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Aesthetics Essay Questions

I recently finished reading Noel Carroll's remarkable book Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction, and the result was a newfound appreciation for aesthetics and art, and it even caused me to change my mind regarding some of the untested assumptions I had regarding art. For example, I regularly meet with a writing group and we workshop short stories. The other guys in the writing group have published their short fiction; I haven't. One of the members' way of writing irked me for a long time because I couldn't see enough of the author in the work. I secretly resented some of his stories because he didn't explore a topic that would present him as an author as vulnerable or embarrassed: no admissions of loneliness or depression, nothing of making a fool of himself in public. It wasn't until I read Carroll's book that I realized I was operating under a tacit assumption: Art ought to express something of the author's emotions. But of course this is a Romantic view, and surely not found in all works of art. In fact, if I really thought this were true, it would exclude whole swaths of art I very much love, art that seems to say very little about the author's own vulnerabilities or emotions. What in The Odyssey, for instance, lets the reader know what gave Homer the blues?

Carroll's book is very good at setting up various theories of art and examining their strengths and weaknesses before moving on to the next. When I began reading the book, I thought this was a futile enterprise. It seemed an odd exercise of typical analytic philosophy, to set up a book that tries to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes a work of art what it is, just to knock it down and maybe ultimately reveal in the end that nobody can give any necessary and sufficient conditions. That is not what this book did. Carroll takes seriously the theories he explores, and one of his values seems to be that there is something that can be learned from these theories of art.

Take the theory that is as old as Plato and Aristotle that says that art is just an imitation of reality. Even if we ultimately dismiss this theory as insufficient (e.g., how to account for non-representational art), we can discover from those philosophers who proposed art as representation some important facts about the nature of representational art. For instance, we might gain a newfound appreciation for the design of a representational work of art, how difficult it is to make the formal properties and their relations cohere to actually make, say, a painting of a woman in a kimono resemble a real life woman in a kimono. (Of course in the picture below, the photograph came later.)

Carroll's book can be awfully opinionated as well, as with the concept of disinterestedness and aesthetic experience. He never mentions Immanuel Kant by name but his presence looms large over the chapter on aesthetics. As you may remember from the Kant episode, disinterestedness toward art would involve approaching a work of art without ulterior purposes—impartially, in other words. According to Kant, we ought to attend only to the formal organization of the work.

Objections immediately arise to this view of disinterestedness. Perhaps the most important objection is what to do about artwork produced with religious, political or ulterior purposes in mind. How else to appreciate, for instance, what the image of Rosie the Riveter is doing unless we consider it in context, that is, as an attempt to encourage people, especially women, to contribute to the war effort in WWII? The art theorist or philosopher who would still encourage us to only attend to the work of art in terms of beauty by looking at its formal organization would seem to be asking us to miss the point of the work, Carroll wants to say. And this is not the only example of artwork created with personal or larger social interests at the core of its creation. The history of the art world has been replete with examples of art that contain representational and expressive properties, in addition to formal properties, that we're supposed to pay attention to.

In Carroll's view, that's what is really at the heart of Kant's concerns and the other people who espouse disinterest toward art and other manifestations of beauty: attention and concentration. According to Carroll, the problem is that our attention and concentration in view of beauty can come in degrees--we can be more or less attentive or concentrated. But we can never have disinterested attention in view of what is beautiful. By paying attention or failing to, we necessarily are not impartial to what we're taking to be beautiful.

Kant held in The Critique of Judgment that "taste is still barbaric which needs a mixture of charms and emotions in order that there may be satisfaction, and still more so if it makes these the measures of its assent." As much as some of us may have misgivings about consumer society, it would be difficult to find someone whose taste does not include a love for charms or at least some art that doesn't possess emotional properties. Call this objection of Carroll's "the way aesthetic experience actually works." This, coupled with the claim that at least some art is made to provoke partiality, should make us doubt Kant's view, Carroll thinks.

The central topics of Noel Carroll's book are indicated by its chapters: the book deals with representation, expression, form, aesthetics, and defining and identifying art. Instead of moving through each chapter, however, I would like to propose some questions that might provoke some of your intuitions regarding aesthetics and art. I'd be curious to see what your opinions would be regarding these questions before and after reading the book.

To play fair, I'll give you my answers, without any presumption on my part that the answers I have provided are adequate, let alone definitive.

