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The Aesthetic
Richard Shusterman
Theory Culture Society 2006; 23; 237
DOI: 10.1177/0263276406062680

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The Aesthetic
Richard Shusterman

Abstract First coined in modernity, the aesthetic is a vague, polysemic and contested
concept whose complexities arise from the variety of the ways it has been defined in
the history of its theorization, but also in its formative prehistory in theories of art and
beauty that preceded its modern coinage. After noting key points of that prehistory, the
article traces three major modern tendencies in construing the aesthetic: as a special
mode of sensory perception or experience that is relevant to life in general; as a special
faculty or exercise of taste focused on judgments of beauty and related qualities such
as the sublime; and as a theory (or essential quality) of fine art. The idea of aesthetic
disinterestedness is critically examined, and contrasts between the concept of art in
Western modernity and in pre-modern and Asian culture are also considered.
Keywords aesthetic, art, beauty, disinterestedness, function, sensory perception, taste

I
Aesthetics is conventionally identified in academia with the philosophy of art and beauty. But
despite the considerable consensus on such definition, the concept of the aesthetic remains
deeply ambiguous, complex and essentially contested. This is partly because the notions of art
and beauty themselves involve such ambiguity, complexity and contestation, but also because
the notion of the aesthetic has an especially complicated, heterogeneous, conflicted and dis-
ordered genealogy. Though the term was coined by Alexander Baumgarten (1998) in the middle
of the 18th century to define his project of a science of sensory perception (aesthesis), the
theoretical roots and topics of aesthetics can be traced back to ancient philosophy where they
receive their first substantive formulation in Platos seminal theories of beauty and of art.
There is already a very strong tension in Platos accounts of beauty and art. Beauty plays
an extremely positive role in Plato, serving as an exemplar of the very highest level of the ideal
Forms and associated with truth and the good. Moreover, beauty is seen as the inspiration and
goal of philosophy itself. In the Phaedrus it is characterized as the clearest, most understand-
able Form, and in the Symposium, Plato describes the philosopher as a master of erotics who
ascends from the love of beautiful bodies to the love of beautiful deeds and discourses, and
finally to a vision of Beauty itself from which he himself can give birth to the beautiful.
In contrast, art in our modern sense of the fine arts fares miserably. Defining such arts
as mimesis (typically translated as imitation though sometimes also as representation), Plato
(1998) denounces them as an imperfect imitation of the forms of the phenomenal world,
which for him are themselves but a distorted imitation of the ideal rational Forms that con-
stitute true reality. Art is thus condemned both ontologically and epistemologically as an imita-
tion of an imitation that distorts the truth it pretends to present. Plato further condemns
mimetic art on psychological, ethical and political grounds. By appealing to the lower,
emotional part of the soul and inciting it with passions, art disrupts the rational psychological
order that should prevail and thus corrupts character and leads to improper behavior. Since
political order and justice are intimately interdependent with the order of proper moral

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London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol. 23(23): 237252. DOI: 10.1177/0263276406062680

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238 Theory, Culture & Society 23(23)

