Aesthetics is a philosophical discipline, and its subject matter is art, or more accurately, fine art. The word aesthetics is derived from the Greek word for “science of sensations” or “science of emotions”, although this definition fails to do full justice to the concept of aesthetics, as aesthetics today is also used to refer to the “philosophy of art” or the “philosophy of fine art”.
Aesthetics is the science of beauty, investigating the essence of art and laws of evolution, but also various manifestations of beauty.
Aesthetics cannot be reduced to an examination of the sensory pleasure derived from beauty, as this would overlook the “theory of artistic creation”. Likewise, aesthetics cannot be limited either to a discovery of the laws of reality, as such a generalization would disregard the sensory aspect of art to make abstractions.
Objects (works) of art are differentiated from objects of desire. People turn to objects of desire either to consume them or to own them. Artistic interest, on the other hand, liberates the object of art, and seeks to continue its existence.
Objects of art are also differentiated from objects of nature. In aesthetic evaluations, objects of art are attributed greater importance than objects of nature through a qualitative distinction, in that objects of art are intertwined with human labor and reflect human values.
“For other ends, like education, purification, bettering, financial gain, struggling for fame and honor, have nothing to do with the work of art as such.” (Hegel)
In art, human thought is manifested as images draped in a blanket of senses. Conversely, art addresses the human consciousness and soul as well as the senses. In other words, art is a language that blends with thought, and expresses not only objects of nature and culture, but also such human acts as gestures, facial expressions, behaviors and speech. Conversely, it stamps all objects of art with thought (spirit).
The creation of art requires sensitivity, and sensitivity in return is trained and developed through art. Therefore, art and the artist come together and are displayed in the work of art as an indivisible unity.
A work of art needs to be original, free, holistic and unique. It is its own center and purpose; it aims for nothing other than itself.
Art making propagates freedom, creating, against the determinism of nature, a spiritual and free world.
Once completed, that is to say, once born from the artist, a work of art gains an independent existence, in a sense, acquiring an identity of its own.
Art making takes place under the influence of a specific era, culture and environment, and carries traces of a specific education, mood and creativity. The artist not only reflects his/her reality, as he/she also denies current reality in search of new realities, constructing new worlds.
The aesthetic idea forms the basis of the content of a work of art. The aesthetic idea, however, is not an abstract thought, being rather the totality of the impressions, feelings, passions, moods and inward-oriented thoughts it generates in the observer of a work of art – it is a concrete image.
Art and artistic approaches vary, reflecting the culture, age, world view and identity of the artist. This needs to be taken into account in aesthetic perceptions and when making aesthetic evaluations. Keeping these in mind, let’s take a look at the world view that underlies art in Anatolia – a cradle of civilizations where the Eastern culture and civilization meets and interacts with those of the West.
The dominant world view in the West is based on Greco-Roman sources. Despite its many stages, there is a “dualist,” “analytical” and “mechanistic” thinking that underlies Western art.
Western thought, being analytical, is adept at separating objects, events and facts from one another; however, when analytical thought becomes absolute, the connection between the whole and the composite parts is severed, and the parts (objects, events and facts) become isolated from one another. It assumes that the whole can be conceived at the outset from the features of its parts, even in the most complex systems. Following atomism, it posits that everything consists of fundamental components (parts) that interact with one another under the influence of forces. Adopting the dualist perspective, it makes an absolute distinction between the subject and the object, and accordingly, scientific descriptions are independent of the observer and the process of knowledge. This means that the knowing subject is absolutely separate from the object of knowledge, and is merely an observer; and that experiencing the object of knowledge does bring changes to the knowing subject, who only collects data through this observation.
After this brief overview of the general character of Western thought, we can cast an eye also over Ancient Eastern thought:
Ancient Eastern thought is an “organic” form of thought based on “one,” “unity” and “holism”. Within this thought is a networked universe rather than a mechanistic one – the universe is imagined such that everything is in a vital relationship with everything else. From this perspective, the component parts have no independent existence; and the features of the parts make sense only within the whole. There is a network of relationships behind every part (unity), and the part is nothing but an image, a manifestation of this network of relationships. Humans are neither separate from nor in opposition to nature, but are parts of the same organism, and as nature is considered to be alive, it is treated the same way we would treat our own bodies. “Consent” is considered to be the highest value in life, while the unity and integrity of being is the most fundamental tenet of Eastern thought.
