Experience and theory in aesthetics

In Michael H. Mitias (ed.), Possibility of the Aesthetic Experience. Distributors for the U.S. And Canada, Kluwer Academic. pp. 91--106 (1986)
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From the earliest times art has been integral to human culture. Both fascinated and perplexed by the arts, people have tried, since the age of classical Greece, to understand how they work and what they mean. Philosophers wondered at first about the nature of art: what it is and how it relates to the cosmos. They puzzled over how art objects are created, and extolled human skills that seem at times godlike in their powers. But perhaps the central question for such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle concerned our involvement with art: the response we have to beautiful things, the moral and salubrious powers of art, and perhaps most of all, the power of art to transform and transcend, leading us into a condition of enhanced perception that may be wondrous, dangerous, and at times overwhelming. The classical age displayed a richness of discussion that centered on art as an activity: an activity that is at once cosmic, social, and individual; an activity that brings understanding of a sort; an activity that may be salutary and even exalting, as in Aristotle's celebrated discussion of tragedy and its cathartic effects. Since the eighteenth century, however, this has changed. Questions about art have shifted to the idea of experience, paralleling the great change in the focus of philosophy from matters of ontology to those of epistemology. In place of starting from an examination of the nature of the universe and moving to the human position in the order of things, we have come to realize, since Descartes and Kant, that all inquiry has its inception in a human locus. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, we have finally recognized that the human factor in every kind of awareness and knowledge is structurally unavoidable. Art has become both a symptom of this change and a standard for grasping it.

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Arnold Berleant
Long Island University


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