psychology, mimetic art (at least of the typical kinds criticized by Plato) represents a political
danger; arts vivid depiction of wars horrors and loves delights could, for example, sway
soldiers from their duties.
Plato never really considers art on aesthetic grounds for to do so would mean introducing
criteria that might give it more autonomy, and arts autonomy and social prestige were exactly
what Plato wanted to undermine in order to establish the hegemony of philosophy. For art, in
the form of poetry, held sway as the highest cultural authority for purveying wisdom, a position
that philosophy wished to assume. Philosophy, with Plato, defined art in negative terms to
make itself look superior and relegate art to the status of a dangerous frivolity that needed to
be kept apart from the serious order of life, even to the point of banishment from Platos ideal
Republic. Defining art as an imperfect imitation not only helped to demean art but also to
conceal the fact that Platos philosophy itself imitated many aspects of art the concern for
rational form and coherence, the satisfactions of imagination and specularity (that generated
a spectator theory of knowledge), and the interpretation of the meaning of experience and
events. In ancient neo-Platonism, notably that of Plotinus, beauty retained its extreme
superiority to art, since artworks always involved materiality, which involved a falling off from
the higher realm of ideal Forms, and thus to some extent always marred or distorted the ideal
beauty that art sought to express.
Aristotle (1968) admirably defended art from Platos extreme attack by showing the cogni-
tive value of mimesis (in terms of its being a natural, primary means of learning), by arguing
that art imitated the essential and not mere superficialities, and by introducing the doctrine
of catharsis to show how arts arousal of the passions could be a good thing since they are
expurgated within the protected context of arts experience. Just as significant, however, was
Aristotles explicit introduction of principles for formalistic analysis and evaluation of artworks,
most notably works of tragedy. These principles, which refer to the various elements involved
in the object represented, the means of representation, and the manner of representation (i.e.
respectively plot, character, thought; diction and melody; and spectacle) demonstrated the
usefulness of independent, compositional criteria for evaluating art that were not reducible to
ontology, epistemology, psychology, morality or politics. The belief in such criteria signifi-
cantly linked to properties of form, expression and quality played an important role in
modern theories of the aesthetic.
Despite Aristotles theoretical measures to rehabilitate art and mimesis, he continued the
Platonic strategy of subordinating art to philosophy, regarding the former as providing only a
shallower version of the latters truth and insisting on arts isolation from the serious business
of life. As Aristotles theory of catharsis emphasized that art should arouse passions only to
ensure that they be purged, without harming character or society, so his definition of art as
poiesis (poiriy) as contrasted with praxis (pqaviy) further isolated art from the sphere of
ethics and social and political practice. For Aristotle, art as poiesis meant external making, the
creation of objects outside the self (whose end and value were in the objects made), while
praxis or ethical action (which has its end and value in itself and in its agent) both derives
from the agents character and reciprocally helps shape it (Nichomachean Ethics, Book VI,
1140a11140b25).
In speaking of ancient theories of art in terms of mimesis and poiesis, we need to recall that
the Greek word for art, in its most general sense, was techne (sevmg), which Latin rendered as
ars. Both terms go well beyond our modern notion of fine art but instead signified any system-
atic skill or discipline of knowledge, and this general meaning is still present in English as when
we speak of the liberal arts or the martial arts. This same wider meaning is also still present in
the German term for art, Kunst (which derives from knnen, to know), though the term is now,
like art, most often used to designate more narrowly the schne Knste or fine arts. The same
general notion of art as skill or knowledge can be found in ancient East Asian culture, as in the
Confucian notion of the six arts (yi ) which includes arts such as mathematics, archery and
charioteering (see Ames and Rosemount, 1998). The identification of art with the narrower
conception of fine art is the product of Western modernity, which has subsequently been

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Problematizing Global Knowledge The Aesthetic 239

imported also into modern Japanese and Chinese culture, just as these cultures have imported
the Western idea of the aesthetic for which they have had to invent new words.