The Western aesthetic view does not conflict with the world view or life of the Western person, as their societies impart the knowledge, experiences and ideas created in a historical process to new generations through education.
For those from the East, however, this is not the case. The Eastern person inherits the traditional Eastern thought, but receives a Western education in schools. Even though science is said to be universal and blind to the Eastern-Western distinction, this is not entirely accurate. The mathematical and empirical conclusions of science are indeed universal, but the way scientific knowledge is used and the reason scientific knowledge is obtained are closely connected to world views. As Western positivism and the positivist world view are dominant in universities, cultural contradictions and alienation are inevitable for those from the East who are educated in these schools. The heart and mind may contradict one another, leading them to start emulating the Western lifestyle and world view that shaped their mind, leading to a gulf between generations.
In ancient Eastern thought, aesthetic perception and aesthetic thinking, or in other words, conceptions of beauty, concern the entire perspective on life. According to this view, which is best represented by Anatolian Sufis, “beauty” is not found in individual objects, as such objects can only reflect their share of the holistic beauty, and only to the extent they are capable. It is even thought that as objects reflect beauty depending on their basic features, they also hide beauty. This idea is expressed using a color allegory, in which the color on the surface of an object is perceived to be the color of that object, but in reality, it is the color that the object reflects by absorbing all other colors. For example, think of a red object. This object is not only red, because as it reflects red, it also absorbs all other colors; in other words, it uses red to hide the other colors.
As beauty is holistic, no single object (part) can reflect beauty in its entirety.
According to Sufis, “God is beautiful and loves what is beautiful.” In this sense, beauty can be considered to be blessed and to encompass everything.
In Western thought, on the other hand, aesthetic judgments are made using such criteria as the brightness of the red that reflects off the object, its appearance in relation to other colors and the harmony of colors. Because particular objects are taken into account, an analytical method is adopted.
In Eastern thought, aesthetic perception is not limited to forms of existence, and so the internal connection between our own being, which we cannot directly experience, and alternative forms of existence, becomes an internal part of aesthetic perception.
In Western thought, feelings of admiration are considered to be sufficient in the aesthetic perception of a work of art, in other words, when we encounter its beauty, while in Eastern thought, this admiration is followed by love. Love is kindled when we witness beauty. Beauty is the reflection of the unity/integrity of the being behind the existing objects, and give rise to “admiration” and “love” in the viewer to the extent of their share within the holistic beauty. Admiration is an experience that concerns the object, whereas love is an experience that concerns the inner world of a person.
When you destroy the integrity of a work of art, its beauty is lost, as a work of art cannot be reduced to any one of its component parts. Beauty is an indivisible whole.
Beauty is a torch that guides society and that serves as a reference and focal point for the common spirit of society. Goodness is a butterfly that is attracted to this torch – and one that is often obliged to sacrifice itself to the heat and shining light of beauty. That is to say, goodness loses its characteristics when merged with beauty. Beauty dissolves goodness within itself.
The names attributed to Allah in the Quran are referred to as “al-asma al-husna”, meaning “the beautiful names”. These are the names that describe Allah, and beauty is the essence of the names and attributes of Allah. In Sufism (Tasawwuf), the names that describe the essence of Allah are manifested in the universe as attributes, and what is seen in the mirror of the universe is the beauty (jamal) of Allah. As humans represent potential perfection (maturity, kamal) in the universe, Allah’s attributes are best manifested in humans. Those who yearn for beauty cannot attain maturity until they can see the beauty of their own being, that is to say, the face of the Haqq. Niyazi Misri has the same idea:
“Look at people if you want to see the Haqq,
He is the one that shines on faces.
The Haqq’s face is seen through the faces of people,
The Merciful Essence appears as human.”
In Sufism, beauty, which is the perception of the unity/integrity of being, is dispersed throughout life, and is seen as the cause of love. In Sufism, Iblis is unable to see beauty (The Arabic word Iblis is derived from the verbal root b-l-s, and means clothing, dress and garment), and refers to assumptions that hide and cover (kufr) beauty. Following the principle of “God is beautiful and loves what is beautiful”, Iblis is he who is deprived of love.
In the West, the aesthetic perception is based on aesthetic judgment, and the learned aesthetic perception that results from aesthetic judgment is academism.
A work of art is a whole within itself, and is independent. It is born from the artist, but becomes also independent of the artist. The artist is free to the extent that the work of art is original.
* First published in Us Düşün ve Ötesi (Reason, Thought, and Beyond), no.9, 2005. Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.