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Aesthetics: The Branch of Knowledge Dealing
with the Aesthetic Diversity of Life and Art


Theoretical Models of the Aesthetic

The aesthetic is a metacategory, i.e. the broadest and most fundamental category of aesthetics. It embraces that which is common to the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the base, the tragic, the comic, the dramatic and to all other aesthetic characteristics of life and art. What then is the essence of the aesthetic?
In the course of its development, aesthetics has evolved five theoretical models.
Model 1 (objective idealism): the aesthetic appears when god or the Idea spiritualises the world.
Model 2 (subjective idealism): the aesthetic appears when the individual's inner wealth is superimposed on life, which is aesthetically neutral.
Model 3 (dualism): the aesthetic is produced by a union of the objective and the subjective. The materialistic approach to this problem has engendered two alternative viewpoints concerning the nature of the aesthetic.
Model 4 (metaphysical materialism or the naturalistic doctrine) regards aesthetic characteristics as the natural properties of objects like, say, weight, symmetric composition, colour or shape. This model, which has become quite popular, contains, however, too many incongruities to be accepted as the model: if the aesthetic stands in the same row as the object's physical and chemical properties, it is not quite clear why it is aesthetics and not the natural sciences that study it; aesthetic characteristics cannot be calculated or measured in the same way as natural properties can; even if the essence of the aesthetic in nature can somehow be explained with the help of the naturalistic doctrine, its essence in social life and art would have still remained obscure; this interpretation of the aesthetic does not allow a monist explanation of such basic forms of the aesthetic as the beautiful and the sublime on the one hand, and the tragic and the comic on the other; it has been generally accepted that the latter are clearly social in character.
Model 5 (dialectical materialism) treats the aesthetic as an objective property of phenomena and objects which is a result of their relations with the life of society, mankind.
The last model makes it possible to avoid the theoretical incongruities mentioned above.
If one is to try and explain the nature of the aesthetic, the following questions inevitably arise: what is the object of aesthetic relationship? What is the role of social practice in its existence?
What is the connection between the aesthetic and the utilitarian?
Aesthetics has provided these questions with a whole variety of sometimes contradictory answers.

The Aesthetic and the Useful

The aesthetic as a category in its own right has only recently become an object of study. In the history of aesthetics, it has often been analysed in the course of studies concerned with the beautiful.
Socrates identified the beautiful and the useful; the aesthetic was a derivative of the utilitarian, practical value of an object. A beautifully adorned shield which failed to protect its owner from the enemy could not in his opinion be called beautiful, but a shield which did its job well could, even be it devoid of any adornment whatsoever. In a naive and oversimplified form, Socrates introduced social practice into the definition of the beautiful and the aesthetic.
However; it is a bit difficult to whole-heartedly support the statement which was the logical crown of Socrates' doctrine: a bag of manure is beautiful since it is useful.
The search for the nature of the aesthetic has moved in a direction opposite to that chosen by Socrates.1 Sankara, the Indian Buddhist philosopher (9th century) said that aesthetic perception is marked by tranquillity, peace and lucidity, and the absence of carnal desires.
In the Oriental tradition, the aesthetic is essentially the expression of true spirituality, that inner voice of existence and cosmic consciousness which elevates man above humdrum existence and allows him to perceive his own higher spiritual self. In this tradition, attainment of spiritual purification and insight is made aesthetic.
Kant maintained that aesthetic perception of an object implies a disinterested attitude towards it as distinct from a moral or practical attitude; he wrote: that is beautiful which is universally liked without being conceptualised... Beauty is a form of purposefulness of an object in so far as it is perceived in that object without reference to a purpose... That is beautiful which, without being referred to a concept, is seen to be an object that compels liking.2
Kant stressed the spiritual quality of the aesthetic singling it out from the realm of the utilitarian, but he also regarded as an absolute the absence of any practical interest in the object of man's aesthetic perception.
It is clear that a theoretical antinomy of sorts has been evolved: the beautiful-the utilitarian, and the beautiful-the useless. How can this contradiction be resolved?
Reflecting on the unity of the utilitarian and the aesthetic in modern architecture, it would seem that the truth is with Socrates. However, subscribing to his views unconditionally would mean admitting that a decadent painter who refused to acknowledge the beauty of the
Venus of Milo on account of its practical uselessness is right too. It follows that it is incorrect to equate the beautiful and the useful.
But what about the beautiful and the useless? Our admiration of beauty is disinterested. But Kant's ideas contradict the experience of modern production which seeks to manufacture articles which are both beautiful and useful. Therefore, the beautiful is not the useless either. Clearly, either of the two approaches is both sound and erroneous. The antinomy the beautiful-the useful and the beautiful-the useless reflects the existing contradiction of human activity which, although invariably practical, also includes the aesthetic.
The aesthetic is identified with the useful by trends that sum up the experience of the consciousness which is not yet aware of its spirituality but has already moved into the realm of practical interests and is immersed in the world of objects. On the contrary, the doctrines treating the aesthetic as the useless consider it the sphere of purely spiritual human relations. Singling out the aesthetic from the field of the utilitarian was an attempt to establish its universal historical and cultural value as an essential ability of the active individual.
The fate of primitive man depended on his success in hunting which required a trained and keen eye, and a knowledge of the ways and habits of animals. It was that experience which was summed up and perpetuated in the hunting scenes engraved on cliffs which sharpened the hunter's eye and added strength to his arm and hand.
But all the inner life of primitive man, all his consciousness and emotions were reduced to just that one experience. His spirituality lay outside his individual existence. It was confined to a narrowly practical and spontaneous attitude to life and expressed in the sensual images of objects which reflected that which came directly within the scope of man's vital activity. And yet even primitive man's attitude to the world had grains of the generic, the universally human, and that allowed the aesthetic to start to grow on the basis of the practical.
Today, the practical approach does not directly determine the content and form of the aesthetic. Enjoying the beauty and the natural primitive power of a mountain stream, we do not think about using it to set turbines in motion. But behind the aesthetic perception of nature lurks, in an indirect form, the whole historical, cultural and social experience of mankind and all the layers of meaning which add up to an aesthetic appreciation of things. Aesthetic perception is free from utilitarian orientations, but it has nevertheless been evolved by mankind's social and historical practice which is superimposed, as it were, over each of our momentary, subjective and purely emotional reactions. The notion of the useful points not only to the vital need for a given object but also to a conscious intention to use the object to satisfy certain utilitarian and everyday needs. Only in pragmatism as an ideological trend does the useful become the basic principle. In life, it precedes and forms the foundation of the aesthetic.