II
Historically, one of the major theoretical forces that pushed the concept of art to evolve
towards its current identification with fine art was the idea of the aesthetic and the theories
and ideologies it engendered. The notion of the aesthetic emerged from a combination of
currents in early modern philosophy (in both the rationalist and empiricist traditions), as well
as from dissatisfaction with the inadequacies of the traditional discipline of rhetoric and of
metaphysically realist accounts of beauty for treating questions relating to the evolving cultural
fields of art and taste. While ancient and scholastic philosophy regarded beauty as a real
property of things in the world, Descartes definition of real material properties in terms of
extension and mathematical measurement, coupled with the empiricist insistence on the
subjective dimension of our sensory perception, initiated what could be called a subjectiviza-
tion of beauty.
The notion of beauty came to be primarily explored under the more subject-centered
categories of theories of sensory (aesthetic) perception (Baumgarten) and theories of taste
(Shaftesbury, Hume, Alison, Kant, etc.) The end of aesthetics, writes Baumgarten, is the
perfection of sensory cognition as such, this implying beauty (1998: 14). Moreover, interest
in perceived qualities of value other than beauty such as the sublime (as highlighted especi-
ally by Burke, 1998, and Kant, 1952) and the picturesque and growing worries about whether
there existed a special faculty of taste, eventually led to the primacy of the aesthetic as a special
mode of perception. Kants Critique of Judgement (1952), widely regarded as the most pivotal
and influential work of modern aesthetics, centrally deploys and intimately identifies the notions
of taste and the aesthetic. The judgement of taste is aesthetic and its determining ground [of
pleasure or displeasure] cannot be anything other than subjective, though the disinterested and
nonconceptual nature of this pleasure and judgment should, Kant argued, make them univer-
sally shared (1952: 412). Later, however, the idealist and intellectualist trends of 19th-century
philosophy established the clear primacy of the aesthetic over taste as the umbrella concept for
explaining our appreciation of art and nature, just as it elevated art above nature as the privi-
leged focus for aesthetic judgment and inquiry. Hegel (1993: 3, 5, 9), who identified aesthet-
ics narrowly as the Philosophy of Fine Art (thus excluding natural beauty), was especially
important in this privileging of fine art. His idealist, intellectualist ambition could not accept
aesthetics as a realm of mere taste but instead conceived it as a scientific discipline that
addressed the high truths expressed in art. Natural beauty, he argued, did not have the deep
meaning and truth that art had, and was also too open to vagueness and too destitute of a
criterion. Fine art, in contrast, along with religion and philosophy, conveys the most compre-
hensive truths of the mind and the profoundest intuitions and ideas.
In the evolution of aesthetics from Baumgarten to Hegel, we can see three distinct axes
for understanding the aesthetic. Baumgartens epistemological-scientific approach construed
aesthetics as a general science of sensory perception that was involved in discerning and
producing beauty. Though beauty was important to the field, the emphasis of the aesthetic
(as reflected in its etymological root) was more on its mode of perception or consciousness,
and the scope of aesthetics was much wider than art, including not only natural beauty but
also our daily practices. Baumgarten thus advocated improved aesthetic perception (achieved
through various forms of training) not simply for fine arts but as a way of improving our
general, including practical, functioning. In Kant, we find aesthetics as a theory of taste that
emphasizes beauty and the sublime in nature (with respect to which judgments of taste
were alleged to be purer) and in art (where their purity was marred by representational,
conceptual meanings). But Kant sharply distinguished the aesthetic from the realm of truth
and from practical or ethical matters. In Hegel, aesthetics is defined as the philosophy of fine
art. He notes the perceptual etymology of the term aesthetic only to brand this meaning as
irrelevant, just as he rejects the term kallistic (from the Greek word for beauty, jkkoy) as
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240 Theory, Culture & Society 23(23)

