An Investigation of Aesthetic Theory in Art & Design and Its Role in My Personal Practice.

In a previous post (see here), I noted that I am used to having to approach things from a slightly different angle to that of my fellow students and this does not concern me, but in week six we had a theory lecture that raised a few questions to me about my own individual practice and my wider industry practice.

As an example of how theory can be used within our practice, we were given a selection of texts to read about aesthetics, these texts featured exerts from:

Psychological aesthetics: Painting, Feeling, and Making Sense, London by David Maclagan

Art History The Basics by Grant Pooke and Diana Newall

Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics, Ugliness

Beauty by Roger Scruton

Beauty and Ugliness – The function of Beauty by Ruth Lorand

The theme of these texts seemed to be attempts at defining beauty and ugliness as aesthetic qualities in relation to art, we then had a group discussion about the texts and there were some interesting points of view but the main thing the texts highlighted to me was the role of perspective when making aesthetic judgements. During our discussions about the above texts I realised that my perspective seemed to differ from that of my peers, we were asked to look at and discuss pieces of art, applying theoretical aesthetics judgments, we were also asked to bring in our own examples that we felt held some of the aesthetic values we were learning about and this was not easy for me.  I was struggling to look at art and see the things my peers where experiencing, in fact most of the time I was left thinking I just don’t get this, what is the point of art?

This lack of understanding provided me with questions about my own practice and as part of my M.A proposal I proposed to:

examine the role of aesthetics within my personal practice. I would like to improve upon the overall aesthetic value of my work as I consider this to be my weakest quality.  I will inspect the practice of art in order to get a better understanding of aesthetic values and theoretical arguments in the hope of improving my practice.”

In an effort to understand aesthetics better within art and design practice and in order to examine why my viewpoint is seemingly so different, I have reread the above texts and investigated further, so what is aesthetics?

What is aesthetics? defines aesthetics as: “the branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc., as applicable to the fine arts, with a view to establishing the meaning and validity of critical judgments concerning works of art, and the principles underlying or justifying such judgments.” (, 2012,

In the book Psychological Aesthetic: Painting, Feeling and Making Sense the author David Maclagan talks about the origins of the term aesthetic:
The actual term ‘aesthetic’ dates from Baumgarten’s Aesthetica, published in two parts in the 1750’s.  To begin with the term appeared to concern the philosophical status of our sensuous grasp of the world, in all its particularity.  In 1790 a far more ambitious concept of the aesthetic appeared in Kant’s Third Critique of judgement, where it played a crucial role in bridging the gap between intellectual knowledge and sensuous apprehension. At the same time, Kant introduced the idea that there was something necessarily disinterested about aesthetic experience: that it served no obvious use or function.” (Maclagan, 2001: p22)
In time there was an evolution in meaning of the term aesthetics, Maclagan (2001: p22) describes the changes:

In the course of time, there have also been significant shifts in what is meant by ‘aesthetic’.  In a broad historical perspective, aesthetics is to begin with a branch of philosophy, concerned with giving some account of what gives works of art interest or value.”

This evolution in the definition brings us closer to the above definition; Maclagan explains that the theory of aesthetics evolved from trying to gage a value that could be measured towards an understanding of an individual personal experience, by saying:

Later accounts of the aesthetic – for example those in English writers such as Shaftsbury, Hutcheson or Hume – focus more on the actual nature of aesthetic experience.  This shift from the criterion of aesthetics being its objective relation to invisible, transcendent ideals, to a closer association of aesthetics with more internal or subjective aspects of experience, will prepare the way for later psychological or even scientific investigations into the nature of such experience.” (Maclagan, 2001: p22)

The early art theorists where attempting to understand the aesthetic experience and articulate it much in the same way as I am now and different theories started to develop, some theorists looked for a criteria that could be applied to the experience, a criteria that demarcated aesthetic judgments.  Words such as sublime, beautiful and ugly became the values associated with aesthetic judgments and theorists tried to define them and their relationship to each other.


The notion of beauty is extremely important to art, in fact, according to an article by Ruth Lorand in the Science Encyclopedia, beauty has been considered as the principle goal of art, “it was the eighteenth century that gave rise to the idea that creating beauty is the essential purpose of art.”  They also provide a definition of art by British philosopher Robin G. Collingwood, who defines art as “an attempt to achieve beauty” (Outlines of a Philosophy of Art, 1925). His point of view did not gain popular credence during the twentieth century.  (Lorand, no publication date,

A similar point of view is echoed by Grant Pooke and Diana Newall in their book Psychological aesthetics: Painting, Feeling, and Making Sense, when they write “Instead of attempting to define art, should we simply attempt a definition of beauty?” (Pooke & Newall, 2007: p17) defines beauty as “having beauty; having qualities that give great pleasure or satisfaction to see, hear, think about, etc.; delighting the senses or mind” (, 2012,

In the above definition beauty is described as “delighting the senses or mind” an experience that creates pleasure, enjoyment or even enchantment, Roger Scruton (2009: p17) explains the experience of beauty by saying, “When our interest is entirely taken up by a thing, as it appears in our perception, and independently of any use to which it might be put, then do we begin to speak of its beauty”.

Earlier I explained that I was struggling to see the point of art, I believed I was looking for a function that was not there but this may not be the case if art and beauty are so closely entwined and beauty is indeed the purpose of art, then maybe the function of art is beauty.  Immanuel Kant talks about the function of beauty “According to Kant, beauty has no function beyond the pleasure it generates.” (Lorand, no publication date,

Kants view is that the function of beauty is the pleasure it generates but if it does not appear to be beautiful does that mean it is without function?

