Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Reviewed: Ten Famous Aestheticians Interviewed in Oup Volume

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This post appears as part of a collaboration between Oxford University Press and AFB.

This edition of the Artworld Roundtable will focus on Conversations on Art and Aesthetics. The book contains interviews with ten prominent philosophers of art. The interviews are conducted by philosopher Hans Maes, who is Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Art, and Director of the Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Accompanying these interviews are portraits by photographer Steve Pyke.

From the book’s website, where you can also read excerpts and view the portraits:

In Conversations on Art and Aesthetics, Hans Maes discusses … key questions in aesthetics with ten world-leading philosophers of art. The exchanges are direct, open, and sharp, and give a clear account of these thinkers’ core ideas and intellectual development. They also offer new insights into, and a deeper understanding of, contemporary issues in the philosophy of art.

The ten interviewees are Jerrold Levinson, Arthur Danto, Cynthia Freeland, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Jenefer Robinson, Roger Scruton, Gregory Currie, Paul Guyer, Noël Carroll, and Kendall Walton.

Our contributors are:

Angelo Cioffi

I remember one of the first lectures of a module in political philosophy when I was a student. We were meant to read extracts of Anarchy, State and Utopia in preparation for the class. The day of the lecture, before delving into the text, the professor brought up a photograph of the author and declared, “This is Robert Nozick.” Looking at Nozick’s photograph I thought that that must have been the first time I saw the face of an author I was studying, and surely that must have been of the first times I had to study the work of a contemporary philosopher. I cannot properly express what I felt looking at that picture. Because I could then associate someone’s philosophical work to their physical appearance, I felt as if philosophy had come to life. This came with the realization that philosophy wasn’t just something confined to the past, but there were people out there coming up with new views and arguments about fundamental aspects of our lives. All of a sudden, philosophy became more engaging. And although this ‘revealing experience’ did not turn me into a better student, at least it made philosophy fun and relevant to me.

Hans Maes’ book Conversations on Art and Aesthetics gives me the same thrill. It makes me think of philosophy, and philosophy of art in particular, as something engaging and fun. It shows aesthetics as a lively discipline, where debates evolve over time and intersect with cognate disciplines. However, Conversations isn’t just about problems and themes in contemporary philosophy of art, but also about the scholars who work in the field.

The photographic portrait that opens each interview is just one of the tools used to tell us about the philosopher’s persona. With the interview, the philosophers’ work is systematized as Maes highlights the overarching themes that characterize their careers and stresses the elements of continuity in their work, reconstructing an overview of the complete ‘oeuvre’ of each philosopher. In addition, Maes consistently asks two kinds of personal questions to his interviewees. One has to do with their personal history – how they ended up working in aesthetics, or what kind of authors have influenced their work – and the other with personal tastes and preferences. These questions are always related to a philosophical point in the conversation and they show how personal narratives and tastes may have bearing on philosophical thought.

The expert in philosophy of art will surely find this book of interest, but I would suggest it to a novice. Indeed, this is the book that I would give as a present to my younger-self, the one who didn’t even know analytic aesthetics existed, and who thought that Croce was the most contemporary aesthetician. Even if parts of some interviews can be hard to follow, Conversations still works as a great introduction to aesthetics. Maes’ comments on each interview provide helpful guidance, and the informal tone that characterizes most of the interviews allows for clear and straightforward expression of the authors’ standpoints. Also, Conversations is replete with great advice and suggestions about art and philosophy, and the combination of photographs and interviews, with their insights into the philosophers’ personae, can only trigger the curiosity and fascination of the novice, who may discover a lively and engaging community which takes art and beauty as the focus of philosophical reflection.

