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Origins of Aesthetics


The study of any art form
involves the study of what is called aesthetics, that which makes a thing
beautiful. Hebrew, Greek, and Roman aesthetics share one key principle−the
heart of ancient artistic expression.

Art is purposive. Art is
an instrument that is used to some pragmatic purpose. It can teach moral
lessons. It can symbolize God’s glory, it can embody the order found in the
universe, and it can lead to self-reflection and spiritual catharsis. In all
these instances, art is not just beautiful, it has a conscious purpose. It is
useful. The Roman philosopher Horace, inTheArt
of Poetry
, said: “The aim of the poet is either to benefit, or to
amuse, or to make his words at once please and give the lessons of life.”
(Adams, 1971, p. 73)

Sir Phillip Sydney said
something very similar while defending poetry as a worthy art in 1595 in hisApology
for Poetry
. He said that art is a “medicine of cherries” (Adams,
1971, p. 164). Humanity is sick. People need medicine to heal their maladies.
The medicine is hard to swallow. Art makes difficult truth easier to swallow.
Good art teaches the highest truth in a way that makes that truth easier to
understand and swallow. Hebrew scripture often illustrates its truth through
stories and poetry, making it easier to understand and remember.

Classicism: Greek and
Roman Art

Classical concepts of
beauty and what makes a thing good art are generally easier to judge than later
periods in art. This is because the standards were clearly articulated.

One important standard
has been called mimetic. Mimetic means copy, imitation, or representation
(Abrams, 1953). Art is an imitation of nature. The best art closely
approximates reality, such as the idealized nude human forms of the Greek
period. Classical art, whether Greek, Roman, Renaissance, or neoclassical was
judged and valued by a mimetic standard.

In addition, classical
art was to mirror the completeness, order, symmetry, and balance found in
nature. Even today, classical architecture symbolically represents the
principles of balance, order, and justice.

Plato: What is the Value
and Purpose of Art?

Questions of the value
and purpose of art are not new. Two Greek philosophers frame the argument over
the value and purpose of art that continues to the present day.

Plato thought the art of
his day misled people about the nature of reality. He found it intellectually
harmful. To Plato, it was like looking at a fake thing to try to figure out
what a real thing is like. Art, for him, was a lie. It could not show reality.
And, worst of all, art had the ability to make things that, in reality, might
be wrong, false, evil, or harmful appear as though they were good, right, true,
accurate, or healthy.

Plato also felt that the
art of his day, Greek plays in particular, were harmful because they stirred up
the emotions of the audience. All those tragic stories about kings sleeping
with their mothers (Oedipus Rex) and mothers cutting off their son’s
heads (The Bacchae) destroyed the rule of reason in the minds of the
viewers, and reason was the thing that kept the soul on course. Reason helped
each person tell the difference between appearance and reality. If people
sitting around watching a constant stream of unreality somehow warped the rule
of reason, then they would not be able to think clearly.

It does not take much to
figure out what Plato would have thought about most of today’s popular cultural
activities such as surfing the web, watching television, and exposure to
advertising. In fact, Plato’s arguments are a good example of how connected our
culture still is to the ideas that were formulated so long ago.

In Shakespeare’s day,
they formed the foundation for attacks by English Puritans against the popular
art form of plays. In a 1597 letter written to the Lord Mayor of London, the
Puritans outlined their objections to “Stage playesabowt the Citie of
London” (Nagler, 1952, p. 115). Many people might still use some or all of
their arguments when it comes to modern popular culture, media, the Internet,
and certain forms of artistic expression. According to Nagler (1952), an edited
summary of the ideas might go something like:

· Even the heathen Greeks set limits on popular cultural
activities and artistic expression.

· American viewers, listeners, readers, often imitate, rather than
avoid the vices represented in American popular culture and media.

· Popular culture, especially the media, has negative affects on
young people who have no discernment.

· Many aspects of American popular culture cause the great
displeasure of Almighty God and of all good people.

· Much of American popular culture promotes bad behavior and poor
work ethic.

· American popular cultural activities often replace good
activities such as listening to sermons, and other Christian exercises.

· America’s preoccupation with popular culture and media hinder
the work and the propagation of religion.

Many cultural and media
scholars, along with ordinary people, view American media and popular culture
with skepticism. They think that the media often trivializes important issues
turning them into entertainment and hype rather than into a serious discussion
about an important issue. These groups are concerned with the potential
negative affects that popular culture and the media is having on children, on
the democratic process, and on any other serious discussions of religious,
philosophical, or political ideas.

Plato would agree with
these skeptics. For him, all communicative skill, artistic or rhetorical,
should lead each citizen to the essential truth of a matter. He would not
understand the point of our modern media, advertising, or the concept of
popular culture. How, he would question, does any of this create better
citizens and human beings, and further, how does it lead to a better society
and world?

Aristotle: What is the
Value and Purpose of Art?

Plato’s pupil, Aristotle,
had a different view of art and its potential. Many people today might side
with Aristotle’s ideas. Aristotle thought art in its many forms could be good
and helpful to individuals and to society.

One way art might be good
is that a piece of art can help a person see and grasp a universal truth or
idea. A viewer might better understand an abstract concept like love through a
play likeRomeo and Julietor a movie likeTitanic. They might understand
the struggle of good and evil through a piece of literature likeThe Lord of the Rings. The
piece of art gives the abstract idea a concrete form, a skin, and makes the
idea more accessible to the viewer.

Art could also benefit
individuals through a process that Aristotle calledcatharsis.Catharsisis a release or purging of
emotions. Aristotle thought that a good piece of art had the potential to
affect an emotional release in the viewer or reader. A story or painting or
other artistic expression would allow viewers to rid themselves of aggressive,
harmful emotions vicariously (Wolff, 1998).


Classical art, whether
ancient or modern, represents a certain aesthetic. It symbolizes nature and the
order the Greeks found in nature. Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans felt that to be
good, art had to have a purpose. The purpose might be to teach what made a good
life or how one could follow and glorify God. The purpose might be to affect a
person in such a way as to generate a purging of emotions, to cleanse their
psyche or soul. The roots of any modern debate over the value of art and
artistic expression go back to the three great rivers that flow into Western


Adams, H. (1971).Critical
theory since Plato
. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc.

Abrams, M. H. (1953).The
mirror and the lamp: Romantic theory and the critical tradition
. New York:
Oxford University Press.

Nagler, A. M. (1952).A
source book in theatrical history
. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Wolff, R. P. (1998).About
. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Publishers.

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