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Aesthetics as a Scientific Discipline

What Does Aesthetics Study?
(Aesthetics in Its Relationship to the World)

The unknown author of the Treatise On the Sublime written centuries ago said that each branch of knowledge must meet two requirements. "In the treating of any Art, Two Things are requisite; One, to explain and define what we treat upon; the Other, tho' not in Order, yet in Virtue the principal, to point out, how and by what Methods that Art may be acquir'd."1 Though basically correct, this idea needs to be amplified: the subject should be studied in connection with the purpose of the science, and the means (method) of its study should be linked to its system. Each science has its own subject. To define it means to define the specific features, area of operation and the goals of the science. Unfortunately, it is not very easy to give a concise definition of the subject-matter of aesthetics.
Discussing logic, Hegel noted, very justly, that it cannot say in advance what it is, and only an entire exposition of it produces this knowledge. The same is true of aesthetics: only a detailed account of this branch of knowledge can give an accurate idea of its boundaries. But the author still thinks that an account of aesthetics should be prefaced by a peliminary definition of its subject.
Aesthetics has a long history. In the course of its development, not only aesthetic views changed but also the range of questions it embraces, its subject and its purpose. The Greek natural philosophers and the Pythagoreans viewed it as part of philosophy which served to present a picture of the world in toto; later, it concerned itself with poetics and the nature of beauty and art and tried to sum up the experience of the latter (Aristotle); to this range of questions, Plato added those of state control over art and the part played by the latter in educating man; at one time, aesthetics bordered on ethics (Socrates); it was a division of theology seeking, with the help of art, to induce man to serve god (Tertullian, Thomas Aquinas); it examined the relationship of nature and art (Leonardo da Vinci); it attempted to set standards for art (Boileau); it analysed the sensual cognition of the world through art (Baumgarten); it confined itself to the realm of the beautiful or, to be more precise, art, and not just any art but the beautiful in art only, its goal being to define the place of art in the overall system of the Universal Spirit (Hegel); it aspired to embrace the whole range of aesthetic relationships between man and existence (Chernyshevsky); it sought to supply individual artistic trends with a theoretical foundation, e.g. romanticism (Novalis) and realism (Belinsky, Dobrolyubov, Chernyshevsky) and theoretically pin down the practice of art (neopositivists).
Marxist aesthetics theoretically interprets the aesthetic aspects of the cognition of the world in each field of human activity, including art, where it seeks to enhance the social role of art, which can be done if its nature is understood better.
How, then, do we understand the subject of aesthetics as a branch of knowledge? Each science is concerned not with a separate group of phenomena but the whole world seen from a certain angle, all phenomena interpreted from the point of view of the purpose of a given science. For instance, it would be incorrect to say that medicine deals with man's health; health is the goal of medicine, while its subject embraces the sun, the natural environment, chemical substances and physical phenomena as they affect man's health. The subject of aesthetics is also the world in its entirety considered from the point of view of its value for man.
Aesthetics is that branch of knowledge which deals with the historically determined essence of human values, their creation, perception, appreciation and assimilation. It is a philosophical science concerned with the most general principles of aesthetic cognition of the world through any human activity, especially art, which formulates, confirms and perfects the results of this cognition according to the laws of the beautiful.
The nature of the aesthetic and its many forms in life and art, the principles of man's aesthetic approach to the world, the essence and laws of art – these are the chief questions aesthetics deals with. It moulds the system of aesthetic views of a society which leave their stamp on the entire material and cultural activity of man.

Who Needs Aesthetics and What for?
(The Relation of Aesthetics to the Artist and the Public)

