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  Aesthetics (from Greek aisthesis, ‘perception by the senses’) is a philosophical and critical study which attempts to define the concepts of beauty and taste. The idea itself is ancient—the first-recorded discussion of the nature of beauty is between Hippias and Socrates in Plato\'s dialogue Hippias Major (4th century  BCE)—but the term itself was first coined by the 18th-century German philosopher A.G. Baumgarten, and was developed by Kant in his Critique of Judgement (1790), in which he argues that aesthetic appreciation reconciles the dualism of theory and practice in human nature, thereby leaving the way open to identify beauty as a profoundly subjective quality, not necessarily inherent in the work of art. Ever since then, aesthetics has been regarded as one of the major branches of philosophy.

Starting from the premise that there are a number of activities described as ‘arts’ (literature, music, painting, theatre and so on), philosophers ask if there is a definition of ‘art’ that enables us to see what they have in common. One cannot say that a work of art is a beautiful thing, for there are beautiful things in Nature which are not works of art. But can one say that a work of art is a beautiful artefact? No: it seems that some works of art are not ‘beautiful’, but ‘ugly’.

Can art be characterized in terms of its point or function? Some art represents: novels and certain paintings represent actual or merely imaginary states of affairs. But music and abstract paintings do not seem to be representative. And newspapers represent the world, but are not works of art.

Works of art may be said to express their creator\'s feelings. But this is at best a necessary and not sufficient condition for an artefact\'s being a work of art: spoken and written words are often expressions of feelings but are not works of art. Perhaps art is distinguished by its lack of external point or function. Art, it may be said, is just for art\'s sake.

What is the ontology of art? Are works of art identical with physical objects, or are they something else? Again, the variety of the arts precludes an easy answer. A picture or sculpture may be said to be a physical object. But a novel is not identical with any particular manuscript or copy of it: if all the original copies of a novel are destroyed, the novel will nevertheless exist if copies of the original are made. And what is the relationship between a score or script of a play and the performances of it?

Further questions concern the objectivity or subjectivity of aesthetic values. Are things objectively beautiful or ugly, or are beauty and ugliness in the eye of the beholder? (Note the difference between holding that aesthetic values are objective and that there is agreement about aesthetic values. A painting could be objectively ugly even though some, due to a desire to shock, hold that it is ugly. And there could be general agreement that a sculpture was beautiful, for social reasons, even though its beauty was a subjective rather than objective matter.)

Are aesthetic judgements simply a matter of taste? When you say that a picture is beautiful and I say that it is ugly, is there a genuine disagreement between us? Or are you merely saying that you like it, while I am merely saying that I do not in which case we are merely recording our own individual preferences? Is something beautiful just if it is disposed to produce a certain emotional response in minds which come into contact with it? Or is beauty something which merits those responses? PD MG AJ KMcL

See also art for art\'s sake; performing arts; supervenience.Further reading V. Aldrich, Philosophy of Art; , R. Wollheim, Art and Its Objects.



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