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"Aesthetics: A Beginner's Guide" by Charles Taliaferro

Perfect book for students wanting to better understand the philosophy of art, from paintings to movies.

Only six (6) chapters it contains, making it relatively the smallest book I've read from the Beginner's Guides series, thus far. Don't be fooled by the minimal number of chapters as there is a ton to be said about the philosophy of art: Aesthetics. Funny because I actually found an old VHS tape full of recorded episodes of the syndicated hit game show Pictionary hosted by Alan Thicke—a game show involving guessing puzzles through drawings.

In the beginning chapter, author Charles talks about what Beauty is and how we interpret something that's beautiful compared to something, or maybe someone, that/who isn't (though Charles mostly refers to the former). All this is stated back to Plato's stance on beauty, and a teacher to Socrates going by the name Diotima.

"Diotoma wants us to begin with a loving desire for a particular beauty and then ascend a ladder of loving desire until we come to what she called absolute beauty." (Taliaferro, ed 2011, p.2)

Although one gets a chance to challenge Plato's take on beauty, you learn it's not just looks and appreciating everything you see. Charles depicts one may find Satan fascinating in Milton's Paradise Lost, but hey, it's no question why one would find a biblically evil figure worthy. However, using that example to challenge Plato's stance on Beauty, an attractive serial killer wouldn't qualify.

The second chapter talks about works of art—my favorite chapter. This was my favorite say from the author:

"Here is an experiment: When you see a work of art, engage it in 'conversation.' Ask, how is it feeling? Apart from possibly being embarrassed in front of a museum guard, your experience may surprise you. Instead of seeing a painting (for example) as a cold or dead object, it may reveal a host of feelings. There is something shy about some works of art, while others are boastful. Obviously, we are now dealing with metaphors (the painting isn't shy, literally), but for all that the experience of a work of art can be experienced as rife with emotive, affective features. John Updike once remarked, 'I think books should have secrets as a bonus for the sensitive reader' (cited by Carroll 2001, 9). Of course, Updike may simply be referring to the desirability of authors keeping some parts of their plot unrevealed, but isn't your experience of a book enhanced if you think that the book itself has a secret?" (Taliaferro, ed 2011, p. 35)


The middle chapters talks about the meaning of art and, interestingly enough, anti-art. A perfect example is Duchamp's Fountain which is very much a urinal (Duchamp being known as an anti-artist). Using Duchamp's anti-art examples is enough to bring the reader in his/her thoughts as to finding that thing artistic. If I painted a large portrait of the bird—Twitter's logo—would you consider it a work of art? Or would you consider me an unoriginal artist? That would also depend on how I, in this example, painted it. Charles made mention of art's purpose and that is to move us emotionally. We're indebted to it. We put ourselves in it. As you can see on the cover of the book, you see a chair. Frankly, a chair's purpose is for someone to sit on it. However, as Charles says, one may find a work of art (likely its craftmanship) from a chair when it's used for display. Who knows, our own president may have used it, or any other hierarchal icon, imagining its frequent usage and what for.

Another great thing about learning the meaning of art is learning its history. We've all encountered situations like this: You enter into a gift shop and as you browse, you see as statue of a human with a funny face in an awkward pose. You may think that anyone looking to purchase such a souvenir would be freaky because of the way the statue looks. However, you ask the person behind the counter and s/he tells you that the statue is the Lord of [whatever] and it's said to bring endless luck and peace at home or at work. By that time, you understand and interpret such work of art differently, appreciate it and its representation. This couldn't be any more true, especially to those unfamiliar with the Asian culture—Buddha, the Dragon, Chinese/Japanese/Korean calligraphy and more.

As mentioned above, Charles stated that if a work of art doesn't move us, it isn't a work of art. You'd have to think because, after all, we seek to define a meaning within someone's artwork. No one would waste their time on artwork that had no meaning (something I should consider as I, myself, am an artist—videographer, that is).

Charles discusses on what makes a good piece of art—the longest chapter in the book. Because artists have very much executed countless of techniques, painting about nature, human aspects, life, tragic events and much more, it seems that any art being taken into consideration wouldn't be much since such feature "has been done already." For example, being that I'm not a great painter myself, if I took up painting and showed you my works of art, chances are good that I'd draw plants and trees. A portrait? I may get some views but not much. An object I hold dearly, like my video camera and books? Unsure. Another thing discussed is knowing the art you look at, or purchase. I wasn't aware of this: Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring was forged and sold by van Meegeren's Smiling Girl (though I'll go as far as to say that Vermeer's Girl almost looks like my high school classmate Erica). Forgery is relatively unsurprising nowadays (take "Weird Al" Yankovic's song parodies, for example). Would it still be art regardless?