In an article, Oxford art online declare that “beauty marks an extreme of aesthetic positivity.”  (Oxford Art Online, no publication date,

But if beauty is an extreme of aesthetic positivity, in balance there must be an extreme of aesthetic negativity and there is, ugly or ugliness is the negative extreme used by theorists to balance the arguments for beauty. defines ugliness as “very unattractive or unpleasant to look at; offensive to the sense of beauty; displeasing in appearance.” (, 2012,

Oxford Art Online features an article which describes ugliness as an “expression of serious aesthetic disfavour or disapproval, could itself serve as a defining characteristic of ugliness.” (Oxford Art Online , no publication date,

Different factions exist in the in the discussion about beauty and its relationship to ugliness according to Oxford Art Online:

The first takes the view that ugliness is related to beauty as its absence, or privation, much as cold is simply the absence of heat.”  Another point of view is: “that ugliness is not just the inverse of the scale of beauty; instead it and beauty occupy polar extremes on a single scale of aesthetic value whose graduations descend from each pole of toward a middle state of neutrality.”  A third point of view “accepts that the plausibility of this conflation by placing beauty and ugliness on the same scale and allowing either or both to permeate the neutral meridian”  A fourth camp is also offered that “avoids the conflation problem by denying that that ugliness and beauty occupy the same scale of aesthetic value”.  (Oxford Art Online, no publication date,

In short there is no agreement on what beauty or ugliness is, or how they relate to each other, and arguments and theories exist for different points of view.  This was evident throughout our discussion regarding the above texts; beauty seemed to mean something different to each of us.  Roger Scruton (2009:p32) discusses aesthetic differences, “Aesthetic disagreements are not comfortable disagreements, like disagreements over tastes in food (which are not so much disagreements as differences)”.

As individuals we all have unique perspectives, defines perspective as “a way of regarding situations, facts, etc, and judging their relative importance” or “the faculty of seeing all the relevant data in a meaningful relationship” (, 2012,

Most of us will have heard the saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, a saying that is true when you consider that beauty is dependent on perspective.  The way we as individuals process and regard relevant information provided to us, from sensory information such as eyesight or hearing combined with knowledge from our previous experiences in life, alongside our emotional state of mind are unique to us and this is what informs our judgements but if one of those things changes it could change our perspective, possibly resulting in a different judgement.  Even physical perspective the angle, height or distance at which we see a piece of art may affect our judgements, a good example of this is­ the Younger, see below:


Fig 1: Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, (1533), oil on oak, 209.5 x 207 cm,

In this painting the artist uses a technique that is called perspective anamorphosis, if you look at the painting from an acute angle the new perspective transforms the view of the skull to one you can see below:


Fig 2: Hans Holbein the Younger, A higher resolution and more accurate depiction of the anamorphic skull within The Ambassadors, (1533), oil on oak, 209.5 x 207 cm

David Maclagan (2001: p18) describes the importance of perspective by saying “ ‘Perspective’ is a suggestive word here, for at first sight looking seems like the most detached and spectacular of all the senses; yet it is actually something that involves the rest if the body to a far greater extent than is usually acknowledged.”

Roger Scruton (2009: p32) describes Kant’s view of the aesthetic judgments made by individuals, “Kant’s position was that aesthetic judgements are universal but subjective: they are grounded in the immediate experience of the one who makes them, rather than in any rational argument.”  Kant’s view shows how aesthetic judgments are made from the personal perspective of the viewer but often these judgements are declared as if to say this is a point of view that is acceptable to all.  If these judgements are individual perspectives then this cannot be the case, Scruton (2009: p32) says:

When I describe something as beautiful I am describing it, not my feelings towards it – I am making a claim, and that seems to imply that others, if they see things arite, would agree with me.  Moreover, the description of something as beautiful has the character of a judgement, a verdict, and one for which I can reasonably be asked for a justification.  I may not be able to give any cogent reasons for my judgement; but if I cannot, that is a fact about me, no about the judgement.  Maybe someone else, better practiced in the art of criticism, could justify the verdict.”

In these situations we are talking about judgments of taste, Maclagan discusses some of the early theories regarding taste in particular the work of Johann Georg Sulzer, a Swiss mathematician and philosopher, Maclagan (2001: p24) says:

Some of the earliest attempts to do this were in terms theories of ‘taste’ (such as Sulzer’s ‘AllgemeinenTheorie der schöhen Künste’ of 1771-4).  Here there is a two-way relation between taste in general, the cultivation of good sense, decorum and a predilection for the harmonious and orderly, and what amount to rules for the aesthetic appreciation of both nature and art. Suitably developed taste governs our response to art and conversely, acquaintance with the right kind of art develops our taste.  Sulzer even goes so far as to define aesthetics as ‘the science of the feelings’.

Sulzer’s point of view seems to be that taste is something that can be developed and if you look at the right kind of art this will help you to develop suitable taste, this is something that feeds my distaste, although I appreciate the more time you spend looking at an artefact or genre you can be influenced by the knowledge you gain from that experience, I do not believe that there is or should be a ‘right kind of art’ or ‘Suitable taste’, we are individuals who have our own perspectives, and judgements of taste should be considered as personal opinions rather than binding judgments.

Art theory seems to have a lot of these sweeping statements; Roger Scruton attempts to explain the problem by reflecting on a claim made by Emmanuelle Kant “Kants claim is not that the judgement of taste is binding on everyone, but that it is presented as such, by the one who makes it.” (Scruton, 2009: p32).

Scruton himself holds a similar view “The judgement of taste is a genuine judgement, one that is supported by reasons.  But these reasons can never amount to a deductive argument.”(Scruton, 2009: p8).

This is often the cause aesthetic debate, people often cannot articulate their judgments and we are not helped by the confusion caused by the many theories surrounding aesthetic judgements, this is echoed by David Maclagen (2001: p18) when he says:

However for most of us the inherent difficulties of this effort to grasp our own aesthetic experience can be aggravated by an uncomfortable awareness of the standards and idiom of aesthetic discourse, whether this be philosophical, critical or even literary.”