1. What is your favorite work of art? How would you describe your relationship with it?

My favorite work of pictorial art these days is Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893), and I am especially partial to the 1895 lithograph because I had the privilege of seeing it in person recently, on display in Seoul's Museum of Modern Art in Korea. I have a copy of it hanging on my wall in my apartment. Munch described his inspiration for the work in an 1892 diary entry:

One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.

The expression on the screaming man's face in the work looks almost comical to millennials like me who first saw this grab-your-face-and-yell gesture on the VHS box cover of the 1990 film Home Alone. Even though my love for the piece sits uncomfortably alongside my love for other art (I prefer Renaissance and Baroque pictography), it is not an ironic appreciation; it is just that I and my millennial friends come to it with more cultural baggage than its early 20th century audience would have carried to it—with baggage heavy enough to make us appreciate the work more if we're careful about it. The absurd associations we could make with the work highlight the absurdity of the action and in turn the absurdity of the sentiment that the work is trying to express. Imagine yourself walking along the bridge, a well-dressed couple, cheerily predisposed, passing you by, the sun setting to your left, when all of a sudden you are hit with the thought you and all the people you love are going to die. You know it would be strange to grab your face and scream out in horror, yet somehow you think it would be appropriate in a moment when you realize your own mortality, and you wonder why everybody isn't showing their horror of death more often. This thought hits me like a punch to the gut. And that's why I love it.

2. Does the appreciation of beauty make us better (perhaps more moral?) human beings?

I think an aesthetic approach to art or to people and objects in the world is essential to being a human being but it's fundamentally different from approaching the world ethically—or logically, scientifically, spiritually, or mythically for that matter. Experiencing the world aesthetically is a matter of paying attention to the form and particular qualities of something. It's possible to do this with a work of art but it can just as easily be done when viewing an oak, a person's face, or a dog's paw. The kinds of qualities that are particularly aesthetic qualities are qualities of expression, as when something appears somber or serious; qualities of taste, as when something looks kitschy or cheap; or qualities of unity, diversity, motion, and so on, which are often called Gestalt qualities, and are a matter of playing on the ways in which we're psychologically constituted and things appear to us.

Consider George Cooke's "Tallulah Falls," and the way its rows of trees really do appear like a mountain side, and the way the river really looks like it's flowing and how the man who is reaching out toward the tree looks precariously close to the edge. Nothing about the appreciation of this beautiful work entails a moral-ethical approach. A moral-ethical approach means looking at the world as being consistent with a good life, or promoting or preserving positive relations with others, including those regarding care, fairness, freedom, group loyalty, legitimate authority, and purity. There is overlap between viewing the world aesthetically and ethically, to be sure, but one approach does not entail the other.

3. In what sense is art an imitation of reality?

Art is clearly not always an imitation of reality, and so art imitates reality only if an artist designs an artwork such that its form, relation, and properties create the illusion that what appears in the artwork approximates people, objects, and events in the world. If you consider non-representational art, however, like Constantin Brancusi's "Bird in Space," it doesn't look as though the artist is trying to represent something. A clever viewer might say that Brancusi captured the swoop of a bird in flight but even if that's so it's stretching it to regard Brancusi, therefore, as creating a work of art that is imitative or representational art. In fact, U.S. Customs officials set off a legal battle regarding this piece in 1926 about whether the piece should even be regarded as a work of art.

4. Is a copy of a great work of art itself a work of art?

I think so, although I have no idea how I'd go about checking whether or not this is the kind of proposition that can be true or false. Any reader feedback regarding this would be helpful.

5. What is it that makes some things art while others are not art?

A work of art has some special formal relations and properties but outside of that I don't know of a surefire way to determine what art is. The subject is a matter of great debate and is often determined by an ongoing dialogue, not only within the art-world but also among groups of ordinary people, and sometimes the issue even makes it to the courts, where for legal expediency a decision has to be made. Just to delight your fancy, think of the work of art below by Michael Craig-Martin titled "An Oak Tree." Just in case you can't see, it's a glass of water sitting in the near-middle of a transparent shelf attached to the art wall. Your grandmother might not have thought it art, but the art-world does today.

Okay, I fibbed. One more question:

6. Do you think Carroll characterized Kant's position on disinterest fairly?

What do you think?


