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The Principles of Aesthetics can be considered the definitive work on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, beauty, and taste. It is the result of a series of lectures given by Dewitt H. Parker, and gives a comprehensive review of a truly extensive subject. Every person has some sense of the beautiful and the ugly. We all admire certain images, combinations of sound, taste, smell, or feeling. But where does this enjoyment come from? If our tastes were all alike, we could find precise formulae that define the beautiful and discover the keys to the nature of art. But our tastes differ from one person to the next, and even from one moment to the next. This is what makes beauty a mystery. Art is a grasping at the intangible reality that surrounds and transcends our attempts to order the world. This is what makes the philosophy of aesthetics so fascinating. At the very least, it gives us insight into our nature as human beings. At best, it can let us glimpse the nature of truth beyond reason and intention.
It has been said that art imitates nature. Perhaps some ephemeral quality of the natural world is reflected in our sense of beauty and taste. The philosophy of aesthetics is focused on these questions. It delves into the mysterious pool from which artists and poets derive their inspiration. With this piece, Dewitt H. Parker gives us a beautiful and thorough introduction into a field that points towards the mysteries of the human experience. A summary precedes the full narration, giving a biography of the author, as well as an overview, synopsis, and analysis of the work.
The summary is capped by a brief look at the historical context of Dewitt's work, as well as the criticism and social impact it evoked.
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- Philosopher King
The Why of Beauty Explored!
What did you love best about The Principles of Aesthetics?
Before I get into this, I have to share my bias. I’ve always been in the camp that thinks art can’t be broken down into objective intellectual terms. So I found some resistance when listening to this piece, but only at the start. Parker explores beauty from the angle of the philosopher and psychologist, sure, but he also has a clear passion for art itself and has immersed himself in the subject for this passion’s sake. He does provide some definitions of art and beauty, though he explores these definitions from a subjective angle as well as the more stolid and uptight angle preferred by some earlier aesthetic philosophers.
With regard to the analytical breakdown, Parker describes each piece of art as a combination of sensation and feeling. He explores how different forms of art approach sensation, like tones for music, color and line for painting, letters and words for literature, and how this sensation can be used to convey both immediate feelings, and specific ideas. The psychological element of this bit is fascinating to me, as there is a specific feeling conveyed by the color red, for example, or by a certain pitch or tone. I feel that some of the best artists have an instinctive understanding of this, using our innate response to color, line, form, and tone to evoke gut-level feelings. The neat thing about it is that these feelings are vague but definite, having a clear impact, but at a subconscious level. Even more interesting is that they must be employed with the grace and intuition of a master. To attempt to use lines colors and forms intentionally to generate these feelings can come off as clumsy. Subtlety is the key.
Parker also explores how these basic elements of a piece are combined to produce definite images, with convey even more specific feelings or ideas. While our innate response to certain colors or tones may have its roots in universal human nature, the response we have to specific ideas or suggestive imagery is rooted in our personal associations. This speaks towards the difference in response we feel when encountering a piece of art. None of us has the same associations or exactly the same way of thinking or feeling about the world. Art is a beautiful union of the subjective and the objective, or a meeting of the inner world of the artist with our own inner world.
Parker takes this as far as providing a standard, “a two-part criterion for the interpretation of art.” Now, I’m not so sure about this. His criterion is first: does the art express the artist’s intention? Even parker recognizes that we can’t be sure of this. And most of the artists that I have known weren’t so clear about their intention when creating a piece, and sometimes even after. So this bit seems too intellectual and left-brained for the subject of aesthetics.
The second aspect of the criterion is: does our interpretation lead us away from the sensual medium or towards it? I’m even less certain of this than the first part. Parker’s reasoning is that the value of a piece cannot be rooted solely in the subjective, that if it is only our interpretation that makes it beautiful, then it is not one of those pieces of beauty that has universal appeal. I suppose I can see this, but I’m not sure anything has universal appeal. We learn our lenses, the filters through which we view the world. We can learn to see beauty in things that might have been nondescript or even ugly to us before. And the learning of these filters is largely invisible to us.
Either way, Parker goes on to explore the qualities that make a piece truly beautiful, and in this respect, I really enjoyed his breakdown. He works with Plato’s definition of harmony, simplicity, and proportion. Now, as the description stands, it leaves much to be desired. But Parker explores each of these qualities, applying them to a number of different mediums. He looks at simplicity as unity, the capacity for a piece to hang together as a unit, rather than as a collection of different sensations, images, or ideas. Harmony can come in a variety of ways, through a collection of elements that work together, or through an opposition of elements that balance one another. I suppose what really appeals to me here is his exploration of the psychology and effect of each of these styles of unity or harmony. However, I think that these ideas will be more effective for the art critic than for the artist.
Once Parker explores the fundamental nature of art in itself, as well as the subjective nature of taste, he addresses specifically a number of different mediums. Music, poetry, prose, painting, and architecture. I have to say that there were quite a few insights in this section of the work. I’m fairly familiar with literature, painting and music, but I had never really taken a good look at architecture. Once again, the link between the structure of a building and the subjective influence upon someone within it is fascinating to me. Also, although I’m willing to grant that architecture is art, I feel that an intellectual understanding of the subjective impact can be of use to the architect or engineer, should they choose to take the human effect into account. These are understandings that can be effectively employed by a builder to intentionally craft the aesthetics of their work.
The final sections of the work explore the function of art itself. Here, I have to give Parker credit. Although he explores the purpose of art from the perspective of a “rational man,” his passion for beauty and the aesthetic shine through. He speaks as a lover of art, rather than as a cold and analytical philosopher. Art as a means of uniting with the larger sphere of life, as a method to rediscover meaning in a modern world which has become stale and empty. He views the aesthetic principle as something that can guide societal conduct more effectively than any form of morality. I might not fully agree with him on all counts, but his expression of this was enough to win me over. I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in art, either for purposes of creation or appreciation. I feel, just as Parker intends, it can expand the appreciation of the enthusiast and spark inspiration in the artist.
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- Amazon Customer
Thanks to author and narrator for this gem! Great and informative insight for any creative person