19: Is Aesthetics itself beautiful? 177
[Published in Rolando M. Gripaldo, ed. 2004. Philosophical landscape.
Manila: Philippine National Philosophical Research Society]
IS AESTHETICS ITSELF BEAUTIFUL?1
Rolando M. Gripaldo
Aesthetics deals with theories of beauty. As the study of the beautiful, it tries to
explain the nature of the creative impulse. This study is distinct and apart from the appraisal
of the work of art which, in the contemporary scene, is called the philosophy of art. In
practice, however, many philosophers do not separate the two. They discuss the functions
of both the creator and the critic as one since for the artist or creator to judge whether his/her
work is beautiful or not, s/he has to assume the function of the critic. The artist cannot
appreciate his/her work unless s/he distances himself/herself from it by assuming the position
of the audience or critic and by viewing his/her work objectively. For purposes of this paper,
aesthetics is viewed to include the philosophy of art.
There are three major types of works of art: (a) visual arts such as painting, sculpture,
photography, drawing, architecture, interior design, landscaping, mosaic, computer design
printing, etc.; (b) performing arts which include music, dance, theater, cinema; and (c) literary
arts such as drama or play, novel, poem, short story, essay (Ortiz et al.1976: 1-31).
Aesthetic theories take the form of literary arts, that is to say, they are written as
essays. To analyze whether aesthetics is itself beautiful, we have to rephrase our title: “Are
aesthetic theories, as essays, themselves beautiful?” I will attempt to answer this question in
An aesthetic theory as a literary art has both form and content. Its form is the essay,
but we are more concerned with the nature of its content, that is, whether as a theory of
beauty, it is itself beautiful.
LEXICAL MEANING OF BEAUTY
There is only one lexical meaning of beauty that is relevant to aesthetics, viz, that
which delights the perceiver or aesthete. This meaning is found in the dictionary and is
uniform or the same to all who use the word “beautiful.” However, the standard of beauty for
each individual may differ or, socially speaking, may be culture bound. (A Ugandan tribe,
e.g., considers a fat woman beautiful.) One person may consider one work of art as beautiful
or aesthetically satisfying while another will judge it weird or ugly. In other words, perceivers
may disagree as to the criteria or standards of beauty, but they agree as to the meaning of
beauty since that meaning is based on usage.
We appreciate the thing we call beautiful, or to call a thing beautiful is to appreciate it
in the sense that it delights us, it satisfies our cravings for beauty, it fascinates us. It lets us
play with our imagination.
There are various theories on the creative impulse, on where beauty resides, and on the
criteria of appreciating what is beautiful.
When I was young, I grew up in a rustic place. Every morning I saw the open landscape,
the dewy meadows with carabaos and horses roaming around, and birds flying against the
background of an azure sky. It was a sight to behold. It delighted and fascinated me, and I
found it beautiful. In late afternoons, I saw the sun setting—a red, orange disc moving
slowly down the horizon. Again, I was delighted and fascinated by it. To me, it was beautiful.
Each one of us has a bias. My bias when I was young was that beauty exists out there
objectively, or independently of my perceiving mind—that is, that beauty resides (is found)
in nature. When I grew up and was introduced to artistic works—mostly paintings—I noticed
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178 Rolando M. Gripaldo
that the artist copies or imitates nature such that it seems to me, commonsensically speaking,
that art imitates nature or life. The paintings were like photographs of landscapes or animal.
Plato (Titus 1968: 376) supports this theory when he says that the artist imitates what is
pleasant. Aristotle likewise argues that painting arises from the desire to make likenesses of
men and women, or that comedy mimics life. According to Titus (1968: 375):
Aristotle…finds in imitation a natural tendency that he regards, along with
the pleasure that comes from recognition of the object or scene portrayed, as the
explanation of art. Painting grows out of the desire to make likenesses of people
and things. The theater imitates men in action: comedy mimics people, and
tragedy is an imitation of some of the events of real life.
TRADITIONAL INTERPRETATION OF ART
This traditional interpretation that art as an imitation of life or nature has been challenged.
