Aesthetics vs. Art

Author: Brock Rough
Category: Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art
Word Count: 1000

1. The Distinction

While some people take the field of aesthetics, broadly construed, to include the philosophy of art, it is instructive to examine whether and where the two notions diverge. Recognizing the distinction between the appropriate scopes of these concepts is important because there has been confusion over their definitions ever since Alexander Baumgarten appropriated the term ‘aesthetic’ in the mid-18th Century to stand for the study of taste according to the senses.

The distinction was further blurred by a long tradition of misunderstanding Kant’s “Analytic of the Beautiful” as pertaining to art, rather than merely to aesthetics. But the distinction can be made clear: the study of aesthetics is the study of the felt quality of perceptions of the senses, while the study of art is the study of the historical practice of making art objects. Some have argued that these are co-extensive pursuits; we will see that this is not so. In this essay, I will show that aesthetic properties are neither necessary nor sufficient for art, and identify some issues that remain.

The distinction between the two is perhaps made most perspicuous by showing the difference between aesthetic and artistic properties.

Roughly, aesthetic properties are those that are the properties of sensory taste that we perceive in the things we experience: properties like ‘beautiful,’ ‘dynamic,’ ‘graceful.’ Frank Sibley was fond of listing aesthetic properties, and characterizes them as not merely perceptual properties, but as depending on perceptual properties, requiring taste to perceive them and resisting discovery by means of what he called “condition-governedness” (i.e. being reducible to underlying physical properties).1 

Meanwhile, artistic properties are those that are relevant to artworks: facts about the context of creation, who the artist was, when they made the work, what their intentions for the work were, etc.2 Some have argued, and continue to argue,3 that art is defined by the aesthetic. However, there are several reasons to resist this conclusion.

Intuitively, we use aesthetic terms to describe nature, as when we call a sunset “beautiful,” but we do not thereby think of nature as a literal work of art.4 Conversely, much art, especially of the last century, is not primarily concerned with having a high aesthetic quality, e.g., Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, or in the case of conceptual art, with having any aesthetic properties at all, lacking a physical object to support aesthetic judgment (e.g., Robert Barry’s Telepathic Piece).

There is much research into the aesthetics of various domains that do not standardly contain artworks. Some of these domains are defined by not being about artifacts at all—by most definitions, by their non-art-objecthood. These include:

  • The aesthetics of design.5
  • The aesthetics of nature.6
  • The aesthetics of everyday life.7
  • The aesthetics of our sense of touch.8
  • The aesthetics of our sense of proprioception.9
  • The aesthetics of the experience of scratching an itch.10
  • The aesthetics of the pleasurable experience of eating disgusting food.11
  • The aesthetics of the microscopic and the cosmically gigantic (and elephants too).12

With such a large scope of things to be approached aesthetically, and with some arguing that all perceptual objects have aesthetic properties,13 unless we want to expand the scope of ‘art’ to include all perceptual objects, there is clearly a distinction to be made between the study of art and the study of aesthetics.

The distinction becomes even clearer when one considers cases of forgery. If art really were solely concerned with the aesthetic properties of works, and if those properties depended solely on the physical properties of the work,14 then a perfect forgery should be as artistically valuable as the original. This, however, is not the case. This case serves to show why the conflation of art and aesthetics is untenable.

One might worry, however, that the history of art, and its longstanding concern with making beautiful objects, is being unduly ignored; in other words: how do we make sense of the fact that so many artists have focused on making beautiful objects?

It is true that many objects in the history of art are beautiful, and are largely concerned with the aesthetic. However, focusing exclusively on the beauty of artworks has been called a kind of historical myopia by many; the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth said, “It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general,”15 and that, “Formalist painting and sculpture can be granted an ‘art condition,’ but only by virtue of their presentation in terms of their art idea”.16 Kosuth’s view is certainly not the final word on the debate, but his is representative of an increasingly dominant view in the artworld since Duchamp, and by some accounts, much earlier.17 The idea driving the distinction is that making art is about something other than a concern for the aesthetic, though traditionally, an aesthetic concern has been swept up into art practice. So while there is historical overlap, we can see that the two remain logically distinct.

