by Dr. David Clowney
Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) helped move aesthetics from theories about Beauty and Harmony, as characteristics of the world, to theories about the experience of the viewer. This eighteenth century shift is the source of all the theories about "the aesthetic sense" that have developed since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Hutcheson's philosophy was based on the empiricist thinking of John Locke, from whom he got the notion that all of our ideas come from experience. The idea of Beauty, according to Hutcheson, is actually the idea of a certain experience of pleasure that we have when we look at or listen to certain things. In other words, Beauty is in the Eye (or at least, in the Mind) of the beholder. The sense of beauty Hutcheson and his contemporaries called Taste. That which arouses the pleasurable experience we call Beauty, according to Hutcheson, is the perception of "unity in difference". Hutcheson distinguished between absolute Beauty, the kind of beauty to be found in nature, and relative Beauty, the beauty that characterizes art. The difference between the two is that art is imitative, and its beauty is produced by the similarity and contrast between the imitation and its original.
Hutcheson's theory raises a number of questions. Two of them are:
- How can your taste be better or worse, more or less "fine"? Isn't it just your taste, and you like whatever you like? Yet Hutcheson did think that taste could be more or less fine.
- Hutcheson needs some way to distinguish nature from art; otherwise, using his approach, there will be no difference between them. (You can appreciate a mountain or an ocean just as much or more as a painting of one.) But does his distinction between absolute and relative beauty do the job? Does it work for non-representational art (not something he envisioned), or for music?
For more on Hutcheson, see Peter Kivy, The Seventh Sense: A Study of Francis Hutcheson's Aesthetics and its Influence on Eighteenth-Century Britain (NY: Burt Franklin, 1976), also Kivy's article on Hutcheson in the Blackwells Companion to Aesthetics.
Beginning in the Tang Dynasty, many paintings were landscapes, often shanshui ("mountain water") paintings. In these landscapes, monochromatic and sparse (a style that is collectively called shuimohua), the purpose was not to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature (realism) but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere so as to catch the "rhythm" of nature.