Imanuel Kant argues that the experience of beauty, like the judgement in which it issues, is the prerogative of rational beings.” (Scruton, 2009: p32)

All though we as individuals have our own individual perspectives and tastes we may not be making judgements that are free of external influences, as explained by Maclagan (2001: p19):

some Marxist critics have sought to show that aesthetic judgements which appear to be autonomous are in fact ideologically determined: in other words; what is presented as a free choice is actually the effect of socio-political economic influences.”

The events of the world around us can influence our judgements, sometimes we are unaware of how everything that goes on in our life influences our decision making and thought process, a good example of this is fashion, people are often influenced by current trends, whether it be music, clothing or even art, and those who chose not to follow fashion by making that choice are being affected by it.

One argument is that true aesthetic judgements are made in a moment of disinterest, “Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) claimed that aesthetic judgements are disinterested, that is we respond to an object simply on the basis of how it appears to us”. (Sheppard, cited in Pooke & Newall, 2007: p.18)

Professor Karl TUlrich at Wharton School University of Pennsylvania explains his belief that our response to aesthetic stimulation is one that takes place at a fast speed with little thought, he says:

Aesthetic response is rapid, usually within seconds of exposure to the artefact. Aesthetic response is involuntary, requiring little if any expenditure of cognitive effort. Aesthetic response is an aggregate assessment biased either positively (e.g., beauty or attraction) or negatively (e.g., ugliness or repulsion) and not a nuanced multi-dimensional evaluation.” (Ulrich, 2006,

David Maclagan has his own outlook on aesthetic reactions:

My own view is that while some basic aesthetic reactions, such as attraction, repulsion, excitement or boredom, may exist in this immediate, un-self-conscious way, others require more attention in order to emerge.  There is also a feedback effect between such experiences and our attempts to articulate them.  We may have to struggle to put them into words.” (Maclagan, 2001: p17)

The rapid involuntary response described by Ulrich is the perceptual part of the aesthetic experience, the part where our brains interpret the signals sent by our sensory systems, the point before we apply conscious reasoning to interpretation of those signals, in other words it is seeing, hearing, or smelling before we apply our knowledge of what it is that we might be sensing to the situation.  There is a field that studies this moment of pure untainted experience called Phenomenology, Folkmann draws attention to the relevance of Phenomenology within the study of aesthetic reactions and judgements “The point is that phenomenology, as a theory of experience, can address certain aspects of aesthetics related to sensuous appearance and experience.” (Folkmann, 2010)

What is Phenomenology?

Phenomenology is the study of ‘phenomena’ it is a discipline that may be defined primarily as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Phenomenology’s aim is to study how phenomena are experienced in consciousness, cognitive and perceptual situations. Phenomenology seeks to find an understanding of how individuals construct meaning, it studies the composition of various types of experience including perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity. (Smith, 2011,

Edmund Husserl launched the term Phenomenology and his work was followed by a flurry of phenomenological writing in the first half of the 20th century, other prominent phenomenologist’s include Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre. (Smith, 2011,

The term phenomenology may have been Husserl’s but the concept was not a new one, other theorists were describing phenomenology before the term existed.

Hindu and Buddhist philosophers often described how meditative states could achieve different states of consciousness.  Theorist such as Descartes, Hume and Kant considered the different states of perception.  When German philosopher Franz Clemens Honoratus Hermann Brentano applied classifications to different varieties of mental phenomena (defined by the directedness of consciousness), he along with the Hindu’s Buddhists and the other theorists were practicing phenomenology. (Smith, 2011,

Phenomenology recognises that sensory experiences can only be constructed within the brain of the individual in question, Herbert Spiegelberg (1959: p75), a prominent phenomenologist says “All phenomenology takes its start from the phenomena. A phenomenon is essentially what appears to someone, that is, to a subject.”

In other words, in any experience the viewer makes an interpretation of that experience that is unique to the viewer.  Peter Willis also describes this point of view:

Phenomenology does not hold that the world ‘out there’ can be known in the way a photographic plate takes in an image of the world. All knowing is at one level subjective since it is always related to, and constructed by, the person engaged in knowing.”  (Willis, 2001,

When we encounter objects and situations we apply our knowledge and experience gained throughout our lives and it happens almost subconsciously, we walk, talk and approach a lot of situations without even realising or considering the thought process involved, it is a process that takes place at rapid pace and with little cognitive effort. When we see an object, we apply reasoning to it, interpreting it due to our own individual knowledge and previous experiences, and as such any experience is tainted by our own interpretation of it.  Due to the subjective nature of all experiences it is hard to judge any experience in its purest form before the thought process biases it with associations.  Wilson explains the challenge faced in a phenomenological interpretation of experience, explaining that the aim is to try to disclose the most naive and basic interpretation that is already there but as yet is unelaborated in the life world experience.  Willis poses the question:

The question is, can we develop an, as it were, pre-interpretative hermeneutic by which we hold the phenomenon in our gaze and drink it in, waiting for it almost to name itself in our consciousness while resisting the temptation to locate it on conceptual grids and grand theories.” (Willis, 2001: p5)

The problem here is even if we can isolate that moment before interpretation, in describing it we are applying individual interpretations to it, Willis (2001: p5) acknowledges this “this process is still an interpretation, after Reason (1981, p. 79) it can be called an ‘expressive’ or ‘immediate’ interpretation so that more elaborated interpretations can be referred to as explanatory interpretative processes.”

