Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Interview with Philosopher-Artist Keith Lehrer (Arizona/Miami)


Keith Lehrer is the Regent’s Professor emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Arizona with an affiliation with the University of Miami (Florida). In addition to his numerous published articles in areas such as epistemology, free will, rational consensus, and Thomas Reid, Keith has also authored several books including Thomas Reid (1989), Theory of Knowledge (1990), and Self-Trust: A Study of Reason, Knowledge, and Autonomy (1997). Keith also has a research interest in aesthetics, with his most recent book being Art, Self and Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2011), and can currently be found bridging the gap between theory and practice as an active painter and performance artist (the website for his paintings can be found here). It is truly an honor to have Keith as part of Aesthetics for Birds’ Philosopher-Artist series.

Has painting whether in terms of its products or its practice always been an interest of yours? 

I have loved painting since my college years when I was introduced to art and the philosophy of art by a famous aesthetician, John Hospers. At the time I knew him, 1954-57, his politics were not obvious. Whether intending to or not, he showed me that art and philosophy were freedom. He became a presidential candidate on the Libertarian Party and got a vote in the Electoral College. I continued to study paintings in museums, especially impressionist and abstract paintings. I did not begin painting until 1998. Oddly, I fell in love with art and philosophy at almost the same time, 1956. There was a reason. Art and philosophy seek, in different ways, to connect the internal world and the external world. Philosophy has been concerned with the relationship of the internal world of thought and feeling to the external world, art with the relationship between the external world of art to the internal world of thought and feeling. Art and philosophy connect mind and body, the internal and the external, in a loop of freedom and the self. You experience that freedom in art as you configure and reconfigure yourself in your world, and your world in yourself.

Philosophy (at least in its written form) much like painting seems subject to endless revision (there always seems to be something you could add, subtract, or change that would, however slightly, improve the work). At what point do you consider your paintings “finished” and how does this compare with the sense of completion for your work in philosophy?

I complete a philosophical work in the same way that I finish a painting. I know that I cannot do any better. In both, I reach for something unknown that is out of reach. I change the work in the excitement of process. Then I decide that is the best I can do.  I give up!  What I want is still out of reach, but I come to the stopping block. I value what the work is like. It may happen quickly. I do not aim at perfection.  It would bore me. Innovation thrills me.  Completion is the same in both art and philosophy. I reach the point where I value what I have done as a new way of configuring thought and feeling in what the work says or shows us or both. Art and philosophy are process.  They are diachronic and dynamic. What I do will not look or read the same to others, or, for that matter, to me. Heraclitus was right. You cannot step into the same river twice because it flows, unless it dries and dies. Art and philosophy change. Do you want the river to stop flowing?

Your paintings all have a very bright and playful almost (broadly) impressionistic quality to them. How did you find or otherwise settle into your personal style? 

You are right about the impressionistic style. I have lately painted abstract paintings, but people look at them and associate them with impressionism. I free color from the domination of line. I feel I can do anything with the emotional impact of color. I like to embody feelings of pleasure and happiness. I do paint on the dark side of things, however, such as my artistic reaction to the invasion of Iraq

Black lines descend from the top of a canvas passing through fields of blue, brown and yellow

…and my Self-Portrait of the Artist as Nietzsche on my website (here). I started painting wanting to be an impressionist painter. My first painting, First, painted in a class on impressionism is on my website. My most recent work is not on my website. It may have some proximity to Courbet, using only the knife, and the later Monet, moved by water lilies. Richter most directly influenced me a few months ago. I saw a movie of him working with a large metal squeegee. Lacking such an instrument, I began to drag paint over paint on the canvas with a butterknife. Here are some of them.

Abstract painting dominated by shades of yellow and blue with highlights of red
Background of yellow, descending into green then blue. Dollops of brown, red and green overlaid on top.
Abstract painting dominated by shades of white and blue

The subjects of your paintings are art-historically speaking rather traditional (flowers, landscapes, buildings, reclining nudes, self-portraits). Why is that? Do you find yourself in general motivated or excited less by what a painting depicts and more by its manner of depiction?

