Marcia Muelder Eaton, “Locating the Aesthetic”, ABQ 8



…works valued almost universally in one place or time lose their status when moved spatially or temporally.


In our own period we are witnessing marked changes in what is valued—in what is considered suitable for aesthetic appreciation. (We’re moving away from the modernist emphasis on the medium and its properties to a renewed interest in subject matter—moving from form back to content.)



After years of being urged to attend only to formal properties, it is often a great relief to be able to talk openly about subject matter and characters and artists’ intentions and social context—to speak, that is, as if there were something out there and in here that art deals with.


Throughout history there has been much discussion of subject matter, which I believe is a truly aesthetic property. I offer it as an example of a feature that theorists have considered an aesthetic property in some periods but not in others.



[Some may believe] that ‘aesthetic’ cannot be defined…. This is what I want to deny. What is aesthetic remains constant even though specific features pointed to as aesthetically valuable may change.


Example 1: the Romans made instruments bigger. If horns were louder they had more aesthetic value. “Being big and loud were a source of delight…”



Example 2: for Veronese, his paintings aimed at sumptuousness and conviviality.


Example 3: In 17th century Holland, paintings in homes were aesthetic if they showed the owners’ prosperousness and property, such as “the room shows my rug”.


Eaton’s definition: “delight in what resides intrinsically in something is a mark of the aesthetic generally.”



We do care about artists and about how and why they did their works, but the key aspect is attending with delight to what’s intrinsic to the work itself—this is what’s aesthetic.



Example 4 of how the aesthetic can change: for the Middle Ages, what mattered was craftsmanship and finishedness; for the Renaissance and up to today, often what matters is the genius’s effort and process, so even an unfinished work can be appreciated aesthetically, like Michelangelo’s unfinished “Slaves”.

  • A Few Links to Illustrate the Article by Eaton

    Franz Hals Man in Black Hat
    Paintings by Veronese: Look especially at his painting of the Marriage at Cana (1563)

    Michelangelo's Unfinished Rebellious Slave Dying Slave