Phenomenologist’s look to describe experiences in their purest form, untainted from worldly knowledge, Willis (2001: p5) says:

This initial hermeneutic still calls upon one’s store of language, and values generated from our ways of being in our culture. The difference will be in our stance, which will be consciously trying to avoid analytic or generalizing language, and letting the phenomenon declare itself.”

Professor Max Van Manen (1990: p19) also describes this aim “The aim is to construct an animating, evocative description (text) of human actions, behaviours, intentions and experiences as we meet them in the life world.”

A phenomenological approach requires a different thought process to the one we use in everyday life, Willis (2001: p8) explains:

To turn one’s mind back to these experiences in their raw unclassified or unanalysed state requires developing a way to bypass rather than extinguish the ordinary, habitual ways people develop to interpret and name their world. This is the function of bracketing.

Bracketing’ in this instance is the process of taking a different viewpoint from one’s usual ways of conceiving the world and the things in it, in order to be aware of the phenomenon, directly in an unmediated way.  Van Manen also discusses this process of attempting to ascertain an untainted viewpoint, he says the process involves “suspending one’s various beliefs in the reality of the natural world in order to study the essential structures of the world.” Van Manen (1990: p175)

These descriptions of this phenomenological approach can be applied to the moment of viewing a piece of art or a designed artefact, before we apply our own experiences to it in our interpretation.  Phenomenology accepts that the claim of Kant that “we respond to an object simply on the basis of how it appears to us” is fair but then try to describe a process of obtaining a judgement that disregards individual perspectives.

If I could disregard some of my design knowledge, I may be able to make more artistic aesthetic judgements but I believe that this is something that cannot be achieved; I do not think we can unlearn or disregard the knowledge we have already acquired.  Isolating the moment before we apply reason to any experience would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible to do, due to the rapid pace at which the process takes place.

Whether we can try making our aesthetic judgements instantly in the pure moment before we apply worldly knowledge or we take time to reflect the experience, aesthetic judgments or reactions are made both positive and negative, and in varying degrees between.

Could these reactions be the purpose of art?  Kant’s argument that beauty’s function is the pleasure it generates can also be applied to ugliness, if a piece of art that provokes a negative reaction is interpreted as ugliness, which in turn is a point on the same scale as beauty, although at opposite ends of the scale, it can be said that the negative reaction caused is the function.

Another aspect to the debate of function is the intended purpose; what were the thoughts and intentions of the artist at the time of creation and do those intended messages or thoughts, if embedded in a piece of art translate to the viewer?  Do they include things with the intention of them to be considered beautiful or ugly?  If they do, is that the function of art to relay these thoughts or messages?  And if they don’t, does that mean that the function has failed or is it a fault of the viewer for not seeing the message?  Oxford Art Online pose the same question “If something should seem ugly, that fact is taken as symptomatic of a deficiency in perceptual capacities.” (Oxford Art Online, no publication date,

The viewer is part of the aesthetic equation in art theory but another part is the artist, maybe the artist wants his or her art to be specifically considered as beautiful or ugly, maybe the desired effect is to provoke a required reaction.  David Maclagan discusses the artist’s role in delivering the intended rationale:

The idea that a painting could have meanings that differ from the artist’s expressed intentions is a major stumbling-block for popular assumptions that the artist is, or should be, solely responsible for its meaning.  The popular image of the artist seems to be polarised between those who have a professional technique with which they can produce the desired effects and those who abandon all control in a sort of creative lottery.  But if artists only measured the success of their work by the extent to which it matched their ‘intentions’, however those might be defined, and did not hope that what they made would also surprise them, art would have a pretty limited interest.” (Maclagan, 2001: p.20 – 21)

This debate over the function of art and whether aesthetic values may be a function of art is a subject that has helped me, particularly as I am struggling with the purpose of art myself.  I am not sure that I agree that beauty or ugliness is the function of art but I do believe that some artists aspire to those qualities.

Another branch of the arts family is the Useful Arts, these are practices concerned with the skills and methods of practical art genres, such as architecture, carpentry and other crafts that involve the production of artefacts with function, developed by skilled technicians or craftsmen.  Roger Scruton points out the differences between traditional arts or fine arts and the useful arts, he says:

an important distinction between the fine and the useful arts.  Useful arts, like architecture, carpet weaving and carpentry, have a function, and can be judged according to how well they fulfil it.  But a functional building or carpet is not, for that reason beautiful.  In referring to architecture as a useful art we are emphasizing another aspect of it – the aspect that lies beyond utility.  We are implying that a work of architecture can be appreciated not only as a means to some goal, but as an end in itself, as a thing intrinsically meaningful.  In wrestling with the distinction between fine and useful arts (les beaux arts et les arts utiles), enlightenment thinkers made the first steps towards our modern conception of the work of art, as a thing whose value resides in it and not in its purpose.  ‘All art is quite useless’, wrote Oscar Wilde.” (Scruton, 2009: p17-18)

Scruton appears to be saying that the useful arts produce artefacts that have a clear defined function but this function cannot be used as part of any aesthetic judgment, but at the same time because the artefact is under the banner of useful art it can be appreciated in its own right, without consideration of its functionality.  Oscar Wilde’s statement is one that differs from the view that the aesthetic reaction to art could be the function and I must admit that sometimes as a viewer of art I am also left with the feeling that some art is quite useless.  If the aesthetic reaction to art is art’s function, then as a viewer of art, if I do not get a reaction, positive or negative then that art is useless but only from my perspective, from a differing perspective the purpose may be found or seen straight away, in a way it is as the saying goes ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ scenario.  Scruton describes the point of view, which highlights the differences between the interest in aesthetic values such as beauty and the interest in fulfilling goals or getting things done.  “We appreciate beautiful things not for their utility only, but also for what they are in themselves – or more plausibly, for how they appear in themselves.”(Scruton, 2009: p17)