Irene Martínez Marín

As a current PhD student in Aesthetics, I must confess that there was a strong element of curiosity underlying my reading of the conversations in this book. For us graduate students, these are the figures whose work we have read since our days as undergraduates, so a kind of fan-like approach is virtually inevitable. But, beyond this initial curiosity, this book has been enlightening in many ways: in helping me to clarify my thoughts, to better understand debates I initially found difficult to follow, and to augment a feeling of community and shared endeavor with these leading aestheticians. “What kind of person is an aesthetician?” I was eager to find out in reading Conversations. It is as though knowing that answer would help me figure out what kind of person I should aspire to be. As a woman and a non-Anglophone native speaker, it can be difficult to work out how you might fit in to the community. You can spend a lot of time thinking about your role in the ‘conversation’: if you will be listened to, heard, or seen. Elisa Caldarola has brilliantly described this feeling. This question about ‘being seen’ connects with Steve Pyke’s excellent portraits, which reveal the personalities of these influential aestheticians, but also, on second look, invite unavoidable questions about diversity and the prominence of men as the ‘aesthetic influencers’. This is not a fault of the book or the portraits of course, but images can remind us of these things in a very uncomfortable way.

Though these demographic differences between me and (most of) the discussants might naturally place a distance between me and them, when they discuss the role of art in their life and their philosophical development a sharable common ground is made vivid. Arthur Danto’s memories about his friendship with Cy Twombly and the personal lessons he learnt from Jane Austen are one of my favorite parts of the book. It is also fascinating to learn how Cynthia’s Freeland’s own experience with photography influenced her rejection of the transparency thesis, how Robinson’s early engagement with what F. R. Leavis called “The Great Tradition” is a mark that we can find in most of her work, etc. These are more than ordinary anecdotes; this sharing has to do with something unique that distinguishes Conversations from other more traditional ways of doing contemporary philosophy. It has to do with the reader’s privileged access in Conversations to what it might be labeled ‘intellectual intimacy’. The connection between the reader and the aesthetic personalities present in the book is grounded, primarily, in the way in which all the interviewees, and Hans Maes himself, integrate their philosophical thoughts into their own personal narratives.

In Conversations, the way the philosophical self is revealed to be something that cannot be dissociated from the personal self suggests the potential for more regularly exploring ideas and views in this different, more open manner. And even though as a reader you are not more than an external observer of these well-informed and lively discussions, curiously, this position feels closer to intellectual friendship than to voyeurism. I believe that it is the openness that both sides exhibit in their conversations, blended with an honest effort to understand each other, which explains this feeling of intellectual and personal connectedness. The conversation is not about showing who did and who did not “get it right” (a destructive tone that, sadly, we can still recognize in certain philosophical circles). Instead, Maes’ project is about creating a critical space that allows for the clarification of views and the prevention of misinterpretations, and that is intended to serve the final and praiseworthy aim of learning from each other.

Derek Matravers

I enjoyed reading Hans Maes’ Conversations on Art and Aesthetics. In part, this was because I know most of the conversationalists – some of them well, some of them not so well – and this is closer to time in their company than reading their published work. As they are relatively unguarded, one can pick up on points of agreement and points of disagreement across the chapters. I will go briefly into one that struck me, before saying a little about another noteworthy aspect of the book, the photographs.

The point of disagreement that struck me was about whether or not we can learn from fiction. In her chat with Maes, Jenefer Robinson says this: “…novels certainly aren’t mainly in the business of teaching us general truths. And, as you say, there aren’t any formal ways of assessing whether a novel is providing us with insight or falsehoods… But still, if we are thoughtful, rational creatures, even in everyday life we need to reflect on individuals and their moral dilemmas and novels do give us practice in doing this” (p. 164). Another conversationalist, Greg Currie, is notoriously skeptical about fiction’s capacity to educate us. He questions whether we should blindly accept the view that literature can give us insight into the mind and its workings. Part of his complaint is that the view is untested; it is subject neither to an independent standard of success, nor are we given much idea of what would count as the relevant standard of success. It is true that by these criteria fiction fares badly. The parallel is with empirical psychology which puts forward hypotheses, is able to test those hypotheses, and frequently demonstrates that the (often surprising) empirical evidence shows those hypotheses to be false. In contrast, fiction carries on, blindly asserting stuff, and expecting us to take it on board.

