Painting, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M048-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2020, from

1. The question

What is there to value, aesthetically, in painting? At first glance, there are many things. Painting can, for instance, present us with beauty, express emotion or illuminate an abstract idea by embodying it in the representation of something concrete. These virtues are found in many other arts. This may seem to render it rather arbitrary to ask about the aesthetics of painting in particular. However, the inquiry makes perfect sense provided there is something distinctive in what painting has to offer. It may be that painting offers a unique combination of values, each of which can be found elsewhere; or it may be that some of what painting offers is found nowhere else. Each possibility provides an approach to our topic.

‘History provides instances of both approaches, sometimes within the work of a single author (see, for instance, Ruskin 1843–60). But either approach faces a further issue, that of just how circumscribed the realm of painting is taken to be. For example, the eighteenth-century theorist Lessing sought to describe values found in both pictorial art and sculpture, using these to draw aesthetic distinctions between the pair (which he called ‘painting’) and literature, above all poetry. Others, such as the American art critic Clement Greenberg, have hoped to distinguish the pictorial from the sculptural, in aesthetic terms. Even the pictorial itself presents difficulties: is it to include only painting proper, or some or all of the many other ways in which art pictures can be made – fresco, drawing, etching and photography?

‘Painting’ is here taken to cover all the pictorial arts, bar photography. This approach presents special problems for aesthetics (see Photography, aesthetics of). We will ask whether there are things to value in these arts that are not found in other art forms. Why do we pursue this approach? One reason is the poverty of accounts of art in general, a poverty in part inherited from accounts of general artistic values. Another is that s/he who does not look, does not find. Since philosophical aesthetics stands in a two-way relationship with criticism, each able, at their best, to learn from the other, and since something parallel is true of criticism and ordinary aesthetic engagement, the worry is that if we do not look for what is special about painting from the viewpoint of philosophical aesthetics, an engagement with painting as it is actually practised might be impoverished both critically and on a day-to-day basis.

‘Not discussed here are two themes which have a certain topicality. One is the speculation that painting is dead, that it has run its course as an art form. The other is the radical overhaul in recent years of the self-conception of art history, as an academic discipline. The latter involves either a theme too large to tackle here – the idea that the aesthetic is itself an outmoded concept; or a theme that is irrelevant – the idea that art history should be concerned, at least in part, with non-aesthetic matters. The former does not undermine, but presupposes, our question. For if painting is dead, it is because it has explored to the full whatever aesthetic potential it has.

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Robert. The question. Painting, aesthetics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M048-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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