Walton's View on Aesthetic Appreciation of Art

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In this essay I will introduce Walton’s view on aesthetic appreciation of art and how it differs from formalist accounts. I will start by defining what aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties are. I will then include a brief overview of some formalist ideas. I will then explain Walton’s account of aesthetic properties, which starts by separating aesthetic properties into three different categories. I will then explain how these types of aesthetic properties are key to his categorization of art. This will lead nicely to how Walton defines each category. I will then explain how Walton proposes we should know what category an artwork falls into. The culmination of this leads to how Walton thinks we should perceive art. I will then discuss what implications I think this has for our appreciation of art and some more differences between Walton and general formalist accounts.

It will be useful to define what aesthetic properties are before they are discussed. This is not an easy thing to do but there are some general rules. Physical properties like shape or density are not aesthetic, neither are sensory properties like colors or smells. What can be included as aesthetic changes somewhat from person to person and has changed more generally with time as well. However, judgements on beauty and ugliness are taken as aesthetic and are quite fundamental. This has been broadened to include things like elegance, serenity, shock, etc., it could be useful to think of aesthetic properties as things you can sense or perceive.

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I will now define one of the tenets of a formalist account of aesthetic judgement. Formalist theories are generally based on the idea that aesthetic properties of art are connected to the non-aesthetic properties of the art and only the non-aesthetic properties of the art. For example, the painting is striking because of bright contrasting colors but bright contrasting colors do not guarantee a striking painting. There is also the idea that when making aesthetic judgements about art, the art should be considered in isolation from itself, i.e., the artists intentions when creating the art, or how the art was created has no aesthetic value.

Walton follows these ideas of aesthetic properties and accepts that aesthetic properties are derived from non-aesthetic ones, i.e., the way colors and shapes in a painting are arranged create these aesthetic properties. Walton also widens the definition of aesthetic properties by including ‘representational’ and ‘resemblance’ as aesthetic properties, i.e., the resemblance between a person and a painting of a person is considered an aesthetic property.

However, Walton does not like the separation between the aesthetic judgments of art, and discussions about the arts history and the artists intent when creating a piece of art. His reasoning for this is that some facts about the history of an artwork are often included in aesthetic judgments about said artwork and that some of these facts about the artwork outside the artwork itself are fundamental to aesthetic judgements.

Now we have justified talking about things further than simply the art. Walton proposes that aesthetic judgements depend on what category we view the art in, and what category we view it in depends on factors outside the art itself, e.g., the history of the art or the artists intentions when creating the art. This differs from formalism in two ways. Things outside the art itself are allowed influence the aesthetic properties of the art and aesthetic judgements about art are allowed to differ and still be correct, because the art could be judged from two different categories. Both are a consequence of how Walton defines categories.

To define categories, we first need to discuss non-aesthetic properties. Walton believes that these properties can be split into standard, variable and contra-standard properties, and that the aesthetic properties of an artwork depend on which of the non-aesthetic properties are standard, variable and contra-standard. A standard feature is any feature that typically defines a category, e.g., a standard feature for a sculpture would be that it is static. A variable feature within a certain category is any feature that holds no bearing on which category the art should belong to, e.g., a variable feature for a sculpture would be the form, because that can change from sculpture to sculpture without changing the fact that it is a sculpture. Finally, a feature is contra-standard if it would disqualify art from a particular category, e.g., for a sculpture this could be something being two dimensional.

It also important to say that when Walton talks about categories, he is referring to what he calls ‘perceptually distinguishable’ categories. The works of Cezanne might be a category, but it is not a perceptually distinguishable one, i.e., a piece of art does not have to look Cezanne like to have been made by Cezanne. Thus, there is nothing we can perceive in this category that will tell us if it belongs or not. The only thing that matters is whether it was made by Cezanne. However, being Cezanne like is a perceptually distinguishable property, because Cezanne’s style has certain qualities associated with it and these qualities can be perceived in other work. To perceive a work as being in a certain category is to perceive aesthetic qualities of that category in that work. The key distinction here is that you are not recognizing the category based solely on non-aesthetic properties of the category, e.g., recognizing an artwork as Cezanne like because of its textures, structure etc. and remembering that these characteristics are typical of Cezanne like work. This is not category perception either. You must be perceiving the aesthetic qualities associated with that category. This will involve perceiving certain non-aesthetic properties (not necessarily consciously), but it is ultimately about the aesthetic property that is perceived from these non-aesthetic ones.