too general for designating the aesthetic field, because he claims the science of aesthetics
should deal only with artistic beauty, while making its prime focus the highest ideas that
art presents through its beautiful sensuous forms (1993: 3, 9).
The genealogy of aesthetics thus provides at least three different (though sometimes
overlapping) defining themes for this discipline: sensory perception, beauty and similar
concepts of taste such as the sublime, and art. The first of these themes has been the least
influential in modern aesthetics, and the final topic art has, since Hegel, been the most
dominant, especially when the 20th century began to display a positive disregard for, or
rejection of, beauty. Thus many contemporary aestheticians who have little regard for Hegel
nonetheless prefer to identify their field as philosophy of art rather than aesthetics, since
the latter still conveys a residual sense of concern for beauty and its manifestations beyond
the art world.
However, both the concept of beauty and the idea of the aesthetic as a distinctive mode
of perception or dimension of experience are currently experiencing a strong revival in
aesthetic theory. Part of this revival reflects contemporary trends that affirm the art of living,
the idea of living beauty or, in Michel Foucaults term, aesthetics of existence (Foucault,
1984; Shusterman, 1992). These trends are often explained as functions of postmodernisms
aestheticization of life and of its challenging of modernitys notion of aesthetic autonomy, a
notion that sought both to compartmentalize art and the aesthetic from ethics, politics and
scientific thought, and to see art narrowly in terms of the allegedly autonomous fine art of
elite culture (that was often touted as being pure of practical, economic or political interests).
But philosophers as different as John Dewey and Foucault remind us that the ancient Greeks
were keen to affirm the art of living and the blurring of ethics and aesthetics, and we can see
the same insertion of art and its aesthetic stylization into the core of practical, ethical and
political life in ancient Chinese (especially Confucian) culture and in other East-Asian
traditions that it helped shape.
These ancient cultures, however, did not employ the technical concept of the aesthetic as
used in Western modernity. So when occidental philosophy was imported into East Asia in the
latter half of the 19th century (initially in Japan through the great Meiji reform), the modern
Western notion of aesthetics had to be introduced and given a Japanese translation. Ultimately,
the Japanese term chosen was bigaku which means the science of beauty (bi); and the
Chinese, whose young intellectuals first imported modern Western ideas through Japan, simi-
larly adopted this strategy in translating aesthetics as meixue (mei being the word for beauty).
Some Japanese aestheticians, however, who are aware of Baumgartens original meaning of
aesthetics, and sensitive to the fact that aesthetics is much more than the study of beauty and
that much contemporary art has little to do with beauty, have recently proposed that aesthet-
ics be translated as ganseigaku the science of sensory perception. Several Japanese scholars
are also critical of the way that the dominant occidental ideology of the aesthetic and fine art
has tended to declass traditional Japanese arts (such as the art of tea and calligraphy) and
relegate them to the realm of geidoh (ways of culture) while reserving the status of art for
Western-style art forms (Aoki, 1998; Shusterman, 2004). Although the concept of the
aesthetic has historically served as an ideological instrument of occidental cultural hegemony,
it does not follow that the aesthetic dimension itself is inherently oppressive and parochially
Western. Moreover, the concept of the aesthetic is open and contested, and some of its
currently contesting interpretations seem congenial to Asian practices and also to popular
Western expressive forms that fall outside the realm of fine art but are nonetheless appreci-
ated for their aesthetic properties and expressive power.
Among the historically key features of the aesthetic as a special mode or attitude of percep-
tion is the idea of disinterestedness, that aesthetic perception examines and appreciates its
object not in terms of some ulterior motive or function a desire for possession, power,
material or political advantage, or instrumental use but instead for the intrinsic value or
pleasure of the appreciative experience itself. This notion, introduced by Shaftesbury (1999)
but reinterpreted and radicalized in different ways by Kant and others, was used to distinguish

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Problematizing Global Knowledge The Aesthetic 241

