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A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts

David Goldblatt, Lee B. Brown, Stephanie Patridge

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A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts

David Goldblatt, Lee B. Brown, Stephanie Patridge

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About This Book

Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, fourth edition, contains a selection of ninety-six readings organized by individual art forms as well as a final section of readings in philosophical aesthetics that cover multiple art forms. Sections include topics that are familiar to students such as painting, photography and movies, architecture, music, literature, and performance, as well as contemporary subjects such as mass art, popular arts, the aesthetics of the everyday, and the natural environment. Essays are drawn from both the analytic and continental traditions, and multiple others that bridge this divide between these traditions. Throughout, readings are brief, accessible for undergraduates, and conceptually focused, allowing instructors many different syllabi possibilities using only this single volume.

Key Additions to the Fourth Edition

The fourth edition is expanded to include a total of ninety-six essays with nineteen new essays (nine of them written exclusively for this volume), updated organization into new sections, revised introductions to each section, an increased emphasis on contemporary topics, such as stand-up comedy, the architecture of museums, interactivity and video games, the ethics of sexiness, trans/gendered beauty, the aesthetics of junkyards and street art, pornography, and the inclusion of more diverse philosophical voices. Nevertheless, this edition does not neglect classic writers in the traditional aesthetics: Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Collingwood, Bell, and writers of similar status in aesthetics. The philosophers writing new chapters exclusively for this fourth edition are:

• Sondra Bacharach on street art

• Aili Bresnahan on appreciating dance

• Hina Jamelle on digital architecture

• Jason Leddington on magic

• Sheila Lintott on stand-up comedy

• Yuriko Saito on everyday aesthetics

• Larry Shiner on art spectacle museums in the twenty-first century

• Peg Brand Weiser on how beauty matters

• Edward Winters on the feeling of being at home in vernacular architecture, as in such urban places as bars.

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Part I

Before the advent of modern art, it was widely assumed that the arts were essentially a species of imitation. While the theory came in many forms, the most straightforward version assumed that such art as painting and drawing aimed at making faithful copies of their subject matter. Beginning with this assumption about the nature of art, Plato developed his elaborate critique of the arts. For Plato, the construction of visual copies of things is far from a noble activity. Indeed, quite the opposite. For him, instead of presenting us with reality, imitative art presents us with a socially dangerous realm of mere appearances.
On several grounds, the art historian Ernst Gombrich casts doubt on the assumption that art is imitation. Gombrich asks whether the idea of making a pictorial copy of something is even a coherent one. Can artists really make copies of things? Graphic artists of antiquity did not represent things differently than we moderns do simply because they were less skillful or less intelligent. The difference lies elsewhere. First, a painting in a given style reflects the temperament of its artist. Second, the techniques by which artists learn how to convey information about a subject matter—which Gombrich does not regard as identical to copying—are developed slowly over time. For instance, consider pictorial art in an age before paintbrushes or oil paint had been invented.
In the two brief but pithy selections from his book Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman radically challenged traditional thinking about painting and similar graphic arts. (The two selections can be read together or separately.) In the first reading, Goodman builds on Gombrich’s idea that the truth in a painting is a function of the kind of information it is expected to yield and of our understanding of how to extract information from paintings in that style. In Goodman’s opinion, a judgment that a painting is realistic is not a function of any absolute relationship it has to the world; surprisingly, it is a function of the styles of painting with which one is already familiar.
In the second selection, Goodman poses a question about forgeries of paintings: What, really, is the aesthetic difference, if any, between a painting’s copy and an original if you cannot discriminate between the two merely by looking? His answer, a surprising one, involves the thought that our perceptual abilities can be endlessly improved. So, although you might not be able to see a difference now between the two pictures, you cannot rule it out that you might later learn to see such a difference. Further, this perceptual potential, he goes on to argue, constitutes an aesthetic difference between originals and forgeries that should be important to you now.
