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Is a beautiful painting a good painting because it's beautiful? If you answer

Is a beautiful painting a good painting because it's beautiful? If you answer "Yes" I would say that a beautiful painting is a good painting because it's good, and not because it's beautiful. What would you say?

This is a very similar question to another I answered a few months ago, so apologies if you've read that and are looking for a different reply!

I think that there are some paintings that are good paintings at least in part because they are beautiful. Being beautiful is one way in which a painting can be good; beauty is one kind of aesthetic good. But there are others, such as being thought-provoking or communicating deep emotion. So being beautiful is not necessary for being good as a painting. And there may be cases in which a beautiful painting is not good. Some beautiful works of art can be relatively superficial, e.g. they may express a superficial emotion (‘isn’t it lovely?’) or view of life, leaving us wondering dissatisfied with it as art, even if we admire the way it looks on the surface. So beauty is not be sufficient for being a good painting.

But we cannot infer from these points that when a painting is beautiful and good, its being beautiful is not what makes it good. In other words, there may be cases in which the beauty of the painting is what makes it good (or at least, is one reason why it is good). To appreciate this, we have to resist the thought that there must be universal rules that we apply in judging whether something is aesthetically good or not. Beauty might be sufficient on one occasion but not on another.

Perhaps an analogy with causes is helpful. Striking a match is neither necessary nor sufficient for lighting a match. I can light a match without striking it by placing its end in an existing flame. And I can strike a match without lighting it by doing so in an environment without oxygen (e.g. on the moon). But I still want to say that, under normal conditions, my striking the match causes the match to light. So if a good painting is beautiful, it may be that it is good because it is beautiful, though it may be that it is good because it is, in addition, deeply expressive or thought-provoking or.... Cases could differ.

I don't think we can say that a painting (beautiful or not) is good because it is good - the 'because' is misleading here. You might want to say that 'good' has no further definition (as Moore did about moral goodness), i.e. you can't define 'good painting' as 'beautiful painting'. This is a claim about the concept 'good'. Even if we accept this, we can allow that there are properties that make a good painting good - this is about the relation between the property of being good and other properties. Just as Moore thought that what makes a good action good is that it maximises happiness, so we can argue that makes a good painting good is its beauty, or perhaps a multiplicity of different aesthetic qualities. Or, put differently, we could think that a painting's being beautiful is a reason to think that it is good, without saying that being beautiful is the same thing as being good (as a painting).

This is a very similar question to another I answered a few months ago, so apologies if you've read that and are looking for a different reply! I think that there are some paintings that are good paintings at least in part because they are beautiful. Being beautiful is one way in which a painting can be good; beauty is one kind of aesthetic good. But there are others, such as being thought-provoking or communicating deep emotion. So being beautiful is not necessary for being good as a painting. And there may be cases in which a beautiful painting is not good. Some beautiful works of art can be relatively superficial, e.g. they may express a superficial emotion (‘isn’t it lovely?’) or view of life, leaving us wondering dissatisfied with it as art, even if we admire the way it looks on the surface. So beauty is not be sufficient for being a good painting. But we cannot infer from these points that when a painting is beautiful and good, its being beautiful is not what makes it good. In other words, there...

Are all beautiful paintings good paintings?

Are all beautiful paintings good paintings? If you answer Yes I would say that it's impossible to view all the beautiful paintings in the world, so it would be impossible to conclude that all beautiful paintings are good paintings. If you answer No, if you view a beautiful painting how can you judge whether it's good or not, if not all beautiful paintings are good paintings? What would your answer be?

I’m going to say ‘no’. But before answering your challenge to saying 'no', a comment on your challenge to saying ‘yes’. You assume that in order to know that all beautiful paintings are good paintings, I must view all beautiful paintings. But this assumes, in turn, that the only way we can establish a connection between being beautiful and being good is through repeated experience, i.e. empirically. That’s not, I think, true. There could be – indeed, I think there is – a conceptual connection between beauty and aesthetic goodness. Compare: to know that all vixens are foxes, I don’t need to find all the vixens in the world, and check that they are foxes. I just need to understand the word ‘vixen’, meaning ‘female fox’. So if we could show that ‘beauty’ is, conceptually, a type of aesthetic goodness, a standard of what is good, aesthetically speaking, then we can know – without checking – that all beautiful paintings will be good.

But I’m not satisfied with this answer. Beauty is one kind of aesthetic good, but perhaps there are others. Maybe to be good as a painting, i.e. a work of art, requires something either different from, or in addition to, beauty. I think it does. And knowing what makes a painting a good painting – knowing the standard for good art - will help us know how to discover whether something is good art or not. This might not be foolproof, or give clear answers every time. That's not an objection. Compare: I can say, perfectly well, how I can judge that there is a table in front of me – I see it – without claiming that my vision is always correct, never confused (think of fog and bad lighting).

So – this next bit is very contentious! Art is about the communication of thought and feeling. Tolstoy (‘What is art?’) says “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands onto others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by those feelings and also experience them.” There are lots of problems with this at it stands, but I think the kernel is right. To judge a piece of art as good or not, we must first understand it, and we should judge it in light of what we come to understand. We need to understand what the artist is trying to do, and then experience that effect ourselves. The first part covers their psychological processes, both conscious and unconscious, but also the artistic conventions and climate of their time (e.g. aesthetic conventions, systems of symbolism, available modes of production, the original purpose of the work, and much else). What you know will make a difference to what you perceive, just as a bird-spotter can see and distinguish different species when the uninformed will just see birds. With this deeper understanding, we can see what succeeds in the painting and what does not, what the artist is aiming at. We can also understand the profundity (or not) of what is expressed there. Some conceptual art, for instance, is gimmicky – once you get the idea, the artwork quickly loses interest. But it needn’t be, e.g. there can be much to reflect on in the way in which the concept is expressed through the medium.

Some beautiful works of art can be relatively superficial, e.g. they may express a superficial emotion (‘isn’t it lovely?’) or view of life, leaving us wondering dissatisfied with it as art, even if we admire the way it looks on the surface. So not all beautiful paintings are good paintings. To know whether they are, I’d need to know much more about the painting and the context of its creation, and then see whether the painting succeeds in communicating what the artist aimed at.

I’m going to say ‘no’. But before answering your challenge to saying 'no', a comment on your challenge to saying ‘yes’. You assume that in order to know that all beautiful paintings are good paintings, I must view all beautiful paintings. But this assumes, in turn, that the only way we can establish a connection between being beautiful and being good is through repeated experience, i.e. empirically. That’s not, I think, true. There could be – indeed, I think there is – a conceptual connection between beauty and aesthetic goodness. Compare: to know that all vixens are foxes, I don’t need to find all the vixens in the world, and check that they are foxes. I just need to understand the word ‘vixen’, meaning ‘female fox’. So if we could show that ‘beauty’ is, conceptually, a type of aesthetic goodness, a standard of what is good, aesthetically speaking, then we can know – without checking – that all beautiful paintings will be good. But I’m not satisfied with this answer. Beauty is one kind of aesthetic good...