Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #30: Elegance (and Aesthetic Concepts)


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Terms of Art #30:
elegance (and aesthetic concepts)


Elegant or not? Use your discernment to figure it out!
(Jeff Koons, “Seated Ballerina” (2017) outside Rockefeller Center, NYC) [source]

Pronunciation: EH-lih-gehns (soft unvoiced s, like ssss, not like z)

Definition: I mean, you already know this. Elegance is smoothness of movement, beauty and simplicity in form, tasteful ornamentation, and stuff like that.

Why it matters:
Elegance isn’t exactly an interesting term in itself. But ‘elegant’ (and words like it*) have played an important role in 20th century aesthetic theory.

*words like it: graceful, bold, balanced, unified, subtle, dynamic, trite … or sappy, rustic, cute, even basic (as in Uggs-wearing, pumpkin spice-drinking basic) …
In fact, you might think that EVERY TERM THIS WEEK has been a word like this (with the possible exception of beauty).


How about this other seated ballerina, by Degas?
(detail from Frieze of Dancers, c. 1895) [source]

Elegance is what’s called an aesthetic concept. These are concepts that you need to use some aesthetic discernment or sensitivity to apply appropriately.

For instance, any schmuck or rando can watch a ballet and say the dancers moved quickly (or from left to right, or whatever), but you need some aesthetic sensitivity to notice the elegance (or boldness or whatever) of those movements.

You might think of them as different ways that a thing can be aesthetically good or bad. It can be elegant, or it can be clunky; it can be profound, or it can be superficial.


p.s. Elegance also matters because it applies to things that aren’t standard art/aesthetic objects, like mathematical proofs and scientific theories.

p.p.s. You might have thought people cared about elegance because the term has some complicated sexist undertones and probably a pretty noxious history and sociology. But nope, that’s not why people in aesthetics are interested in it.


How about this one? It’s Euler’s equation. If you didn’t know this before, but you know the terms, I have probably just blown your mind. Happy Friday!

Key text:
Aesthetic Concepts” by Frank Sibley

Related terms:
thick concept/term – a term that’s usually thought to have both (1) a descriptive component and (2) value-laden component.
Oversimplified example: Elegance involves (1) smoothness of movement, and (2) a positive evaluation. So it’s like, good smoothness of movement, not bad smoothness of movement.

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