Aesthetics and the Visual Arts
When anyone stands in front of a painting, or any other visual art work, what do they see? Maybe they are taken by a range of sensual experiences: they like that shape, those colours, or they do not like them – they are offended. Visual art has the power to provoke personal reactions, to involve emotions and feelings. This aspect of art is perhaps the most fundamental, the most naive. It is also the most personal; something is touched which evokes the individual and is unique. Art can also touch some timeless realm; there can be a feeling of transcendence, or a communication with a higher sense of being. Indeed, art can take on an almost religious significance; it can provoke us to spiritual experience as we enter into some sublime realm of hyper-reality which offers a way out of the mundane world of everyday life. However, this is clearly not the only possible response to the visual arts.
When someone stands in front of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, they react not only to the composition, the colours and the forms of what is before them, but also to the history of this painting. There is an understanding of it as a famous painting with its own provenance and biography. They interpret technique, shape and colour as a sort of iconic deciphering. They 'read' the painting in order to understand what it means, what it is representing or suggesting, what the artist had in mind. On the one hand, they have an affective response; on the other, there is an intellectual one. This perspective on viewing art raises a question about where to locate the sources of such reactions. This question goes to the core of what we commonly term aesthetics, or aesthetics sense, and it is the main focus of this chapter. It considers the tradition of philosophical aesthetics and how issues to be found there link with these considerations of how we apprehend visual culture. The chapter then sets out Bourdieu's own interpretation of aesthetics, and the implications this has for both the consumption and production of art. Finally, it provides a methodological framework which will be used in forthcoming chapters when considering empirical examples of institutional and visual art fields (museums, photography and painting).
Aesthetics can be defined briefly as a branch of philosophy which addresses questions of beauty and taste. By implication, aesthetics is therefore concerned with art