The Origins of Aesthetics

By Ferry, Luc | UNESCO Courier, December 1990 | Go to article overview

The Origins of Aesthetics


Ferry, Luc, UNESCO Courier


AR0041

IN everyday language aesthetics is roughly equivalent to the philosophy of art or the theory of the beautiful, and people are apt to think that these expressions denote a human preoccupation so basic that in one form or another it must always have existed in every culture. But (as so often happens) the general opinion is misleading: aesthetics proper is a recent discipline, born of a real revolution in our perception of the phenomenon of beauty.

The first book to bear the title "Aesthetics" appeared in 1750. This was the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten's Aesthetica, which was itself made possible as the result of a twofold upheaval in the position of art, from the points of view of the artist and of the onlooker.

Let us deal first with the artist's side. In bygone civilizations works of art fulfilled a sacred purpose. As recently as in ancient Greece their function was to reflect a cosmic order entirely external to mankind. By virtue of this externality, given that the divine is essentially whatever eludes and transcends humanity, they acquired a semi-religious dimension. They were microcosms (etymologically "little worlds") supposedly representing in miniature the harmonious properties of everything the ancients called "Cosmos". It was this that gave them their "impressive greatness"-their ability actually to impress people, who accepted them as phenomena from without.

In this context works of art had "objectivity". y expressed not so much an architect's or sculptor's genius as divine reality, which they apprehended in their capacity as modest rhapsodists. We are still so conscious of this that it does not really matter very much to us who carved a given statue or bas-relief, any more than it would occur to us to look behind the Egyptian cats in the British Museum for the artist's name. What matters is that they are sacred animals, transfigured as such in the realm of art.

The modern image of the artist

Our attitude to works of art has changed radically. In some ways it has actually done a U-turn, in the sense that we may well be acquainted with the names of creative artists, and even with some aspects of their lives, and yet know nothing about their work. The French composer Pierre Boulez is admired as an intelligent, cultured man who appears on television, but apart from a tiny elite made up largely of professional musicians, who has heard his latest composition, Repons? Even in less extreme cases, what Nietzsche predicted in the nineteenth century has become the rule in modern democratic societies. Works of art are no longer portrayals of the world but consummate expressions of an artist's personality-in short, highly elaborate visiting-cards. The overwhelming majority of avant-garde works of art in the major museums of New York, London and Paris are like traces left by strokes of genius, in which we may detect Duchamp's sense of humour, Stella's imaginativeness and Hartung's violence-character traits rather than a representation of a shared world.

Be that as it may, this revolution in attitudes to artists contains the seeds of the avant-garde ideology that was so profoundly to affect contemporary art. Admittedly there were artists" in pre-democratic societies, but they were not "geniuses," if by that we mean creators ex nihilo capable of finding within themselves all the sources of their inspiration. The artist of Antiquity was not so much a true demiurge as an intermediary between man and the gods.

By reaction it is understandable that the requirement of radical innovation and originality that goes with the modern image of an artist should be inseparable from the tabula rasa ideology so clearly expressed in the concept of the avant-garde. The beautiful must not be discovered as though it already existed in the objective world, but invented: and thereafter every moment of innovation will find a place in a history of art embodied at institutional level in a museum). …

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