The argument is complex, and could not be sorted out in a few short paragraphs. However, I wonder (in an irenic fashion) whether there is something to be said for both views. To the extent that fiction is competing with empirical psychology, it is going to fare badly. However, what if we interpret “giving us insight into the mind and its workings” more weakly? Something like “How is it that we get ourselves into the position where people do not generally surprise us?” Few of us attain this happy state by reading empirical psychology; rather, we swim through the mess of life, including learning from our parents and interacting with other people. These epistemological methods are rather shoddy, and would suffer in comparison with well-funded work by people with white coats and clipboards. But why interpret the claim that Robinson makes as being that kind of claim? Why not just the claim that fiction, like a lot of other things, more or less pulls its weight in getting us to a position where we more or less co-exist with other people? That does not sort the problem out, but neither does it subject “learning from fiction” enthusiasts to an impossibly high benchmark that they surely have no reason to buy into.

Finally, a word about the photographs. The philosophy profession is lucky to have such a great photographer as Steve Pyke interested in us. The image of some philosophers is indelibly associated with his work. The pictures of the philosophers in this volume exhibit a refreshing variety. However, there is a style that runs through some of Pyke’s photographs (present here in those of Currie, Maes, Scruton, Guyer, and Danto) that do rather dwell on the image we like to have of ourselves; distant souls, whose faces are etched with the outcome of years of tortured thought. Going back to the point with which I started – knowing the conversationalists – what I miss in those photographs (which I also miss in some other of Pyke’s photographs) is the lively wit and humor of some of my colleagues. Being etched in granite militates against laughing.

Jenefer Robinson

I was one of the people interviewed in Hans Maes’ Conversations book, so I thought I would talk about what it was like to work with Hans as an interviewer and Steve Pyke as a photographer.

I’ll start with the photographs. I know I was not the only one who was slightly terrified of the photographs. So much so in my case that I insisted on having the last word on which of the photos on the Robinson contact sheet would be used in the book – and on the cover too as we all discovered when the book came out. When I saw the cover online I was rather pleased: at least one of us, I thought, looked as if a career in aesthetics and philosophy of art could be thoroughly enjoyable. Whereas most of my colleagues look as though they were having Deep Thoughts or contemplating the meaning of life – probably both – I had a broad smile on my face and looked like I was having tremendous fun. Which was quite an achievement on Steve’s part since I was actually pretty terrified the whole time he was taking his shots. However, by chance I had just been reading an amusing little book by the well-known British artist, Grayson Perry, which is really an introduction to the philosophy of art for the general reader. At one point Perry is discussing where the boundaries of art fall and how we can tell what’s within the boundaries and what’s outside. A classic philosophical question of course. So he discusses photography which seems to be problematic. As he says: “We live in an age when photography rains on us like sewage from above. So how do you tell if a photo’s art.” He says that in the 1990s you could tell the art photographs because they were extremely large, they often had a “stagey portentousness,” and no one was smiling. Today, he says, “Well, you could probably still just see if they’re smiling. If they’re smiling, it’s probably not art.” Needless to say, I was crushed. The only person in the book whose photograph is clearly not art. But things are in fact even worse. Steve did not want me to choose that particular image, so if the artist’s intention counts for anything in determining what’s art, that’s a second strike against my photo. I’m not only smiling; I’m smiling against the photographer’s will. But that’s not Steve’s fault of course. It’s mine. So I guess I blew it as far as art is concerned. On the other hand I still like the fact that I look I’m having a better time than everybody else.

I have to admit that I could never imagine who was going to read this book. Steve Pyke’s Philosophers book included some of the most distinguished living philosophers in all areas of philosophy. Not that there aren’t distinguished figures in this book, but aesthetics, as we all know, is widely considered a backwater, and if this book was only going to be read by other philosophers of art, this didn’t sound much like a viable commercial proposition. But the book is actually very pleasant to read, and I think it would work well as an introduction to the philosophy of art for undergrads or even the general public. It might be fun for students to see that philosophers are actual people, and that doing philosophy is basically having good conversations, not just memorizing what a bunch of long-dead old guys have had to say about the deep questions in life. That the book succeeds in this way is a tribute to Hans, I think, and the way he handled the conversations. The book is chatty, as you’d expect from a book that consists of chats. Hans, I thought, was a good interviewer. He was impeccably prepared, as you can tell if you read the book. He seemed to have mastered the central themes in everyone’s work even when he was dealing with someone like Roger Scruton who has written vast numbers of books on vast numbers of topics. Hans had rather a nice idea about how to deal with that: he focused arbitrarily on p. 99 of all the books of Scruton’s that he wanted to cover. It worked pretty well.

