Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

“Aestheticians and Museums” by Shen-yi Liao


Shen-yi Liao is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Nanyang Technological University and Marie Curie International Incoming Fellow at University of Leeds. Right now, he is working with Aaron Meskin on experimental philosophical aesthetics. He has written about imagination, moral persuasion, and centered worlds.

Aestheticians and museums do not cross paths as often as you might expect.

Sure, there have been some notable interactions. Richard Wollheim‘s Painting as an Art (1987) resulted from his invited lectures at the National Gallery of Art. (Though I am not aware of anything as high-profile since.) Recently, some aestheticians have done an impressive job integrating their research with events at museums. Nola Semczyszyn curated an exhibit on nature, aesthetics, and technology. Christy Mag Uidhir and Cynthia Freeland hosted a conference on printmaking and aesthetics in association with The Museum of Print History. Hans Maes organized a colloquium on the ethics and aesthetics of erotic art in conjunction with the Shunga exhibit at The British Museum. Nevertheless, compared to art historians, interactions with museums seem to be rarities for philosophical aestheticians.

I wonder why this is.

As I see it, there exist quite a few common interests between aestheticians and curators. Both are interested in the psychology of audience participation. Both want to understand — though perhaps for different ends — how people perceive, how people imagine, how people emotionally react, and how people learn. Both are also interested in the relationship between the artworld and the arts, and their relationships with societal issues such as race, gender, and class. Finally, both are interested in answering — albeit in different ways — fundamental questions about the nature of art and aesthetic value.

Indeed, as the domain of philosophical aesthetics extends beyond the fine arts, there seem to be more opportunities for aestheticians to interact with museums beyond the fine arts ones. Philosophers who scoff at the beautiful might find The Museum of Bad Art or The Trash Museum to be ideal companions. Philosophers who write about photography and film — both of which are now established subjects in aesthetics — might find their match in media museums. Philosophers who work on the intersection between aesthetics, perception, and technology might find the collections in science museums complementary to their own research. Finally, elsewhere I have speculated about the possibility of harnessing the data that museums are making openly accessible to find philosophically-interesting patterns.

Still, none of these possibilities are realized yet, as far as I know. So I am still wondering.
  • Are there other examples of fruitful interactions between aestheticians and museums?
  • Why have philosophical aestheticians been relatively absent from museums?
  • What can philosophers offer curators and other museum professionals, if any?
  • What can working with museums do for philosophical progress, if any?


  1. From the bio page on Philosophy Bites: Nigel Warburton “regularly leads courses on the philosophy of art at Tate Modern”.

  2. Continuing from previous post
    I take it as part of some kind of association with Tate Modern, Nigel Warburton has also helped organize conferences there, including this one that I participated in during 2010. (This is from the announcement I received about the conference in 2009.) Attendance was very good, probably around 200 people. Note this is an association bringing together museum-goers, philosophical aestheticians, working artists, and art historians.

    Agency and Automatism: Photography as Art since the Sixties

    Diarmuid Costello, Dept of Philosophy, University of Warwick
    Margaret Iversen, Dept of Art History & Theory, University of Essex

    This is the concluding conference of a three year interdisciplinary AHRC-funded research project titled ‘Aesthetics after Photography’. The project is co-directed by Prof. Margaret Iversen (Dept of Art History and Theory, University of Essex) and Dr. Diarmuid Costello (Dept of Philosophy, University of Warwick). Taking as a point of departure the notable transformation in artists’ use of photography from 1960s to the present, the project considers its implications for aesthetic theory. The art historical side of the project tracks photography’s transformation from anti-aesthetic, post-conceptual document to large scale pictorial art. The philosophical side investigates what distinguishes photography as a mode of depiction and an artistic medium, particularly in light of recent artists’ use of digital technology. The reason for bringing these disciplines together was not only to extend our understanding of one of the dominant mediums of contemporary art, but to explore new models of art writing that draw equally on art history, theory, aesthetics, philosophical reflection and criticism.

    This conference aims to bring the two spheres of art history and philosophical aesthetics into dialogue at the point of their intersection around questions of agency and automatism in the photographic process. Such questions can be understood, art historically, in terms of the recent history of artists’ interest in the medium, particularly those conceptual and post-conceptual artists who value photography in so far as it might be thought to bracket artistic agency and authorial control. This is manifest in the preference for unpretentious snapshot effects, documentary value, and deadpan anti- or a-aesthetic qualities of conceptual and post-conceptual practices, as well as in uses of photography for the appropriation and recycling of existing imagery.

  3. As I recall, professor Andrew Benjamin (Monash) gave a talk on Monet at a recent exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, that could count as an example of a fruitful interaction between aestheticians and museums?

  4. I did not know that. That aestheticians do not visit museums as we might think.

    Jesse Prinz is a philosopher, he writes about artworks he sees in different museums, or exhibitions that are worth seeing.

  5. Thanks to everyone for the comments. The examples are very helpful!

    I didn't mean that aestheticians don't go to museums. I'm sure most do often! I meant that aestheticians don't collaborate museums very much. This is especially surprising given how many have backgrounds either as critics (e.g. Danto, Nanay, Gilmore), art historians (Eaton), or art school (Prinz?, Costello).

    And, to be a little stricter, I was really thinking about aestheticians doing things *with* museums, rather than *at* museums. I'm very intrigued by the group that Prof. Freeland mentions, especially since this is the first I've heard of it.

    I'm also interested in people thoughts about the influence the other way. Has any of these activities resulted in philosophical progress? How, or why not?

  6. Sorry about this confusion. I realized my mistake after I posted the comment and re-read your thread again but I let it be.

    I initially simply thought that aestheticians do not visit museums and it struck me as crazy.

    Doing a google search, I found this:

    It seems that Jesse Prinz does interact with museums.
    I have no idea about whether or not he went to an art school, but he has a CV on his webpage.
    Clearly, he is a philosopher now.

    But your question regarding philosophical progress is interesting.

  7. Goodman seems to be another notable exception – see

    Perhaps the explanation of why philosophical aestheticians have been relatively absent from museums is the same as the explanation of why (in anglophone countries with many notable exceptions too) philosophers have been relatively absent from public life in general.

  8. The key reason why there is such a large and continuing gap between aesthetics and art museums is that aesthetics (of the Anglo-American variety at least) adopts an essentially atemporal/ahistorical approach to art. Unless they are limited to contemporary art only, art museums, by their very nature, show us art that has endured across the ages, sometimes over thousands of years. Inevitably therefore, they raise questions about the capacity of art to transcend time and the relationship between art and history. The atemporal/ahistorical nature of Anglo-American aesthetics deprives it of the conceptual tools necessary to deal with these questions.

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