The aim of this course is to introduce students to some key debates in contemporary aesthetics (mainly but not exclusively in the analytic tradition), through the study of basic texts. A particular emphasis will be given to the relation of these debates to work in the related discipline of art history. This dimension is often neglected, with the consequence that the philosophical debates under study appear disconnected from genuine issues that arise from art history itself.
We will cover questions that are typically philosophical, but not for that matter devoid of interest, including for art criticism and art history, for example: ‘Can we define art ?’. Is there indeed a definition that captures all and only all that we would consider to be works of art, without, on a normative basis, exclude some? We will critically examine at first two positive, traditional answers to that question, ‘art as expression’ and ‘art as form’, the latter having formed, from Clive Bell (whose links with the ‘intuitionism’ of G. E. Moore we shall explore) to Clement Greenberg, one of the main trends in 20th-century art criticism. Art as expression of emotions is a view associated, rightly or not, to Croce and Collingwood that has been criticized by Richard Wollheim in a key text for the analytic tradition, Art and its Objects. We will then explore arguments, often associated with Wittgenstein (as art is described by Weitz in a key paper as a ‘family-resemblance’ concept), in favour of a negative answer to this question, and attempts at circumventing them such as the ‘institutional theory of art’, according to which whatever is recognized by institutions (e.g., curators in museums) as art is art, and, later on Jerrold Levinson’s attempt at defining art in intentional and historicist terms, this last having considerably renewed the debate, after years of scepticism about the possibility of a definition. At this stage we will also go through another key paper, by Frank Sibley, examining in many fruitful and interesting ways the very notion of an ‘aesthetic concept’; one claim here being that aesthetics is certainly not to be restricted to the study of the concept of ‘beauty’.
In preparation to the discussion of Levinson’s proposal, we will review arguments concerning the role of the artist, looking at a series of arguments, from Wimsatt & Beardsley’s claim that the original intention of the artist cannot be recuperated to Barthes’ and Foucault’s claims that there is no author to begin with. We will then read Levinson’s original paper ‘Defining Art Historically’ and some of the critical responses to it.
We shall then examine three subsidiary questions, that are also of great intrinsic interest through a mere sample of the literature that they generated: ‘What is the ontological status of the work of art?’, e.g., of a piece of music, is it in the score, the engraved vinyl or CD, or as it is played? Etc. On that occasion, we will have a tentative look at more dynamic approaches to the work of art in terms of ‘performance’. ‘What role do emotions play in our response to the work of art?’ We will have seen criticisms of the traditional view of ‘art as expression of emotions’, but that would not annul the reality of the role of emotion in our response to art which thus needs to be accounted for; we will examine some attempts in that direction by Kivy and Robinson, and try and suggest a second look at Collingwood, whose views had been condemned as the result of Wollheim’s misreading and critique. Finally, we will examine a few recent answers, by art historian Meyer Schapiro and art critic John Berger to the question ‘Can we evaluate art?’, that has exercised so many minds since Hume’s celebrated essay ‘On the Standards of Taste’.
After a brief look at Noël Carroll’s attempt at raising philosophical issues concerning the much neglected ‘mass arts’ – as opposed to the usual staple of examples taken from a more elitist view of ‘high art’ or ‘fine arts’, or simply oversold examples such as Duchamp’s urinal – we will conclude the course on two sessions on methodological issues in art history that are related to some of the above discussions. In a nutshell we will examine one trend in art history called ‘visual culture’, to which belongs the works of art historians such as Michael Baxandall, whose approach, we shall see, is derived from Collingwood’s theory of interpretation and related to Wollheim’s idea of art criticism as ‘retrieval’, the idea being that one ought to look at the work of art in terms of a solution to a problem, and Svetlana Alpers, which shows influence of structuralism, e.g., Foucault, in viewing works of art in less intentional terms.