Aesthetics is one of the most complex issues discussed by philosophers since the times of Aristotle. While numerous schools of thought argue what constitutes the beauty or lack thereof, one may roughly divide them into two groups: objectivist and subjectivist. The former maintains that there are objective criteria for establishing the aesthetic value of art while the latter considers all opinions of beauty purely subjective. Martin Gardner was one of the notable proponents of objectivist theory and argued that the criterion of objective beauty of the work of art was its endurance. While this approach is hardly applicable to the newer works of art, it is still reasonably convincing and useful when judging the older ones.
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The essence of Gardner’s argument for the objectivist view of art is that people, for all their differences, still belong to the same species and have similar needs. As the author himself put it, humans “share a common human nature, with common needs,” supposedly including the aesthetic ones (Vaughn, 2019, p. 338). As a consequence, one may rank art as more or less aesthetically valuable, depending on how well it satisfies the needs of the audience.
According to Gardner, the best way to establish it is by looking at a given artwork’s endurance. If a particular piece of art continues to provide aesthetic pleasure to many people across long periods of time, it likely has more objective aesthetic value than the one that only a few people like. Hence, the ultimate criterion that Gardner, as an objectivist, offers to evaluate art is its enduring popularity and relevance.
An obvious example to illustrate Gardner’s objectivism is Parthenon – an Ancient Greek temple in Athens dedicated to the city’s patron goddess. The temple was built to give the impression of geometrical perfection by arranging its many columns to accommodate the ways in which the people look at it (Jacobus & Martin, 2018). This arrangement aligns with Gardner’s premise of “common human nature”: people’s optical nerves work in the same manner, and one may exploit this universal commonality to create an impression of beauty (Vaughn, 2019, p. 338). Since Parthenon is more than two millennia old, people but still judge it as a masterwork of architecture, it passes the test of endurance as well. Thus, there is no doubt that Gardner would classify the Parthenon as a piece of art – and an aesthetically valuable one at that.
This outlook on art has benefits and downsides at the same time. The apparent strength of this approach is its clarity and straightforwardness. Gardner offers a simple and easily accessible way to measure the aesthetic value of art and “to distinguish… between War and Peace and yesterday’s newspaper” beyond the terms of personal liking (Vaughn, 2019, p. 337). The weaknesses of Gardner’s objectivism lie in its practical applicability, because only time may confirm endurance.
To begin with, it means that there is no criterion for evaluating newer works of art, as one would simply have to wait whether they withstand the test of time. Secondly, the author does not clarify what is the exact amount of time that allows designating an artwork as enduring. This combination of strengths and weaknesses makes Gardner’s objectivist theory perfectly applicable to the older works of art, but of little use for contemporary art.
To summarize, one can agree with Gardner’s objectivist theory of art as long as it is applied to older artworks because it rests on a sound premise and allows identifying classical works. Gardner’s main idea is that people have common nature and needs and, thus, common standards of beauty are possible and most likely to manifest in enduring works of art. An example of the Parthenon shows the merits of the objectivist approach, as the temple exploits the biological commonalities of human eyesight to create an impression of symmetric perfection. Admittedly, the criterion of endurance is vague and hardly applicable to contemporary art. These limitations notwithstanding, Gardner’s objectivism is a fairly effective method of evaluating art.
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Jacobus, L., & Martin, F. D. (2018). Humanities through the Arts (10th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
Vaughn, L. (2019). Philosophy here and now: Powerful ideas in everyday life (3rd ed.). Oxford UP.