This page contains a list of the best introductory books on aesthetics. Just to be clear, there is no single best book on aesthetics. The best book for you will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time that you want to spend reading about aesthetics. An 800-page scholarly overview is unlikely to be best for someone looking for a short beginner-friendly introduction, for example. This list aims to take this ambiguity into account by featuring books that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.
Secondly, this is not a list of personal recommendations. It was created by compiling recommendations from a variety of online sources including bibliographies, course syllabi, and community recommendations. You can find out more about this process here. Links to the sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a wider range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best introductory books on aesthetics in no particular order.
But Is It Art? – Cynthia Freeland
Publisher’s description: From Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to provocative dung-splattered madonnas, in today’s art world many strange, even shocking, things are put on display. This often leads exasperated viewers to exclaim–is this really art?
In this invaluable primer on aesthetics, Freeland explains why innovation and controversy are so highly valued in art, weaving together philosophy and art theory with many engrossing examples. Writing clearly and perceptively, she explores the cultural meanings of art in different contexts, and highlights the continuities of tradition that stretch from modern, often sensational, works back to the ancient halls of the Parthenon, to the medieval cathedral of Chartres, and to African nkisi nkondi fetish statues. She explores the difficulties of interpretation, examines recent scientific research into the ways the brain perceives art, and looks to the still-emerging worlds of art on the web, video art, art museum CD-ROMS, and much more. In addition, Freeland guides us through the various theorists of art, from Aristotle and Kant to Baudrillard. Lastly, throughout this nuanced account of theories, artists, and works, Freeland provides us with a rich understanding of how cultural significance is captured in a physical medium, and why challenging our perceptions is, and always has been, central to the whole endeavor.
It is instructive to recall that Henri Matisse himself was originally derided as a “wild beast.” To horrified critics, his bold colors and distorted forms were outrageous. A century later, what was once shocking is now considered beautiful. And that, writes Freeland, is art.
Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction – Noël Carroll
Publisher’s description: Philosophy of Art is a textbook for undergraduate students interested in the topic of philosophical aesthetics.
It introduces the techniques of analytic philosophy as well as key topics such as the representational theory of art, formalism, neo-formalism, aesthetic theories of art, neo-Wittgensteinism, the Institutional Theory of Art. as well as historical approaches to the nature of art.
Throughout, abstract philosophical theories are illustrated by examples of both traditional and contemporary art including frequent reference to the avant-garde in this way enriching the readers understanding of art theory as well as the appreciation of art.
Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology – Cahn & Meskin
Publisher’s description: From Plato’s Ion to works by contemporary philosophers, this anthology showcases classic texts to illuminate the development of philosophical thought about art and the aesthetic. This volume is the most comprehensive collection of readings on aesthetics and the philosophy of art currently available.
- Brings together the most significant writings in aesthetics and philosophy of art from the past 2500 years
- Each section includes a useful introductory essay which provides an overview of developments in the field
- Broken down into three sections: Historical Sources, Modern Theories, and Contemporary Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art
- Thorough, systematic, and flexible, including two alternative tables of contents (historical and topical); an ideal textbook and guide to the field
Poetics – Aristotle
Publisher’s description: In the Poetics, his near-contemporary account of classical Greek tragedy, Aristotle examine the dramatic elements of plot, character, language and spectacle that combine to produce pity and fear in the audience, and asks why we derive pleasure from this apparently painful process. Taking examples from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the Poetics introduced into literary criticism such central concepts as mimesis (‘imitation’), hamartia (‘error’) and katharsis, which have informed serious thinking about drama ever since. Aristotle explains how the most effective tragedies rely on complication and resolution, recognition and reversals, while centring on chaaracerts of heroic stature, idealised yet true to life. One of the most perceptive and influential works of criticism in Western literary history, the Poetics has informed serious thinking about drama ever since.
Malcolm Heath’s lucid translation makes the Poetics fully accessible to the modern reader. In this edition it is accompanied by an extended introduction, which discusses the key concepts in detail, and includes suggestions for further reading.
Of the Standard of Taste – David Hume
Publisher’s description: In his writings, David Hume set out to bridge the gap between the learned world of the academy and the marketplace of polite society. This collection, drawing largely on his Essays Mortal, Political, and Literary (1776 edition), comprehensively shows how far he succeeded.
As seen in these selections, Hume embraces a staggering range of social, cultural, political, demographic, and historical concerns, charting the state of civil society, manners, morals, and taste, and the development of political economy in the mid-eighteenth century. These essays represent not only those areas where Hume’s arguments representative of his age, but also where he is strikingly innovative.
The following sources were used to build this list:
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Interested in philosophy but don’t know where to start? Check out these resources:
- An Organized Collection of Online Philosophy Resources and Reading Lists
- A History of Western Philosophy in 66 Quotations (and 300+ online resources)
- A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations
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