KL: My most recent paintings, as you can see, are mostly abstract. It is, nonetheless, world making in art that thrills me. Most the time my paintings are happy because I am. But when I am miserable, I remember to paint that. I paint a world of thought and emotion coloring a surface. What matters, whether the paintings depict something figurative or abstract, is that there are some new thoughts or feelings in the painting. They can be in a person, in flowers, in a building or in nothing, a black square. Look at the artwork and see what you feel and think. That will tell you what the artwork is about. Do not conclude from this that you need to know something about the artist, about what the artist feels or thinks. The thoughts and feelings as well as the value of the artwork are in the artwork. In what it is like as you experience it. Either you find them in the work or the work fails to contain them — no matter the intentions of the artist!   They are there in the focus of aesthetic attention on what the work is like. I will say more. But the crucial thought here is that the artwork is a mentalized physical object. So are you. Therein lies the solution to the mind-body problem. This is a wordbite. The argument is in my book Art, Self and Knowledge (Oxford 2012).

Do you think there are any philosophical lessons to be drawn from your experiences on the artworld side of things (e.g., with gallery exhibition, curation, representation, art critics, audiences, collectors)?

KL: This is a question that makes me uncomfortable. A great deal of curation and art criticism is historical, art-historical fables, that sometimes distract the viewer from the thought and feeling in the painting. But some art critics, curators and art historians and even philosophers, pace Danto, can use their knowledge to take you into the painting, into the thought and feeling there, into what it is like in itself, and enable you to experience what you could miss. Their brilliance is the magic of the mind of a person entering into the mentality of an artwork. Arnold Isenberg had it right when he said the meaning of critical discourse about the artwork has to be filled in by the experience of artwork. The discourse hangs on the limpid eared viewer searching for meaning.   Some art critics are very talented at doing that. Arthur Danto, a dear friend of mine, we simmered up together in a excited cauldron of analytic philosophy, remarked lucidly about a huge Twombly painting Untitled in the lobby of MOMA that I did not understand, “It is our revenge.”  It looks it like a grey blackboard with scribbles.  They became my scribbling on the blackboard as a child when told to write perfect letters. I now love the painting. I remark, when showing my students Rauschenberg’s Bed, that they can think of it, art historically, as a critique of abstract expressionism — it so messy! But it is a messy bed, a place where the messy things in life take place. I do not tell my students this is what Rauschenberg meant. It does not matter. It is what the work is like for me, perhaps for them as well. The experience fills in the meaning of my words, I hope, adding something beyond linguistic meaning. But talk, though sometimes helpful, can distract the viewers from the aesthetic experience of what the work is like. Most docents have the wisdom to allow viewers at least some silence in front of Rothko to experience the emotion of it. 

One of the principal issues at the intersection of Aesthetics and Epistemology is the question of Aesthetic Testimony: i.e., what we can learn, if anything, about the aesthetic character of an artwork—or any other object of aesthetic appreciation—on the basis of testimony alone. Where might you fall on this issue and to what extent, if any, might this be influenced by your experiences with painting?

This leads to the question of how much you can learn from testimony about the work. I will be candid, you can learn a good deal from testimony, if that is just a fancy way of referring to what another tells you. Testimony may enable you to notice things about the work. But knowledge of what the work is like is incomplete until you experience the work of art.  Why?  Because what the work is like, how it looks to you, the phenomenology of it, is part of the cognitive and affective meaning of the work of art. Someone calls your attention to some features of a work and some unknown thought or feeling creeps or thunders in. The experience of what it is like conveys meaning while at the same time is reflexively part of the meaning conveyed.  The meaning is the thought and feeling of the painting. It is the aesthetic mode of meaning.  There is something about what the work is like that cannot be conveyed by words. This obvious.  There is something about what red is like that is not conveyed by the word “red” or any other words, something left out for the congenitally blind.  Vautier showed us this in his painting of the word “red” in red in the message, “Red is a word.”  The color exhibits the meaning of the word as an exemplar of what is meant. What the experience of what a painting is like, including what it expresses, is an exemplar of what the painting means.  It shows you what cannot be said, what the meaning of the work is like. Again the details are in, Art, Self and Knowledge, with the comparison to Goodman and Hume. Art takes you beyond discourse to consciousness. Conscious experience becomes a reflexive exemplar of meaning and reference in the aesthetic experience. Feminist performance art raises consciousness, Orlan for example, as my friend Peg Brand taught me.  Art changes consciousness using it to change the meaning of experience. Orlan illustrates the theory of exemplar meaning creating conscious exemplars that carry and change meaning as they reflect back on you and themselves. Feminist art shows you what art does.

