Aesthetic Perception

Notes, thoughts, ideas on the nature of art & expression


Defining Aesthetics 

Aesthetics is a big area, and a difficult one. Primarily because what it tries to capture is abstract in essence. Aesthetics traditionally has been concerned with the perception of beauty and ugliness; it tries to explain this by the observation of objects and the quality of their perceived state. Whether the objects themselves posses some quality ( of beauty or ugliness ) innately or if it is simply the minds of the individual perceiving it. Some of the first work on aesthetics formally began with Plato and Aristotle their views; which I will mention but do not share primarily because I feel they overly complicate and miss, interpret what it is they are trying to define to fit other models they have created. Plato works written in dialogs ( which always had a reminiscent of early Indian works particularly Upanishads ) begins in his Republic to take to extremes his idea of aesthetics by relating his thinking to artist and musicians in his perfect society. Maintaining that certain attributes of painting and music where not acceptable because they promoted negative results and encourage immorality. 

Plato used mathematics to explain his ideas on forms and also believed in what he termed archetypes, which consist of models for all things that exist in our experience. He categorized these archetypes or experiences as imitations of the objects or forms. I won’t discuss Plato in depth because I think after reading many of his works concerning art and artist the man simply did not get it. One of the samples I would sight would simply acknowledge his application of pure logic or reason to a relatively expressionistic form. Aristotle on the other hand saw the artist view of the object not just as imitation but also as the completion in its own way of what nature could not finish. In his view the artist separates form from matter of these objects of experience. This is a really coarse and over simplification of these two contributing fathers of western philosophy and it is not my purpose to engage in a lengthy discourse of their views only to mention them.

Many of the modern day thinkers have begun their look into aesthetics from a societal standpoint. Using the known foundations of discourse as a backdrop to express their theories and views often creating new branches of thought. I would like to begin my discussion of aesthetics by starting with Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. The works considered to fall under Paleolithic periods is circa 32,000-11,000 years ago. Works fist marking this time are typically known as Cave Painting this also applied to objects found in or nearby these caves. Such as bone or antler typically carved with patterns or what are considered to be decorative motifs. I have looked to this period many times for many reasons, mostly to examine the first evolution of aesthetics and to ask some of the following question along with others:

  • What drove the need to create objects painted or carved?
  • Was there rudimentary language through symbols that were understood by most at the time?
  • Why were the paintings hidden in places not easily assessable?
  • Why does it seem like the individuals who painted the caves did not actually live in the caves?

These questions become important because they attempt to outline the foundation of aesthetics. By looking at the need for early man to document day-to-day existence, we see the emergence of ritual as the first manifestation of expression. These first manifestations were based upon the relationship of man to his natural earrowsnvironment. It becomes easier to see modern civilization’s relationship to this early understanding and subsequently understand its respective admiration. It is from these first early observations that we may begin to answer some of these questions listed above. First I believe the reason most of these works were so often placed in out of the way places is because the drawings on the cave walls representing primarily animals was considered a place for the animals soul after death. It was respect shown by the hunter for taking the animals life so that others may know that it existed. The caves represent a spiritual burial ground for the spirit of the animal. If we are to take this into account it would explain why the individuals also did not live in the caves the paintings where typically found in. This would also account for the layering of the drawings in certain caves. I believe that the inhabitants of this time including Mesolithic, Neolithic with of course some variations saw the use of marking there tools with symbols and inscriptions as a way of tribal identification or territorial marker. 

The symbols inscribed on tools found nearby these areas would signify to others that the territory had been marked. And by using the same inscriptions throughout the caves or objects let neighboring tribes see the extent or area the territory covered. Once there became purpose in the marking of objects I believe associations of those markings started to acquire meaning for the individuals making the objects and the representation of how the markings where made also began to take on layers of meaning. What is in man that he feels the need to create? We first need to look to nature’s role in relation to man in this time frame. So that we may ascertain meaning if any, and begin to identify key elements those relationships appear to manifest. As with some artist today who explore the relationship of nature to materials and concept through art. It is my belief that individuals living in Paleolithic times began a similar relationship, though we may feel it as being unconscious to them at the time but in essence a spiritual relationship to nature. The same experience today that we now reserve for devote religious individuals. If these first markings began with spiritual relations to nature, it follows that the evolution of this process would not stray to far from its original intent. It seems logical that over time individual members ( shaman ) or ( artist ) where given the task of documenting the tribes identity and existence.

The Aesthetic Model

Egyptian philosopher and scholar Plotonius saw aesthetics as “the spiritual completion of form and experience, that artist through their art bridged the universal elements comprising the very essence of the soul”. I think that this definition summarizes some of the modernist thinking on the characteristics of aesthetics. I suppose though I would like to go further into investigating how it is cultures arrive at the universal acceptance of an aesthetic. I whish to use some of the points we have read so far into this inquiry to ascertain some of these universal elements.

  • Nature
  • Spirituality
  • Admiration
  • Idealism
  • Functionality/utilitarianism
  • Perception
  • Materials

Let’s assume that these characteristics comprise the dominant elements in essence of what cultures commonly view as the foundation of aesthetics. I think that the most obvious is the reference to nature, it has been said that all things can be learned from nature. If we are to recall even the earliest references to this starting back in Neolithic, Paleolithic periods this was one of the primary functions most likely precluding language. It might follow to presume that the common elements among us found daily in nature are those things we find pleasing or what we have come to term as (aesthetic). i.e.

