10 Days of Aesthetics: Conclusion (Day 10)

Human Drapery 3 by Jordan Wade
Human Drapery 3 by Jordan Wade

*Read this series from the beginning.* 

Language is a clear problem in articulating the concepts this essay addresses. We tend to apply only one adjective to a noun. So we may say Human Drapery 3 is a beautiful painting, an ugly painting, or a sublime painting. We may go so far as to join two concepts and say the painting has a sublime beauty. But, it would be awkward to say it is a beautiful sublime ugly painting. It is important to remember that when describing an object we tend to choose an area of focus rather than seeking to exhaust all characteristics of the object. So, to say a painting is beautiful is to say nothing about its prettiness, ugliness, or sublimity.

It is important in developing a system that the terminology used not only has philosophical precedence but has consonance with common vernacular. A system that is precise but is completely disconnected from common usage seems to be of limited use. In fact, it is the way terms such as pretty, beauty, and sublime are used in the artistic circles in which I travel that first aroused my interest in this topic. The idea that a painting by Bierstadt could not in a Kantian or Burkian system be both beautiful and sublime is unfathomable to me. All the nuances of a system cannot be born out through examining the popular vernacular but the basic relationships can be demonstrated. Pretty and ugly reside on the Sensual Axis. Both have dictionary definitions that support a sensual understanding of these terms. Pretty is “pleasing or attractive to the eye” and ugly is “unpleasant to look at.”[1] By contrast, beauty “gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind” and sublimity is “impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power.”[2] These definitions indicate at least a willingness within the broader culture to look at some of these terms as sensual and others as intellectual.

Aesthetic Venn with AxesHowever, the cultural affirmation I have found most powerful is highly anecdotal. In a two-dimensional design class I taught, I asked my students what the difference between pretty and beautiful was to them. This particular class only has one male student and he was absent that day. So, essentially I was asking a group of college-aged women the difference between pretty and beautiful. In many ways, their answer was very similar to what has been articulated in this paper. What really struck me, though, was when the conversation turned to how these women felt about men calling them pretty or beautiful. These young women expressed that they felt it was presumptuous for a guy they did not know well to call them beautiful. For them, the term pretty had to do with their exterior but beauty was also about something on the inside. It is an intellectual, not merely a sensual distinction. The argument went that if a guy, who they did not know well, called them beautiful he was presuming to know something about them that he could not know just by looking at them. This is fascinating to me and to a certain extent echoes my own thinking.

This essay is a preliminary attempt to think through and articulate the Axis Theory. There are still issues that have not been resolved such as a systematic approach to both kitsch and disgust. Additionally, there is a tremendous amount of nuance that still needs to be developed which was not possible to address in an essay of this length. That said, the development of a two-axis system, as opposed to a continuum system or a system that sets beauty and sublimity at odds, seems to be a move forward that helps to solve some significant problems. The overlapping designation of terms also helps to alleviate the unnatural tension that often develops when these terms are used philosophically. Kant anticipated many, but not all, of these issues. The reliance on him for philosophical precedent allows this theory to swim in one of the deepest and most profound philosophical aesthetic traditions and to move forward in the light of his wisdom and insight.

[1] https://www.dictionary.com (accessed January 1, 2014)

[2] https://www.dictionary.com (accessed January 1, 2014)

This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on May 14, 2014, and has been lightly edited and updated.




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