What is Art? Approaching Aesthetics in 3 Ways

How was art defined throughout the years? We take a look at three traditional approaches to what makes a piece of work art.

Nov 13, 2023By Antonio Panovski, BA Philosophy

what is art aesthetics approaches


Among the many unanswered and eternally open philosophical questions is: What is art? It’s a question that’s been given many different answers, which vary based on several connected questions: is art objective or subjective? Is it good or worthless? What is its function? In this article, we analyze 3 traditional and intuitive definitions of art that have been influential throughout history: art as beauty, art as form, and art as imitation.


1. Art as Beauty 

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) by Francesco Melzi, via The Royal Collection Trust.


One of the oldest definitions of art in aesthetics is art as beauty. If you look at any dictionary or encyclopedia of the past two centuries and look for the definition “aesthetics,” you will find the classic definition that “aesthetics is the study of beauty and art.” Beauty is not only something that we are all familiar with, and not only is it a term that has been constantly used from ancient times until today, but it is also something that everyone desires and respects. Its history is complex and multifaceted.


Many, even today, wonder and seek answers to the following questions: What is beauty? What is it about an object that makes it beautiful? What does the experience of beauty consist of? Does beauty exist in objects (objects) or in the subject who perceives or judges beauty? Is beauty subjectively or objectively determined? Should aesthetics be concerned only with beauty in art or also with beauty in nature? Is the connection between beauty and art still relevant today, or is it just part of the history of art or the history of beauty?


Tasso Contemplating Beauty by Tommaso Minardi, 1823, via the Met Museum.


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All these questions point to the complexity of the issue of beauty. It is a category that has been defined in many different ways throughout history. Umberto Eco says that beauty was never something absolute and unchanging, but depending on the historical period and the country, it embodied different features. So, the nature of the concept of beauty is something fluid and ever-changing, something whose definition has constantly changed over the years. Therefore, it is necessary to give a brief history of the concept of beauty.


In ancient Greece and Rome, the category of beauty is often equated with the unity of beauty and goodness, the theory of kalokagatia. According to Plato, it is not only objects, forms, colors, or sounds that can be beautiful, but also thoughts, customs, characters, and even laws. Thus, the category of beautiful is transferred from the field of aesthetics to the field of ethics as well.


But as early as the 5th century BC, the sophists opposed this interpretation of beauty and proposed a much narrower, sensualist understanding of beauty. According to them, what is pleasant to the sight and hearing is beautiful. In this way, the beautiful is distinguished from the good and is understood exclusively aesthetically. Thomas Aquinas said in his Summa theologiae that what is pleasing when perceived is beautiful.


The pre-Socratic Greek sophist philosopher Protagoras (490 BC- 420 BC), via Medium.


The unification of beauty and art was most clearly and strongly made in the Renaissance. This is evidenced by the Treatise on Painting by Leonardo da Vinci, which distances the crafts from the arts, and brings art closer to the sciences. This unification lasted for a long time in aesthetics, from the beginning of the construction of the concept of “fine arts” as opposed to crafts until the beginning of the 20th century.


What has been said so far about beauty was partly also a characterization of art, because for a long time art was defined only as “beautiful art.” However, the phrase “fine arts” was used for the first time in the 16th century by the Portuguese Francesco de Olanda (boas artes). Still, it was only widely accepted in the middle of the 18th century when the French philosopher Abbot (Charles) Batte published his work “The Beautiful arts reduced to one principle” (Les Beaux Arts Reduits a un meme principe). From this work, the name “fine arts” solidified itself and becomes generally accepted, thus building the modern notion of art. The beautiful arts, says Bate, exist because “their purpose is to give us pleasure.


The connection between beauty and art is apparent, and the fact that there is a certain connection between the two is indisputable. Through this display we notice the determination of art as beauty. Beauty is the defining characteristic and determinant that makes art what it is, and this is the first definition we have of art.


2. Art as Form

The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (570 BC – 495 BC), via The Marginalian.


A different definition of art, one that might be as old as the first one we’ve already mentioned, is of art as form.