This could be one of the main issues that I struggle with when I make aesthetic judgements on art, I find myself often looking for functions that in some cases I can find, for example I can see how portraiture can be used as a record of a person or how a landscape can capture a moment or a view, even then I often don’t get the same feeling of aesthetic appreciation that other people seem to adorn to art, but I really struggle with pieces like the ones below:

Jackson pollock convergence

Jackson Pollock, Convergence, (1952), oil on canvas, 237.5 x 393.7 cm,

Fig 4: Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, (1963), oil on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm

To me they just make me think what is it and why?  These are questions that I cannot seem to answer, nor do I wish to spend time looking for the answers.  In the same way I look for functions in art, I feel art theory seems to discount functions in the aesthetic judgments of useful arts and design, Scruton explains how the art theory from the eighteenth century seems to imply that the function of an artefact must be completely discounted in any judgement of beauty labelled upon it.  He then goes on to make the point that this use of theory “ignores the fact that knowledge of function is a vital preliminary to the experience of form” (Scruton, 2009: p21)

The useful arts, as they were called back then and my practice of design have to consider functionality and thus, this has a massive influence upon any aesthetic properties that may exist within the artefacts that are made.  Louis Sullivan architect made the argument that beauty in architecture arises when form follows function. (Scruton, 2009: p21)

This is something that can be applied to the other useful arts and design fields.  In fact his argument became a motto as Scruton (2009: p21) explains “The slogan ‘form follows function’ thereafter became a kind of manifesto, persuading a whole generation of architects to treat beauty as a by-product of functionality”.

American philosopher John Dewey had a similar point of view, for he “attributed beauty to whatever serves the purpose for which an artefact was designed and ugliness to whatever thwarts that purpose.” (Oxford Art Online, no publication date,

The useful arts have closer similarities to my own practice of Interactive Multimedia Design, and so it should, a lot of design disciplines evolved from the useful arts. There has been an evolution in the practice involved under the banner of the arts and there are new practices emerging, due to the rapid advancements in technology. The practices have evolved but the theories we were talking and reading about in my lectures are over a century old and I thought it might be interesting to look at this, have the changes in the world affected aesthetic theory, and if so, how?

Professor Ida Engholm discusses the change in aesthetics in the journal Digital Creativity, she says:

The aesthetic theory of the work of art is still alive and thriving but modified by the notion that aesthetics is not just a property of art but also of everyday life and its objects. Thus, a new aesthetic understanding has highlighted the increased aestheticisation of our surroundings in the modern welfare and mass society; so-called everyday aesthetics, which calls for a different understanding of aesthetics (e.g. Böhme 1995, Shusterman 1999, Friberg 2007).” (Engholm, 2010)

So Engholm claims aesthetics has been appropriated into everyday life and this has changed the way aesthetics is viewed by people.  Engholm also points out that some modern aesthetics theorists prefer to refer to the field of aesthetics as aesthesis, this is based upon a Greek word which largely means sensing, feeling, observing and perceiving (e.g. Seel 1996, Shusterman 2000, Böhme 2001). (Engholm, 2010)

The field of aesthetics is evolving and Engholm (2010) explains why:

The motivation for the expanded concept of aesthetics in the new aesthetics theories is a desire to make cultural phenomena such as design, advertising, entertainment, communication, etc. the object of an attention that seeks to explore how they operate, not whether they contain qualities of a more or less artistic nature

In the American academic journal, Design Issues, Paul Locher, Kees Overbeeke and Stephan Wensveen note that the rapid advances in computers, mobile devices and other elements of digital media have influenced the field of aesthetics, they say “The rise in the development of interactive electronic products has been accompanied by growing interest in the aesthetic aspects not only of the artefacts themselves but in the aesthetics of interactive systems.” (Locher, Overbeeke, & Wensveen, 2010)

Locher, Overbeeke, & Wensveen acknowledge the echoing similarities of the two approaches to the aesthetics of design they mention and Richard Shusterman’s distinction between analytical aesthetics and pragmatic aesthetics.

Locher, Overbeeke, & Wensveen talk about an approach to aesthetics that gives separate consideration to the aesthetic aspects of the artefacts themselves and the aesthetics of interactive systems.  According to his book ‘Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living, Thinking Beauty’, Shusterman (2000) believes that aesthetics has displayed two characteristic forms that are derived from two types of philosophy, analytical philosophy and pragmatism.  Locher, Overbeeke, & Wensveen (2010) explain from an analytic perspective, aesthetics arise as a product property, an added value that can make the artefact attractive and pleasurable. The pragmatic approach differs due to its concern with the aesthetics of use.  In the pragmatic view of the aesthetics of an artefact, values emerge out of the dynamic interaction between the user and the artefact in question.

The aesthetics of use differ from traditional aesthetic values, such as beauty and ugliness, and theorists often do not help the situation with the ambiguous use of terminology when describing the emotional responses to interaction with artefacts. Locher, Overbeeke, & Wensveen (2010) also make this point:

This ambiguity is evidenced by the many terms found in the literature used to describe the affect generated—terms such as fun, surprise, delight, engagement, and rewarding. Furthermore, the failure to provide technical distinctions among the concepts used to describe the aesthetic outcome of an aesthetic interaction remains a central problem in this field

They then go on to draw attention to the pragmatic view of the aesthetics of use and its similarities to the empirically based interpretation of a viewer’s aesthetic experience with art, expressed in ‘The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick. E. Robinson (1990).

Csíkszentmihályi and Robinson’s interpretation of a viewer’s aesthetic experience is what they call a flow experience; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor developed the theory of Flow, it is also sometimes referred to as optimal experience, he theorised that people often enter in non productive activities without the expectancy of a desired outcome, such as a reward or a result but because they gain enjoyment out of the activity itself and thus, the activity becomes its own reward.

