The philosophy of art designates both the almost constant interest of philosophers for art since antiquity and a discipline more or less conceived as autonomous since the end of the eighteenth century. For the historian of philosophy Michel Blay, two approaches to the philosophy of art must be distinguished. On the one hand, it covers all the corpus of philosophical texts which, since Greek antiquity, address the question of aesthetics (from Plato to Kant in sum); on the other hand it is the discipline born with Schelling at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The contribution of antiquity revolves around the notion of “mimesis“, with Plato in Sophist, and especially with Aristotle, in his Poetics. According to him, mimesis is the art of representing reality; Art would therefore represent the real and the beautiful. However, it is with the setting aside of the concept of mimesis that “the first theory of art as an activity of genius emerges in Kant”. In addition to distinguishing the different arts, Kant allows moving the inner principle of artistic character to the pole of reception, assimilating it to the aesthetic idea as an expression of understanding and imagination.
In his course entitled Philosophy of art (1802-1803), Schelling rejects the name of aesthetics and announces that only philosophy is able to develop a “true science of art”. Another great name concerning the philosophy of art is that of Hegel, who, in his Aesthetics (1828-1829) shows that the purpose of this discipline is Beauty and Art, understood as distinct from religion and philosophy. The modern period is dominated by two major currents. The first, represented by Adorno, raises the question of the autonomy of art, particularly with regard to the social. Theodor W. Adorno, heir to the thought of Karl Marx, concludes that without the social art can not exist. The second current is that of analytic aesthetics. It raises the problem of the definition of art. The uses of the word are analyzed by Ludwig Wittgenstein while his operation as a practice is studied by Nelson Goodman.
The beginning of the eighteenth century sees the emergence of an awareness of art, as the previous century had revealed the consciousness of the subject. Born of philosophical modernity, aesthetics remains a philosophical discipline that despite its attempts has not been emancipated in the science of art. It is only by simplification that we agree that aesthetics (philosophy of the senses and art) is a reflection on art, because the object of this reflection is not given in advance. In fact, it is the artistic practices themselves that have become reflexive and today it is hardly possible to separate the work of art from the discourse on which it is based: “aesthetic” and “artistic” are two adjectives that are practically interchangeable.
However, at the origin of the term is Alexander Baumgarten, the author to whom aesthetics owes his name, who had considered “aesthetic art”. According to his idea, beauty provided the opportunity for perceptible knowledge to reach its perfect fulfillment: an art of beauty was the equivalent of the theory built on causality. A mediation was carried out by this third term, “beauty”, introduced between art and aesthetics.
Just as the modern gaze was exercised to discover a certain primitive art, the aesthetic discovered precursors among ancient authors. For example the dialogue of Plato Hippias Major traditionally bears the subtitle Of beauty and it has become a canonical text of aesthetics. So it is hardly surprising to find that it anticipates some issues that are still debated today. The texts from non-European civilizations can also be subjected to such a reading and, in this way, one also reconstructs, for example, a Chinese or Indian aesthetic.
As long as art was considered a regulated activity, the need for a system to judge its results was not felt. It is only retrospectively that the various Poetic arts written since ancient times have become representative of a normative aesthetic. The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns shows that in fact the conventional character of the norms or rules was well perceived. The first sketch of the aesthetic was an attempt to naturalize art, and this temptation remains alive and well.
It is to Emmanuel Kant that we owe the compromise solution which, in one form or another, is currently in progress. According to his original idea, “genius is the innate disposition of the mind by which nature gives rules to art.” If beauty, or rather the idea of beauty, timeless and universally valid, linked art to the discourse that concerns it, innovation (artistic or aesthetic) poses a problem. Accepting the appearance of geniuses, defined by their “natural talent,” opens the way to change; art remains an activity subject to certain rules, but these can change. Baumgarten’s aesthetics, which were reduced to perception, develop into judgment on the perceived.
This judgment, however, does not rely on defined concepts. The “Beautiful” is universal without concept. This is basically saying that it is the brilliant work that gives a new insight into the “Beautiful”. The beautiful work is not reducible to a concept, but constitutes an aesthetic Idea, which gives reason to think, although it is inexponible (accessible only by intuition), and so transcends the understanding. Kant interprets aesthetic feeling as the fruit of an unconceptionable relationship between our faculties, intuition, imagination and reason. This means that the “Beautiful” is rooted in the deep unity of the human person, to which the experience does not have access. Moreover, and Hegel will criticize it, Kant grants a primacy of the natural “Beautiful” on the artistic Beautiful. Or rather, human genius is part of nature. Finally, Kant does not summarize the value of a work of art to beauty alone, since it develops an analytic of the sublime. It is sublime that which goes beyond the human imagination, and at the same time provokes a reaction of intelligence as of the human will. As great or powerful as is a reality of nature, we surpass it by the Idea of the infinite, and especially by our moral resolution.
From the Kantian approach, one can derive a good part of subsequent artistic views and practices. Of particular note are the idiosyncrasies of those whom a part of society accepts as great artists, the transgression conceived as an aesthetic act, or the manifestos and other programs by which modern artistic movements assert themselves.
This way of proceeding by introducing a third term, beauty, genius, culture or other, between what is called “art” and what we call “aesthetic” manages at most to postpone the problem, because at each time comes back the question; what is beauty, genius or culture? How do we agree on the validity of the answer? Whether art proposes its works to an aesthetic or that aesthetics circumscribes the field of art, there is a circularity that is difficult to avoid without appealing to the historical and social dimensions of these phenomena.