Aesthetics is the philosophical study of art. If you think about what is enjoyable, or valuable about artworks, and why art is important, then you are considering issues to do with aesthetics.

The study of aesthetics is tricky because there are so many different kinds of artworks and it is difficult to think about what they have in common or how they should be categorised or judged. A seminal question in the field of aesthetics is ‘what is art?’ – how ought art be defined? And this question alone has various answers depending on which theory is being applied.

Art defined.

Art includes sculpture, painting, plays, films, novels, dance and music. And it isn’t always clear what the category of art excludes – in large part because artists are always pushing boundaries. The creative nature of art sees works or objects being considered as ‘Art’ that provoke shock, outrage, censorship or exclamations of ‘That’s not Art!’.

Just think about the first time Marcel Duchamp tried to display an artwork called ‘Fountain’ in 1917. The urinal, a ‘found object’ was signed by the artist ‘R. Mutt, 1917’, and caused a riot of disagreement as to whether art must be created or made with one’s own hands or whether it can be intentionally chosen and displayed.

Is it the creation or the reception of the artwork that matters the most?

Who decides whether something is a work of art? Is it ‘the artworld’ of experts and critics? Is it the artist? Or is it the viewer? Many viewers may not understand what they are seeing or may not truly appreciate the skill involved in creating a particular artwork.

For instance, the first time one looks at a Rothko painting, which may appear as a blank canvas painted with a couple of coloured squares, a viewer may think, ‘I could have painted that!’ It is only with an understanding of Rothko’s technique that one may start to appreciate the effort he put in to create it.

And even if we appreciate the skill and effort an artist exerts, we may or may not feel any particular ‘aesthetic experience’ when looking at a piece of abstract or contemporary art, while watching an opera, or while reading a novel by Dostoevsky.

An individual perspective

One’s experience of art is subjective as individual tastes differ. And yet, if we are to claim that some artworks are better than others, or explain why some artworks stand the test of time and are valued by generations, we need to refer to some standards by which to judge them. Are there any features artworks must have to be considered as art? Should artworks be beautiful? Do they need to be moral? And who decides whether or not they meet this criteria?

Despite the historical interference by political and religious leaders who worry about the influence art may have in a society, debates as to what constitutes good art, aesthetically and even morally, has been a matter for debate for aestheticians.

Sometimes it takes time for something to be considered art, let alone to be considered aesthetically valuable. Think about Banksy’s graffiti art. It has been the case that unsuspecting council workers have removed graffiti from the side of a building only to later discover they have inadvertently eliminated a valuable artwork. And yet, not all graffiti is considered art or deemed valuable.

In fact, the opposite is true!

What makes Banksy an exception?

Definitions of art have changed over time. Traditional views of art usually cited ‘beauty’ as an important feature of artworks, but that has since altered. Indeed, is one meant to find the displayed urinal ‘beautiful’? An artwork need not be beautiful to be skilfully executed, meaningful and valuable.

The value of art in society

The defenders of art and its unique role in society usually claim art should be valued for its own sake. Aesthetic value is not to be valued instrumentally, for its financial value or for its status, or even for what we can learn from it or because it is deemed morally ‘good’. It may do any and/or all of these things, or none! Art is valuable because it affords an aesthetic experience.

In its creation and reception, as a form of self expression, imaginative engagement, cognitive as well as affective experience, source of individual and social reflection and contemplation, art has always been central to human life. If it is true that the arts capture and express something unique, and aesthetic experience is intrinsically valuable, then we should consider the place for the arts in society and support and value artists for the important contribution they make.

Dr Laura D’Olimpio is a senior lecturer in philosophy of education at the University of Birmingham, UK.