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What makes something qualify as art? Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder or are there certain ‘universal’ qualities we find beautiful? These questions are central to the branch of philosophy we call aesthetics. In this lesson, you will be introduced to concepts and perspectives on the topic, which provide a holistic understanding of aesthetics as a critical reflection on art, culture and nature.


Aesthetics considers what is appreciated as beauty in nature as well as in the creative and performing arts. “Beauty itself is but the sensible image of the infinite,” said the historian George Bancroft. The nature of beauty is one of the most fascinating riddles of philosophy. Is beauty universal? How do we know it? How can we predispose ourselves to embrace it? This branch of philosophy is called axiology which is ultimately concerned with understanding sensory-emotional values and judgments of feeling and taste.

Axiology seeks to understand the criteria of human values and of value judgments and therefore also incorporates not only the study of beauty, but also the study ‘goodness’, or ethics. In this way, it has been suggested that “aesthetics and ethics are one” (See Diane Collinson, 1985, p. 266 in the British Journal of Aesthetics). Don’t worry if you don’t get the connection at this stage as we will return to this later in the lecture and discuss this idea at length in your tutorial.

If aesthetics is concerned with what constitutes beauty then this naturally leads us to question whether there are objective criteria for what determines beauty or whether beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

A quick google image search for the phrase ‘aesthetic beauty’ returned the following results which visually suggest that the term refers to measures of physical beauty and our contemporary Western cultural obsession with physical perfection. From this, one might recall another adage: beauty is only skin deep. Or perhaps beauty’s purpose is more meaningful than this google search would suggest?

As this intro suggests, aesthetics is a pretty big topic. It doesn’t belong in a single course of study, nor does it relate to one area of creative media-making more than another. Rather, it applies to everyone working in and consuming creative media.

In this online lecture, we will explore aesthetics in relation to culture, mathematics, nature and art. In doing so, we will need to draw on various disciplines and perspectives on the topic. As you read through this lecture, try not to be overwhelmed by terminology. Instead, at the end of each section, spend some time reflecting on the questions asked and forming your own opinions.

Is beauty universal or is it in the eye of the beholder?

You can explore this question through either the humanities or mathematics. Interestingly, we find that both disciplines would propose a curious universality to beauty. Explore at least one (or if you’re really curious) both of the theories below before moving onto a less objective argument.

Example 1: A Humanist perspective

Watch Denis Dutton’s lecture on ‘A Darwinian Theory of Beauty’ below.

A Darwinian theory of beauty | Denis Dutton

In this video, Denis Dutton suggested that a particular kind of pictorial representation of landscape was universally considered beautiful by all humans. Why? If you would like to explore this idea further take a moment to explore the ideas of the beautiful, sublime and picturesque outlined in this short article.

Beautiful, Sublime, and Picturesque Aesthetics in Art

The beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque are three key concepts in aesthetics and philosophy of art. Together, they help to map the variety of aesthetically significant experiences. The differentiation among the three concepts took place in seventeenth and eighteenth hundreds, and is still to these days of some significance, despite the difficulty in pinning down each of the three concepts.

Can you find an artistic representation of the landscape he described? Why not tweet you image along with a comment using the hashtag #CIU_SAE or post it to you local campus student forum.

Example 2: The mathematics of beauty

One of the oldest theories of what constitutes beauty can be found in mathematics. The Fibonacci Sequence is a sequence of numbers where each number is the sum of the previous two—i.e., 0,1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34…and so on to infinity. The ratio of one number to the next is approximately 1.61803, which is called “phi”, or the Golden Ratio.

It’s not a magical mathematical equation of the universe, but it definitely reflects naturally occurring decorative patterns. Perhaps we could say that it’s a way of understanding what nature thinks is beautiful.

Watch this short video below and see if you can identify any occurrences of the golden ration in nature, design, music, or any other material object. Once you begin to pay attention to patterns, you’ll be surprised at just how frequently Fibonacci’s sequence makes an appearance.

The Fibonacci Sequence: Nature's Code

Side note…. Aesthetic computing

The relationship to mathematics and aesthetics is not limited to patterns occurring in the natural world. Rather, there is an extensive branch of theory on aesthetic computing, which is the study of artistic forms in the design of formal structures found in computing. If you’re a games programmer, or if this topic is of particular interest to you then you might like to take the time to read one of the following articles for a unique perspective on the value of aesthetics to our understanding of computing.

Fishwick, P. (2007). Aesthetic Computing: A Brief Tutorial. In F. Ferri (Ed.), Visual languages for interactive computing: Definitions and formalizations. Hershey, PA: IGI Publishing.

Fishwick, P. (2003). Computing: Making artistic mathematics and software. YLEM Journal, Special issue on Art and Programming, 10(22) 6–11.

Good art vs. bad art. Is it a matter of taste?

Aesthetic theories in the realm of media and cultural criticism tend to focus on the way we train the senses to recognize beauty:

The types of questions that cultural critics might ask include:
-What is beautiful?
-What is art?
-Is there one universal definition? Do they change?
-Is art an expression of the creator’s emotions?
-What was the artist’s intent? Does intention matter?
-What is the viewer’s interpretation?
-Are all interpretations equal or true?
-How do time, place, and culture influence the creation of art?
-How do they affect response to the artwork?
-What makes something aesthetically pleasing?
-Differences in values and beliefs about world as well as language and customs affect ways to consider the significance of art. How then do we assign value to it and our experience of it?

Watch the Idea Chanel video below for a more contemporary and somewhat contradictory perspective on the idea of what constitutes beauty.