Suppose your painting MetaMe (a self-portrait) is attacked by a rabid Anti-Coherentist, who uses spray paint to scrawl “Infinitism 4 Life” across its (your) face. Further suppose that removing the spray paint will also remove the underlying oil paint as well. Assuming nothing is done, has the Infinitivist vandal succeeded in destroying MetaMe or does MetaMe yet remain, only defaced (no pun intended)? If so, can MetaMe further survive the removal of the vandal’s slogan (assuming the underlying paint replaced in such a way that the result looks all things considered indistinguishable from MetaMe pre-attack)? 

I find no puzzle in this, or at least I have an answer. I find the nature and value of a work of art in the experience of what the sensory surface is like, in the phenomenology of the surface. Art is a relation between mind and matter. If MetaMe is defaced as you describe, then the experience, the phenomenology of the surface would be changed because of the way the surface was changed.  It might become another work of art, conceptual art. If you restore the painting, that is, remove the words and replace the underlying paint, the surface is changed, even though the phenomenology may in principal be indistinguishable. So you may have a replica of MetaMe that is indistinguishable from the original, but it is not the original. There is, I think, more than materialistic metaphysics in this, for as Goodman maintained, originals and the restored canvasses are probably not, in fact, indistinguishable for the sensitive viewer. For some the phenomenology will differ. That is an empirical issue. Of course, the restored canvass may be more rewarding to view than the original, and, indeed, may be more like the original was when first painted than the original was later when defaced. Celebrate the fact that restored art is not the same as the originals. Paintings change. We change. Value changes. Remember the dead river.

You did not ask me what else I would like to tell you about the connection between philosophy and art. So I will tell you. The esthetic attention to what a work of art is like converts experience into meaning, into an exemplar of meaning. There we find the solution to the mind-body problem, the problem of external world, the problem of freedom and determinism and the problem of self and others. Danto says that he philosophizes art. He succeeds because art philosophizes. It shows us what Wittgenstein said could not be described but only shown, namely, what the relation of representation, the connection between a sign and what it means, is like. My current work connects the movement of dance with the meaning of visual art and philosophy. The basic idea is derived from Thomas Reid who said that the child had an innate ability to interpret the meaning, both cognitive and affective, of signs that are expressions of the face, modulations of the voice and gestures of the body. He said that art brings us back to an understanding of these. The dancer Karen Ivy undertook the experiment with me of seeing whether students could use gestures of the body, improv dance, to interpret works of art. They could. Here is my collage of that.

Photographs of people dancing inserted into a cloud of grey paint.

Then she used dance to interpret works of philosophy. My lectures. The dancer Pamela Vail joined the experiment. Sometimes they dance together while I lecture. They will at the Graduate Center at CUNY on October 16. The meaning of movement and the experience of it add something to the meaning of art and philosophy beyond discourse. As the choreographer Tudor remarked — the movement is the meaning. The experiment is ongoing, or perhaps, it has become a combined work of art and philosophy, artosophy, to coin a word.


  1. I very much enjoyed this interview.

    so the river flows without cease unless it dries and die. Not many choices for the artist.

  2. You said that “What matters, whether the paintings depict something figurative or abstract, is that there are some new thoughts or feelings in the painting. They can be in a person, in flowers, in a building or in nothing, a black square.”

