Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Conversations in Art and Aesthetics


Photograph of Hans Maes at a podium

What follows is a guest post by Hans Maes. Hans is Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Art and co-director of the Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Kent. He has authored papers on a variety of topics in aesthetics, including the role of intention in the interpretation of art, the notion of free beauty, and the relation between art and pornography. The latter is the subject of two essay collections: Art and Pornography(co-edited with Jerrold Levinson, Oxford University Press, 2012) and Pornographic Art and The Aesthetics of Pornography (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

I’m currently working on a book with the title “Conversations on Art and Aesthetics” set to appear with OUP in 2015*. The book is modeled after Alex Voorhoeve’s Conversations on Ethics and will contain interviews with a number of prominent aestheticians. 

Below is an excerpt from my 2011 interview with Jerrold Levinson. I thought it would be fun to include it here, given the name of this blog…

HANS MAES: While the majority of philosophers nowadays defend some form of intentionalism, it’s intriguing to see how within the art world intentionalism is still a minority view. Most artists or art theorists profess to be anti‑intentionalists, often quite proudly and defiantly. Why do you think that is?

JERROLD LEVINSON: Well, because intentionalism of the strong kind really does make the artist’s actual intentions the ultimate arbiter as regards the validity of an interpretation. On that view it is the actual intentions of the artist that determine, grosso modo, or at least strongly restrict, what an artwork can be taken to mean. Artists don’t like this because it’s too limiting. They want their works to mean whatever they can reasonably and rewardingly mean to an informed public. They want them to be as meaningful as possible. So I think that’s why there’s that resistance against intentionalism. But I don’t know how widespread that resistance really is, because some artists don’t have just the desire to appeal as broadly as possible and to not constrain audience’s responsibly exercised imaginations, they also have the communicative desire, which pulls in the other direction, making them want the audience to actually understand what they are trying to say. So I think a lot of artists are certainly conflicted on this. They often have both these impulses, and it depends on which of them prevails whether they’ll be receptive to strong intentionalism or not.

HANS MAES: Do you think that philosophy could be useful here in dispelling this confusion?

JERROLD LEVINSON: I do think that my middle-of-the-road position, hypothetical intentionalism, could mediate a bit and could reduce the tension between those impulses. On the one hand, you’re not restricting people’s understanding to what the artist actually thought of or envisaged when engaged in making the work. So, the work might be other, and sometimes better, than what the artist conceived it to be. On the other hand, the work, as a vehicle of communication or at least expression, cannot be wholly detached from the artist as a meaning maker. The audience is going to have to take account of what the artist might reasonably have meant. If artists were to seriously engage with this philosophical debate, I think they would embrace something like this intermediate position. (Pauses.) But perhaps I’m being optimistic here.

HANS MAES: On a more general level, do you think that aesthetics and the philosophy of art can be useful for art practitioners?

JERROLD LEVINSON: I think it would be useful for art critics to have a better sense of, and a broader framework for, the concepts that they are necessarily deploying, like value, expression, representation, gesture and so on. As for artists? I actually think that what Barnett Newman notoriously said is right. You know, that aesthetics is for artists as ornithology is for the birds? By the way, there’s a duality in this quip that people not well versed in English often don’t grasp. Are you familiar with that expression “for the birds”?

HANS MAES: Ah. I can see the pun now that you point it out. But was the pun intended, you think? I’m asking because I first came across that quote in a slightly different version: ‘aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to the birds’.

JERROLD LEVINSON: If that’s how he formulated it, then the double meaning I’ve always heard in it would be excluded. But it seems to me likely that he said or wrote ‘for the birds’, at least on some occasion. It’s a good question, though. I have always assumed the pun was intended. Barnett Newman was a New Yorker, wasn’t he? If so, he would have been no stranger to that expression. (Pauses.) But even if the double meaning wasn’t intended, I would still say that that’s the way it should be read! [**See Note Below** ]

HANS MAES: And you basically agree with the thought that aesthetics is not of any use to artists?

JERROLD LEVINSON: That’s putting it a bit too strongly. What I think is that aesthetics is primarily for people who want to theorize about the arts. So, it’s mainly useful for philosophers, or more generally, people who are interested in philosophical questions. But that isn’t to say that aesthetics is off-limits for artists. For some artists aspire to theorize about art as well as make it, and some modes of art-making are inherently more theoretical than others, and some, such as conceptual art, are perhaps even essentially theoretical. In which case aesthetics will be of the directest relevance. 

Still, it can be dangerous for artists to delve too deeply into philosophical aesthetics, since it might conceivably hamper their creativity. There’s some evidence that successful artists benefit from having something more like artistic “tunnel vision”, allowing them to think that their way is the only “right” way to paint or write or compose music. For them to do aesthetics, and to inevitably come to adopt a more objective, analytical, and evenhanded view of the whole domain of art, could be to the detriment to their passion in artmaking, might compromise their commitment to their distinctive way of making art.

On the other hand, as Socrates famously remarked, the unexamined life may not be worth living, and perhaps that goes for the artistic life as well.

[*As of 2017 this book has been released as Conversation in Art and Aesthetics.]

[**Melissa Ho has traced the origin of Barnett Newman’s witty attack on aesthetics: ‘In August [1952] Newman participates as a speaker in the annual Woodstock Art Conference in Woodstock, New York. In a session with the philosopher Susanne Langer, Newman attacks professional aestheticians, saying I feel that even if aesthetics is established as a science, it doesn’t affect me as an artist. I’ve done quite a bit of work in ornithology; I have never met an ornithologist who ever thought that ornithology was for the birds. He would later hone this remark into the famous quip, Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.’ (Ho, Melissa, “Chronology”, in Temkin, Ann ed. (2002) Barnett Newman, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, in association with Tate Publishing, pp. 325-6).**]

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