  • Sun (yellow)
  • Sky (blue, orange, violet, white, gray)
  • Trees (green, red, white)
  • Flowers (variegated colors)
  • Water (aqua, turquoise)
  • Animal Skins (leopard, giraffes, cows, mink)
  • Rocks (variegated colors)
  • Sand (variegated colors) etc…

As we can see from this primary list of elements the rudimentary foundation that characterizes the realm of aesthetics is that which surrounds us everyday. This coupled with a social acceptance of this rule forms the basis in the underlying law of aesthetics.

Aesthetic consciousness

Because man evolved with nature and learned to quickly adapt with nature. As early civilizations began to emerge and societies began to congregate in close proximity’s they began to formalize certain acceptable sensibilities in respect to their surroundings. Some of these arose as comforts some as tools and utilitarian objects. In these early stages as cultures came in contact with each other they began to adapt each other’s aesthetic to widen their own experience. From this exposure it follows to that some materials not indigenous to the neighboring cultures began to acquire value and over time were seen as exotic. This kind of awareness began to spread greatly as cultures began to explore other continents and expose themselves to the natural inhabitants of those continents to their belief systems and lifestyles. This led to a kind of aesthetic consciousness both positive and negative. It is important to stress that not all inhabitants of a particular culture shared the same aesthetic awareness or values. This is partly due to widespread classism ramped in the development of most early civilizations. I realize that I have painted some pretty broad strokes in generalizing this aesthetic awareness and the path toward its development. But during my inquiries exploring the development of early civilizations cultures did not radically develop differently from one another. And if there were periods of isolation it did not remain for long lengths of time there are minor exceptions such as China and Russia. Though we shall see that even though these cultures enforced this isolation it’s not to say they were not aware of neighboring civilizations.

Cause and effect

The cause of this aesthetic awareness can be attributed to those individuals who were able to consciously assimilate these changes accepted by social order. They were usually individuals of leisure or among the more educated typically considered intellectuals. Although the cause of aesthetic awareness or consciousness may have started with the masses its effect was to be idealized by the intellectuals. This idealization goes back to early civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Africa. Where these intellectual or ritualistic idealizations took form as dictations to the artisans of time aiding in the creation of empires.


The indoctrination of religion into culture added another layer of complexity to societies accepted aesthetic model. They exhibited a shift in their concern of depicting a harmonious existence with nature. This depiction quickly became not replaced but complimented with a higher awareness of a formal spirituality. ( I mentioned earlier in the overview of Paleolithic and Neolithic periods that spirituality was coupled with early mans relationship to nature ). This new spirituality however was manifested in several ways first philosophically second in its use of materials and third in its use of symbolism. These manifestations appear to be consistent across most religions of course with slight variations. This new religious spiritualism was important for several reasons; it was the introduction of a concept that was not dictated by nature or by surrounding influences. It derived solely from stories or myth by those who believed in them and what it signified. It is important to note this occurrence in religion and its Subsequent impact on aesthetic perception. Just as we observed in Neolithic Paleolithic periods we saw the first metaphors for the embodiment of the spirit, we now see this new ideal formally take hold of cultures And develop slowly into a language unto itself as well as contributing to the overall lexicon of visual art.

Idealism and aesthetics

In the beginning of this work I spoke of Plato and Aristotle and their views on aesthetics. These ideas introduce an intellectual view of aesthetics implying that an overall quality is present in the object or experience holding to some form of idealism. Idealism came to form around the intellectual view in its early state as the celebration of mans power of thought and observation over nature. Early artisans created works which embodied the ideals of society and made strides to surpass their predecessors. It seems that even modern aesthetics must hold to an ideal in order to advance the field, this is to say for example in painting for a movement to emerge successfully it must in some way advance or change current accepted standards. It is of course always known that individuals do not have to be associated with a movement to formally depart from or state new ideals but it is harder to find support this way. In essence you are relying on the assumption that others share similar views this is a rare occurrence.

Tensions and Philosophy

The use of this aesthetic ideal or rule by artist lies mainly in its manipulation. Through accepted social attributes placed on objects, form, religion and sexuality. The artistic community uses this social aesthetic awareness to create a poetic lexicon and too continue an ongoing dialog created throughout the centuries by artist, poets, musicians etc.. Early civilizations have used the arts for commentary and stature this posture is now associated with some expansion of current universal aesthetics. The aesthetic associated with visual arts particularly painting is one of the more observable forms concerning evolution and aesthetics mostly because of its vast documentation (having so many icons and works in good condition throughout history. ) This enables us to see how other cultures lived what they wore what their homes looked like etc.. But most importantly it allowed us to study how works where constructed compositionally, and how these first aesthetic rules developed. Aesthetic tension arises from aesthetic philosophy and both of these are bound directly to historical context. Tensions arise primarily when certain expectations from an audience view are manipulated to produce a different result than anticipated.

Contemporary Aesthetics (brief)

I will talk only of aesthetics as I see it entering the 21st century. Since the turn of the century aesthetics have been undergoing a radical transformation this is good and not so good. As new concepts entered the dialogue of course some made waves other’s fell by the wayside they overall seemed to lower the aesthetic bar so to speak. This happened on many levels (craftsmanship, subject etc.) in an already collapsed marketplace for art this did not help matters. On the aesthetic front other than some miner deterioration it is safe to say that it is the unequivocal nature of the arts to perpetuate themselves.