A Big Disenchantment

A Big Disenchantment

Wolfgang Welsch


For millennia, aesthetic activities were expected to improve the world and ourselves. Aesthetics was to hone humanity. We find this conviction in Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, and throughout Modern Times and Modernity, from Plato via Leonardo da Vinci and Schiller to Dewey and Rorty. But this expectation is being harshly falsified in the present time. We are indeed aestheticizing everything through and through. But in the vast majority of cases, the result is not aesthetic improvement but mediocrity and monotony. Aestheticization today is an engine of misery. The discipline of aesthetics should resolutely criticize and counter this perversion. – How can this be done?

Key Words
aesthetics; current aestheticization; history of aesthetics; individual and social improvement; mediocrity


What might the future of aesthetics be like? As great as its prospects once were, they are very slim now. In the past, aesthetics was supposed to make everything better. Today it has turned into an engine of misery. We do indeed aestheticize ourselves everywhere. But the result is shameful mediocrity. More and more often, Nietzsche’s last man comes to mind: “‛We invented happiness’ say the last human beings, and they blink.”[1] We have made ourselves and everything else beautiful – but, as a result, we perceive all around us only prettified monotony.


1. The great hopes of yesteryear

Historically, aesthetics was supposed to bring us humans cultivation, improvement, and sometimes even salvation.

Plato had given the main predicate of aesthetics, beauty, a distinguished rank among the ideas: the idea of the beautiful sensually attracts far more directly than any other idea – beauty is the “most prominent and attractive” idea.[2] It leads us up from the world of appearances to the world of ideas; therein lies its inestimable service.

Aristotle associated aesthetics with knowledge. According to him, we delight in recognizing what is depicted: “We take pleasure in the sight of paintings because we are thereby engaged in cognitive activity, for when we look at the paintings, we learn something and infer what they represent in each case, e.g., that this figure is this or that one.”[3] The enjoyment of art consists in a fulfillment of cognition; the appreciation of art is cognitive pleasure. And already from our sensual constitution on, we humans are cognition-oriented. “All men strive by nature for knowledge; this proves the joy of sense perceptions, for these delight in themselves, even apart from their usefulness.”[4] We are knowledge-oriented from our everyday perceptual ground up, and this nature of ours finds an increased fulfillment not only in theoretical knowledge but also in aesthetic phenomena.

Let us turn to the Middle Ages. The Cathedral of St. Denis, the founding building of the Gothic style, was inspired by Neoplatonism, namely by the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, which praised everything earthly as an appearance of God and, in particular, ascribed to light the potency of elevating us to the vision of God. Experiencing Gothic architecture, we are aesthetically elevated to the vision of Heavenly Jerusalem and become partakers of the greatest happiness and deepest mysteries.

The Renaissance opposed such phantasmagorias. But it carried on the conviction that art reveals truth. However, Renaissance art no longer lead us into a mystical heaven but into the reality of men, cities, and landscapes. When Alberti revived the proportions of antique architecture, when Leonardo da Vinci explored the phenomena of water and delved into human anatomy, and when Michelangelo elicited from marble the figures slumbering within it, they made their contemporaries capable of seeing something that had always lain before their eyes, but for which they had lacked the sensorium. The art of the Renaissance does not make the invisible visible, as modernity will often strive to do, but unveils the visible. It widens the circle of experiences, of estimations, of undertakings. It praises and enhances the potentials of humans and makes them at home in the world.

Two hundred years later, new aspects are added. That art expands our abilities remains in force. But through the founding of aesthetics as a scientific discipline, our pre-artistic and sensual abilities now come into focus. Baumgarten, the founding father of the discipline, defines aesthetics as the science of “how to cognize something sensuously.”[5] The aim of the new science is to improve our lower and hitherto neglected sensory faculty of cognition. Even the classical predicate of art, beauty, is reinterpreted by Baumgarten as the completion phenomenon of sensuous cognition.[6] The epistemic perspective gains priority over the artistic one.

Thus begins an eminently dynamic career of aesthetics. Baumgarten initially introduced the new discipline as a modest servant: it will strengthen knowledge by providing material, guaranteeing clarity, and improving representation and comprehensibility. But then, the Cinderella of aesthetics became the mistress of epistemology. At the end of his Aesthetica, Baumgarten strikes new notes. In the name of the new aesthetics, he criticizes the traditional ideal of knowledge to the core. The conceptual truth, which had been so much emphasized until then, was, according to him, merely abstract and poor and unable to do justice to reality, which is always individual; of this only aesthetics is capable.[7] Against the merely logical cognition it is necessary to opt for an aesthetically shaped cognition.[8] For us humans, who are sensual-logical beings, truth must always have an aesthetic share; true cognition must be aesthetico-logical cognition; and science must aesthetically reorganize itself.