Another important feature is that Walton thinks there is more than one correct way to categorize art. Thus, there is more than one correct aesthetic judgement about the art depending on the category it is perceived as. This seems to make intuitive sense because we do not always disagree with people about their aesthetic judgements even when they differ from our own. This would allow multiple judgments to be correct because we could be perceiving the work in different categories.

However, this creates a problem for Walton because it seems to make aesthetic judgements too relative and seems to remove a lot of the objectivity that we would like aesthetic judgements to have. Take as an example the works of an artist whose category I am unfamiliar with. If I describe the work as chaotic even though in the artists usual category it is seen as ordered. Then it seems that my judgement should be wrong. However, I could argue that I perceived the work as being in a different category, so it is correct. To introduce some objectivity Walton says that there must be some correct and incorrect categories for art to be viewed in. This then gives some objectivity to the types of non-aesthetic properties, i.e., the features are standard, variable and contra-standard when they are standard, variable and contra-standard for the category that the work is correctly perceived as being in.

This obviously raises the questions of how we know which categories a work can be correctly perceived as being in. Again, no precise definition is given, but he does give a list of four things that should be considered when judging if a category is perceived correctly or not. These considerations are based on what he thinks fits intuition and what is often included in critical discussion.

  1. There must be many standard features in the artwork with respect to the category that is being considered and few contra-standard features.
  2. The correct categorization is likely to be in categories that are aesthetically better for the artwork, i.e., if the artwork is perceived as dull and soulless in one category but lively and cohesive in another then the second category would be the correct one.
  3. The artists intention about which category the artwork should be perceived as or the category which the artist thinks it can be perceived as.
  4. The category a work is correctly perceived in should be a well-established or recognized category that is used when discussing and classifying art.

The first consideration is obvious considering how the standard and contra-standard features have been defined. The very meaning of contra-standard features is that when perceived in a category they feel wrong so it is right to say there should be few or no contra-standard features in the category which is being considered.

The second consideration comes as a consequence of Walton’s belief that if we were faced with two ways to perceive an artwork and one resulted in a better aesthetic outcome than the other, then the one with the better outcome was the correct way of perceiving the art. Walton does not think this makes all art good because there are limits to categories. You cannot just come up with a category that would make a bad artwork into a masterpiece.

When it comes to the third and fourth considerations, they seem to be at odds with each other. Consider an artist who tries to create a new category of art. In this case it seems the correct category to view it in is the new category the artist is trying to create but it also seems impossible to recognize this as the correct category because it is not well established.

When it comes to category perception Walton thinks it is something that takes time and experience to get right. Just being told that an artwork is in a certain category is not enough for you to be able to perceive it in that category. You need more examples of works in that category and time to be able to perceive the work correctly. This time and experience are needed so people can start to recognize the standard, variable and contra-standard features of this new category. This helps to unify his third and fourth considerations. The correct aesthetic judgements are in the categories of the artists intention but the artwork cannot be perceived correctly until time has passed and people have gained experience in said category. Thus, the fourth consideration. While these rules do not specify exactly what category something should be put in to and there will be situations where it is unclear what set of categories an artwork should fall into. What these criteria can do is rule out some of the possible ways it could be perceived.

It is clear then that Walton's interpretation of art differs from formalism in many ways. Allowing more than correct aesthetic judgement and perhaps more importantly for how we consider art in the future, Walton also allowed things outside the art itself to be considered in the aesthetic value of the art. This has some very nice consequences attached to it. For example, it allows us to better judge artwork that depicts morally reprehensible things. It allows for consideration of the context when perceiving a category. Unlike a more formalist approach that would simply look at the shape and colors, etc. Another nice feature is that Walton includes resemblance as an aesthetic property. I think this has nice consequences for abstract art. A formalist might look at a piece of abstract art and simply judge it as random colors and shapes but under Walton's categories of art the resemblance and the artists intentions can be considered in the aesthetic judgments.

In conclusion, I have defined the different aesthetic properties and some key ideas in formalism. This led to Walton's idea of separating non-aesthetic properties and the idea that which of these non-aesthetic properties are standard, variable and contra-standard will influence the aesthetic properties for a certain artwork. I then briefly discussed what Walton’s categories are. Then there was a lot on how to perceive correctly because I think this is very important to his account. I followed this with a brief discussion on what I think some of the consequences of Walton's work could be and the implications of his work. Walton moves away from some of key philosophical interpretations of art (formalism) and I think he brings the focus of how we interpret art back into a more everyday understanding of how art is discussed in the world.

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Walton’s View on Aesthetic Appreciation of Art. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/waltons-view-on-aesthetic-appreciation-of-art/
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