Summary of Aesthetic Principles

Keith Allen

The aesthetic experience consists in enjoying a thing for its intrinsic beauty, for what it is in itself. The nature of this enjoyment is not, however, uniform. It is differentiated by whichever emotions are predominant when that thing is being experienced, and some emotion is always aroused when a person is intimately engaged with a thing. Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son thus stirs up feelings of fear and revulsion. Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is humorous, and Miyazaki's Spirited Away conjures up a sense of wonder.

These emotions are, however, without the pragmatic objects and consequences they have in ordinary life. When the emotion of love is evoked by a play, for example, the viewer of that play does not fall in love with some character on the stage and attempt to carry away the actor portraying the particular character who aroused such feelings. When experiencing fear in the same context, the viewer does not believe himself actually to be in danger and flee the theater. In both these cases, the emotion is experienced as divorced from the practical considerations with which the emotions of ordinary life are concerned. While an emotion evoked by a work of art is focused on the events and characters portrayed in that work, it does not take them as its objects as would the ordinary emotions. Instead, the work of art evokes emotions that are relished as such, as pure feelings transcending the particularities of specific subjects and objects. Consequently, when enjoying the intrinsic beauty of a work of art as tinged by the emotions evoked by it, even fear and revulsion can be sources of pleasure, as the work's beauty consists, in such cases, of its capacity to evoke these emotions.

Not all things, however, produce an equally intense response. There are other factors that can be added to a thing and themselves appreciated, so that, when present, they enhance the beauty of the thing with which they are connected.

What is more, as a work of art is whatever has the capacity to produce an appreciation of its native beauty, including an appreciation of the skill that went into the making of it, the work itself serves no purpose beyond itself. Didactic content can be effectively included in an artistic work when it contributes to the production of a given emotional reaction to the work in the viewer, but when the purpose of a work is to convey information that work ceases to be art.

The purpose of a didactic work is to convey information, and once information has been learned it need not be learned again unless it is forgotten. Having memorized my multiplication tables, I have no need to memorize them again. If I review them, it is either because I do not know them, whether because of forgetfulness or my not having learned them when I was first presented them, or because I enjoy reviewing them, in which case I am not reviewing them in order to learn them but to relish some pleasure. In contrast to this, I can read and reread a poem without learning anything from it, because the experience of relishing it for its own beauty does not entail acquiring any new knowledge. The aesthetic experience is nothing other than the appreciation of a thing's beauty as colored by the particular emotions that thing evokes in the person having the experience. Art serves no other purpose and is clearly differentiated from practical activities such as learning.

Referring to nothing but itself, art is pragmatically useless, but, existing only for itself and being deeply satisfying, it is in need of nothing else.

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© 2004 Keith Allen. All rights reserved.
Revised 2005