    It means that thoughts or feelings can be expressed in nothing, like a black square.
    Is it possible to explain somehow how is this possible? For me, it is difficult to understand. It is certainly no longer about colors or lines or emotions that you identify on a face, neither forms. Just a black square.

    I am interested to know what do you see in Malevich's painting “Black Square”.
    I personally do not see anything. It does not resonate with me in any way so any further information can not harm me.
    I also understand that besides being able to see something rather than nothing in a painting, different people can see different things in a paintings let alone what the painter actually intended to depict.
    So, from this point of view, it would be interesting to understand how do you see this painting.

  3. Dear Dr. Lehrer: I am not sure whether you will respond directly to questions, but I thought I'd give it a shot anyway. I was wondering what you make of the paintings by Apelles, the famous Greek painter without any surviving artworks. We do not have any direct experience with his artwork. Doubts and controversy surround the possible copies of his work (are they copies at all, and how reliably do they copy). In sum, we don't have direct experience of his work. But we know a great deal about his techniques, for instance, using several layers of paint to create depth, from written sources. Would you say that we know that Apelles used delicate layers of paint to create depth. Or do we need direct perceptual access to his works for that?

  4. All the choices of navigation remain. KL

  5. See pages 139-141 in my book for detail. The Black Square is intended to take you into emotions and feelings of the supreme by blocking ordinary configurations. KL

  6. We do not know what experience of his art would be like. We know something about how he painted. So what is the question that remains? We can imagine what his works might be like, but we do not know what experience of the paintings is like. There is something about what the painting is like that we do not know. See Chapter One of my book. Keith Lehrer

  7. I think art is useless. I do not believe the artist is free or that art solves anything. I think art has a lot to do with pain. People wonder and that is what they understand. It is what it is because there was no other way.
    And beauty can be misleading. It would not be a proper beauty if it would not have the ability to be misleading, right? Why would I want this?
    The artist wants to create to be free, but that is an illusion.

    I do see artists that find joy in creating art. I see people who do not create art and actually don't do anything on this planet and find joy. It is what it is.

    You see in paintings everything, meaning all sorts of nonsense. I saw a painting with a woman that looked like she had blood on her face, on the floor. The look was of an artistic look, on her face. A fixed look, somehow dreamy, a look that you see in a lot of photographs or paintings today. An empty look, really hard to be read.
    I do not believe everything that is out there in art is good.
    But I would rather say that it is good that everybody has the chance to say whatever they want. Now really, how much harm can you do with art? Express yourself.

    what is the point of creating art?
    it is useless. many people can't even see what an artworks really mean, let alone being motivated to do one thing or another.
    something hapenned and art emerged at some point in time. was it good though?
    and now we are like machines, looking for meaning, beauty, etc because there is no other way. It is what it is.

    I am not against artists. I am much more against people who do not do any god damn thing on this planet other than messing around. I used to envy these people. Because they are damn happy.
    But the artist is powerless, there is no doubt about this.
    You go from point A to point B, back and forth and keep doing this. Like you go to a job.
    what is striking is that even evil looks like a fairy tale in art. We might have just got it wrong about it. what a beautiful painting. it is there to make us understand something, there is a moral at the end. like meaningless, no consciousness people give a damn about such things.
    but when we write or create art, we speak about all people. how they are all, naturally.
    no way this is the reality. give them food and money.
    but you have to make people still look at the artwork, I assume.

    some artists create for the eternity sake. this is another way.
    I will be gone though. I do understand that it is rather good to do something meaningful rather than not meaningful, something moral than imoral, have a purpose, explore your talent, just proper things, in general.
    I understand this.
    and oh, I also have a duty for other people. Just because I have a consciousness, I can't just do anything, I have already missed that boat.
    and there will always be art to express all of our paints. Just register everything there, see what happens.

  8. My reply, contained in Art, Self and Knowledge (Oxford). The short answer is that to be art an object must configure or reconfigure experience in way that has a special kind of value. The value is itself something experienced. There is a lot objects created to be art that fail to be art. If you find no value in intended art objects, blame the work not art. Keith Lehrer

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