Art Term Tuesday: Aesthetic or Esthetic?

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

“I love your esthetic!” is a phrase I’m hearing, and reading, more and more lately. Whether in relation to fashion, design, or art, it’s a common term in magazine articles, Instagram comments, and Buzzfeed quizzes as a stand-in for personal style. (I just took a Buzzfeed quiz entitled “What Candle Scent Are You Based on Your Aesthetic Choices?” Spoiler: I’m Eucalyptus). But wait, I thought it was aesthetic, with an a? Turns out, that’s the British English spelling (aesthetics), while American English drops the “a” (esthetics). This makes sense, as the British enjoy adding vowels to words: colour, vigour, rigour. Spending so much time inside my apartment, I’ve found myself pondering my own esthetic recently, and if all my design and style choices reflect this abstract concept of self. This usage, however, isn’t the original definition of the word, but instead a permutation conceived by current culture. So, what does esthetics (or aesthetics for the British) mean?

A philosophical study of beauty, it encompasses the nature, appreciation, and feeling of beauty, art, and taste. Derived from the Greek “aesthesis”, meaning perception, it was appropriated by German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten to refer to the branch of philosophy concerned with beauty and taste. By posing the question “What is beauty?”, he used the term to describe his process of understanding what makes an object beautiful or ugly, and how those judgements are passed. In relation to art, estheticism asks questions like: What is art? What makes good art? How does art make us feel? It seeks to discern what happens in the mind when we interact with beautiful objects or environments: viewing a work of art, listening to music, or watching a play. It can also refer to a set of principles that define a specific movement, like the esthetics of artworks created during the Renaissance.

Of course, the definition of beauty is dependent upon the time and culture in which the object of discussion is made. Aristotle believed that beauty was about function and proportion while Immanuel Kant concluded that beauty is subjective, and thus cannot be quantified in by the scientific eye but instead is reliant on, and in, the eye of the beholder. Kant’s theory constitutes the modern-day usage.

Philosopher Dennis Dutton identified six universal signatures in human esthetics: expertise/virtuosity (technical skill), nonutilitarian pleasure (non-functional or “art for art’s sake”), style, criticism (judging and appreciating artworks), imitation, and special focus (dramatic focus of expression). Today, critiques of these signatures abound: artists may purposefully eschew technical skill, artworks can be devotional or serve a religious purpose, and criticism is divided between including the concerns of the artist, or their intention, in the evaluation of the work or holding it apart. Today, the change in perception according to social circumstances is also included in the esthetic evaluation, as new media has continuously altered the functions of works of art. Impressionism, for example, was a reaction to the invention of the camera. Suddenly, what artists had painstakingly attempted for centuries, to replicate exactly the objects or people sitting before them, was accomplished in mere minutes. Freed from the constraints of perfection, artists moved to capturing a moment, or impression, of everyday life. Interestingly, when Impressionists first exhibited their works, they were mocked by critics and viewers alike for their lack of technique! Today, however, we venerate these works for their texture, movement, color, and use of light. Esthetics is not a static concept, but instead one determined by time and culture. The character of art is not as fixed as we may believe.

Not to be confused with ascetic, which is the practice of severe self-discipline in the form of abstention from indulgence and luxury, typically for religious reasons (i.e., a monk or nun), esthetic is a complete 180: enjoying beautiful things because they are beautiful, and valuing them for their beauty. Philosophy is marked as a discipline with no “right” or “wrong” answer, and art is similarly distinct from other schools in that esthetic judgements can be both objective and subjective. Knowing the context behind a piece may make a viewer more inclined to see it in a favorable light than if they are interacting with it based on its beauty alone. The aesthetic movement in the 19th century championed the visual and sensual qualities of art over more practical or narrative considerations. In this view, then, the beauty would be all that matters and all that is discussed. Today, we are more inclined to discuss the lenses of creation, interpretation, artistic narrative, and the materials that mediate the experience of looking. Individual sensitivities also shape artistic interactions and are enhanced or reduced by the space in which the art is presented. To illustrate what we mean by place and space, consider the work of glass artist Dale Chihuly. His natural, organic forms seamlessly merge within a botanical setting but look stark against the brilliant, white walls of a gallery or museum. Where is the best space, or place, to interact with individual works of art to ascertain their beauty?

A descendent of the concept of taste, esthetics is both a personal preference and influenced by social and cultural directives. Can we compare different arts aesthetically? Should their aesthetic appeal be the determining factor in their valuation? Is what we find esthetically pleasing in a building the same as a painting or a sculpture? Take a look at the images in the gallery below, which do YOU find esthetically pleasing? Which do YOU define as “art”?

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