Aesthetic studies are frequently scorned as unworthy of a serious-minded person with practical goals in view. Indeed, who needs aesthetics and what for? On superficial consideration, not even the artist. Like Moliere's Jourdain, who, waking up one fine morning, discovered that he had been speaking prose all his life, a poet may discover unexpectedly that he has always been guided by aesthetic laws being totally unaware of their existence and nature.
But does this mean that aesthetics is useless? Not at all.
The artist does need aesthetics. True, he may have no theoretical knowledge in the field and apply aesthetic laws intuitively drawing them from his own work and the work of his predecessors and contemporaries. But the knowledge which has not been reinforced by theory may not always be sufficient for finding an adequate solution to a problem.
When the artist comes up against a difficult creative task, or wishes to assess his own work, or sets himself fresh goals or tries to find a way out of a crisis, he cannot be guided by intuition alone but would be better served to rely on a knowledge of aesthetics.
There is often an enormous difference between the first and the final version of a genuine work of art. Sometimes it is hard to believe that the same person produced both.
Why is it that not everyone succeeds in turning a sketch or an outline into a work of art? To begin with, not everyone is capable of sustained effort in polishing the work which may take years, as did the picture of the Russian painter Alexander Ivanov The Appearance of Christ to the People, or Lev Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, parts of which he rewrote dozens of times. Not everyone can work like Ilya Repin who went on painting even after his right arm began to shrink, or like Beethoven, who continued to write music even having become deaf. Creation of a masterpiece involves a titanic effort.
Art is impossible without consummate skill, high self-standards, persistence, hard work and talent. But all these essential and indispensable qualities are worthless if there is no artistic conception of the world, an individual world outlook and a harmonious system of aesthetic principles translated into images. An artist's world outlook does not amount to a sum total of borrowed philosophic truths but is born of life itself – observation of nature and society, assimilation of human culture, and an active approach to the world. The world outlook not only guides talent and skill but is itself shaped under their influence in the process of creation. An individual vision of the world and the selection of material are determined and regulated by the world outlook. The act of creation is affected most directly by that aspect of the world outlook which is expressed in the aesthetic system realised through the imagination, whether consciously or intuitively.
As a rule, the act of creation and the understanding of its laws go hand in hand. Aristophanes, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Moliere, Goethe, Schiller, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were not only great artists but also great explorers of the secrets of art.
In the course of its history, aesthetics has repeatedly debated the usefulness of theory to the artist. In antiquity, Pindar contrasted the learned rhymster with the born poet. Plato's approach was more profound and flexible:
he considered it necessary to have both talent, training and theoretical knowledge. In his treatise On the Sublime Pseudo-Longinus propounded the view that the merits of an artist's work are determined more by the power of his talent than his knowledge of the rules. However, he admitted that genuine art was impossible without theory, that talent withered away if it did not constantly seek perfection, and that science directed and polished the genius helping him avoid mistakes.
True, aesthetics is not directly utilitarian – The knowledge of its basic tenets does not necessarily teach creation according to the laws of beauty and vice versa.
We manage to think logically without a knowledge of the subject. However, a study of the laws behind a process, even if not immediately utilitarian, has a profound practical importance. Acquaintance with the laws of logic allows us not only to consciously build a chain of thought but to scientifically test their accuracy and strength, to find the place where the chain has been broken and to supply the missing link. In the same way a knowledge of aesthetics affects the artist's work, if only indirectly, helping him to develop a conscious approach to creative activity which would combine talent and craftsmanship.
Aesthetics is equally important to the people who are on the receiving end of art. A theoretically advanced consciousness is better able to appreciate a work of art.
It is conceivable that while reading, one may derive satisfaction from building words from letters, or enjoy stylistic embellishments or a gripping plot, but true appreciation of art implies the ability to grasp the artist's intention and understand his imagery, and aesthetics can do a great deal towards developing this ability.
Art is the source of one of the most sublime spiritual experiences-aesthetic delight. This is exactly what Alexander Pushkin meant when he wrote, "I want to be ... drunk with sweet harmony, touch fancy's strings And freely weep o'er its imaginings..."2
Aesthetics is essential for developing a taste in art and therefore for true appreciation of art.
Sooner or later both the artist and the intelligent reader or spectator will ask himself: "What is the essence of art, its laws, the nature of the beautiful, the sublime, the tragic, the comic? What is the role of the artistic image and the method of creative work, the distinctive features of literature, theatre, cinema and other arts?" The only way to tackle these problems is to approach art as an integrated system.
Moreover, it is not only a painter who needs aesthetics but also a tailor, a joiner, an engineer, since for them, one of the ways to understand the world is through the laws of beauty. Aesthetics finds its way into the work, everyday life and consciousness of our contemporaries helping them to develop the creative potential each person possesses.

Is Aesthetics a Normative Science?
(The Relationship Between Aesthetics and the Act of Creation)

In the course of the history of aesthetics, two extreme positions have been evolved on the question of its relation to art: empiricism and a trend that exaggerates its normative role.
Boileau, the theorist of neo-classicism, saw aesthetics as a science dictating to the artist the norms and rules derived from philosophy and politics. Another French art critic, Hippolyte Taine, who lived in the 19th century, maintained, on the contrary, that aesthetics should trace the facts of art and pin them down. Both extremes are equally unacceptable for modern aesthetics.
As Vissarion Belinsky, the 19th-century Russian literary critic, wrote, "Aesthetics should not regard art as something thought up, an ideal which can be made real only through
aesthetic theory; no, it should view art as a phenomenon which has long preceded it and which has brought it into being."3
Aesthetics does not exist to act as a check upon creative assumes this function when it throws light on the inner laws and historically unique qualities of art.
The norms it introduces are neither more nor less obligatory for the artist than the norms introduced by The Law of Archimedes for somebody who intends to go sailing. The latter can go on the sea, river or lake in a boat, a steamer, or on a raft, but he cannot use an object whose specific weight exceeds that of water. To this extent, The Law of Archimedes is normative, and breaking it is fraught with danger. The artist is free in his choice of the subject, genre and form of poetic expression, but he cannot dismiss the laws of creative activity. Neglect of aesthetic norms will prevent him from carrying out his intention and may even land him outside the boundaries of art.
Aesthetics is normative in so far as it sums up the laws evolved by art itself. Its conclusions have the force of objective laws, and if they are disregarded, a departure from the nature and purpose of art is imminent.
However, the historical laws of art are not absolute either. Jean Georges Noverre, the founder of ballet performance, the "Shakespeare of the dance", as his contemporaries called him, said, "The rules are all very well up to a certain limit... One should be able to follow them, but also to reject them and take them up again... Woe to the impassive artist clinging to the narrow regulations of his art..."
Beethoven's work is an instance of a radical departure from accepted standards: his music was so unlike anything typical for his time that contemporaries considered him insane.
A great artist oversteps the established boundaries of creative activity. But he cannot break all the laws. Rather, he modifies them in accordance with the changed situation and the newly accumulated experience, and very often the changes he introduces are quite substantial. But his reformism is rooted in tradition, i.e. something that has been retained for centuries. Aesthetics sums up the experience of art and provides a theoretical substantiation and support for everything in it which is truly novel.
Aesthetics bases its conclusions on practical activities in art and its interpretation by history, the theory of art and art criticism. It concentrates on the concrete and the universal, i.e. not empty abstractions but the generalizations which have absorbed the experience of world art.

1 Epistles, Odes, Written on Several Subjects with A Translation of Longinus's Treatise On the Sublime by Mr. Welsted, London, p.142.
2 "Elegy", an excerpt. Translated by Irina Zheleznova – Ed.
3 V.G. Belinsky, Complete Works, Moscow, 1955, Vol. 6, p.585 (in Russian).