The Transformations of Aesthetic Theory

The Transformations of Aesthetic Theory

Arnold Berleant (Long Island University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3636-0.ch001


Recent decades have witnessed a dramatic broadening in the scope of aesthetic inquiry. No longer focused exclusively on the arts and natural beauty, the mainstream of aesthetics has entered a delta in which its flow has spread out into many channels before entering the oceanic expanse that is Western civilization. Several decades ago, environmental aesthetics began to attract interest and has grown to be an important focus of present-day inquiry in aesthetics. Along with environmental ethics, it has become part of the broader range of environmental studies and the environmental movement in general. This expansion has continued, interpreting environment not only as natural but also as social. Aesthetics has been applied to social relations and political uses, and now, most recently to the objects and situations of everyday life. The course of the arts has displayed a similar succession of changes.
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The Transformations Of Art

Developments in the visual arts since the late nineteenth century display a fascinating succession of movements and styles. Among the most notable movements are Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Dada, Abstract Art, Pop Art, Op Art, and Conceptual Art. These changes provide a surprising array of encounters for the museum goer and rich material for the art historian. They are, however, more than changes in style, and they display more than degrees and variations in representation and abstraction. These changes seem to puzzle the mind as they dazzle the eye, posing seemingly bizarre innovations that present insoluble obstacles to efforts at understanding the meaning of modern art and frustrating attempts at determining its boundaries. Let us cast an eye over this succession of movements to see if there is some underlying logic to their sequence.

Impressionism, to begin, is usually explained as an attempt at capturing the fleeting effects of light, especially sunlight, on objects and landscapes. Things seem to lose their solidity and appear to vibrate with solar energy, dissolving into vaguely defined, multi-colored hues as the atmosphere is charged by sunlight. With Post-impressionism, objects regained solidity and radiated a strong presence, while Fauvism flourished with untamed brushwork and intense hues. In Expressionism objects were colored in the rich tones of powerful emotion, but this was then replaced by the dissolution of solidity into the geometrical structures of Cubism, sometimes broken up into their parts, rendered multi-perspectivally, or made transparent by displaying their inner structure. Futurism, in contrast, transmuted the solidity of objects into the disconcerting dynamism of frenetic motion. With the iconoclasm of Dada, ridicule was cast at the once noble objects of artistic idealization and bourgeois contentment by introducing the prosaic and irreverent into the sanctorum of art, while Surrealism transformed the world of ordinary objects into the bizarre distortions and irrational juxtapositions of dreams.

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