In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Film Aesthetics

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • General Aesthetics
  • Aesthetics during the Period of High Theory
  • Auteurist Aesthetics
  • The Analytic Tradition of Film Aesthetics
  • The Aesthetic Turn of Film Studies

Cinema and Media Studies Film Aesthetics
Matthew Noble-Olson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0212


Any consideration of aesthetics poses difficulties because of the ways the term has been used to designate particular objects, judgments, experiences, and values. This difficulty becomes perhaps especially acute with regard to film, where aesthetics is used both in highly polemical and specific contexts but also as a way to more simply denote something with an artistic element. First, any assessment of film aesthetics must contend with the precarious position of aesthetics itself more broadly. Peter Osborne has argued that contemporary art is distinguished by its anti-aestheticism. From a more reconstructive perspective, Elaine Scarry has called for a reinvestment in the value of aesthetics as an autonomous and self-evident realm of beauty. Second, and considering this contested relation between aesthetics, beauty, and art, the complex and often conflicting relation of film to art must also be noted. Finally, the differentiation of an aesthetic of film from film theory or film philosophy (see Oxford Bibliographies articles Film Theory and Philosophy and Film) is complicated, overlapping, and often contested. What might be understood as an aesthetic of film extends back almost to the origins of the medium, and much of what we identify as film theory could be understood as having some aesthetic concern, either as a consideration of film as an art or as a part of the realm of the sensible or the beautiful. Riccioto Canudo, Vachel Lindsay, Georg Lukács, and Hugo Münsterberg all produced early aesthetic accounts of the new medium. And if considerations of the aesthetics of film confront the novelty of the medium in its early years, then the recent reemergence of the aesthetic in film studies must be seen as an attempt to confront the seeming obsolescence of the medium. In many ways, the consideration of a film aesthetics demonstrates the fissures within the various critical discourses on film, especially in the present. Divisions appear between those accounts influenced by figures of recent continental philosophy, those associated with what is often called “screen” or “apparatus” theory, and finally those who follow the tradition of analytic philosophy.


There are a number of anthologies that collect significant writings from the history of cinematic study. While none of these are specifically focused on aesthetics, many of them contain central texts that consider the aesthetics of film. Dalle Vacche 2003 collects a series of texts that straddle the border between film theory and art history. Lehman 1997 and Braudy and Cohen 2009 each collect a good selection of texts from the beginning of the study of film, and the latter includes many from its more recent manifestations, with a focus on film theory. Wartenberg and Curran 2005 includes texts from the tradition of film theory and film philosophy, and a range of texts from the history of film. Carroll and Choi 2006 focuses on the analytic tradition. Richardson, et al. 2015 pushes the question of aesthetics into the new forms produced in the emergence of the digital, with important sections on the transformation of cinematic aesthetics. Lehman 1997 includes a selection of canonical essays in film theory that include important contributions to film aesthetics. Livingston and Plantinga 2008 includes a selection of essays by scholars in the field, covering a variety of topics on the philosophical approach to film, including essays on topics such as “Narration” and “Genre,” on important authors in the philosophical approach to film such as Rudolph Arnheim and Stanley Cavell, as well as considerations of individual films.

  • Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    This widely used volume includes a broad selection of both canonical and more recent work covering the history of film studies. It is organized thematically around such topics as “Film Language,” “Film and Reality,” and “Film Narrative and the Other Arts.” It includes many of the authors mentioned elsewhere in this lists and covers many of the essential authors and traditions, from Kracauer and Bazin, to Eisenstein and Arnheim, to Metz and Barthes, as well as more contemporary authors.

  • Carroll, Noël, and Jinhee Choi, eds. Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    This volume includes a selection of texts covering issues in the philosophy of film from an analytic perspective as signaled by the editors’ contributions as well as texts by more canonical authors such as Cavell and Danto. It includes an initial section with essays on “Film as Art,” with other sections covering “Film and Emotion,” “Film and Ethics,” and “Film and Knowledge.”

  • Dalle Vacche, Angela, ed. The Visual Turn: Classical Film Theory and Art History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

    This volume collects texts from across the history of film studies that approach the medium through the field of art history and theory. It brings together the fields of art history and film studies and approaches the question of aesthetics as a shared concern of their differing approaches. It is organized so that it pairs texts by more canonical authors such as Benjamin, Bazin, Arnheim, and Panofsky with texts commenting on those texts by more recent scholars such as Richard Allen and Thomas Y. Levin.

  • Lehman, Peter, ed. Defining Cinema. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

    Key documents by Eisenstein, Bazin, Kracauer, Metz, and Burch, each matched with extended essays by contemporary commentators. The material tends toward the technical and is probably most useful for advanced students.

  • Livingston, Paisley, and Carl Plantinga, eds. The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    This volume includes original essays organized into sections that cover issues and concepts such as “Film as Art” and “Authorship,” authors and trends such as “Gilles Deleuze” and “Psychoanalysis,” genres such as “Horror” and “Avant-Garde Film,” and a final section on film as philosophy, with essays covering such topics as “Ingmar Bergman” and “Film as Philosophy.”

  • Richardson, John, Claudia Gorbman, and Carol Vernallis, eds. The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    This collection includes a number of essays on the issue of aesthetics in an expanded field of audiovisual media such as music videos, installation art, and video games. It considers both these new forms and their impact on old media technologies. It is particularly strong on considerations of the aesthetics of sound and non-Western media texts.

  • Wartenberg, Thomas E., and Angela Curran, eds. The Philosophy of Film: Introductory Texts and Readings. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.

    Includes essays and selections from authors across the history of film aesthetics, such as Münsterberg, Bazin, Arnheim, Deleuze, and others. It is organized into seven sections with a number of essays that each respond differently to a question, such as “Do We Need Film Theory?” and “What Can We Learn from Films?”

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