The Aesthetic as a Value

The aesthetic operates in the form of the useful until the time when human society evolves the antinomy: nature-culture and the natural-the social. Enjoying beauty, man does not satisfy any of his utilitarian needs, like thirst or hunger. Aesthetic perception is guided by that most sublime interest which appears only when man has satisfied his most immediate needs and when a complicated network of social interests has been formed which are often far removed from utilitarian needs.
Georgi Plekhanov emphasised the social character of man's interest in the object of aesthetic perception. Earlier, the same line was explored by another Russian aesthetician, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who said that the products of art are an object of universal interest in the life of man.
The absence of direct utilitarian interest in our perception of an aesthetic object allows aesthetic perception to embrace the whole variety and wealth of man's age-old social and historical experience. In other words, the content of the aesthetic has been determined by
mankind's historic progress.
Perceiving the aesthetic in an object (its aesthetic characteristics), we perceive its broadest social and practical significance, its value for humanity as a whole, for man as a race. While for somebody who is cold and longs for refuge, a tree is valuable mostly as prospective firewood or building material, its value for humanity as a whole is an integral – an infinite sum of infinitely small utilitarian values which in aesthetic perception assume the form of something welcome, desirable, evoking pleasure, joy and satisfaction.
The ability of objects to carry social and cultural meaning forms the basis of their aesthetic value. Objects are materially definite, sensually concrete and have certain natural properties, all of which is the natural material of the aesthetic. In the process of man's socio-historical existence, objects and phenomena become involved into the sphere of human interests acquiring social characteristics, the "sensual-suprasensual" character, a value for man as a race, i.e. their aesthetic qualities.
It may seem odd that natural objects, such as a flower, a forest or a star have social properties. This is an aforethought but philosophically impotent bewilderment of common sense which proceeds from the obvious, from direct experience of material
activity in everyday life. Common sense and reason perceive the suprasensual socio-historical features as the objective features of sensual objects. Common sense endows them with absolute aesthetic nature independent of history or human activity. The position of common sense is represented by the naturalistic doctrine of the
aesthetic. However, there is a mistake here similar to that which is made when it is taken for an obvious fact that the Sun revolves around Earth.
Social and historical practice involves the objects into its realm and puts them in certain relationships with people. The forest, the flower, and even the distant heavenly bodies have long been included by man into the sphere of his practical vital activity. For instance, stars helped explorers and seafarers to find their bearings, they were used by man to tell the time of the day, to devise a calendar, fix the time of the year and of sowing and harvesting. Involvement into social and historical practice gave objects social characteristics, and among them, certain value for man as a race. The object acquired an objective, society-produced aesthetic content (aesthetic properties).
The object's aesthetic value depends therefore not only on its natural properties but also on those social conditions under which it exists. Gold affects man aesthetically not only as a glittering substance extracted from the earth but also as a metal personifying money, i.e., in the final account, a certain type of social relations. The object's aesthetic properties are not identical to its colour. One cannot identify the aesthetic quality of gold with glitter, just as it would be wrong to regard anything that glitters as gold.
The essence of the aesthetic is "supranatural"; to stress the point once more, it has a socio-historical and socio-cultural character, which is expressed through the sensual material of objects. In other words, the aesthetic embodies the natural and social features of the
object in their relation to human activity and in their significance to man as a race
The aesthetic is a universal human value. While, say, politics treats phenomena from the point of view of relations between classes, and ethics – in the light of their significance for individual societies, for aesthetics they exist, first and foremost, in their universal significance for the human race. Each time, man proceeds from a definite social experience. But it is the aesthetic approach which allows him to assimilate this experience in personal, spiritual and cultural forms. Both political and ethical perception have a class, a national, and a universal human element. In aesthetic perception, however, the universal always prevails. Aesthetic values are of a universal nature. This is the basis and the source of the intransient value of the great works of art produced by different epochs. Thus, in a sense, Greek art is still the norm and an unattainable standard.
Assessing the various phenomena aesthetically, man establishes the degree of his supremacy over the world. This degree is determined by the level and nature of the development of society and its production. The latter reveals the universal significance of the natural properties of objects and defines their aesthetic characteristics.
Perception of the aesthetic qualities of nature is always determined by the degree to which man has understood and explored it, and the measure and character of this exploration. The broader man's social practice, the broader the sphere of aesthetically appreciated phenomena.

