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What is Aesthetics?

Aestheticians consider such questions as: What is a work of art? How do we determine what is a work of art? Who makes that decision? How is a work of art different from other objects? These and other questions arise in the classroom as students investigate works of art using critical thinking and higher level learning skills.

Aesthetics is one of the four foundational disciplines of Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE), along with art criticism, art history, and art production. Aesthetics is often described as one of the branches of philosophy -- philosophy about art. The word philosophy comes from the Greek words philo and sophia which mean, when used together, "love of wisdom." Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with concepts of value and beauty as they relate to the arts.

Through aesthetics as a component of DBAE we try to understand art in a broad and fundamental way, investigating possible answers to some of the basic questions people ask about art. Questions often arise when we look at and think about art. By participating in aesthetic inquiry, we participate in an age-old search for understanding.

A German philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten, first used the word aesthetics in 1744 to mean "the science of the beautiful." Today, aesthetics is generally approached more comprehensively. In addition to ideas about "beauty," aestheticians (philosophers about art) attempt to understand the nature of art in a broader context. Aesthetics can include the study of art from all cultures and all times.

William James, a widely-read American philosopher of the 1900s, defined philosophy as "an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly." Philosophy encourages people to become critical thinkers. A philosopher can be any person who engages in thinking deeply and rigorously. Students of all ages can be philosophers and utilize critical thinking through aesthetic activities in the classroom.

The Fundamental Question: What is Art?

Philosophers from Plato until the present time have discussed ideas about the nature of art. During some periods, philosophers have had very rigid ideas about what artists should create and what people should like, but in today's world, aestheticians represent a variety of different approaches to the philosophy of art.

For example, the answers to the fundamental aesthetic question of "what is art?" continue to change over time. One viewpoint is presented by Parsons and Blocker in Aesthetics and Education.

Parsons and Blocker suggest that "At any given time, there are limits to what can be considered art; an artist creates something that exceeds these limits in a particular way and claims it is art; usually by exhibiting it as if it were art and often with an argument about why it is art; the work is considerably discussed and eventually either accepted or rejected as an artwork. In this way the boundaries of art have been continually widened."

The Role of the Aesthetician

In all four disciplines of DBAE, practice is based upon the role of each discipline's practitioner or expert. For aesthetics, the role model is the aesthetician. Aestheticians in contemporary society are most often found teaching philosophy in universities.

Unlike art critics, who primarily focus on specific, contemporary works of art, aestheticians are usually more concerned with "big" questions about art in general.

Though aestheticians may use individual works of art as examples, Parsons and Blocker suggest that "The aesthetician is primarily concerned not with artworks, but with the way we think about them." Aesthetics, then, is the analysis of the ideas with which we think about and question the nature of art, especially art in general.

Why Teach Aesthetics?

In Aesthetics and Education, Parsons and Blocker present three underlying beliefs about aesthetics in the classroom that support the teaching of aesthetics:

1) One of these is that the basic purpose of aesthetics is to help students understand art better, both particular artworks and art in general. This may be especially critical because of challenges raised by both contemporary art and art from other cultures.

2) A second belief is that aesthetics should be integrated into what otherwise happens in the class. Aesthetics is not taught as a separate subject, but integrated into the classroom.

3) A third belief is that aesthetics should be related to students' experiences and that discussions should be held at the level of students' understanding. Even very young children can become involved in aesthetics discussions appropriate for their grade level.

Aesthetics in the Classroom

Aesthetic activities in the classroom can involve a combination of critical thinking and discussion. When we talk about our ideas, we begin to organize and refine them in order to communicate them to others.

Matthew Lippman and his associates at the Institute for Advancement of Philosophy for Children encourage teachers to use the "good reasons approach." This method emphasizes looking for reasons and then considering their validity. In a discussion of this type, the teacher might ask, "How did you arrive at that judgment?" or might encourage further consideration of a statement by saying to a student "Please explain to me why you say that."

Aesthetic inquiry may be a rather freewheeling, informal process of investigating issues, or it may follow a more systematic approach involving the use of questioning strategies which lead the discussion in the direction the teacher has chosen.