After Baumgarten’s initial spark, within half a century aesthetics catapulted itself to the highest ranks not only of cognition but of human existence altogether. Kant explains that our cognition has transcendental aesthetics as a prerequisite. Schiller declares the aesthetic education of man to be our supreme task. The German Idealists proclaim that “the highest act of reason” is “an aesthetic act” and that “the philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy.”[9] There may be some exaggeration involved – for example, when the union of the enlightened and the unenlightened, which is to take place under the sign of the aesthetic, is declared to be “the last and greatest work of mankind”[10] – but it remains a basic thesis throughout modernity that there will be no perfect human existence without aesthetic perfection. The individual and the state, man and world, are to be healed by aesthetic progress.

Nietzsche declares that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon are existence and the world justified[11] and that the world is in essence an aesthetic product of us humans.[12] Whether the world really is that from the ground up may be questionable. But, in any case, the world has been increasingly aesthetically shaped by us humans in the modern age. One only has to think of the English Arts and Crafts movement, the Chicago School, the Vienna Werkstätten, the Dutch De Stijl movement, the Moscow Constructivism, the German Werkbund, or, of course, with increasing internationality and globality, the Bauhaus. They all tried to reshape our environment and our lifeworld. The guiding idea was that the good outer form would correspond with a good inner form of the people – that aesthetics was not only about good form, but about good life. Aesthetics was seen as an institution of morality.[13]

Likewise did aesthetic theory repeatedly point out that aesthetic education was indispensable for being human. In the United States, John Dewey made a strong case for aesthetic experience, which, according to him, presents everyday circumstances in a particularly intense and fulfilling way. In art, which he interpreted as a heightened form of such aesthetic experience, he saw the exemplary means for the perfection of human life. In Germany, Theodor W. Adorno emphasized that works of art contain a promise of happiness: They present constellations in which, unlike in the present exchange society “in which everything is heteronomously defined,”[14] things are valid in themselves; “artworks are plenipotentiaries of things that are no longer distorted by exchange.”[15] To be sure, art must also oppose its own tendency to compulsion, insofar as this represents a form of domination.[16] But art nevertheless points in the direction of reconciliation, which does not consist in simple unity, but accomplishes “the redemption of the many in the one” and “does justice to the heterogeneous.”[17] If anything at all still awakens hope for healing, it is art. In the name not of high art (as Adorno) but of everyday sensuality, Hugo Kükelhaus objected to the modern atrophy of the senses resulting from the technologization of our living world. He countered the impoverishment of sensory experience with experiential fields for the development of the senses. Kükelhaus was a practical innovator of the sensory emphasis of modern aesthetics.

Incidentally, from the philosophical and literary side, respectively, Richard Rorty and Joseph Brodsky have renewed the old liaison between aesthetics and ethics. Rorty said that novels are the best means to “sensitize one to the pain of those who do not speak our language.”[18] In fact, they show us a different lifeworld and a different sensibility and thus give us a new perspective on what we do and how we harm.[19]  Joseph Brodsky, in his Nobel Prize speech of 1987, declared aesthetics to be the “mother of ethics.”[20] “The categories of ‛good’ and ‛bad’ are, first and foremost, aesthetic ones …. The tender babe who cries and rejects the stranger who, on the contrary, reaches out to him, does so instinctively, makes an aesthetic choice, not a moral one.”[21] Consequently, art, as the highly cultural form of expression of our aesthetic faculty, does not refer to some byproduct of our development, but to the core of human existence. Hence, aesthetics is able to provide moral sensitization. This is what makes it so important for the modern world.[22]

One could continue the series of pleas for aesthetic education almost at will. It is a fundamental conviction of modernity that aesthetic sensitization is called for, that art makes us fuller and more open-minded people, and that aestheticization will improve our world.

2. The present disillusionment

But can we still believe this today? Or do the contemporary results of aestheticization deny the high hopes of yore?

Without any doubt, aestheticization has taken hold planet-wide. We spruce up our inner cities, garnish them with splendorous malls, stylize ourselves and our media appearances, turn landscapes into parks, and award space photos that look like glittering cities.

But in these processes of aestheticization, an aesthetics of prettification, superficiality, and cheap illusion triumphs. It’s all about stimulating experience. Train stations are no longer called train stations, but “sites of experience with railway siding.” Museums and memorials are staged as experiential spaces. The purpose is well-being, and accordingly the sensibility that is needed and promoted is just a sensibility of well-being. Staging and lifestyle have become decisive. Everywhere we experience a styling of body, soul, and spirit. In beauty studios and fitness centers, we pursue the aesthetic perfection of our bodies, and in meditation courses, the aesthetic spiritualization of our souls. While cosmetic surgery is still needed today, future generations will be able to benefit from genetic reprogramming right from the start. The entire economy enthusiastically promotes the aestheticization mania. Since aesthetic fashions are particularly short-lived, nowhere does the need for replacement arise as quickly and as reliably as with aesthetically styled products. Being and appearance, goods and presentation, have exchanged places. As aesthetics has become the key currency of society, the product is now only an accessory while the aesthetic presentation is the main thing. If advertising succeeds in combining a product with an aesthetic touch that is interesting for the consumer, the product, whatever its real characteristics, will be bought. One does not actually purchase the item, but buys into the lifestyle that advertising has associated with it. Furthermore, the mass media have added another turn to the screw of aestheticization: reality mediated by the media – and we now know almost everything we know through the media – is an amalgam in which reality and fiction are increasingly indistinguishable. Finally, social media take aestheticization to the extreme: from self-dramatization to photo floods to the replacement of information with emotions and fakes.

