Describing art as manufactured forms that primarily involve us in
aesthetic aspects of experience suggests that a great variety of objects
can be called art. We also often use the word "beautiful" in relation to
• Does something have to be beautiful to be called art?
• Does the subject of the work have to be momentous for the work to be
• Can works with "ordinary" subjects be important works of art?
• Can works that deviate from representing the natural world be works of
• Can works that have no recognizable subject -- nonobjective works --
be considered art?
• What do we respond to if there is nothing to recognize?
• Can works that are designed primarily to sell things be called art?
These are the types of questions that can stimulate us to think
productively about the nature of art. One of the most provocative
questions we can ask relates to the differences that exist between the
many things we may designate as art. Are all works of art equally
significant? Even though they may share the potential to involve us in
their aesthetic qualities, it would be ridiculous to believe that a
beautifully crafted bowl is as important as Michelangelo's David. Why?
This fourteen foot tall marble sculpture, started in 1501 when
Michelangelo was 25, stands today in the Academy Gallery in Florence,
Italy. David is recognized as one of the great masterpieces in the
history of Western Art and as a superb example of works produced during
the Italian Renaissance. This sculpture is the artist's interpretation
of the heroic biblical tale of the boy, David, slaying the Philistine
giant, Goliath. But David transcends both the time in which it was
created and the subject it depicts. This extraordinary work of art
serves today as a visual metaphor for aspects of character that are
greatly valued in human beings: strength, grace and determination as one
confronts life's challenges.
to be a need to make some discriminations among works of art. What might
some of the distinguishing factors be? Is it just a matter of personal
taste? How might we define art broadly but critically? The chart that
follows diagrams one way to think about these distinctions.
social and moral value
The Extent to
Which Object/Events Involve Us Aesthetically
Forms that are capable of evoking responses to their aesthetic qualities are
represented by the black line. This line is conceived as a continuum that
ranges from works that involve us minimally (on the left) to works of art
that move us deeply and profoundly. Such works range from current popular
forms to recognized masterpieces that have withstood the "test of time."
This framework could incorporate many types of manufactured objects from
clothing to a particular office building, from monumental sculpture to works
such as this simple 1,000 year old Chinese jar.
Song Dynasty (960-1279),
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
deceptively simple form achieves its extraordinary beauty through its subtle
variations of warm to cool colors and the dynamic contrast between the bulk
of the body of the jar and its diminutive handles.
How do we engage in the aesthetic
analysis of works of art?
How do we make sense out of works of art? Very often a work's vital
statistics (names, dates, styles) and its creator's views (if known) are the
only items of information available. Can we only comment about a work's
subject and the degree to which it is liked or disliked?
It is as if the question "what does a work of art express" can only be
answered by citing its vital statistics, discovering the intentions of the
artist or, even more frequently, by leaving it to personal preference; i.e.,
whatever one believes it expresses.
While these approaches have their merits they also have one great
limitation: the expressive import of the work -- its content that involves
us most profoundly in its aesthetic character, the primary basis for its
emotional appeal -- is seldom investigated.
The most productive response to the question "what does a work of art
express" is simply that it expresses itself! The feelings or thoughts evoked
as a result of contemplating the work should be based primarily upon what is
actually seen in the work; i.e. what belongs to the work, its actual
The sequence of questions should
be: what do we actually see? how is what is seen organized? and what
emotions and ideas are evoked as a result of what has been observed? In what
follows, how these questions can be answered will be demonstrated