Higher Level Thinking Through Aesthetics

Students can become involved in aesthetic inquiry when something puzzles them about works of art. Questions arise when we encounter works that do not fit our expectations or our experiences.

For example, we may assume that works of art should be pleasant and should present objects that are recognizable. What then are we to think when we encounter a painting that is unpleasant? Can the painting be art if it disturbs and upsets us? Why or why not? These are the kinds of questions that relate to aesthetic issues.

If we begin to look for answers to our questions in thoughtful and deliberate ways, we become involved in aesthetic inquiry. Teachers and students, adults and children can participate in this inquiry, using higher level thinking skills to look for answers to questions about works of art.

Aesthetic Guidelines and Strategies for the Classroom

Aesthetics activities should be appropriate to the age and experience of the students. Small group discussions and discussions that involve the entire class are both appropriate for investigating most aesthetic issues. Writing done in small groups and shared with the class can also be valuable. Both written and oral responses to aesthetic questions should be supported by reasoned judgments.

Parsons and Blocker suggest that "art begins with a problem, with something that puzzles us in an encounter either with artworks or with talk about art." In Puzzles About Art: An Aesthetics Casebook, aesthetician Margaret Battin recommends using "puzzle cases" or problems for initiating discussions.

Aesthetic "puzzles" can be based on actual cases found in art magazines and newspaper articles or reported on television or radio newscasts. These media stories give concrete examples of how people are faced with aesthetic issues in our world and can be brought to class by the students or by the teacher.

Especially meaningful puzzle questions can be developed in relation to local art-related controversies or issues. Articles throughout this newsletter offer specific strategies and approaches for aesthetic discussion.

Once students become involved in aesthetic discussions, they begin to enjoy the opportunities to express opinions. These discussions can be demanding for teachers who need to recognize issues of aesthetics as they arise and who need to become the "guides" as students explore possibilities and reasons. Aesthetics can add a valuable dimension to the learning that occurs in the classrooms of teachers confident in their abilities to lead meaningful discussions.

Classroom Strategies for Aesthetic Discussions: Adapted from Aesthetics: Issues and Inquiry, by Louis Lankford, National Art Education Association, 1992)

Form Small Groups: Students will often speak up in a small group even if they are shy about speaking before the entire class.

Prepare the Students: Have students do some sort of preparatory work. Perhaps they could read an article from a newspaper, conduct interviews with friends or family members, or complete a studio project that is related to the issue to be discussed.

Create Interest and Encourage Creativity: As groups work together on a problem, encourage them to be creative in the ways that they present their ideas to the class. Students might produce posters or role-play characters and use costumes or props.

Be Clear and Keep Students On-Task: Teachers can provide examples and "what ifs" to clarify and direct student thinking.

Use Students' Ideas: Students' ideas must be central to activities. Teachers may need to yield some of their authority in order to give students the opportunity to think through a problem and articulate their ideas and feelings. Student efforts should be praised without a need to judge responses right or wrong.

Encourage Ownership of Ideas: Students should be encouraged to develop their thoughts fully, and to explain, clarify, and refine their ideas.

Summarize and Synthesize: Issues in aesthetics can often be complex. Teachers can do two things to keep ideas from becoming too tangled: (1) Teachers can periodically summarize what has been said. In this way teachers can clarify and refocus the discussion. (2) Teachers can conclude dialogues by summarizing and synthesizing ideas. Bringing about a conclusion will help give students a clear picture of what has transpired and what conclusions have been reached. Of utmost importance is a fair representation of the ideas that have emerged, not just the most popular ones, but varied and contrasting perspectives as well.


Battin, M.P., Fisher, J., Moore, R., and Silvers, A. (1989). Puzzles About Art: An Aesthetics Casebook. New York : St. Martin’s Press.

Lippman, M. (1988). Philosophy Goes to School. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Parsons, M.J. and Blocker, G. (1993). Aesthetics and Education. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Download Related Materials (click on the following pdf files to download)
Aesthetic Questions
Questions for Aesthetics Discussion
I’ve Been Wondering Aesthetics Activity
Writing About Aesthetic Issues