In their book Csíkszentmihályi and Robinson show the Comparison of Criteria Defining the Aesthetic Experience by Monroe Beardsley (1982) and their own Flow Experience in a table that you can see below:

aesthetics vs flow

(Csíkszentmihályi & Robinson, 1990: p8)

The authors concede that the two lists do not correspond point by point but they do share similar elements.  In an effort to explain the similarities they say:

The aesthetic scholarship on which Beardsley’s list is based is completely independent of the flow research and, as far as can be established, the two authors were unaware of each other’s work at the time these conclusions where reached. The most likely answer is that philosophers describing the aesthetic experience and psychologists describing flow are talking about essentially the same state of mind” (Csíkszentmihályi & Robinson R, 1990: p8)

They go on to conclude that people seem to enjoy that heightened state of consciousness that comes from a focus that is more intense than that of everyday life.

Like Beardsley, Ida Engholm (2010) also attempts to define the aesthetic experience, her definition is based upon the work of Richard Shusterman and it summarises some characteristics of the aesthetic experience, see below:

  • The aesthetic experience occurs when a subject is able to find coherence and meaning in the experience. The recipient combines all the components of the experience into a meaningful whole.
  • The aesthetic experience occurs when the subject’s emotions or affects are activated. The aesthetic experience is partly phenomenological, but it is not mere sensation.
    • The aesthetic experience is related to the subject and the subject’s stance toward objects or situations.  It is the subject (the intersubjective) that creates the aesthetic experience through his/her/their activity.
    • The aesthetic experience generates satisfaction, enjoyment, as the phenomenological experience enables the subject to resolve the ‘tension’ that is potentially present in the experience.
    • The aesthetic experience has an effect on the subject. Because the subject draws on their own experiences and affects in the sense-making process, the experience will be more or less affected by the subject and the subject will be more or less affected by the experience.
    • The aesthetic experience is not narrowly associated with the domain of art but may occur in any domain of human existence.

This detailed explanation of the aesthetic experience highlights a lot of the things I have discussed thus far in my investigation, the importance of individual perspective is highlighted and I can find answers to some of my questions from within this definition.  I will go into further detail on this in my conclusion but first I would like to look specifically at my own practice.

Digital designers have to deal with multiple considerations during their design processes; technology and function are equally as important as form within the use and experience of a digital artefact, form can be defined as the appearance of a thing constituted by its construction, materials, usage functions, colours, finish, etc. Engholm (2010) says: “we define a digital artefact as a heterogeneous construction whose appearance and use are conditioned by the sum of its characteristics.”  The considerations designers undertake as part of their design process ultimately have an effect upon other aspects of the design.

The definition of design by Kim Goodwin in her book ‘Designing For The Digital Age’, also draws attention to the fact that design has considerations outside of the designers own creativity, her definition is “Design is the craft of visualizing concrete solutions that serve human needs and goals within certain constraints” (Goodwin, 2009: p3)

Donald A. Norman also points out some of the constraints that designers may face in his book, he says:

Designing well is not easy. The manufacturer wants something that can be produced economically. The store wants something that will be attractive to its customers. The purchaser has several demands. In the store, the purchaser focuses on price and appearance, and perhaps on prestige value. At home, the same person will pay more attention to functionality and usability. ” (Norman, 1998: p.28)

In my practice I need to consider where to place screen elements dependent on information architectural, ergonomic, stylistic and user centred considerations to name but a few, so I do not have the free reign to be creative, the skill of a designer is shown by the ability to fulfil all considerations, whilst been creative within them to create experiences that are aesthetic visually and in terms of use.

Folkman talks about the differences in measuring aesthetic values, he says “Evaluating aesthetics in design is mainly a matter of grasping its sensuous qualities, or, rather, design’s distinctive appeals to the senses.” (Folkmann, 2010)

Folkmann shows how aesthetics in design differs from the aesthetics of art; in design there are visual aesthetic qualities and functional aesthetic qualities.  Although we can look at the different aesthetic qualities, visual aesthetics cannot be considered in the same way as art, they both stimulate the same sensory reactions in both user and viewer and they are both a visual creation of a skilled individual, who hopes to create a particular response from the user/viewer but they are not the same.  Earlier I noted some of the considerations that undoubtedly limit a designer in terms of what they can produce visually but to designers these are not limitations but vital considerations.

A designer may not have the same sort of creative freedom to create visual stimulation but their work is part of an overall experience that has stimulations that come from the aesthetics of use.  Beauty and ugly are not words I would often use as a designer, as they are descriptive expressions that are too dependent on the user/viewers perspective and taste.

In his manuscript, Jonas Lowgren poses the question of how we can then consider the aesthetic values within design “What is esthetically appropriate depends on what the user expects from the interaction experience, which is in turn colored by their initial appraisal of the product, its purpose, its use potentials*in short, its genre.” (Lowgren, 2009)

The terminology used within aesthetic judgement in art is something that I believe cannot be repurposed for design and this may be why I have been struggling when looking at the aesthetic values of art.  In my practice beauty and sublime are not the words that I would often consider to describe the aesthetic value of a design, effective, complimentary and appropriate are words that I tend to use but often my own work comes under aesthetic criticism, could this be because I don’t consider my work to be something that could be, or should be described as beautiful or sublime?

The aesthetic values of an artefact within my area of practice should not be undervalued, a positive aesthetic response by users can encourage interaction and further investigation, without the initial attraction that is created by positive aesthetic reactions there may be no interaction in the first place, once the initial interaction takes place, only then can a positive reaction to the aesthetics of use create a desire for further or repeat interaction.