As a matter of fact, it's not just sculptures, anti-art and paintings, Charles also tackles films. The main issue is Censorship. It's no question that the general public wouldn't find themselves in amazement had they they witnessed a scene in which a woman was actually raped, someone actually being killed and so forth. Such scenes, or rather [viral] videos, have become prevalent and despite floating around the internet avoiding censorship, it's intent is to, what else, shock the viewer (suddenly shows reviewing viral internet videos has become a hit). However, if such bone-chilling scenes were just merely acting, one would judge the quality of the acting and how such scene blends with the rest of the film's story. Sure, it'll sink hearts of the sensitive ones but as time rolls by, we may eventually grow and see a different view as to what the writer and filmmaker wanted to portray—another familiar issue when analyzing past works being debated about. With that, Charles states philosophers' debate about pornography: is pornography art? (I can hear you men say yes.) Interesting because on the website ModelMayhem.com, nude pictures are allowed—uncensored, and if you see, nearly all of the nude pictures are taken as nude/erotic art. Only thing is in today's society, we automatically think it's porn. (Some of you guys would think, being I'm a dude, that I'm a hypocrite saying that artistic nude pictures aren't a turn-on. Honestly, it depends, so please.) Charles points that any depiction that goes beyond the art's intent, like using sex appeal to promote a product (an idea that made TV game show The Price Is Right more 'flavorful') and arouses viewers, it is likely pornographic. That can be tough, especially if the artist/author doesn't know their audience. Then again, would a raunchy, horny pervert find an arousal if they saw a fully-clothed attractive person in a 30-second commercial featuring Shakira? Debates like this go on and on, but Charles brought up the idea briefly in good fashion, without sounding too graphic.

The last chapter is cross-cultural aesthetics. Though Charles introduced some Indian and African aesthetics, he covers mostly Chinese and Japanese works of art. In Chinese culture, preferably Confucianism, literature and poetry were considered artistic, despite its aims to understand humanity. As for Japanese aesthetics, poetry is also considered, but in addition with being one with nature and being open-minded with religion, mainly Shintoism.

"Seeing the moon, he becomes the moon, the moon seen by him becomes him. He sinks into nature, becomes one with nature. The light of the 'clear heart' of the priest, seated in the meditation hall in the darkness before the dawn, becomes for the dawn moon its own light." (Kawabata 1968, 71-70)

Simply amazing.

Although you don't have to be and/or think like a painter, if you're an artist of some sort—musician, videographer, writer/poet, photographer—or if you're an Art History major, this is an excellent book defining the creative forces behind a great piece of human work. It will definitely enhance your thoughts finding what good art means, and this book will surely get you started on the right track.

With the popularity of PSY's hit Gangnam Style, I'm not sure how many people take into knowing the Korean culture, so I'm wondering: ever see a live singing performance by a Korean artist? Depending on who, I'm not sure who specifically to be honest, but at times when they sing, they sing and feel the lyrics of the song they're singing to the point where they cry when they sing (if the song depicts sadness, like a breakup song). I'm not a musician but I too feel a song when I hear it. When I watch a movie, like everyone else, we engage ourselves in their world, live in and make most of whatever situation the character is in and making quick decisions (very prevalent in horror/suspense movies). And knowing the thoughts and how us humans connect with the art we look at and watch is surely what I learned. It's a great feeling. You will get a sense as to why someone watching a movie would dramatically yell, "Run away! You'll get caught! JUST RUN!"

Though I must say that throughout the entire book, I felt like I was in an art museum. Being that such an excellent book was able to connect me to the works of art, written about the works of art and its philosophy, puts this Aesthetics philosophy into perspective! Now I have a logically sound reason when I tell folks to feel the music, or any art they produce originally, without being ridiculed.





  • A deep subject explained nicely.
  • The book reads like you're in an art museum.
  • Covers aspects in Art History.
  • Includes the prose and beauty of poetry—our personal favorite.
  • The topic of censorship didn't talk about explicit films (is pornography considered art?)
95% (A)
Fan Rating
Title Aesthetics: A Beginner's Guide
Author(s) Charles Taliaferro
Description What is art? Why do we find some things beautiful but not others? Is it wrong to share MP3s? When should films be censored? These are just some of the intriguing questions explored by aesthetics, the philosophy of art.

In this sweeping introduction, Charles Taliaferro skilfully [sic] guides us through different theories of art and beauty, tackling topics such as who owns arts, the value of forgeries, and what happens when artistic creation and morality collide. From Plato on poetry to Ringo Starr on the drums, Taliaferro uses famous works to demonstrate key concepts and examine aesthetic traditions across major world cultures. Packed with helpful illustrations, this is the perfect resource for anyone interested in the fascinating issues art can raise.
Dedication --
ISBN 978-1-85168-820-3
Book Dimensions Width: 5.13″ (5 1/8″)
Height: 7.81″ (7 13/16″)
Depth: 0.56″ (9/16″)
Page Count 168
Contents Illustrations, Acknowledgements, Introduction: What is aesthetics?, six (6) chapters, Further resources and reading, Index
Typeset Glyph International Ltd., Bangalore, India
Front Cover Image James Stuart Duncan
Cover Design vaguelymemorable.com
Author Photograph --
Published May 5, 2011
Publisher Oneworld Publications (www.oneworld-publications.com)
Copyright © Charles Taliaferro 2011
Printed in / Bound in Bookwell, Finland
Book Format Paperback, Kindle
Quoted Reviews "Accessible and assured. This brief account of a vast subject is entirely successful." — Daniel N. Robinson - Professor of Philosophy, University of Oxford, UK

"Beginners who read this excellent introduction will encounter a wide range of sources, dealing with the major questions in aesthetics and illustrated by many and varied artistic examples." — Gary Iseminger - Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Carleton College, USA, and author of The Aesthetic Function of Art

"The best book on aesthetics of its kind. Engaging, comprehensive in scope, and rich with examples." — David Vessey - Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Grand Valley State University, USA
Best Seller's List --
Other Charles Taliaferro is Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College, Minnesota. He is the author of over fifteen books on philosophy, and lectures on aesthetics and the philosophy of religion.


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