And this is where the delight of aesthetics, for me, begins. Oscar Wilde (1960: 20-22) contends
that nature or life can also imitate art. No one appreciated the fogs of London before because
they were associated with colds and sickness, not until the impressionists started painting
them. When the people saw the paintings, they were fascinated by the fogs and found them
beautiful. Then every time London had the fogs, the people welcomed them, and found
fogginess a beautiful scenery—a sight to behold. “The artist,” as it were, “provides a kind of
education of the imagination and the senses, so that we perceive in nature what art has
prepared us to see” (Rader 1960: 5).
It appears not only commonsensical but also rational to conceive that art imitates nature.
But even this rationality for the artist to imitate nature has likewise been challenged. According
to Henri Bergson (1960: 80-87), it is not reason or the intellect that enables the artist to imitate
nature. Rather, beauty is intuited from an objective reality and depicted by the artist as he
“sees” it. He does not actually imitate nature. The intellect, for Bergson, is the misfortune of
man since it reconstructs reality. Reality is something that subsists. Time, for example, is the
interpenetration of the past, present, and future. A part of the past and of the future partakes
of the present. We cannot really subdivide reality, but the intellect does just that. The
intellect constructs its own reality by subdividing time in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds,
and by portraying what is typical. We need the intellect, of course, for our survival and it lets
us enjoy the fruits of science and technology, but for a price: we cease to perceive reality
correctly as individuality since the intellect has diminished our intuitive capacity. The artists
have plenty of intuitions. They perceive the individual rather than the type. They transform
it into a work of art. They intuit the individual (or the unique) rather than the typical as
something beautiful. Art is not therefore imitation but intuition.
A milder view can be reconstructed from the views of G. E. Moore and Plato. It is an
attempt to reconcile art as imitation and art as intuition. G. E. Moore (Hudson 1970: 66-71) is
a moral intuitionist who says about “good” that whenever we call a thing or action “good,”
this word “good” refers to a unique object which we intuit. By the same reasoning, we may
argue that “ beauty” refers to a unique object which the artist intuits when he perceives
something beautiful, and beauty exists objectively—perhaps as a perfect form elsewhere as
in Plato’s World of Forms or simply as a logical possibility (see Ceniza 2001 and Gripaldo 2004:
135-69). In this view, the artist imitates what s/he intuits in objective reality.
Sigmund Freud (1960: 127-40) also challenges reason as the basis of the creative impulse.
He maintains that art is wish fulfillment. The conscious ego or intellect is only the tip of the
iceberg, which is largely dominated by the unconscious id. Artists like everyone else do have
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frustrations, and while many of us non-artists fulfill our frustrated desires in some other way
as in dreaming or the like, the artist fulfills his/her frustrated wishes in his/her works of art. In
extraordinary cases, some people who are not by nature artists are able to write good poetry
because of frustrated desires. A suitor, for example, who is jilted by his lover may sit down—
in desperation and frustration—and starts to write something which turns out to be an
excellent piece of poetry.
In appreciating the work of art, the participation of the audience is quite important.
Vernon Lee (1960: 370-74) holds that to appreciate a work of art as beautiful is to empathize
with it. This is the commonsensical view. Lee says that when one claps his hands, stumps
his foot on a musical march, or shed tears on a melodramatic scene, then he is empathizing.
To empathize is to show the sentimental or human aspect of the audience. This was my bias
when I was young.
Josè Ortega y Gasset (1960: 411-19) believes that true art is dehumanized art. The
tendency of new artists is to get rid of sentimentalism, escape from the human element, or to
get out of the crippling humanizing situation. Wilhelm Worringer (1960: 382-91) also contends
that the tendency to abstraction is the “polar opposite of the need of empathy.” The artist,
according to Worringer, has the psychological fear of space. Everything is spatially transitory
or impermanent. The artist somehow wants to escape from impermanence and tries to
encapsulate the perfect form of beauty—in terms of geometrical forms—which are permanent
and absolutely immutable. As Worringer says (1960: 387):
[The artist’s] strongest impulse was, as it were, to tear the external object out
of the context of nature, out of the endless interplay of existence, to purify it of
all dependence on life, all arbitrariness, to make it necessary and stable, to make
it approximate to its absolute value.