aesthetic pleasure from mere sensory pleasure and appetite for possession. It thus aimed to
justify aesthetic value (and the works of art and nature seen as constituting its domain) by
making the aesthetic more intellectual rather than sensual; more refined (hence more aristo-
cratic) than vulgar.
The idea of disinterestedness (partly by being sufficiently vague and polysemic) also served
other functions for aesthetics and art in modernity. The idea of freedom from practical interest
provided a theoretical justification to help secure a greater measure of autonomy for art from
the domination of church and state that had long set the essential agenda for, and limits of,
artistic production and consumption. The notion of aesthetic disinterestedness was defined by
Kant primarily in terms of lack of desire for the real existence (hence also the real-life prac-
tical use) of the contemplated appearance, but it was also understood in the sense that
aesthetic contemplation involved the free play of our perceptual and intellectual faculties
without subordinating them to a specific determinate concept or practical function. The sense
of aesthetic disinterestedness as freedom from practical purpose was carried over into Hegel
(1993: 9), who thus defined fine art (as distinct from entertainment and applied arts) as art
which is free. What Hegel really meant by this is freedom from serving mundane practical
functions, since he clearly assigns art the function of purveying truth.
The nonpractical nature of disinterestedness paradoxically had some practical advantages for
the arts. The notion of disinterestedness as a distanced contemplation of appearances that was
not concerned with their reality or real-world functions (and thus not burdened with the desires
or concerns that such reality would evoke) helped make it possible for artists to use almost
anything as a subject for artistic rendering, thus extending the scope of fine arts topics. Anything
could be made into art or even be an object of beauty in itself, just so long as the disinterested
aesthetic attitude was shaping our point of view in regarding that object. Describing this attitude
as will-less, Schopenhauer (1966) argued that when we say a thing is beautiful, we thereby
assert that it is an object of our aesthetic contemplation as pure will-less subjects.
Along with disinterestedness and in some ways clearly connected with it, Kant (1952: 80)
argued that purposively organized but functionless form (or what he called the form of finality
. . . apart from the representation of an end) was a distinctive feature of the aesthetic. This
emphasis on form rather than on sensation, content or function strengthens the intellectual
profile of the aesthetic, since appreciation of pure form requires abstracting it from the sensory
and semantic contexts and real-world practical purposes in which it is usually embedded. If
formalisms intellectual aspect helps to legitimate the aesthetic among philosophers, the view
of the aesthetic as functionless form rather than practical action or truthful content contributes
to the notion of aesthetic autonomy the aesthetic as a world apart, a world of pure appear-
ance. Building on Kant, Schiller (1967) described the realm of art as that of mere appearance
(Schein), and argued that the educative function of art and the aesthetic depended paradoxi-
cally precisely on their nonfunctional status as play and image, which gives them freedom from
the constraints of reality and practical action.
The ideology of the art for arts sake movement at the turn of the 20th century helped
establish the modernist notion of artistic autonomy, reinforcing the aestheticist idea that art
serves society best by devoting itself to arts own ends and freeing itself from any external
function. This dialectical argument resurfaces in many contemporary thinkers who care
passionately about social and political issues. Adorno, for instance, argues that arts true and
vital function is to be functionless, thus defying our capitalist cultures overwhelming concerns
with utility. If any social function can be ascribed to art at all, it is the function to have no
function (Adorno, 1984: 322). Other philosophers have also argued that resolute non-
instrumentality is necessary to preserve the autonomy of art and the aesthetic, which is in turn
necessary to avoid their corruption by real-world politics. Walter Benjamin (1969) famously
equated fascism with the mixing of aesthetics and politics, while Hannah Arendt (1961:
21516) insists that artworks are pure disinterested ends of intrinsic, independent worth,
things which exist independently of all utilitarian and functional references.

