Esthetic Taxonomy

This essay describes esthetic systems of classification or description that I have run across.

Nietzschean: Apollo vs.Dionysios

The first esthetic system I ran across was put forward by Nietzsche. He ordered works of art along a scale between the "Apollonian" pole and the "Dionysian" pole. Apollonian art appeals to the intellect; Bach produces Apollonian music, for instance. Dionysian art appeals to the passions; Beethoven's music is much more Dionysian. Acid rock is, I suppose, very Dionysian indeed.

It seems to me that these are complementary opposites, rather than exclusive ones, and that some works of art can appeal to both poles at once, and thus, so to speak, occupy a range on the scale, rather than a single point.

Starting with this scale, I combined it with another one. It was a scale of how complex, elaborate, ornamented a work was. This gives an esthetic plane to graph things onto. Artificially simplifying the plane to a 2x2 matrix, we get:


So I had to have names for the four cells. These are the names I picked:

Simple classical romantic
Complex   baroque rococo

I apologize in advance if these names are unduly private in meaning. Let me illustrate by example:

A Classical style is simple and appeals primarily to the intellect. Greek architecture, particularly Ionian, would be a good example of this. For a musical example, take a boy soprano soloist singing some piece of Church Latin. For a literary example, think of a lucid piece of well-written exposition with no human interest – e.g. parts of the "Paradiso" in Dante's Divine Comedy, where Beatrice is doing an astronomy lesson in verse.

A Romantic style is simple and appeals primarily to the passions. Instead of architecture, think of a snowy mountain. Musically, a love-song of course (though other passions work just as well, and a passionate song of patriotism would also serve). For a literary example, Hans Christen Andersen is packed with cases, though he is not a personal favorite of mine.

A Baroque style is complex and appeals primarily to the intellect. If you regard an integrated circuit as artistic, the kind of art it is is baroque, in my system. Bach, of course, exemplifies baroque music. A detective story is an example of baroque literature, being a puzzle as well as a story and often not having much to engage the emotions.

A Rococo stule is complex and appeals primarily to the passions. Gothic architecture is pretty "rococo" in this sense. Wagnerian opera is, I think, musically rococo. A soap opera is dramatically rococo.

Hartshornean: Profundity and Order

The following system of aesthetic classification comes from a French philosopher whose name I unfortunately forget. He was quoted by Charles Hartshorne in his Creative Synthesis.

This system regards beauty as a balance between excesses. Like the one in my previous note, it is two-dimensional. So we have beauty in the middle and variations on it arrayed around it. The dimensions are from chaotic to monotonous and from complex/profound to simple/superifical:

Hopelessly Monotonous
Magnificent    NeatCommonplace
Complex or
SublimeBeautifulPretty Hopelessly
Simple or
Hopelessly Chaotic

This system illustrates why I apologized beforehand for my own terms in the Nietzschean matrix. I just don't find that these labels, as I understand them, fit well on the axes, as I understand them. Why, especially, should something both chaotic and profound be "tragic"? However, others may find this system meaningful. Personally, I prefer to take the axes and try to fit more satisfying adjectives into the 3x3 grid.

Sayersian: Idea, Energy, and Power

The third system I'll present here comes from The Mind of the Maker, a book by Dorothy L. Sayers, the detective story author and creator of Lord Peter Wimsey. The Mind of the Maker puts forth an entire esthetic philosophy and goes on to tie in with theology. I will only pursue the esthetic side here.

Sayers identifies three aspects to the creative act, which she terms "Idea," "Energy," and "Power."

The Idea is the theme, the guiding principle of the creative act and the thing that the act tries to communicate, the creative ability regarded as having something to say.

The Energy is talent or technique, the creative ability regarded as the capacity for saying something well.

The Power is the response that the work draws from the audience, including its own creator, the creative ability regarded as judging and recognizing the right thing to say.

If a work is deficient in Idea, it tends to be shapeless and rambling. It may be full of much entertaining incident, but you wish it would get to the point. It's problem, of course, is that it hasn't got a point to get to.

If the Idea is the only feature of the work which is strong, it is more a diagram than a work. It is the sort of thing editors send back with the remark, "There is a good story here, but you need to work it out."

Working it out is the domain of the Energy. If a work is deficient of Energy, there are flaws in the execution. Bad spelling and grammar in a book. Errors of perspective in a painting. Not to mention more profound errors like flat characterization or bad balance of composition. Errors of energy are the kind of errors that art classes can teach you to avoid.

If the Energy is strong and the other two are weak, you have a slick piece of virtuosity with no heart, nothing to say except "See how clever I am." Yes, it is clever, but it is not wise. The computer industry is rather plagued by this kind of artistic imbalance. Ever hear of a good solution looking for a problem?

Defect of Power is the most fatal of all. It means the artist has no taste. The Energy mechanically proceeds according to the Idea, but there is no feedback, the artist is not watching how the work comes out, or he would notice the stumbling lack of rhythm in the sentences, the unintentional humor in the position of that figure, the hackneyed sound to that passage.

If the Power alone is strong, you get nothing but a gust of emotion, an ill-executed babble or squiggle or squawk that may "harp the salt tear from your eye" but only if you forgive its semi-literate syntax and the fact that it is saying nothing sensible.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011