What is art? Is art anything we want it to be, or does art refer to
objects and/or events that have particular characteristics? We can begin
to answer these questions when we think about how we react to what our
senses enable us to perceive. We are capable of responding passionately
to an extraordinary range of stimuli; e.g., the intensity of reds,
oranges and violets in a tropical sunset; the striking black and white
patterns on the bark of birch trees; or the extraordinary contrast in
scale between humans and a massive water fall.
While such natural phenomena often evoke "ooh" and "ah" responses,
manufactured stimuli can also elicit such reactions. For instance, the
graceful arches in a suspension bridge, the thrust toward the sky of a
very tall building, or the subtle elegance of a ceramic vase can provoke
feelings ranging from astonishment to serenity.
of reactions are not always associated with responses to such forms.
Natural and manufactured forms often serve as stimuli for thinking about
other things. We may, for example, view the sunset to predict the
weather for the following day. Or, we can look at the suspension bridge
and estimate how much time will be saved by crossing it rather than
taking an other route. But, when we focus on the inherent
characteristics or qualities of a phenomenon, we respond to its
non-utilitarian aspects, and become engaged in an "aesthetic" encounter.
To clarify the nature of such a focus we need to contrast it with other
types of encounters.
When we look at something and think about its cost and whether it is
affordable we are engaged in the economic dimensions of experience;
e.g., do we have the toll fee to cross the suspension bridge? When we
consider questions about the worth of proposals and actions in terms of
what is good for the public we are involved in the political components
of experience. When we focus on the "fun" elements associated with
objects and events and their potentials to provide a diversion from
daily routines we are concerned with recreational aspects of experience.
When we explore the validity of what is being proposed or advocated --
the degree to which propositions are true or false -- intellectual
factors are being accentuated. Social components are emphasized when we
are concerned primarily with relations among people. And when we
speculate about what is holy, sacred or profane religious factors are
What are the Aesthetic Dimensions of
In contrast to these other components of experience, aesthetic responses
require attending to qualities that are intrinsic to -- that belong to
-- the object or event being experienced. For example, responding to the
color and shape of a tree, and not just speculating about how many board
feet of lumber the tree may provide. This does not imply that being
engaged in other aspects of experience precludes being involved
aesthetically. A recreational focus, for instance, can also include
aesthetic components. This occurs, for example, when one attends a
football game to have fun but also is delighted by the patterns of color
produced by the clothing worn by the spectators or is awed by the
imaginary arc produced by a football as it is thrown down field.
Both non-utilitarian objects and articles that are primarily functional
may evoke responses to their aesthetic qualities. We may experience a
sense of pleasure when observing the smoothness of a surface or the
repetition of shapes that unify a form within a coffee-maker or a
painting. The most obvious functional object that we experience
aesthetically is the automobile. In fact, for most of us, the appearance
of a particular auto is as important as how it functions mechanically.
When we focus on the perceivable (acquiring information through our
senses) qualities that permeate any experience -- variations in color,
shape, values (dark and light), texture, space, scale, and composition
-- coupled with identifying relevant signs and symbols, and then have
thoughts and feelings that are stimulated by what we encounter, we are
immersed in the aesthetic dimensions of experience
Is Everything That Evokes a Response to
Aesthetic Qualities Art?
While all types of objects and events -- existing in nature and
manufactured by humans -- may evoke an aesthetic response, are we
willing to call all of them art? Under what conditions will we classify
particular objects and events as art? Can we really refer to a tree or a
mountain as a work of art even though these phenomena were created by
the forces of nature, and not as forms organized to involve us in their
aesthetic qualities? Responses to the aesthetic (inherent) aspects of
natural phenomena are based upon our human predisposition to react in
this manner. We may refer to a tree as "lonely" or "stately" and to a
mountain as "majestic" or "foreboding" but such responses are based upon
our acquired sense of what constitutes such characteristics, and not
anything that nature has prescribed within a given form.
We may respond aesthetically to a variety of objects produced by people
who have no word for art in their native language. Are we willing to
call such objects art even though they were produced as objects to give
form to tribal values and traditions, and not as art, per se; i.e.,
objects to be experienced aesthetically? Why is it possible for art to
be produced under such conditions? Because the qualities that we respond
to aesthetically were implanted within the forms created, not by an
accident of nature, but as a consequence of the imperatives of a human
society. Tradition requires particular organization of inherent
qualities that results in evoking responses that are congruent with
responses to acknowledged works of art.
Can people who have not been taught how to make art produce art? Can
children produce art? The untutored and the child can produce art
because the forms they create can and do involve us in aesthetic
encounters. The organization of sensory elements -- shapes, colors, etc.
-- that evokes our responses occurs, consciously or subconsciously,
because of the predisposition of human beings to produce (and respond
to) aesthetic stimuli. Untrained artists, referred to as primitives,
have produced works that are in world renowned museums. Spontaneity,
naiveté, and a direct appeal to our emotions are characteristics we
often associate with works produced by three to ten year olds, which we
classify as "children's art."
Anonymous, The Cat, c. 1840.
Museum of American Folk Art
Angel, a watercolor painting
by a 10 year old English boy, student of Richard Ott.
if we think about art as manufactured forms (but not natural phenomena)
which involve us primarily in the aesthetic aspects of experience, then
it is possible to assign the term "art" to all manner of objects and/or
events, including commercial and primarily utilitarian objects, as well
as works produced in preliterate societies and by those without training
regardless of age.