The Aesthetic as a System-Builder

We have established that the aesthetic is a universal human value and that aesthetic characteristics of objects bear a stamp of the historical type of man's activity. This approach to the aesthetic allows a complete and systematic understanding of aesthetic wealth and diversity of life and the principal ways of its aesthetic cognition. Such understanding not only furnishes a key to revealing the essence of aesthetic forms – the beautiful, the sublime, the tragic, the comic, the ugly, the base, etc., but also serves as the theoretical foundation for dealing with all the chief questions of aesthetics and, first and foremost, for a scientific interpretation of its categories and laws.
This is the starting point of aesthetics as a scientific system.
Life in its aesthetic wealth and universal human value is an object of art. This explains the longevity of works of classical art, which treated contemporary objects and phenomena aesthetically, i.e. from the point of view of their universal value for man. Without that, a work ceases to be art and becomes an illustration or a declaration. A utilitarian approach to the material supplied by life not only produces cliches but destroys the very nature of art, disrupts the artistic image and turns art into a time-server whose products cannot possibly have any lasting value.
This interpretation of the object of art implies that philosophical, ethical and political ideas should find their way into it and encourage its progress but should not substitute the aesthetic, turning art into an illustration of ideas engendered by other forms of social
consciousness. Art creates and regulates the mechanism of individual assimilation of social and historical experience accumulated by man.
Through art, man experiences the information about the world as a personal sensation.
The objective aesthetic characteristics of life lie at the basis of image in art. Aesthetic cognition of nature and society presupposes a deep interest in the cognised object itself, a conscious desire to grasp it both in its entirety and in its particulars. This is the root of
the imaginative nature of art.
The understanding of the world's aesthetic wealth as the object of art makes it possible not only to comprehend the features of an'artistic method but also to find approaches to a scientific classification of art, i.e. develop the principles and a system of its division into kinds and genres.
Interpretation of the aesthetic as a universal human value makes it possible to explore the chief problems of aesthetics as a monist system, proceeding from a single principle.

1 Socrates' ideas concerning the practical character og the aesthetic differ from those of modern pragmatism as a school og thought which maintains that the aesthetic should serve everyday needs representing the demands and tastes engendered by mass consciousness.
2 See Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Verlag Philipp Reclam jun., Leipzig, 1968, pp.63, 75, 99, 105.