Pressing on the foregoing question, Denis Dutton gives a very different answer to Goodman’s puzzle about originals and forgeries. His answer is that a forgery of an artwork, by misrepresenting its true origin, misrepresents the degree and character of its achievement. A forgery, in short, is a kind of crime. Thus, Dutton turns our attention from the artwork as an object to the act or performance by which that work is produced. Those interested in Dutton’s thesis that painting is a kind of performance can turn to the essay by David Davies in our chapter on performance.
In an era of modernist art, the idea that what is important about painting is its ability to represent reality was seriously challenged. Clive Bell, for instance, argued in the early decades of this century that what makes a painting art is not its imitative power or content, but rather, what he called its “significant form.” It is the arrangement of shapes and colors of a work that stirs our emotions when we respond to paintings, not their ethical value or the content of their subject matter. Without committing himself to Bell’s formalism, the art historian Edmund Burke Feldman illustrates, with the example of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), what a formalist analysis of a painting might be like.
Michael Baxandall addresses the question of what it means when we say that one painter, such as Cézanne, influenced another, such as Pablo Picasso. He argues that this simplistic way of describing the situation ignores the fact that our concept of Paul Cézanne’s contribution to painting is dependent upon Picasso’s special way of understanding Cézanne. In short, influence can also work backwards in time.
What, we might ask, is the difference between Andy Warhol’s Brillo Soap Pads Box, and a perceptually indistinguishable commonplace box of Brillo pads that we might find in our local supermarket? In an analogous puzzle, Arthur C. Danto begins his essay with a set of look-alike canvases, all red squares, not all of which are artworks. According to Danto, it is what the works are about that makes them representationally and aesthetically distinct from one another, and which makes some of them artworks rather than bare red expanses of paint. Developed in several essays, and reprised in the present selection, there is also the condition that says that an entity is an artwork in virtue of its place in an elaborate network of institutions and their related discourse Danto termed “the artworld.” In particular, the identity and meaning of a specific artwork can only be understood in light of its place in art history so that what may be considered art at one time, may not at another. Finally, being beautiful, for Danto, is not definitive of being an artwork. Paintings, like emeralds or diamonds, can be beautiful. But artworks demand some kind of interpretation—that is, some explanation of what they are about.
For Martin Heidegger, the artist is the origin of the work but, in a different sense, the work is the origin of the artist and art is the origin of the artist and the work. Like Danto, Heidegger is concerned with the difference between the artwork as mere thing and as art. Artworks do have a thingly character—stone and canvas, for example—as they can be transported or hung on walls as things. But for Heidegger art is something more. Art “unconceals” certain truths that “happen” in a work by “setting up” a world. Heidegger uses as an example a pair of peasant shoes, which happens to be the subject of a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh, where the work of the art is not beauty but to disclose truth.
Like Danto, Linda Nochlin gives great importance to art history, but also to social and institutional conditions in her essay “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” She believes that many feminist criticisms of a male-dominated art history are misdirected. There are no inborn “geniuses.” Art requires work and development. It isn’t just that great women artists have been excluded from art histories, but rather that women painters were completely blocked by social and political handicaps from being able to paint at all. Nochlin’s point is that without the opportunities to learn painting and to enter the proper situations offered male artists it was difficult for women to become artists, let alone great ones.
Paintings are not persons, and so it would seem confused to make moral judgments, either for or against them. A. W. Eaton, however, outlines various reasons why we might, without confusion, introduce ethical considerations into the seemingly pure sphere of artworks and the aesthetic experience they provide.
Issues about painting and ethics are reminders of the connection of painting with politics. What happens when radical public art conflicts with political power? In his contribution, David Siqueiros—one of Mexico’s great painters of murals, who also spent serious time in prison and exile for his work—addresses the historic situation of the 1920s and 1930s. While painters of that period celebrated the Mexican Revolution’s monumental murals, their work was denounced as too dangerous by the government, which favored more “civilized,” “bourgeois” art.

