Aesthetics: Art for Art’s Sake

1 Mar

It’s a point of pride among us humans that one of our forefathers had the genius to come up with basic tools.  We’ve all seen the reencactments of a caveman miraculously inventing the wheel, and we know they had spears, a few cooking tools, and other assorted items on display at museums of natural history the world over.

A Delft ceramic plate, adding a bit of beauty to the everyday

I take a slightly different view, however.  I’m more interested in the moment when one caveman looked at his spear, looked at his companion’s, and then decided that he wanted his to look different.  An engraving here, a little bit of pant from some berries there, and next thing you know humans were personalizing and decorating just about everything they could.  Some of these decorations had s

pecific purposes, mind you.   As I’ve stated previously art is full of all sorts of ideas, stories, and meanings, but all of this is often done with the aim of creating something that is pleasing to the eye.

A good example of this is the decorative arts.  The Decorative or Applied Arts are often overlooked in the art world because they’re not big and important like 2-D art and sculpture.  They don’t have sexy names like da Vinci or Picasso, either.  What makes them absolutely spectacular, though, is that none of it was necessary.  You can have a plate or table that’s just that, a plate or table, but those with the means made the effort to make sure they had utensils that were pleasing to the eye.

It goes beyond tableware, however.  Even works that are considered part of the traditional “Fine Arts,” i.e. painting and sculpture, were often done for the sake of beauty and decoration.  With the rise of the middle class in Europe, more and more people desired paintings for their own homes, and these were often scenes that were meant simply to be beautiful.

To understand this, one needs only look at the landscape paintings of the seventeenth century French artist Claude Lorraine.  Many art historians often try to read great moral and historical signifigance intolandscape paintings of the time, and no doubt on some level this was true, but the end result is simplly the beauty of nature put down on canvas.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Cattle and Peasants, 1629

It is perhaps going a bit far to say that all art up to a certain point in history was meant to be beautiful on some level.  In many paintings storytelling or moral instruction trumped any desire to be aesthetically pleasing, but the idea of art being “ugly” or making the viewer uncomfortable is really an invention of the late nineteenth century.  Was that bad for art?  I’m not stupid enough to try to answer that question here.  But the next time you visit an art museum or even pick out a new set of dishes for your house remember that we are attracted to beauty, we enjoy having it close at and, and if you look to art you’ll see some of the most beautiful objects man has ever created.


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