Anthony Scumaci, “Aesthetics, Art, and Design” (IMA505, Paper 1)

“Without aesthetic, design is either the humdrum repetition of familiar cliches or a wild scramble for novelty. Without the aesthetic, the computer is but a mindless speed machine, producing effects without substance. Form without relevant content, or content without meaningful form.”
— Paul Rand


I am an artist. I am a designer. Is there a difference between the two? What distinguishes art from design, and design from art. Are the terms interchangeable and what function and role have they served throughout history? When asking these question, one word plays a big factor. And that word is “aesthetics.” Miriam-Webster defines aesthetics as “a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.“1

The study of aesthetics has been around since ancient times. Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato both believed that objects were aesthetically appealing and beautiful in relation to a series of specific and measurable physical qualities. These included proportion, harmony, unity, order, symmetry, and definiteness.2 Other philosophers, such as Baruch Spinoza, steered away from traditional views on aesthetics and veered off to a different path, a more godly path. Spinoza’s views on aesthetics and the world around us gave a more naturalistic view on God, leading us to a moral and virtuous view, which he believed would lead to happiness. According to Spinoza, “In nature there is nothing contingent, but all things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.” He further stated that, “Things could have been produced by God in no other way, and in no other order than they have been produced.”3

From the foundations of great philosophers such as these, the study of aesthetics began to take shape and form. As we approached the 17th century, Western culture began a shift to modernism and the study of aesthetics was more clearly defined and given a new twist from both German and British philosophers. In 1735, a German man named Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten re-defined the meaning of aesthetics for modern usage. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution throughout Europe and the development of art as a commercial enterprise, Baumgarten linked the term of aesthetics to a study of good and bad “taste” as it pertained to art and design. Thus, setting a “standard” of good taste and beauty. Baumgarten defined taste as “the ability to judge according to the senses, instead of according to the intellect. Such a judgement of taste is based on feelings of pleasure or displeasure. A science of aesthetics would be a deduction of the rules or principles of artistic or natural beauty from individual taste.”

Baumgarten’s ideas on aesthetics were criticized by many individuals. One of those people was German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in the beginning spoken negatively on Baumgarten’s views aesthetics stating, “He hoped to bring our critical judging of the beautiful under rational principles, and to raise rules for such judging to the level of a lawful science. Yet that endeavor is futile.” In addition, Kant added that, “they can never serve as determinate a priori laws to which our judgement of taste must conform.”4 Eventually though, Kant conformed to Baumgarten’s views on aesthetics and believed that “the aesthetic experience of beauty is a judgement of a subjective but universal truth.”5

Kant’s views on aesthetics often differed from David Hume, a 17th Century Scottish philosopher. Kant stated that our ability to judge aesthetics weighs heavily on our ability to discriminate at a sensory level, while Hume argued that it goes far beyond our sensory level. Hume’s argument relates back to Spinoza’s theory, and states that, “One could easily reach the conclusion that the universe’s configuration is the result of some morally ambiguous, possibly unintelligent agent or agents whose method bears only a remote similarity to human design. In this way it could be asked, if the Universe is designed, is the designer God? It could also be asked, if there is a designer god, who designed the designer? If a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer, then God’s mind (being so well-ordered) also requires a special designer. Then this designer would need a designer, and so on ad infinitum.”6

Moving forward to aesthetics today in the 21st century, it seems that we have moved away from what physically makes an object beautiful and appealing, and more towards functionality and beautiful as it applies to an objects usefulness. We also seemed to have become more concerned with the argument of what qualifies as both art and design, how do we distinguish between the two, and what qualifies as good art and design. In a 1974 interview, Milton Glaser stated that “ whereas a design must convey a given body of information, the essential function of art is to intensify one’s perception of reality.”7 Design serves a purpose and has to follow a strict set of guidelines to meet the objectives of a project. In the end, design produce a final product that has endured many hours of planning and thought. Art, on the other hand, doesn’t have to adhere to a specific set of rules. The artist is free to express themselves with the hope that their final piece will convey a message or illicit an emotion from the viewer. But when do the two disciplines cross paths with each other? If arts purpose to invoke a response from the view, does it fall under the category of design?

Today, in the year 2011, we are constantly seeing a change in everyday life through the use of technology. This technology impacts the way we view the world, which will alter our views on aesthetics as well and both art and design. I believe the future of aesthetics lies in how well a product functions and it’s practicality with everyday use. If a product is useful, functions well, designed with the end user in mind, and is stunning in the design, I believe it will be seen as a beautiful object. As for art and design, I believe Craig A. Elimeliah stated it best in an article written for AIGA. He wrote, “Designers who are looking for the next big trend or who want to be the one to create that trend must create chaotic and truly original pieces to display their artistic prowess and then apply those unique methods to their design at work, and I think this will create a truly harmonious balance between art and design.”8


4 Critique of Pure Reason, A 21, note.)


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