There are three words that are very important in appreciating our visual and emotional relationship with art:
“Pretty,” “Beauty” and “Aesthetic.”
Once you understand the differences between these three words, you will be able to enjoy art much more.
“Pretty” is our culture’s word that means pleasant or attractive to the eye. Human Beings want to see things that are Pretty. We seek them out. We go out on Sunday afternoons with our family driving through the countryside looking for pretty parts of nature. When we find them, we stop the car, get out and stand there for several minutes admiring what we found. Then, so as to never forget the experience, we take a picture of it. When we get back home, we discuss what we saw and sometimes write grandma a letter telling her how pretty the things were that we saw that day. OK I might be exaggerating a little bit, but we really do go out of our way to notice, admire and recognize qualities that are pleasant or attractive to the eye.
“Pretty” is such a desirable quality that it is one of the first words we learn as children. Some other early words we learn are: Yes, No, Good, Bad, Right and Wrong. For all intent and purposes we grow up associating the word “Pretty” with things that are correct, good and right. On the other hand we tend to see “Ugly” as being things that are incorrect, bad and wrong.
The problem is, the feelings the average person has towards what is Pretty aren’t very forgiving; their decisions as to whether something is pretty or ugly are immediate and often times absolute. If they were a little more flexible, people would broaden their view and enlightenment of the world around them.
Artists, just like everyone else use the term “Pretty.” However they use it most often in connection with frivolous things that don’t matter too much. For example, candy is pretty and a dead bug is ugly. Candy is extremely pretty, however it is unimportant to one’s life. And, although I feel sorry for the squashed bug, its demise is also of no importance in the scheme of life.
On the other hand, when artists see something that moves them they use the term “Beauty.” The word “Beauty” means having qualities of a high order. I realize that definition is a bit vague, but it should be, so that individuals can relate its particular meaning to their own experience. You have heard the expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We all agree that that is true — and we agree because we accept the right of the individual to determine what is and what is not ‘beautiful’ to them. The absolute last thing we want is for a political party, government or any other group to dictate to us what is beautiful and what is not. Therefore I don’t mind keeping the definition vague.
I will try, however, to get us a little closer to what “having qualities of a high order” means. I just wrote that a dead bug is ugly because it is of no importance — to me. I don’t give a damn about bugs and there is a very high likelihood I never will. Yet, there are a lot of people in this world who just love bugs. They study bugs, they read about bugs, they have pictures of bugs on their walls, and they probably have bugs as pets. They even touch the bugs with their fingers! Why in the world do they do that? Why don’t they feel the same way I do? The answer is — because they are not me. They extend so much attention to bugs because they feel that bugs have qualities of a high order — in other words, they think bugs are beautiful.
Even though bug lovers believe, with all their heart and soul, that bugs are beautiful, they might be willing to admit that not all bugs are pretty. They might admit that some bugs are not pleasant or attractive to the eye, even though they feel that the bugs that are not pretty still possess qualities of a high order. This makes the point that Beauty does not necessarily equal “Pretty.” This is why, in the art world, you sometimes see paintings with unusual subject matter. The artist might be trying to find, absorb, paint and exhibit subject matter that he or she is trying to demonstrate is beautiful, but not necessarily pretty.
Artists try to avoid “pretty” and instead seek out “beauty.” Yet, subjects that have historically and traditionally been felt to be pretty such as a landscape or sunset can also be beautiful. The terms are not mutually exclusive.
Now that I have explained how artists deal with the issues of Pretty and Beauty lets move on to the third important word – “Aesthetics.” When you see something that has a quality of a high order (something beautiful) you get a feeling and that feeling is sometimes hard to describe. How do you describe the “Feeling” you get from something beautiful? It is not difficult to describe what you actually see, but what do you say to capture the feeling itself. A term artistís use is “Aesthetic.”
“Aesthetics” is the awareness of beauty. It is the value we associate with something that is beautiful. It lets you describe the feeling you have when in the presence of beauty and it can be influenced heavily by cultural, personal, and commercial tastes.
If someone were to ask you how you felt when you looked at a really cool T-shirt — what would you say? I would have no way to accurately describe it, so I would just say, “I had an aesthetic feeling,” or put another way, I might say that it appealed to my commercial aesthetic.
If someone were to ask me how I felt when I saw the Grand Canyon in Arizona for the first time, I would have no way to accurately describe it, so I would just say “I had an aesthetic feeling,” or put another way, I might say that it appealed to my cultural aesthetic.
If someone were to ask me how I felt when I saw Jasper John’s Three Flags painting for the first time, I would have no way to accurately describe it, so I would just say “I had an aesthetic feeling,” or put another way, I might say that it appealed to my personal aesthetic. (I love that particular painting because I connect a value to it — a representation of freedom both nationalistically and artistically. It is a painting that continues to inspire me and I get a little choked up every time I think about the experience of seeing it in person).
The word “Aesthetics” is the art world’s gift to Mankind. It is a present that gives us the ability to describe the indescribable.
The words “Pretty,” “Beauty” and “Aesthetics” help us to think differently about the things in life we see. They help us differentiate our feelings. They help us to be more accurate about the way we emote and at the same time enable us to become more open to what is around us.
With these words, we can now understand why some beautiful things give us an aesthetic experience even though they are not pretty. For example although I find bugs ugly (certainly not pretty), I am aware that the aesthetics of a bug makes them beautiful in the eyes of some people.
Your Interpretation Essay Project is as follows:
There are two parts to this assignment. Both parts must be included in your finished essay.
1. The first part is to look through your textbook and find a work of art that you think is beautiful, but believe most other people would not think is pretty. Write about why you think it is so beautiful.
2. The second part is to explain why you think most people would not think it is pretty. Both parts are equally important. Spend as much time thinking about the second part as you do the first.
Obviously, the piece you choose will be something you like. It is difficult to find beauty in an object that you don’t like. Nevertheless, do NOT select the same piece you chose for the “Likes and Dislikes” assignment. I want you to explore the rich diversity of visual experiences that the book has to offer, so don’t play favorites. It hurts the other artist’s feelings.