What is ~A E S T H E T I C~ Experience? | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios

Now make up your own mind on the argument and share your thoughts by responding to this anonymous poll. CLICK HERE TO RESPOND and CLICK HERE TO VIEW LIVE RESULTS.


This is the place to be if you’re trying to participate in a live poll

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So where is art at now? Do some of these ideas about aesthetics contradict what Denis Dutton proposed regarding beauty’s essentially humanistic function? Can beauty and art have multiple and perhaps contradicting functions? Think through this question by examining the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’. What does it mean? Who said it and why? Below is a link which is your first clue to finding the answer.

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 – in pictures

This new exhibition explores aestheticism – an extraordinary artistic movement that sought to escape the ugliness and materialism of the Victorian era by creating a new kind of art and beauty The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 is at the V&A from 2 April to 17 July

The term ‘aesthetic’ has both narrow and expanded uses. Thus it can be used to name the formal or compositional aspect of a work of art as against its content, to refer to a coherent philosophy of art, or to the artistic dimension of culture as a whole. ‘Aesthetics’, meanwhile, embraces the study of any or all of these things. Traditionally, however, it has concerned itself with the nature, perception and judgement of beauty.

The term was first used with this sense in the eighteenth century and aesthetics has been a prominent part of German philosophy, most influentially in the work of Immanuel Kant. The tendency in this discussion has been to try to identify the transcendent and timeless aspects of beauty and to discriminate against what is contingent and therefore not art. In this way, it has been allied to the discussion of cognate terms such as ‘genius’ and ‘taste’ and has operated in a similar fashion to the notion of the canon.

A recent study such as Terry Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990) has demonstrated that while seeking an essentializing and transcendent definition of art, this tradition has, in fact, served to buttress particular ideas of subjectivity, freedom, autonomy and universality, which make it ‘inseparable from the construction of the dominant ideological forms of modern class society’ (1990: 3). Aesthetics, like art itself, therefore becomes an ideological and historically conditioned set of discourses.

… A more iconoclastic response to the bourgeois ideology of ‘Art’ and all it entailed was associated with the European avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s … [As a] seminal volume of essays on postmodernism entitled The Anti-Aesthetic (Foster, 1983) would appear to suggest, this reaction has continued in the postmodern period. However, it would be rash to assume a consensus on art, non-art, anti-art, or the viability of aesthetics in the contemporary period, which is often seen as having witnessed a separation of art, ethics and political worlds…

The discussion of ‘feminist‘ and ‘black’ aesthetics in recent years, or of a ‘geopolitical aesthetic’ or ‘postmodern political aesthetic’ in the work of Fredric Jameson (1991, 1992) would share this broad aim. However, it is commonly thought that the image-driven world of the postmodern has produced an entirely ‘aestheticized’ society (Connor, 1989). In which case, where all is seen as fashion, taste and style, there can be nothing for the aesthetic as a distinct realm and practice to detach itself from or connect with.

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The aesthetic society

In the section above, Brooker referred to the aestheticisation of society. Specifically stating “… where all is seen as fashion, taste and style, there can be nothing for the aesthetic as a distinct realm and practice to detach itself from or connect with” (Brooker, 2003, p. 3).

In the section above, Brooker referred to the aestheticisation of society. Specifically stating “… where all is seen as fashion, taste and style, there can be nothing for the aesthetic as a distinct realm and practice to detach itself from or connect with” (Brooker, 2003, p. 3).

According to Jean Baudrillard in The Transparency of Evil (1993) “our society has given rise to a general aestheticization: all forms of culture — not excluding anti-cultural ones — are promoted and all models of representation and anti-representation are taken on board” (p. 16). Baudrillard goes on to suggest that “It is often said that the West’s great undertaking is the commercialization of the whole world, the hitching of the fate of everything to the fate of the commodity. That great undertaking will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world — its cosmopolitan spectacularization, its transformation into images, its semiological organization” (p. 16).

Stuart Hall similarly argues that “Culture has ceased …to be a decorative addendum to the ‘hard world’ of production and things, the icing on the cake of the material world. The word is now as ‘material’ as the world. Through design, technology and styling, ‘aesthetics’ has already penetrated the world of modern production. Through marketing, layout and style, the ‘image’ provides the mode of representation and fictional narrativization of the body on which so much of modern consumption depends. Modern culture is relentlessly material in its practices and modes of production. And the material world of commodities and technologies is profoundly cultural. Young people, black and white, who can’t even spell ‘postmodernism’ but have grown up in the age of computer technology, rock-video and electronic music, already inhabit such a universe in their heads.”


Reflect on the text above and the series of images below. Is the whole world a spectacle saturated in aesthetic signifiers to such a degree that ‘art’ is no longer relevant or distinct from commodity?

aesthetic mac

aesthetic mac

puffed food

puffed food


Another question to ponder (also raised in the introduction to this lesson) is the connection between aesthetics and ethics. Especially since both aesthetics and ethics are concerned with the critique and judgment of value. A useful way to understand this is by asking the following question: does the moral value of an artwork determine its aesthetic value? That is, should we think that a film, game or book is worse, aesthetically, because its content is morally objectionable? Likewise, is morally objectionable content aesthetically displeasing?

Take a moment to reflect on these questions as we will raise them for further discussion in your tutorial on this topic. If you are unsure, here is an example you might like to consider.

To help you form an opinion on this, google the artist Damien Hirst. Below is an example of his work. It’s called “For the Love of God”. This is a real skull and these are real diamonds. Is it beautiful? Why/why not?

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Don’t forget that there’s course reading to be completed. The reading for this week is Mandoki, K. (2012). The problems of aesthetics. In Everyday Aesthetics (pp. 3-13). London: Ashgate. Read it online or download it in PDF format from the link.


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