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III
History, however, reveals the anomaly of art for arts sake; art has had very important social,
political and religious functions in pre-modern and non-Western cultures; and these roles have
greatly contributed to arts meaning and aesthetic power. Not surprisingly, there is significant
dissent to the Kantian orthodoxy of aesthetic disinterestedness and functionlessness. Nietzsche
(1956: 23840) mordantly mocks the dogma of disinterestedness as an expression of philoso-
phers prudishness, innocence and second-hand, spectators view of art contrasting it to the
creative, hands-on view of the artist. The power of art and beauty, he argues, derives not from
disinterest but rather from the excitement of the will, of interest [die Errgeung des Willes
(des Interesses)].
When our estheticians tirelessly rehearse, in support of Kants view, that the spell of beauty
enables us to view even nude female statues disinterestedly we may be allowed to laugh
a little at their expense. The experiences of artists in this delicate matter are rather more
interesting; certainly Pygmalion was not entirely devoid of esthetic feeling.
From the apparent absence in aesthetic matters of our common practical interests, the Kantian
tradition wrongly concludes that aesthetic experience is entirely disinterested. This fails to
recognize that there also may be special interests that are distinctively artistic and aesthetic,
such as the desire for beauty, or the intensity and harmony of sensory experience, and that
such interests are deeply connected to other, more practical life-serving interests and ends.
John Deweys pragmatist aesthetics makes a related point about function. Though arts
aesthetic experience cannot be reduced to a specific, narrow and mundane instrumentality, it
does not follow that art has no significant functionality that adds to its value and indeed
enriches its intrinsic appreciation in aesthetic experience. Dewey instead maintains that art is
distinguished not by any single use but by its wide-ranging functionality, which includes the
life-enhancing pleasures of aesthetic experience. The work of esthetic art satisfies many ends.
. . . It serves life rather than prescribing a defined and limited mode of living (1987: 140).
The idea that aesthetic consciousness can and should be autonomously compartmentalized
from the rest of life as a pure and functionless island of delight is also challenged by other
important theorists of various persuasions. Though T.S. Eliot initially earned fame for his
formalist practice and theory of poetry, he came to realize that the appreciation of poetry and
art in general were inextricably entwined in the real world and its social and practical contexts,
which in fact also impacted on the very shaping of the forms of art (Eliot, 1964; Shusterman,
1988). Hans-Georg Gadamer (1965) similarly argues against the compartmentalizing ideology
of what he calls pure aesthetic consciousness [reine sthetische Bewusstein] by showing how
it cannot do justice to arts meaning, claims to truth, and lasting impact on our lives and world.
Pierre Bourdieu (1979) offers a complex critique of the ideology of the aesthetic, showing
how its Kantian notion of disinterested and functionless contemplation actually serves un-
deniable social interests of affirming hierarchical distinction. Not everyone can afford to take
the sort of disinterested, nonfunctional, formalist perspective recommended by the Kantian
aesthetic; only classes of people who enjoy enough wealth and leisure not to worry about their
material needs and interests can afford to acquire and exercise it. So the adoption and display
of this disinterested disposition is an assertion of ones membership in this sociocultural elite.
Bourdieu does not deny a relative degree of autonomy to the aesthetic field (just as he accords
a kind of autonomy to the field of science). But he shows that the aesthetic field is shot through
with interests, functions and social struggles that are embedded in larger social contexts and
struggles.
Finally, analytic philosophy has also been critical of the idea of a special aesthetic attitude
that is wholly disinterested (Dickie, 1974). One reason is the lack of clarity about what disin-
terested contemplation of an artwork really means. Is this a distinct mode of perception or
does disinterestedness merely refer to a lack of motive for our perception? If it seems hard
to identify (introspectively or physiologically or conceptually) a special disinterested mode
of perceiving, it is equally hard to argue that the mere fact of having different motives
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Problematizing Global Knowledge The Aesthetic 243

necessitates a categorical difference in what or how we perceive. Moreover, artist and critic
obviously have important interests in regarding artworks; the artist typically views her work
with the aim of creatively improving it, while the critic is concerned with producing an inter-
pretive or evaluative appraisal. Is their perception, because of its motivating interests, then
excluded from the realm of aesthetic perception? But isnt the artists and critics perception
paradigmatic of the aesthetic? If so, something seems wrong with the characterization of the
aesthetic as wholly disinterested. Another problem found with the aesthetic is that it does not
seem to deal adequately with much contemporary art that is blatantly political (hence not
disinterested) and shuns the goal of beauty, one of the central concepts with which the
aesthetic has been traditionally identified.
The aesthetic is obviously a vague, polysemic, contested and shifting signifier. But vague
terms still signify, and the aesthetic is by now far too deeply embedded in both theoretical
and everyday language to recommend that it be expelled from our cultural discourse. Besides,
its historically nested rich complexities of meaning harbor the promise of generating new
rewarding directions of use. The future of this concept depends on the ways that theorists,
artists, critics and consumers will appropriate the various meanings it has already acquired in
its rich history, and adjust them to address and reshape our contemporary cultural world.

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Richard Shusterman is the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in the Humanities and
Professor of Philosophy at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton. His many books include
Pragmatist Aesthetics, already published in 13 languages.

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