Understanding the Philosophy of Aesthetics

Art is not just about creating something– it is also about interpreting the meaning behind the artwork, the theories used and understanding the aesthetic ideals, known as the beautiful and the sublime. Accordingly, art and philosophy are two related fields since art is a branch of philosophy under aesthetics. Hence, understanding the philosophy of the beautiful and sublime is necessary for beginner artists to grasp the creation process – why aspiring for creating something beautiful is the ultimate goal of art.

The main question, however, is how do we determine if something is beautiful? Most of all, how do we distinguish what is beautiful from what is not? This topic, though long debated since the period of the Renaissance, is an interesting one so continue reading to learn new philosophical insights into art! 

A photo of a man in black shirt standing near white board

Paint your own photo with a paint by numbers custom kit

One of the lengthy debates on the subject of aesthetics concerns the nature of beauty. One argument in this area asks if beauty exists in the thing in itself or our sight. Taking this a step deeper, what type of thing is beauty if it is in ourselves (subjective) rather than in the world (objective)? Understanding beauty as an individual experience is one line of thinking, but is beauty really in the eyes of a beholder?

Understanding the Philosophy of the Beautiful and Sublime

Before digging into the essence of the phrases combined, it is vital to set out the applicable meanings of each term properly. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "beautiful" as
;excelling in grace of form, the charm of color, and other qualities which delight the eye and call forth admiration,
;affording keen pleasure to the senses in general,
;impressing with charm the intellectual or moral sense, through inherent fitness or grace, or exact adaptation to a purpose, and
;relating to the beautiful; aesthetic.

On the other hand, "sublime" is defined as "affecting the mind with a sense of overpowering majesty or irresistible strength; intended to inspire awe, deep veneration, or high emotion, by its beauty, immensity, or grandeur."

One significant difference between these two is their impact on the observer. Generally, it is assumed that the beautiful is consonant while the sublime is dissonant; that the beautiful validates our reason, while the sublime brings us face to face with the assertion that we are at odds with nature, but that this dissonance can be settled through our expression of human liberation beyond the laws of nature.

A painting of ladies in the forest

The notion of beauty is something that we are all too familiar with – we see an object that embodies beauty, and our senses, particularly our sight, feel something (such an experience is very subjective, some find it joyous, sad, etc.). However, how many times in our mundane little lives have we experienced the sublime?

To understand what the sublime is all about, let us trace it back to its philosophical beginnings. Accordingly, while the groundbreaking works regarding the philosophy of the sublime were published during the Enlightenment era, particularly at the time of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, it was established way back during the period of the Renaissance and even the Classical Antiquity. 

Raphael's sketches and studies of skulls, as well as Masaccio and Andrea Mantegna's images of Christ dead and dying, remind us of the inevitability of death and the uncertainty which are considered important topics of the sublime.

In an essay on the Theory of Painting, painter and theorist Jonathan Richardson went into detail about the sublime and its examples in Michelangelo and Baroque painter Anthony van Dyck (1715). On the other hand, the earliest work regarding the notion of the sublime was credited to Longinus, a philosopher known for his critiques of aesthetics, particularly on the sublime. To him, the sublime is an elevated style of simplicity but above the ordinary. 

A x-ray image of the skull hand and arm

Paint your own photo with a paint by numbers custom kit

In 1757, Edmund Burke wrote, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” He described the sublime as an aesthetic result that produces the most powerful sensation that the intellect is capable of feeling. 'Whatever is in any way horrible, is familiar with terrible objects, or functions in a manner akin to horror, is a wellspring of the sublime,' he wrote. Meanwhile, Kant’s Critique of Judgment was about his views on the sublime. Kant asserts that there are four types of judgments: agreeable, good, beautiful, and sublime. Kant believes that the first is personal, the second is universal, and the other two are subjective universals in between. The Sublime is "nature seen in an artistic assessment as might that has no control over us," and an item may generate terror "without being terrified of it"...it creates dread but isn't dangerous.

A painting showing ocean waves in a storm

The Beautiful and the Sublime: What’s the Difference? 

As art movements come and go, and as different art styles emerge over time, the whole history of art can be seen as a shifting landscape of aesthetic ideals. What was deemed to be beautiful before may not be considered beautiful now and vice versa? However, we are often mistaken about what is sublime, the thought-provoking feeling that we have whenever we see art, is the feeling of seeing something beautiful.

With such, how can we exactly tell the difference between the beautiful and the sublime? For Kant, he argued that objects in nature, etc. might be beautiful but not sublime. This assertion manifests itself in the notion that the sublime cannot be found in any tangible form because the beautiful is preoccupied with form. According to Kant, the sublime is a property of the intellect rather than of reality. 

A painting of angels

Paint your own photo with a paint by numbers custom kit

On the other hand, according to Burke, the beautiful is what is well-formed and aesthetically beautiful, but the sublime has the ability to empower and destroy us. Burke discusses the Sublime's physiological implications, particularly the dual emotional character of terror and desire. Burke defined the sublime experience as "negative pain," which he named joy and distinguished from positive joy. Delight is thought to be more powerful than positive pleasure since it is thought to occur from the elimination of suffering (by encountering the sublime thing).

Final Insights 

There's beauty and then there's the sublime. The two things are not synonymous or exclusive, but rather represent opposite ends of a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is the beauty linked with a sense of grace and harmonious order. It has a slightly ornamental feel about it. The much deeper sort of beauty that we identify with depth and authenticity lies at the other end of the spectrum.

While understanding the philosophy of the beautiful and the sublime may be confusing in the beginning, reading more books and critiques about the philosophy of aesthetics (where the topic belongs in terms of the area of philosophy) can help you understand these better. Moreover, this topic may be helpful for you in interpreting art and nature, and why we feel certain emotions whenever we see artwork or an object from nature.

To end this discussion, we are all aware that beauty is common – it is something that we encounter every day, but have you encountered the sublime?

We hope that you enjoy reading a little something philosophical.

Paint your own photo with a paint by numbers custom kit