1 Against Imitation

Excerpted from ‘The Republic’ in The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 1, Benjamin Jowett, trans., Random House, Inc. (1937), pp. 852–857.
[Socrates speaks] Of the many excellences which I perceive in the order of our State, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than the rule about poetry.
[Glaucon speaks] To what do you refer?
To the rejection of imitative poetry, which certainly ought not to be received; as I see far more clearly now that the parts of the soul have been distinguished.
What do you mean?
Speaking in confidence, for I should not like to have my words repeated to the tragedians and the rest of the imitative tribe—but I do not mind saying to you, that all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and that the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them.
Explain the purport of your remark.
Well, I will tell you, although I have always from my earliest youth had an awe and love of Homer, which even now makes the words falter on my lips, for he is the great captain and teacher of the whole of that charming tragic company; but a man is not to be reverenced more than the truth, and therefore I will speak out.
Very good, he said.
Listen to me then, or rather, answer me.
Put your question.
Can you tell me what imitation is? for I really do not know.
A likely thing, then, that I should know.
Why not? for the duller eye may often see a thing sooner than the keener.
Very true, he said; but in your presence, even if I had any faint notion, I could not muster courage to utter it. Will you enquire yourself?
Well then, shall we begin the enquiry in our usual manner: Whenever a number of individuals have a common name, we assume them to have also a corresponding idea or form—do you understand me?
I do.
Let us take any common instance; there are beds and tables in the world—plenty of them, are there not?
But there are only two ideas or forms of them—one the idea of a bed, the other of a table.
And the maker of either of them makes a bed or he makes a table for our use, in accordance with the idea—that is our way of speaking in this and similar instances—but no artificer makes the ideas themselves: how could he?
And there is another artist—I should like to know what you would say of him.
Who is he?
One who is the maker of all the works of all other workmen.
What an extraordinary man!
Wait a little, and there will be more reason for your saying so. For this is he who is able to make not only vessels of every kind, but plants and animals, himself and all other things—the earth and heaven, and the things which are in heaven or under the earth; he makes the gods also.
He must be a wizard and no mistake.
Oh! you are incredulous, are you? Do you mean that there is no such maker or creator, or that in one sense there might be a maker of all these things but in another not? Do you see that there is a way in which you could make them all yourself?
What way?
An easy way enough; or rather, there are many ways in which the feat might be quickly and easily accomplished, none quicker than that of turning a mirror round and round—you would soon enough make the sun and the heavens, and the earth and yourself, and other animals and plants, and all the other things of which we were just now speaking, in the mirror.
Yes, he said; but they would be appearances only.
Very good, I said, you are coming to the point now. And the painter too is, as I conceive, just such another—a creator of appearances, is he not?
Of course.
But then I suppose you will say that what he creates is untrue. And yet there is a sense in which the painter also creates a bed?
Yes, he said, but not a real bed.
And what of the maker of the bed? were you not saying that he too makes, not the idea which, according to our view, is the essence of the bed, but only a particular bed?
Yes, I did.
Then if he does not make that which exists he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence; and if any one were to say that the work of the maker of the bed, or of any other workman, has real existence, he could hardly be supposed to be speaking the truth.
At any rate, he replied, philosophers would say that he was not speaking the truth.
No wonder, then, that his work too is an indistinct expression of truth.
No wonder.
Suppose now that by the light of the examples just offered we enquire who this imitator is?
If you please.
Well then, here are three beds: one existing in nature, which is made by God, as I think that we may say—for no one else can be the maker?
There is another which is the work of the carpenter?
And the work of the painter is a third?
Beds, then, are of three kinds, and there are three artists who superintend them: God, the maker of the bed, and the painter?
Yes, there are three of them.
God, whether from choice or from necessity, made one bed in nature and one only; two or more such ideal beds neither ever have been nor ever will be made by God.
Why is that?
Because even if He had made but two, a third would still appear behind them which both of them would have for their idea, and that would be the ideal bed and not the two others.
Very true, he said.
God knew this, and He desired to be the real maker of a real bed, not a particular maker of a particular bed, and therefore He created a bed which is essentially and by nature one only.
So we believe.
Shall we, then, speak of Him as the natural author or maker of the bed?
Yes, he replied; inasmuch as by the natural process of creation He is the author of this and of all other things.
And what shall we say of the carpenter—is not he also the maker of the bed?
But would you call the painter a creator and maker?
Certainly not.
Yet if he is not the maker, what is he in relation to the bed?
I think, he said, that we may fairly designate him as the imitator of that which the others make.
Good, I said; then you call him who is third in the descent from nature an imitator?
Certainly, he said.
And the tragic poet is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the king and from the truth?
That appears to be so.
Then about the imitator we are agreed. And what about the painter?—I would like to know whether he may be thought to imitate that which originally exists in nature, or only the creations of artists?
The latter.
As they are or as they appear? you have still to determine this.
What do you mean?
I mean, that you may look at a bed from different points of view, obliquely or directly or from any other point of view, and the bed will appear different, but there is no difference in reality. And the same of all things.
Yes, he said, the difference is only apparent.
Now let me ask you another question: Which is the art of painting designed to be—an imitation of things as they are, or as they appear—of appearance or of reality?
Of appearance.
Then the imitator, I said, is a long way off the truth, and can do all things because he lightly touches on a small part of them, and that part an image. For example: A painter will paint a cobbler, carpenter, or any other artist, though he knows nothing of their arts; and, if he is a good artist, he may deceive children or simple persons, when he shows them his picture of a carpenter from a distance, and they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter.
And whenever anyone informs us that he has found a man who knows all the arts, and all things else that anybody knows, and every single thing with a higher degree of accuracy than any other man—whoever tells us this, I think that we can only imagine him to be a simple creature who is likely to have been deceived by some wizard or actor whom he met, and whom he thought all-knowing, because he himself was unable to analyse the nature of knowledge and ignorance and imitation.
Most true.
And so, when we hear persons saying that the tragedians, and Homer, who is at their head, know all the arts and all things human, virtue as well as vice, and divine things too, for that the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject, and that he who has not this knowledge can never be a poet, we ought to consider whether here also there may not be a similar illusion. Perhaps they may have come across imitators and been deceived by them; they may not have remembered when they saw their works that these were but imitations thrice removed from the truth, and could easily be made without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances only and not realities? Or, after all, they may be in the right, and poets do really know the things about which they seem to the many to speak so well?
The question, he said, should by all means be considered.
Now do you suppose that if a person were able to make the original as well as the image, he would seriously devote himself to the image-making branch? Would he allow imitation to be the ruling principle of his life, as if he had nothing higher in him?
I should say not.
The real artist, who knew what he was imitating, would be interested in realities and not in imitations; and would desire to leave as memorials of himself works many and fair; and, instead of being the author of encomiums, he would prefer to be the theme of them.
Yes, he said, th...

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