Folkman offers one reason why aesthetics is important within design:

one should not neglect issues of aesthetics in design, if only because designed objects contribute to the ongoing aesthetization of everyday life that is so prevalent in late Modernism.  Aesthetics is no longer the exclusive domain of art but applies to our immediate, sensuous experience of the world.” (Folkmann, 2010)

Designed artefacts with strong visual aesthetic values often lead to positive reviews and discussions from other designers and this can be very appealing, acknowledgement for your hard work by your peers is socially rewarding and the recognition that can be derived from these types of plaudit can become very appealing; Professor Norman highlights the problem with a structure that offers positive feedback based upon just one part of the design process, Norman (1988: p.151-152) believes “Prizes tend to be given for some aspects of design, to the neglect of all others-usually including usability”.

Folkmann also recognises that the visual aesthetic values of designed artefacts are often held in higher regard than the aesthetics of use, “when design artefacts are noticed and appreciated, it is more often for their aesthetic qualities than their practical or functional ability to solve more or less complex or well-defined problems.” (Folkmann, 2010)

We live in a world that holds perceived beauty in high status, people want beautiful things and beauty adds value but we should be looking at the whole picture when it comes to design.  Designed artefacts should be aesthetically pleasing both visually and in use, Professor Engholm acknowledges the importance of aesthetics in modern day designed artefacts “In the digital era aesthetic differentiation continues to play a key role in the production and consumption of artefacts.” Engholm (2010)

The iPad is the platform I have chosen for my application and Apple Inc. the company who produce this device, are a company that try to create products that stimulate both aspects of design aesthetics, they produce usable devices with strong visual aesthetic values; Jonathan Jones expressed the same view in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper “one reason why Apple products are favoured by those who work in the arts and humanities – they look great. The other reason, of course, is that they are damn easy to use.” (Jones, 2011,

Companies like Apple Inc. prove that utility and aesthetics can be attained within individual artefacts and this is an example of how designers should attempt to fulfil both sets of aesthetics values.


When I was sat in my lecture thinking about the descriptions of aesthetics given in the texts we were provided with, I was trying to find a place in my own practice where these aesthetic judgments fitted and made sense.

The main problem I seemed to be having was that I could not look at the examples of art we were discussing without looking for a purpose or function, this was a major stumbling block that was causing me to question where my own practice fitted in to our discussions and into art theory in general.  The lecture also made it apparent to me that I find aesthetic judgements on art difficult, and my difficulty in applying aesthetic judgments to works of art had me questioning why my viewpoint in this matter was seemingly vastly detached from the views of my peers.

My initial reaction was to ask myself ‘is it because I have a different view point due to my individual practice discipline?’  Upon further reflection I started to wonder whether I simply lacked the artistic knowledge of my peers.  I then started to question whether I simply could not fully appreciate aesthetic values such as beauty and became concerned that this could be a deep lying problem, which could possibly be the root of the negative comments that have been made about the aesthetic qualities of my own work in the past.

When I began this investigation I was hoping that it would answer and address the questions that the topic raised for me personally.

My investigation has led me to the conclusion that the difficulties I found applying aesthetic judgements to works of art are due to me finding it difficult to look at art as art.  I am a designer not an artist and I believe that I have been attempting to analyse art using a design state of mind, and this does not seem to work it simply leaves me with the same questions a lot of the time, ‘what is its function?’  ‘What is the point of art?’

My failure to detach myself from my practice left me in a situation where I was basically using the wrong tools for the job, or approaching my analysis from the wrong point of view and asking the wrong questions, if you do not ask the right questions then how can you expect to get the right answers?

As my investigation has shown, Art and Design are different and thus, they cannot be judged under the same rules, this is a point that is echoed by Folkmann although be it in the reverse situation; Folkmann talks about how looking at design from an art  aesthetics perspective can hamper proper recognition of the values with a designed artefact, he says:

an appropriation of design by the aesthetics of art, implying a view of design as art, may hamper an understanding of the unique complexity of almost every design object or solution: that design is not the expression of a lone artist, but the result of commercial and societal” (Folkmann, 2010)

The role and the importance of individual perspective has been the main fact that I can take from my investigation.  In Ida Engholm’s definition of the aesthetic experience she draws attention to how “The aesthetic experience is related to the subject and the subject’s stance toward objects or situations.” (Engholm, 2010)

The language may be confusing to an artist but in this case Engholm’s subject is the viewer in their aesthetic experience.  I can apply Engholms theory to my own experience in making aesthetic judgments, as the viewer I found my design background became a factor that was influencing my judgements, and as I have discussed this was inappropriate for the task that I was trying undertake.  The viewer provides part of their own viewing experience and I now understand that this can sometimes produce unexpected judgements.  Individual factors such as perspective, taste and fashion can effect aesthetic judgements, so the credence given to these judgments is often unwarranted.  Aesthetic judgments are personal to the viewer and even the terminology used seems to imply a verdict that should be recognised by others, this is simply not the case.

If I could unlearn everything I know when making aesthetic judgments, I know that the result of those judgement would be different because all my current judgements are informed by the way I am pre conditioned.  As I mentioned earlier I do not believe it is possible to unlearn knowledge, so the nearest option would seem to be using the bracketing approach used in phenomenology, basically choosing to discount the knowledge I know but this decision in the first place acknowledges the fact that I have the knowledge, so how can I totally discount that.  I do not believe phenomenology works in any practice, as it requires a conscious choice to forget the fact that you even have the ability to make choices?

Phenomenology tries to understand or to study the point in phenomenon before us as individuals apply knowledge and articulate that phenomena’s sensory information, in order to describe the phenomenon.  It does this by looking at the moment before the application of knowledge in the phenomena and it applies the knowledge to produce an articulated description.  This seems to me that phenomenology is a process of contradiction; it tries to ignore previous knowledge to gain knowledge, removing individual and socially influenced perspectives, to then apply individual and socially influenced perspectives.