Filed Under: PEL's Notes, ReviewageTagged With: aesthetics, Immanuel Kant, noel carroll, philosophy blog

By an aesthetic issue I mean an issue in the philosophy of the arts and of aesthetic experience (including the experience of nature).

The topic questions list a number of aesthetic issues. There are many more that could go on the list. But what puts something on the list, or keeps it off? How do you know that you have identified an aesthetic issue to write about in your critical essay? There is no precise answer to this question, any more than there is a precise answer as to what is an appropriate topic for conversation at dinner. And still, some topics are appropriate and some aren't. Since an aesthetic issue (as I'm using the phrase) is an issue in the philosophy of the arts and of aesthetic experience, it may help to know what philosophers do, what counts as a philosophical issue. Philosophers tend to do several things.

Philosophers look at arguments, to see whether they prove what the arguer says they prove. For example, if someone says that the mass-produced paintings at Ikea are not art, a philosopher will ask what reasons the person has for saying this, and then try to see whether the reasons should be accepted, and whether if they are accepted they are good enough to establish the conclusion. For example, one might ask whether a work of art can have multiple copies, whether a reproduction of an artwork is always, sometimes, or never an artwork, whether the images themselves have aesthetic merit, and how one should decide about the answers to such questions.

Philosophers uncover assumptions. This is closely related to examining arguments. For example, in the case just mentioned, the person who says the items in Ikea aren't art is making some assumptions about what counts as art. These assumptions may not be out in the open; even the person who is making them may not be very clear about what they are. A dialog of questions and answers is often a good way of uncovering such assumptions. Since the days of Plato, this kind of dialog or dialectic has been an essential philosophical tool. The point is not to get rid of assumptions; it is not actually possible to think without making some assumptions. Rather the goal is to show what the assumptions are. After that, of course, if they can be shown to be unjustified or unnecessary, then they will need to go.

Philosophers analyze concepts. So, for example, a philosopher of art might ask what makes something delicate, or powerful, or sad, or boring, or scattered, or unified, or exciting, or harmonious, or even beautiful (this last concept may really be too big for helpful analysis, but lots of philosophers have tried all the same). There are many ways to analyze concepts. For example, in the essays we will read by Larry Shiner, the author abandons the sort of "timeless" analysis that philosophers often do, where you just try to think about the content of a concept as if it were as eternal and unchanging as the number two, to an historical analysis of how did we get the concept of art that we now have. If you don't understand the kind of conceptual analysis Shiner is making, you will misunderstand what he is saying (for example, you may think - as students in this class often do - that he is telling you what the difference is between art and craft. But he is not; he is telling you how people came to make that distinction, and what the cultural results of making it have been.

Philosophers build theories. We look for a consistent view of what the world is
actually like, including but going beyond the ways that scientists and social scientists do this.

Some philosophers see their job as “carving reality at the joints”, i.e., determining what most basic kinds of things there are in the world, how what appears to exist can be reduced to these basic things, and how the basic things differ from each other when they appear to be the same (this differs from physics because philosophers will also ask whether the world includes minds, souls, propositions, God, numbers, concertos, and other things that are not obviously either matter or energy). So for example, Arthur Danto has a theory of what the essence of art is. He has been developing the theory for about 25 years now, and it has become one of the most influential theories in the philosophy of the arts. (See the essay on Danto in Philosophers, Artists and Critics on Art for a summary of his views.)

You may want to start building your own theory about something. If you aren't ready to do that yet, you are certainly able to think about and respond to the theories that other people have built. There are many ways to build theories. One of the most important things a theory builder must do is to determine the kinds of analysis he or she will use, and what will count as an illuminating explanation. For example, appreciation of art works is rooted in human biology in various ways. (You know this is true, since everything we do is rooted in biology in some way.) But biological explanations may or may not prove relevant for your purposes. In your theory, are you ever looking for explanations that take things back to biology? Or are facts about the biological basis of aesthetic appreciation relatively unimportant, not facts of a kind that might be used in a serious explanation?

Philosophers start with the sense of wonder, and press its questions as far as they can, trying to find satisfying answers. In a way, philosophers keep doing what children do, which is to be amazed at the way the world is, and ask big questions about it. The difference is that philosophers approach these questions with more rigorous methods, and try to locate answers to them within satisfying theories that can be supported by good arguments.

Follow these links to read more about what philosophers do, and how to tell when you are addressing an aesthetic issue in an appropriate way for this class.

Philosophy of Art

Topic Questions


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