2. Remaining Issues

Even if one agrees that the concepts ‘art’ and ‘aesthetics’ pick out different things, clarifying their differences remains problematic.

For instance, it remains to be discovered just which properties are artistic ones rather than aesthetic ones and whether some properties can do double duty.

Another difficulty is determining just which properties are purely aesthetic. Many people want to preserve yet another distinction: that between aesthetic properties and merely sensory properties. Even acknowledging the vague boundary between these, there is no obviously principled way of distinguishing between, say, the pleasure felt by slipping into a hot bath, the awe one feels before a brilliant sunset, and whatever aesthetic response is felt when one contemplates a Caravaggio.

Finally, though there seems to be a distinction between aesthetic and artistic properties, what about the aesthetic properties of works of literature? Books as physical objects have aesthetic properties, but given the abstract nature of the content of a book, what is there for our taste to perceive in a way that is appropriately analogous to how we perceive aesthetic properties of physical objects?


1 See Sibley (1959).

2 See, for example, Levinson (2011).

3 See, for instance, Iseminger (2004).

4 Though there is room for an interesting theistic argument to be made here.

5 See Forsey (2013).

6 See, for example, Allen Carlson’s “Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art, and Architecture” (2000).

7 See Thomas Leddy (2012).

8 See Carolyn Korsmeyer’s “Touch and the Experience of the Genuine” (2012).

9 See Barbara Montero’s “Proprioception as an Aesthetic Sense” (2006).

10 See Sherri Irvin’s “Scratching an Itch”  (2008b).

11 See Carolyn Korsmeyer’s “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” (2002).

12 See Hans Maes’s “Elephants, Microscopes and Free Beauty: Reply to Davies” (2009).

13 See Irvin (2008a).

14 Not everyone agrees that they do, at least not solely. Sibley (1959) argues that they do, but Walton (1970) gives a compelling argument that context plays a larger role in determining aesthetic properties than one might initially think, though in the end he also thinks that aesthetic properties depend on the physical properties of the work.

15 See Kosuth (1973, 76).

16 See Kosuth (1973, 78).

17 See art historian and critic Michael Fried (1980).


Carlson, A. (2000). Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art, and Architecture. Routledge.

Forsey, J. (2013). The Aesthetics of Design. Oxford University Press.

Fried, M. (1980). Absorption and theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. University of California Pr.

Irvin, S. (2008a). “The Pervasiveness of the Aesthetic in Ordinary Experience.” British Journal of Aesthetics, 48(1), 29–44.

Irvin, S. (2008b). “Scratching an Itch.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 66(1), 25–35.

Iseminger, G. (2004). The Aesthetic Function of Art (1999). Cornell University Press.

Korsmeyer, C. (2002). “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 60(3), 217–225.

Korsmeyer, C. (2012). “Touch and the Experience of the Genuine.” British Journal of Aesthetics, 52(4), 365–377.

Kosuth, J. (1973). Art After Philosophy I. In G. Battcock (Ed.) Idea Art. E. P. Dutton. (1969).

Leddy, T. (2012). The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Broadview Press.

Levinson, J. (2011). “What a Musical Work Is.” Music, Art, & Metaphysics, (pp. 63–88). Oxford University Press. (1980).

Maes, H. (2009). “Elephants, Microscopes and Free Beauty: Reply to Davies.” Philosophical Quarterly, 59(235), 332–336.

Montero, B. (2006). “Proprioception as an Aesthetic Sense.” Journal Of Aesthetics And Art Criticism, 64(2), 231–242.

Sibley, F. (1959). “Aesthetic Concepts.” Philosophical Review, 68(4), 421–450.

Walton, K. L. (1970). “Categories of Art.” Philosophical Review, 79(3), 334–367.

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About the Author

Brock Rough earned a PhD in philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. His research focuses on the art status and ontology of videogames, their role as a test case for theories of art, and the ontology and intersection of games and art. Before pursuing philosophy, Brock spent several years working as a portrait painter.

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