Am I exaggerating? That would be nice. Have I hastily equated aesthetics and aestheticization? Not by today’s standards. When I received an international aesthetics award a few years ago, people who learned about it asked me, puzzled, how that could be?  I wasn’t a cosmetic surgeon, after all. The terrain is so dominated by consumerist aestheticization that there is no longer any room for aesthetics in the sophisticated sense. The juggernaut of aestheticization floods everything, sucks up everything.

What remains for aesthetics to do in this situation? It must rebel against the false redemption of its old ideals, must denounce it for what it really is: a cultural disgrace. I know, anger is considered one of the seven capital sins, but sometimes anger is all too justified. As is revolt. Aesthetics must raise hard objections to rampant aestheticization. Only if it does so, will it retain a right to exist. Only if it succeeds in doing so, will it have a future.


Wolfgang Welsch

Wolfgang Welsch, born in 1946, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy (Jena University). Visiting professorships included the Free University of Berlin, Humboldt-University of Berlin, Stanford University and Emory University. In 1992, he received the Max Planck Research Award and in 2016 the Premio Internazionale d’Estetica. His fields of research are aesthetics, theory of evolution, epistemology, ontology, and philosophy of culture. Most recent publications are: Glanzmomente der Philosophie: Von Heraklit bis Julia Kristeva (Munich: Beck, 2021), Umdenken: Miniaturen zu Hegel (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2021).

Published November 29, 2022.

Cite this article: Wolfgang Welsch, “A Big Disenchantment,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 10 (2022), Twenty Years of Contemporary Aesthetics, (accessed date).


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra [1883–85], ed. By Robert Pippin and transl. by Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 10.

[2] Plato, Phaedo, 250 d 7– e 1.

[3] Aristotle, Poetics, 1448 b 15–17.

[4] Aristotle, Metaphysics, I 1, 980 a 21–23.

[5] Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Philosophische Betrachtungen über einige Bedingungen des Gedichtes [1735] [Philosophical reflections on some conditions of the poem] (Hamburg: Meiner, 1983), p. 85 [§ CXV]. Similarly, fifteen years later: “Aesthetics is the science of sensuous cognition” (Baumgarten, Aesthetica [1750], Hildesheim: Olms, 1970, p. 1 [§ 1] – my translation). The term ʽaestheticsʼ thus is derived not from art but from ʽsensuousʼ (aisthētós).

[6] “The aim of aesthetics is the perfection of sensuous knowledge as such. And precisely this is beauty” (Baumgarten, Aesthetica, l.c., p. 6 [§ 14] – my translation).

[7] Cf. ibid., §§ 543, 559, 560, 564.

[8] Cf. ibid., § 565.

[9] “The Earliest System-Programme of German Idealism,” in: The Hegel Reader, ed. by Stephen Houlgate (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 28 f., here p. 29.

[10] Ibid., 29.

[11] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy [1872], ed. by Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 38.

[12] “We have in essence a world that humans have gradually created: their aesthetics” (Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Fragmente. Beginning of 1880 to Summer 1882, in: Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden, ed. by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980, vol. 9, p. 581 [Fall 1881, 12/29] – my translation).

[13] Thus, John Ruskin had already declared in 1866 that “good taste is essentially a moral quality” (John Ruskin, “The Crown of Wild Olive. Three Lectures on Work, Traffic, and War,” in: The Works of John Ruskin, ed. by Edward Tyas Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, London 1905, vol. XVIII, pp. 373–533, here p. 434). And a good 100 years later, in 1969, the Deutscher Werkbund explicitly described itself as “a moral institution.”

[14] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory [1970], translated and edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 226.

[15] Ibid., p. 227.

[16] It is about “an art that shudders inwardly ” (ibid., p. 196). “Unarbitrated contradictions” form the truth of modern works (ibid., p. 197). “Scars of damage and disruption are the modern’s seal of authenticity ” (ibid., p. 23).

[17] Ibid, p. 190 and p. 191, respectively. “Certainly many historical phases provided greater possibilities of reconciliation than does the contemporary one” (ibid, p. 191).

[18] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 94.

[19] For Rorty, “the high culture of liberalism” is “centering around literature (in the older and narrower sense of that term – plays, poems, and, especially, novels)” (ibid., p. 93).

[20] Joseph Brodsky, “Uncommon Visage” (The Nobel Lecture, 1987), in: On Grief and Reason (New York: Farrar – Straus – Giroux, 31996), pp. 44 –58, here p. 49.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Brodsky, like Rorty, explains, “I’ll just say that I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is somewhat more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens. And I am speaking precisely about reading Dickens, Sterne, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Balzac, Melville, Proust, Musil, and so forth; that is, about literature” (Brodsky, “Uncommon Visage,” l.c., p. 53).