Philosophy 163 - 8.5.3 Art and Values

Studying aesthetics can lay bare what societies value, how they express that value, and who gets to create values. Since aesthetic values are shaped by culture, society, class, religion, politics, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability, art intervenes in ethical and social-political issues—and vice versa.

Feminist Aesthetics

Feminism, as defined by American social activist bell hooks (1952 – 2021), “is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks 2015, 1). Art provides one way to investigate the exploitation and oppression of women, particularly since women have been excluded from art. In past centuries, women were not allowed to study at art academies or exhibit their work at galleries. Additionally, the women who managed to create art were often marginalized and at times brutally punished for trying to make their way into the art world, like the 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who was sexually assaulted by a man from her father’s art circle and then dishonored and tortured in court. Women of color have been excluded from the art world to an even greater degree, particularly if their works of art do not fit within the classical “canon” of art, which focuses on “great” works of art like large-scale paintings, epic novels, and other traditionally masculine arts. Often, works of art that are tied to handicraft and domestic arts are excluded from the canon of great works of art, which means that many creations by a variety of women are ignored.

In the 1980s, a group of anonymous women artist-activists called the Guerrilla Girls—a reference to guerrilla fighters and the fact that they used gorilla masks to hide their identities—started a billboard campaign to shed light on this issue. They created a poster that pointed out the exclusion of women artists from the Metropolitan Museum. It provided the statistic that “less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female” (Guerrilla Girls 1989) and raised the question of whether women have to be naked to be in a museum. The Guerilla Girls are still active and continue to use playful campaigns to raise awareness about feminist issues.

Poster depicts the back of a naked woman wearing a gorilla mask, lounging on a velvet cloth. The text reads “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.
Figure 8.8 In the 1980s, a group of feminists calling themselves The Guerrilla Girls’ created this poster about women’s objectification and lack of representation in art museums. (credit: “Guerrilla girls” by Ryohei Noda/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Environmental Aesthetics

People often think about art in terms of spaces like a museum or gallery, not the great outdoors. Moreover, some philosophers, like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831), draw a sharp distinction between natural beauty and artistic beauty to assert the superiority of human creation over the natural world. Some art, however, challenges the elevation of art over nature and uses art to immerse people in nature. There are many examples of land art in prehistoric and Indigenous cultures—for example, earthworks and mounds made by pre-Columbian Native Americans. Contemporary land art blurs the distinction between nature and art in ways that allow one to contemplate the profound effect people have had the natural world and to reorient themselves to the sublime beauty and grandeur of natural landscapes.

Photograph of four huge concrete cylinders positioned in an x-formation in a barren dessert setting. In addition to the openings at the front and the back, the cylinders have small round holes scattered along their tops and sides.
Figure 8.9 Sun Tunnels, by American artist Nancy Holt (1938 – 2014) is an art installation of massive concrete tunnels placed in the Great Basin Desert of Utah. The tunnels are large enough for people to sit inside, and they are placed so that their openings frame the sun on the horizon during solstices. Holt described the purpose of the art installation as bringing “the vast space of the desert back to human scale.” (credit: “Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1973-1976” by Retis/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Land art was an art movement in the 1960s and 1970s that sought to relocate works of art from the commercialized spaces of museums and galleries to the natural world. Some examples of land art challenge the distinction between the human world and the natural world. The Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta (1948–1985) did an “earth-body” series of works that involved pressing her body into natural landscapes and photographing the impressions, as well as still and moving film of her interacting with natural landscapes. Her intention was to develop a spiritual connection with the earth using her body. Art can help people think about their relationship to the natural world and their responsibility for the environment.

At times, works of art have also served as environmental interventions. For example, in her 2020 art project The Distant Is Imminent, American photographer Camille Seaman (b. 1969) projected images of melting icebergs from Antarctica and the Artic onto buildings in cities that will be affected by the rising sea level. The projections showed the estimated water line for 2050, which allowed spectators to envision their surroundings swallowed by the ocean due to climate change. These works of art are meant to create more than an aesthetic experience—they are calls to collective action and change.

Everyday Aesthetics

While many approaches to aesthetics focus on works of art and artistic creations, you can find aesthetically significant objects, experiences, and practices all around you. Everyday aesthetics asserts the prevalence of aesthetically meaningful experiences in one’s ordinary day-to-day life—for example, listening to the rain fall on a roof, admiring the pattern of leaves on the ground, and even choosing what shirt to wear or how to decorate your living spaces.

Photograph of a cluster of grass seed heads against a blue sky.
Figure 8.10 Everyday aesthetics calls attention to the aesthetically meaningful experiences in day-to-day life. (credit: “Tall Grass” by Tom Shockey/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Japanese aesthetics is a rich source of inspiration for everyday aesthetics. Japanese aesthetics often incorporates Zen Buddhism to encourage mindful attention to the beauty of things around us. Additionally, Japanese aesthetics focuses on the small and impermanent, such as cherry blossoms and tea ceremonies, as opposed to the large-scale grandiose “masterpieces” favored by traditional European aesthetics. As Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo (1863 – 1913) explains in The Book of Tea, Japanese tea ceremonies are “founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence” (Kakuzo [1906] 1956, 3). In Japanese culture, everyday aesthetic practices are a moral and religious form of self-cultivation.

Contemporary Japanese American philosopher Yuriko Saito’s approach to everyday aesthetics brings Japanese aesthetics and environmental aesthetics together to address the moral dimensions of aesthetics and its impact on the world. She explains that everyday aesthetics decenters works of art in ways that broaden people’s discussions and help them understand the way questions of taste and beauty enrich their lives and impact the environment (Saito 2007). By focusing on the many aesthetic dimensions of life, people can examine what they value.

Write Like a Philosopher

Write a short essay (2-3 paragraphs) addressing the following: What in your everyday life do you consider to be aesthetically meaningful? Describe why you think of it as aesthetic. How is it different from a work of art that you might encounter in a museum or gallery? How is it similar?

Value theory gives people tools for identifying, formulating, and questioning the values that are important to them as individuals and as a society. Even if you never take another philosophy course, you can use these ideas to think about your choices in life, what you desire or find pleasurable and good, and how you define well-being or a just society.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax