Key Concepts in Aesthetics


Key Concepts in Aesthetics is the unmissable Leverhulme lecture series to be given this term by Professor Jerrold Levinson at the University of Kent. It commences this Wednesday and the full schedule is as follows:

I. “The Aesthetic” (21 Jan., 5:15 p.m.)
II. “Beauty” (28 Jan., 5:15 p.m.)
III. “Art” (5 Feb., 5:15 p.m.)
IV. “Artwork” (11 Feb., 5:15 p.m.)
V. “Artform” (18 Feb., 5:15 p.m.)
VI. “Artistic Form” (26 Feb., 5:00 p.m.)
VII. “Artistic Expression” (18 Mar., 5:15 p.m.)
VIII. “Artistic Interpretation” (2 Apr., 5:00 p.m.)
IX. “Artistic Value” (9 Apr., 5:00 p.m.)

In Levinson’s words:

The aim of this series of lectures is to give listeners an idea of the role played by nine key concepts in the discipline of aesthetics, here understood primarily as the philosophy of the arts. In most of these lectures an attempt will be made to sketch the historical sources of the concept in question, with reference to the most important writings in the history of aesthetic thought, which will then be followed by a selective survey of current approaches to theorizing such concepts, in which survey the views of the lecturer can be expected to loom large.

The first such concept to be investigated, unsurprisingly, is that of the aesthetic, which gives its name to this field of inquiry. Under this rubric we will examine the numerous guises of the aesthetic, such as aesthetic property, aesthetic attitude, aesthetic attention, aesthetic pleasure, and aesthetic experience. Next we turn to the concept of beauty, preeminent among aesthetic properties, and one notably displayed by works of nature as well as works of art; here we will dwell particularly on the often conflicted relationship between beauty and art, especially contemporary visual art, and will also touch on the difference between beauty and sublimity. The problematic nature of contemporary art leads us naturally to the concept of art itself, and to the vexing questions of whether art can be defined and what the point might be of doing so. This will be followed by an examination of the concept of an artwork, in which the bewildering ontological variety of artworks will be to the fore, to be followed in turn by an examination of the concept of an artform, and the closely related ideas of genre and medium.

The remaining four lectures all concern concepts crucial to the understanding, appreciation, and criticism of works of art: artistic form, artistic expression, artistic interpretation, and artistic value. As regards form in art, a central question is what that includes or excludes, and what the importance of such form is for artist and spectator. As regards expression in art, which is an important component of the content of many artworks, we will first distinguish artistic expression from artistic representation, and then inquire into the scope, analysis, and importance of such expression. As regards interpretation in art, an initial concern will be to stress the diversity of kinds of artistic interpretation, and to underline in particular the difference between critical and performative interpretation in the arts; we will then address the thorny issue of correctness of interpretation, whether critical or performative, of a given work of art. We turn finally to the question of value in art, understood in the sense both of the comparative value of one work of art as opposed to another, and of the value of art as a whole. Coming full circle, we will suggest in closing the usefulness of a distinction between artistic value and aesthetic value, at least where the latter is understood narrowly.