Kant defined aesthetic as both, “the analysis of taste and the analysis of sensible cognition or intuition” (1). Aesthesis, means “sensation”, the Greeks made a distinction between aesthesis autophues (natural sensation) and aesthesis epistemonike (acquired sensation) (1). We may say that aesthetics is both the study of aesthetic objects and of the specific and subjective reactions of observers, readers, or audiences to the work of art. Aesthetics is necessarily interdisciplinary and may be interpretive, prescriptive, descriptive, or a combination of these.
The big, obvious question about aesthetic value is whether it is ever ‘really in’ the objects it is attributed to. This issue parallels the realism/anti-realism debates elsewhere in philosophy (2). Though there is little reason to assume that aesthetic value will behave in just the say way as for example, moral value. An extreme realist would say that aesthetic values reside in an object as properties independent of any observer’s responses, (3) and that if we make the judgment ‘That is a beautiful flower’, or ‘this painting is aesthetically good’, what we say is true or false – true if the flower or painting has the property, false if it does not. We will tend to like the object if we recognize the aesthetic value in it, but, for the realist, whether we recognize it and whether it is are two separate questions.
Consequently, much work in aesthetics has gone into trying to specify the nature of aesthetic experience or aesthetic response. One factor is pleasure, satisfaction, or liking. The second is experience: the response we are looking for must be a way of attending to the object itself (4). In the case of music, it must be a response to perceived patterns of sound, in the case of cinematography, a response to the experience of seeing something on the screen. If you merely describe a piece of music or a sequence of images to me, I am not yet in a position to respond in the kind of way which is peculiarly relevant to aesthetic value. The third factor in aesthetic response is thought to be ‘disinterestedness’. The idea is that the pleasurable experience of attending to something in perception should not consist in liking a thing only because it fulfills some definite function, satisfies a desire, or lives up to a prior standard or principle (4).
There are subjective responses which we are justified in demanding from others: these are not idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, but deeply rooted in our common nature as experiencing subjects, and founded on a pleasurable response to the form of the object as it is presented in perception. This means, among other things, “aesthetic value cannot be enshrined in learnable principles” (5). There are no genuine aesthetic principles, because to find aesthetic value we must, “get a look at the object with our own eyes” (5). Aesthetic judgments are founded upon the slender basis of one’s own feeling of pleasure, but can justifiably claim the universal agreement if the subjective response in question is one that which any properly equipped observer would have.
Sometimes it is assumed that the prime interest in art is aesthetic, but that assumption bears some examination. Unless “aesthetic stretches to cover everything conceivable that is of value in art, art may have values which are not aesthetic. For example, it might have therapeutic value, or give us moral insights, or help us understand points in history or points of view radically unlike our own. We might admire a work for its moral integrity, or despise it for its depravity or political untruthfulness. Are all these a matter of aesthetic value? If not, then aestheticism gives too narrow a view of the value of art. Without succumbing to the view that art’s point is always as a means to some end outside itself (6), we should concede that works of art have a great variety of values.
Artworks are, nevertheless, usually intentionally produced things. They are also things with characteristic modes of reception or consumption (7). Paintings are placed where we can se them in a certain way, music is enjoyed or analyzed mostly by being heard. This pattern of production and reception gives rise to two recurring questions in the philosophy of art: What relation does the work bear to the mind that produced it? And what relation does it bear to the mind that perceives and appreciates it (8). As an example, we may take emotion and music. We say that music has or expresses some emotional character. Since emotions are mental states, we may think that the emotion gets into the sounds by first being present in the mind of the composer or performer. Or we may think that the listener’s emotional reactions are somehow projected back on to the sounds. Neither of these approaches has great plausibility, however, so that a new question emerges: The music all by itself somehow seems to point to, or stand for emotions – how? Aesthetics has yet to come to terms with this issue. There is a similar pattern in the case of artistic representation. In the question of what a picture depicts, what role is played by the artist’s intentions, and what by the interpretations which an observer may conjure up? Or does the painting itself have a meaning by standing in symbolic relations to items in the world? If the latter, how similar, and how dissimilar are depiction and linguistic representation? (8). Once one starts to address problems at this level, the philosophy of art starts to concern the nature of philosophy as a whole.