Philosophy of Aesthetics
To begin with, aesthetics refers to a branch of philosophy that deals with the questions of nature, art, beauty and taste. Various scholars have used aesthetics as a vehicle to reflect critically on nature, art and culture. Aesthetics is closely intertwined with the philosophy of art. In this paper, I will critically analyze the definitions of art expostulated by Tolstoy, Danto, and Carraoll with special reference to role of self identity in art.
Tolstoy defines art in these words: "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them." According to him the value of art lies in its ability to empathize with the readers or audience. Art also serves the purpose of catharsis for the artist and the receiver (audience/reader) of that art. For him, art is a useful for communication emotions and experiences. Morality is the essential component of art.
Art must establish an exclusive kind of rapport between the artist and his/her audience. He believes that the very aesthetic conception of art stirs a kind of human activity in which the artist making use of external signs communicates his own experience and feelings. To illustrate his definition, he comes up with an example of a boy who reels from fear after coming into contact with a wolf. When the boy narrates his experience, it would ‘infect’ the hearers in a way that they would identify themselves with that very experience. This, for Tolstoy, is the perfect example of art. However, art that elicits empathy while communicating any emotion or experience cannot necessarily be termed as good art.
However, such an “infection” is not the sole criterion of good art. Tolstoy, at this point, comes up with two views. Art that involves stronger infection is a better art. But the subject matter which creates infection must contain feeling worthy of creation and expression. He opines that good art must cultivate the feeling of universal brotherhood while bad art is one that suppresses such a feeling. In other words, with good art comes the moralistic Christian message of universal brotherhood. Art is not merely a tool for education and indoctrination of ideas but it also serves the purpose of inculcating morality and spirituality. For this very reason, he does not analyze Greek art in high esteem due to its tendency to cherish the virtues of heroism and masculinity. In this way, Greek mythology comes in direct confrontation with the teachings of Christianity.
The theory of art that Tolstoy offers is constructed on a double foundation. It allowed him to demonstrate whether a given work was or was not a work of art, whether it was less or more important. The other cornerstone was the moral theory which he used to evaluate the quality of admitted works of art.  Tolstoy also condemns such an art which reproduces past models without finding its roots in the contemporary cultural ideals of the artist’s time and place.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Danto's definition has been glossed as follows: something is a work of art if and only if (i) it has a subject (ii) about which it projects some attitude or point of view (has a style) (iii) by means of rhetorical ellipsis (usually metaphorical) which ellipsis engages audience participation in filling in what is missing, and (iv) where the work in question and the interpretations thereof require an art historical context. (Danto, Carroll) Clause (iv) is what makes the definition institutionalist. The view has been criticized for entailing that art criticism written in a highly rhetorical style is art, lacking but requiring an independent account of what makes a context art historical, and for not applying to music."
The essay "The Artworld" in which Danto coined the term “artworld”, refers to the cultural context and atmosphere of art theory. He has had rather a conventional approach to address this contentious issue of art. He lambasts Socrates and Plato’s view of art as imitation. They believed art to be a mirror to reality. However, Danto contends that, were this theory plausible enough, every image would become an artwork. Despite the fact that many renowned scholars had faith in the cogency of mirror theory and tried to imitate nature in their works. Nevertheless, Danto asserts that the advent of photography has negated the mirror theory rendering it an implausible view of art.
According to him, groundbreaking developments in modern like post-impressionist paintings, have fully defied the imitation theory (IT) because they are least bothered about the imitation of nature or reality in their art. Therefore, such a break-away from traditional notions of art required the emergence of a new art theory. The new theory also served to make other things hitherto defined not as art such as masks and weapons from anthropological museums come under the definition of art. This new theory known as “Reality Theory,” or RT, did not attempt to prove that artworks were imitations rather they laid emphasis on the fact that they were not. For instance, Roy Lichtenstein’s gigantic paintings of comic-book panels “are not imitations but new entities, as giant whelks would be”. Same is the case with Robert Rauschenberg’s actual bed, which he hung vertically on a wall and streaked with paint. A naïve person (“Testadura”, Danto calls him) might not comprehend that this is art and may just consider it to be a messy bed.
Danto also came up with a “style matrix” for art. According to him, the basic meaning of the term art has always remained vulnerable to change. He bases his argument of art on his own contemporary version of Hegel's dialectical history of art. He neither implies that the process of making art has ceased to exist nor does he claim that good art is no longer to be produced. Nonetheless, he believes that a certain history of western art has ended in the way Hegel had suggested.
The term "end of art" in his essay refers to the genesis of modern era of art in which art does not adhere to the confines of imitation theory any longer rather it takes up a new purpose. According to him, the philosophical and aesthetics issues in modern art are hard to be simplified given the fact that they no longer follow any establish convention of art such as imitation theory. Danto’s argument is that for almost any characteristic that you think comes under the definition of art may face rejection by another critic at the same time. The point is that the works of art have no special way or convention to follow.
Prominent scholars have pinpointed the self-evident faults in the theory of Tolstoy. The major fault of Tolstoy’s argument lies in its excessive use of moralistic overtones. His tone appears to be polemic and didactic. He also uses confusing categorization to define good and bad art. It somehow makes difficult for a reader to fully differentiate the categorization in way as Tolstoy intended.
An art theory is not supposed to be expostulated on moral basis because it restricts appropriate judgment. His approach is narrow and arbitrary that leads him to question quite absurdly the widely-regarded and great plays of Shakespeare and praise and defend less reputable work such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That said, he also particularly attacks Wagner and Beethoven as examples of overly cerebral artists for lack of real emotion. According to him, their work is inferior to children’s songs and folk tales.
In conclusion, conventionalist definitions do well for modern art but find it harder to account for art’s timelessness and universality. The fact that there may be art completely detached from our Western institutions and traditions is hard to conceive. Aesthetic definitions of art do well to fit in with art’s universal and traditional features but the advent of modern art has made this issue all the more complex and debatable. An aesthetic definition and a conventionalist one could simply be conjoined.
But that would merely raise, without answering, the tricky question of the unity or disunity of the class of artworks. Which defect is the more serious one depends on which explananda are the more important. Arguments at this level are hard to come by, because positions are hard to motivate in ways that do not depend on prior conventionalist and functionalist sympathies. If list-like definitions are flawed because uninformative, then so are conventionalist definitions, whether institutional or historical.
Tolstoy, Leo, “What is Art?” translated by Aylmer Mude, 2000, Replica Books
Jahn, R.Gary, “The Aesthetic Theory of Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art?” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
September 1, 1975
Adajian, Thomas. "The Definition of Art", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London, Oct 23, 2007
Danto, Arthur. “The transfiguration of the commonplace: a philosophy of art”. Harvard University Press, 1981