Allied to art as empathy is art as communication. Leo Tolstoy (1960: 62-71) thinks that
for an artist to succeed in his/her work, s/he must be understood by the audience. In this
regard art is a two-way communication. There must be a feedback mechanism whereby the
artist will know if the audience understands his/her message; otherwise, s/he is a failure or
his/her works are not aesthetically fulfilling.
A contrary view to this is that of Benedetto Croce (1960: 88-104). He contends that
what is important is simply the fact that the artist is able to express himself. Art as expression
is therefore audience-free. Whether or not the present audience understands the artist does
not matter. For all we know, the present generation will not understand the artistic work, but
the future generation will. Impressionism was rejected during its time but is now accepted.
Many rejected the works of Van Gogh and Picasso during their time but they now command
a high price in auction sales. As one may express himself to a woman: “I love you but what
concern is that of yours?”2
ART AS REBELLION
Art as rebellion is an entirely different genre in aesthetics. Here art as pure realism, art
as intuition, art as wish-fulfillment, art as empathy, art as communication, art as expression,
art as pure abstraction, etc. are discarded. Art as rebellion takes at least two forms: dadaism
and existential rebellion against the absurd.
Dadaism (1915-23) was an art movement that rebelled against art itself. It is sometimes
viewed as an intellectual revolt (against the social order) that came into existence in view of
the disillusioning experience of the First World War. Dada, which in French means “hobby
horse,” comes down to us to mean “to kill art.” It has a negative, anarchic, and nihilistic
tendency brought about by the situation during and immediately after World War I. It makes
a mockery of art itself. The paintings here are weird looking, not necessarily abstract but
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180 Rolando M. Gripaldo
contrary to reality itself such as Marcel Duchamp’s reproduction of Mona Lisa with moustache
and goatee or a painting of a urinal labeled as “fountain.” There are nonsensical poems with
combined words selected at random and formally read in public. Unintelligible lectures are
formally read in unison
The other version of art as rebellion comes from Albert Camus (1967: 437-49). As an
atheist, Camus considers life as absurd, pointless, ridiculous. One who surrenders easily to
the absurd will commit suicide. The Suicide Man is a coward, but there is another way. Each
one of us is condemned to die whether we like it or not. The Condemned Man, however,
faces reality and confronts the absurd. In a way s/he is a rebel by trying to make sense of his/
her own absurd existence. S/he attempts even to live a happy life. And what about the
artists? Well, they rebel with their art. For Camus, there are two artistic extremes: pure realistic
art which is a copy of absurdity and against which the artist rebels, and pure abstract art
which goes overboard, a complete escape from absurd reality. In pure abstraction, the artist
no longer rebels, s/he becomes an escapist, s/he is like the Suicide Man. His/her work has no
more semblance with the reality s/he is supposed to be rebelling against. True art, according
to Camus, must be somewhere between pure realism and pure abstractionism.
In the 1970s in the Philippines, another version of artistic rebellion is expressed by R.
Esquivel Embuscado (1975; see Gripaldo 2004: 1-32). He argues in his aesthetics of
dissectionism that artists must not simply copy the styles of the past and perpetuate them in
the present but must dissect the depressive social scenarios of the present and freely project
them in dissection towards the open future. That’s where new artists find their aesthetic
fulfillment and satisfaction.
The contemporary scene has produced a movement known as postmodernism. The
“After Postmodernism” movement simply gets rid of the excesses or arbitraniness of
postmodernism. There are many currents. One important current which I think will continue
to be significant during the Third Millennium is the attempt to use art to level off cultures by
effacing the distinction between mass culture and high culture.
The important precursor of this current is John Dewey (1960: 171-88; Titus 1968: 379),
a pragmatist. He maintains that art should not be limited to museums and art galleries. We
can find art in everyday life, in the quality of experience which is different from the ordinary,
normal experience. When a basketball player shoots the ball gracefully, our reaction is
“Wow, ang ganda!”3
In his article, “Postmodernism and the aestheticization of everyday life,” Mike
Featherstone (1991: 265-90) contends, among others, that there is a leveling off of cultures.