Throughout the history of aesthetics, a series of thinkers believed that the formal features of an object mostly determine whether we will be able to define that object as “beautiful.” This idea is usually defended by philosophers and aestheticians who consider that beauty is a feature of the object, that is, that it is objectively based. When referring to such approaches, German esthetician Max Dessoap points out that formalist and objectivist aestheticians reduce beauty to certain abstract relationships and consider that form is a key aesthetic value.


Since the time of the Pythagoreans, philosophers have been trying to demonstrate that beauty is an objective category and hence that the beauty of the world (of the cosmos) is something that mostly depends on numerical relationships. The Pythagoreans constantly emphasize harmony as something of the highest value, and when they talk about harmony, they actually mean harmony over order, order over proportion, proportion over measure, and measure over number. That is why the categories of proportion, symmetry, harmony, and rhythm are relevant to these theories of art.


As the Polish aesthetician Tatarkiewicz points out, under the influence of the Pythagoreans and per their theory, the Greeks began to call beauty symmetria or proportionality.


3. Art as Mimesis

Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus (460 BC – 370 BC) from Abdera. Line engraving by L. Vorsterman after P. P. Rubens, via the Wellcome collection.


The theory of art as imitation (mimesis) has its roots in pre-Homeric times. Art was taken to be the imitation (expression) of inner feelings during religious acts, especially during dancing, mimicry, and singing within the framework of Orphic and Dionysian cults and festivities. So, we can state that the theory of imitation begins as a kind of theory of expression.


In the 5th century BC, the expression “imitation” passed from the language of cult and religion into the world of philosophy and science with the philosophy of Democritus. We drink, says Democritus, by imitating the singing of birds; we weave by imitating the spider’s web; we build dwellings by imitating the building of birds’ nests, etc.


However, the complete formation of this theory in antiquity occurs with Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s philosophy of art derives in a necessary way from his metaphysics. Plato placed the world of art in last place, just below the world of ideas and the world of materiality. The world of ideas is the only truly existing world. It is perfect, eternal, and one. The world of materiality, says Plato, is a copy or shadow of the world of ideas. As a consequence, the world of art is a copy of the world of materiality or, simply said, a copy of the copy. Since nature is a copy of the ideas, a landscape would be a copy of the copy. Therefore, Plato does not value the world of art very highly in his system. Imitation, he says, is only a passive repetition of reality, a faithful copying, and is not a proper way to reach the truth.


Bust of Plato, via Wikimedia Commons.


Although Plato saw imitation as something completely negative, Aristotle took the opposite view. According to Aristotle, art is not only a bare copying of reality, but it is always an introduction of something new: it is also an interpretation of the world. For Aristotle, imitation is positive and represents a free action of the artist in relation to reality. He even extends its meaning from the realm of the visual arts to the realms of music, dance, and literature.


The theory of mimesis underwent significant changes in the Middle Ages, with the philosophy of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. They understand imitation as imitating the divine in nature or God himself within a mystical and religious discourse, as Mimesis Theou or as Imitatio Dei. Therefore, St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval Aristotelian, unreservedly supports the thesis that “art imitates nature” (ars imitator naturum).


In the Renaissance, imitation again became a fundamental concept of art and art theory, and this is confirmed by the fact that from the 15th to the 18th century, the term imitatio became the most commonly used term both in relation to the visual arts and in relation to art overall. The theory of mimesis experienced its peak with the publication of Charles Batte’s book The Fine Arts reduced to a single principle in 1747. In the book, imitation is defined as the main principle of the unification of the “fine arts.”


Is There a Best Way to Define Art According to Aesthetics?

Plato didn’t value the theory of imitation, as well as art in general. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


Through this brief text, we can clearly see that art, in the field of aesthetics, has never had a static, clear, and unambiguous definition; it has a fluid nature, as can be gathered from the evolution that it went through throughout the years.


Each thinker came up with their own position on the question of what art is, and each of them emerged with an original theory, making the whole discussion even more rich and complex. There are, of course, other more contemporary approaches and theories about the topic of defining art. The question of what art is remains open to this day, and a lot of new theories will likely emerge in the future.

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By Antonio PanovskiBA PhilosophyAntonio holds a BA in Philosophy from SS. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, North Macedonia. His main areas of interest are contemporary, as well as analytic philosophy, with a special focus on the epistemological aspect of them, although he’s currently thoroughly examining the philosophy of science. Besides writing, he loves cinema, music, and traveling.