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Contemporary aesthetics

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A pair of Van Gogh's shoes, the subject of Heidegger's commentary in the text on the origin of the work of art(A pair of Van Gogh’s shoes, the subject of Heidegger’s commentary in the text on the origin of the work of art (1935).)

Appearing in the 20th century, these are the main movements of contemporary aesthetics. They are part of the context of concerns around language (central question of 20th century philosophy) in relation to the emergence of new sciences (linguistics, neurosciences).


Heidegger defines aesthetics as “the science of human sensitive and affective behavior and what determines it.” It was after 1933, in the lectures on “The Origin of the Work of Art”, his studies of the poetry of Hölderlin and the painting of Van Gogh, that Heidegger tackled the question of art. It shifts the whole ontological question (“What is being?”) onto the arts. In his phenomenological approach, he designates the work of art as an implementation of an unveiling (alètheia) of the Being of beings. Thus opposing the objectivist current (which establishes truth through a relationship to the idea of ​​reality), Heidegger defines art as the privileged means of an “implementation of truth” by the mind:

“It is only through the work of art, as the being that is (das seiende Sein), that everything that appears elsewhere and is already there is confirmed and accessible, elucidable and comprehensible, in as being or, on the contrary, as non-being. It is because art (Kunst), in a remarkable sense, brings being to stand in the work and to appear there as a being, that it can have value as the power-to-put-into-work in general, like technè.”

This approach was later developed by philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre.

Frankfurt School

The philosophers of the Frankfurt School are strongly marked by materialist thought, inspired by Marxism and the study of the crises of the 20th century. Their aesthetic is based on a critical analysis of the social sciences, and a study of mass culture. For Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), notably in his Aesthetic Theory (1970), art remains a space of freedom, contestation and creativity in a technocratic world. Art has a critical role vis-à-vis society, and remains a place of utopia, insofar as it rejects its own past (conservatism, dogmatism, serialism). Adorno will also oppose the facilities of mass culture (cultural industry), condemning jazz in passing.

Benjamin among his subjects of disparate studies, notably elaborates the concept of the aura of the work of art (1917), which he later extends to the study of photography and cinema, and to the technical reproducibility of works of art. The aura will become an important concept for contemporary art criticism (ready-made, Warhol). Benjamin’s contribution to the aesthetics of the twentieth century makes it possible to better understand the originality of works of art in a post-industrial context and to keep open the debate as to their legitimacy and their artistic value.

French “Postmodernism”

Between the 1960s and 1980s, several French philosophers gave impetus to new approaches to aesthetics. Their disparate theories have a strong influence on literary and art criticism in the United States, where they are referred to as “French Theory”. These authors, sometimes attached to a postmodern or post-structuralist philosophy, pursue a critique of the subject, of representation and of historical continuity, under the influence of Freud, Nietzsche and Heidegger in particular.

See in particular: Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze (plan of composition, aesthetic figure, percepts and affects), Jacques Derrida (deconstruction and dissemination), Michel Foucault (aesthetics of the self and sexuality), Jean Baudrillard (objects and seduction).

Analytical aesthetics

Fontaine, by Marcel Duchamp(Fontaine, by Marcel Duchamp (1917). National Museum of Modern Art. 3rd replica, produced under the direction of the artist in 1964.)

Appearing in the 1950s, analytical aesthetics is the dominant current of thought in the Anglo-Saxon world. Coming from empiricism and pragmatism, this aesthetic is based on research using logico-philosophical instruments and analyzes of language, in the extension of analytical philosophy. This aesthetic is constituted by a set of homogeneous theories, essentially linked to the analysis of questions and definitions of art. These theories assert themselves to be independent of “traditional” aesthetics, both by the restriction of its objects (are excluded: the question of beauty, the history of aesthetics) and by the analytical specificity of its research methods ( referring to logic and not speculative). The metaphysical approach follows this current, especially on the “truth of forms”.

Dominique Chateau explains:

“Analytical aesthetics claims to be a new version of aesthetics, a way of conceiving it that cuts it off from its tradition, like a new language that one would claim to substitute for the common language and into which it would be difficult to translate.”

The first important works of aesthetics followed the posthumous publication of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), around the theory of language games better able to allow the analysis of terms of ordinary language: for example, the word ” art” or the question “What is Art?”, without grammatical determiner). This research is in constant dialogue with avant-garde works of contemporary art, notably those of Duchamp and Warhol. Analytical works notably address: the indefinability of art (Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics“, 1956; Mandelbaum); the institutionalization of art (Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic. An Institutional Analysis, 1974); the “art world” (Dickie, Danto); the identification of the work of art (Danto, The Transfiguration of the Banal, 1981); aesthetic experience, art as symbol (Goodman, Languages ​​of Art, 1968).

This transition from “This is beautiful” to “This is Art” thanks to Duchamp will question the definition of the word that has been given to him over the centuries. Everything being confronted with tastes, nothing escapes Aesthetics, because even something that we find “ugly” remains above all subject to judgment. So finally the definition of the word as a synonym of beautiful, of pretty can be seen as erroneous (the term “inaesthetic” would then only take on meaning when Man is no longer there to look at things).

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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