High culture, which is represented by artworks found in museums and galleries, is lowered
while mass culture, which is represented by the aestheticization of everyday life, is elevated.
The effect is the leveling off of cultures in that mass culture and high/elitist culture are on a
par with each other.
Dante Leoncini (1995-96: 92-98) likewise contends in his postmodernist article, “On the
possibility of making oneself a human work of art,” that a man or woman can become a work
of art when he/she beautifies himself/herself. This is not petrified art in the museum but a
living, walking work of art. Beauty, however, in this regard is very temporary.
Alvin Toffler (1970: 174-75) says that contemporary art is characterized by temporariness.
It is called “Kinetic Art,” whose “very raison d’etre is transience.” This renders the traditional
standards of permanence, uniqueness, and enduring universal value as inapplicable and
obsolete. Artist nowadays work for the moment and do not believe that permanence is a
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NATURE OF BEAUTY
The commonsensical view that beauty is out there existing independently of the
perceiving mind has been held by Plato and many realists. This is one other bias I had when
I was young. But like the other commonsensical positions, this has been challenged by John
Locke and by Bertrand Russell, among others.
According to John Locke (: 24-26), beauty is not a primary quality that resides in
the material object, but a secondary quality that resides in the perceiver. There are only three
primary qualities: solidity or weight, extension or volume, and motion. The data of the five
senses—smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste—are secondary qualities. Beauty is perceived
through the sense of sight, and in view of the relative standards that each individual may
possess, then his perception of beauty may vary. One work of art may be beautiful to behold
to someone, but not aesthetically satisfying to another. Bertrand Russell has put it more
succinctly. He says that we seem to perceive the firmament as beautiful at our safe distance
on earth, but there is really no beauty out there. When we come nearer to any star, we will get
burned. Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder.
Another philosophical point of view that will possibly continue to be discussed in
aesthetics is the circumstantialist point of view where beauty is argued to reside in a situational
perspective. It is not out there in the work of art, and it is not likewise in the eye of the
beholder. It is in between, depending upon one’s situational perspective. When one comes
very close to a painting, for example, s/he does not perceive the work as aesthetically fulfilling.
If, on the other hand, s/he goes quite far from the work, it is likewise not artistically satisfying.
But when s/he stands in just the proper distance, s/he perceives it as beautiful. S/he has
therefore the proper or appropriate situational perspective: the right situational line of vision
for the object of art to appear as beautiful. Beauty is in the perspective—the appropriate
situational one—and not in the object or the perceiver. Samuel Alexander (1960: 19) calls this
a “tertiary quality” of the object, the quality that lies in between the primary and secondary
qualities. Locke (: 25) himself simply refers to this third sort of quality as “barely
powers” of the object.
THEORIES OF BEAUTY
All these theories of beauty are possibilities in that they are not reducible to truth and
falsity.4 But they are cognitively meaningful in the sense that they serve as possible alternative
explanations of the nature of beauty, the nature of the creative impulse, and the effects of the
works of art to the audience or critic. As possibilities, they are irrefutable. One cannot refute
what is possible. He either accepts or rejects it.
To go back to our question: Are aesthetic theories themselves beautiful? Insofar as
they delight me, they fascinate me, they allow my mind to soar to the realm of possibilities, I
think, aesthetic theories are beautiful. Oh yes, persuasively, aesthetics is itself beautiful.
1. Originally published in Unitas 73 (2), 2000. The present version is slightly revised.
2. Goethe (Kaufmann 1960: 31) says something similar conditionally: “If I love you,
what concern is that of yours?”
3. Literally, it means, “Wow, beautiful!” Idiomatically, it means, “Wow, superb!”
4. Rudolf Carnap (1955: 209-25) will certainly classify aesthetics, like metaphysics,
among the literary arts in that he considers it as an expression of preferences or emotions and
not reducible to truth or falsity.
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