Perspectives are vital to all experience and I believe this acknowledgment learned through my investigation, has helped me to understand that I was right to struggle with application of the aesthetic judgments used within art, in relation to my own personal practice of interactive multimedia design. The aesthetic judgements used in art cannot be properly applied to my practice and nor should they.

The differences between the two practices call for differences in analysis of their values.  As a designer I struggle appraising aesthetic judgements upon works of art but equally I am sure there are artists who would struggle to adequately render judgments upon pieces of design.  I can see how an artist may struggle to understand why a designed artefact can’t be in their opinion more beautiful or sublime, if they don’t understand or even consider the constraints that designers face in their practice.  I do not totally understand the approach of an artist in their field but this investigation has provided me with a valuable insight into making more informed aesthetic judgements of both art and design.

This examination has also helped me to understand any issue that has bothered me throughout my studies at Hull School of Art and Design, sometimes I have struggled with some of the artistic approaches and concepts that I have been taught; in particular the theory side of study has left me feeling frustrated.

I am starting to believe that there is not enough credence given to the differences in the practices of art and design.  Within my current peer group we had a discussion that indicated to me a strong opinion that there are no differences between art and design, this puzzled me as I can see clear differences and as my investigation has shown the differences seem to mainly revolve around the functional aspects that constrain design and the creative freedom that artist have when creating works of art.

During my BA experience at Hull School of Art & Design myself and my peers within the new media courses often used to talk about our feelings of misplacement, of how we did not quite fit in the theory groups that we were working alongside because a lot of the theory did not seem to apply to us, and though this is a matter that can be debated this investigation is starting to back up the feelings we were experiencing at that time.  This investigation is focussing on one aspect of art and design theory but the differences between approaches in the differing practices may be echoed throughout other aspects of theory.

This investigation has provided me with the knowledge that my different point of view when it comes to art theory was partially a lack of understanding and appreciation of art on my side, mixed with a void of Knowledge that I have now started to fill about the different approach to aesthetics, that is more relevant to my practice of interactive multimedia design.  It has given me confidence that my approach to my practice is valid, aesthetics is an important aspect of my practice but beauty is not a value that provides an effective evaluation of the properties that are important within it.

The application of aesthetic art theory to design may not be an approach that works in practice but that does not mean that aesthetics is not an important aspect of design.  Beauty is a quality that is subjective and hard to quantify in art or design but as I argued in my B.A dissertation, there is a need for a balanced, unified design philosophy that considers form and function equally, as part of a whole design process that provides the best of both worlds.  I don’t think that this is an easy target but it is not an impossible task either; it requires a broad range of knowledge and a desire to find solutions that lead to improved experiences for the end user/consumer.

I think this investigation has been invaluable in learning more about art and design, I believe it will help me to understand aesthetic judgments and it will help me to articulate aesthetic judgements of my own throughout my M.A and further forwards in my future practice.


 List of Sources

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Robinson, R. (1990) The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter, Malibu, CA: The J. P. Getty Trust

Goodwin, K. (2009) Designing For The Digital Age, Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing Inc.

Maclagen, D. (2001) Psychological aesthetics: Painting, Feeling, and Making Sense, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Norman, D. A. (1988) The Psychology Of Everyday Things, New York: Basic Books.

Pooke, G., Newall, D. (2007) Art History The Basics, New York: Routledge

Scruton, R. (2009) Beauty, New York: Oxford University Press

Shusterman, R. (2000) Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living, Thinking Beauty, Boston, MA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers

Van Manen, M. (1990) Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy, New York: State University of new York press

Engholm, I. (2010) The good enough revolution-the role of aesthetics in user experiences with digital artefacts, Digital Creativity, Vol.21, iss.3, pp.141-154, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 8 February 2012.

Folkmann, M. N. (2010) Evaluating aesthetics in design: A phenomenological approach, Design Issues, Vol.26, Iss.1, pp.40-53

Locher, P., Overbeeke, K. & Wensveen, S. (2010), Aesthetic Interaction: A Framework‘, Design Issues, vol.26, iss.2, pp.70-79, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 8 February 2012

Lówgren, J. (2009), Toward an articulation of interaction esthetics, New Review Of Hypermedia & Multimedia, vol.15, iss.2, pp. 129-146, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 14 February 2012. – Art History, no publication date, Jackson Pollock – Convergence, [online] Available at:, [accessed 20th February 2012], no publication date, [online] Available at:, [accessed 10th February 2012]

Jones, J. 6th October 2011, How Steve Jobs made the world more beautiful, [online] Available at:, [accessed 19th February 2012]

Oxford Art Online, Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics, 1998, Ugliness [online] Available at:, [accessed 12th February 2012]

Lorand, R. no publication date, Beauty and Ugliness – The function of Beauty, [online] Available at:, [accessed 10th February 2012]

The Museum of Modern Art – The Collection, 2010, Ad Reinhardt – Abstract Painting, [online] Available at: [accessed 20th February 2012]

Smith, D. W. 2011, Phenomenology, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [online] Available at:, [accessed 18th February 2012]

Ulrich, K. T. 2006, DESIGN: Creation of Artifacts in Society, [pdf] Pontifica Press [online] Available at:, [accessed 14th February 2012]

Willis, P. 2001, The “Things Themselves” in Phenomenology, Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, [online] Available at: [accessed 18th February 2012]

Wilson, T. D. 2002, Alfred Schutz, phenomenology and research methodology for information behaviour research, [online] Available at:, [accessed 18th February 2012]

Wikipedia, 2011, Hans Holbein the Younger – The Ambassadors, [online] Available at:, [accessed 20th February 2012]

Wikipedia, 2011, Holbein Skull, [online] Available at:, [accessed 20th February 2012]

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