Comparisons are often made with music and poetry. Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős expressed his views on the ineffability of mathematics when he said "Why are numbers beautiful? It's like asking why is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don't see why, someone can't tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren't beautiful, nothing is." Some distinguish between elegance and beauty. For example, they cite some aspects of the theory of differential equations as elegant (artfully done) but not beautiful—and some theorems or proofs that are clumsily written and thus perhaps not elegant, but still classified as beautiful.


Cognitive science has also considered aesthetics, with the advent of neuroesthetics, pioneered by Semir Zeki, which seeks to explain the greatness of great art as an embodiment of biological principles of the brain, namely that great works of art capture the essence of things just as vision and the brain capture the essentials of the world from the ever-changing stream of sensory input.

Aesthetics in engineering

Industrial design

Beyond providing functional characteristics, designers heed many aesthetic qualities to improve the marketability of manufactured products: smoothness, shininess/reflectivity, texture, pattern, curviness, color, simplicity (or usability), velocity, symmetry, naturalness, and modernism.


Applying aesthetic considerations to buildings and related architectural structures is complex, as factors extrinsic to spatial design (such as structural integrity, cost, the nature of building materials, and the functional utility of the building) contribute heavily to the design process.

Notwithstanding, architects can still apply the aesthetic principles of ornamentation, edge delineation, texture, flow, solemnity, symmetry, color, granularity, the interaction of sunlight and shadows, transcendence, and harmony.

Urban life

Nearly half of mankind lives in cities; although it represents a lofty goal, planning and achieving Urban Aesthetics involves a good deal of historical luck, happenstance, and indirect gestalt. Nevertheless aesthetically pleasing cities share certain traits: ethnic and cultural variety, numerous microclimates that promote a diversity of vegetation, sufficient public transportation, a range of build-out (or zoning) that creates both densely and sparsely populated areas, sanitation to foster clean streets and graffiti removal, scenic neighboring geography (oceans or mountains), public spaces and events such as parks and parades, musical variety through local radio or street musicians, and enforcement of laws that abate noise, crime, and pollution.

Landscape design

Landscape designers employ design elements such as axis, line, landform, horizontal and vertical planes, texture, and scale to create aesthetic variation within the landscape. They may additionally utilize pools or fountains of water, plants, seasonal variance, stonework, fragrance, exterior lighting, statues, and lawns as aesthetic elements.

Schools of aesthetics

Different schools of philosophy have different aesthetics from each other. Some of them are:

See also

External links

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