All art has an aesthetic function. The main function of fine arts is aesthetic appreciation. Painting, drawing, and sculpture generally fall into this category. The applied arts function in both an aesthetic and utilitarian way. Forms such as a hand woven Navajo rug, a book illustration, and interior design fall into this category. Art critic Roy Fry has a good definition of aesthetic viewing in his book Vision and Design (London, 1920):
The needs of our actual life are so imperative, that the sense of vision becomes highly specialized in their service. With admirable economy we learn to see only so much as is needful for our purposes; but this is in fact very little, just enough to recognize and identify each object or person; that done, they go into an entry in our mental catalogue and are no more really seen. In actual life the normal person really only reads the labels as it were on the objects around him and troubles no further. Almost all things that are useful in any way put on more or less this cap of invisibility. It is only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen that we really look at it.
A second characteristic of art is that a human must create it. What is not made by a human can be viewed aesthetically, but it does not qualify as art. For example, a virgin forest is undeniably beautiful, but it is not a work of art. However, a bonsai tree qualifies as art because it was shaped by a human.
Creativity or a Leap of Imagination
A third characteristic of art is that it involves creativity or “leap of imagination” on the part of the artist. The earliest known paintings were done on the stone walls of caves by the prehistoric hunting tribes of Europe (p. 8). The first of these images probably resulted from a leap of imagination when someone, seated around a fire, saw a shadowy image on the stone wall, picked up a piece of charred wood from the fire, and completed the image.
Characteristics of Good Art
Our first inclination is to believe that a work of art is good if we like it and a work of art is bad if we don’t like it: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” But “I like it” is different from “I think it is aesthetically good.” “I like it” is autobiographical in that it says more about your preferences and your background than it does about the art. However, “I think it is aesthetically good” is an informed judgment based on such things as design, methods, and materials, historical context, human psychology, etc. It is possible for a person to know that a painting is of poor quality but to like it anyway. For example, generic paintings of flowers are placed in motel rooms because they are pleasant and customers like them. One of the main considerations of the person commissioned to do one of these paintings is that it be color coordinated to the motel room. These paintings are usually quickly executed and are not particularly noteworthy. It is also possible to intellectually know that a painting is a masterpiece but still dislike it. Great Deeds – against the dead! (p. 351) is an etching by Francisco Goya, the great Spanish artist. While few people like the gruesome subject of the etching, most would agree that Goya has used a considerable command of composition and the etching technique to make a powerful political statement about the horrors of war. While it is difficult to isolate one feature and say that whenever it is present the work of art is good, the philosopher Monroe Beardsley has devised a set of criteria for judging the aesthetic value of art. According to his view, there are three general canons of aesthetic criticism. These are unity, variety, and intensity…