Hans always starts out with general remarks about the interviewee and his or her main achievements. Then he usually asks some key question that gets the interviewee slightly on the defensive. But in my own case (and, I think, the others), the conversation was very amiable. In fact, for me it might have been a bit too amiable: I would carry on blithely on some topic I’m interested in, having a nice time, and then Hans would say “But Greg Currie has shown that what you just said is totally false.” (But he’d say it in a much nicer way.) Then I would mumble a bit and we’d move on to another topic where perhaps something similar would happen. Hans taped the conversations and then painstakingly recreated them in print, so later on I’d receive a copy of the conversation, and I’d think Good Grief, what feeble responses. And I’d actually start thinking about what I should have said and luckily, these conversations – at least mine – were subject to second thoughts and revisions. But the interview itself was actually fun and interesting. I don’t think I changed any of my basic views as result of it, but I was forced to think about some of the consequences of my views that I hadn’t paid enough attention to. So it wasn’t just Hans asking a series of predigested questions and each of us just spouting own views in response. There was genuine intellectual back and forth, which was what made it interesting. Hans is very good at grasping the overall view you espouse and then putting his finger on its weak points. And I think as a consequence people’s responses were thoughtful and serious: people expressed their convictions rather than positions held for the sake of argument. I also think that many of the conversations give us a strong sense of the personality of the philosopher being interviewed.

Elisabeth Schellekens

Conversations can be aesthetically significant in at least three ways. First, they can – perhaps like scientific demonstrations or syllogisms – have certain aesthetic qualities. They might be elegant, opaque, clumsy, stylish, dense, well-designed, and even beautiful. We can think of conversations as objects of aesthetic appreciation, and we might even say that at least sometimes, a conversation’s aesthetic value can be connected to the epistemic progress we make through it. Second, conversation can be not just a craft but an art in its own right, one we can learn to develop, perhaps perfect, and make our own in accordance with our other aims and goals – the art of conversation. Third, conversation can be an important part of our process of aesthetic assessment or evaluation.

There are various reasons why we are apt to overlook the idea of conversation being relevant to the forming of aesthetic judgments. One is that we point to the necessity of first-hand personal experience and frequently sketch out a fairly private image of aesthetic experience. In the sentence, “Following the conversation between A and B, A came to experience X as beautiful,” we are apt to be more interested in what approximates here to the fact that A now sees X as beautiful. But what was it A and B said to each other, and how exactly did that contribute to what A came to perceive? What exactly was it, to recall Sibley’s characterization of the role of criticism in the justification of aesthetic judgments, that allowed B to get A “to see the grace or unity of a work, hear the plaintiveness or frenzy in the music, notice the gaudiness of color scheme”? These tendencies are particularly surprising when we consider the role of the conversations we ourselves have and which have led to the forming of our aesthetic sensibilities. There is no disputing taste, as we are often reminded, but that’s never stopped anyone from having a go at it.

Hans Maes’ conversation with Jerry Levinson points to how this idea, and the modern emphasis on taste as solely a subjective phenomenon, beyond disputation or accountability, leads to a shallowing out of aesthetic conversation. If there’s nothing to discuss, there’s nothing, literally, to talk about. In connection with this, one element of Noel Carroll’s work which comes out very nicely here is his call for critical expertise – a reminder to employ strategies to undermine the aspect of aesthetic experience which favors trivial subjective pleasure responses and, instead, reinforce that which calls for those spectators and audiences of music, dance, film, visual art, literature etc. to bridge the gap between their own experience and the kind of experience the artworks themselves merit and demand. This also draws our attention to how the context of art is not just historical in the sense that the appreciation of art and the maintenance of aesthetic cultures has an archaeological aspect, namely that of digging around for the relevant and significant features of that history or that of the artwork, but that it is in other ways the history of conversations about art, between artists and critics, audiences, thinkers, and more. As Carolyn Korsmeyer reminds us, we tend to forget the exchanges and theories constructed before our own time, our intellectual history. We tend to think that we’re reinventing the wheel when, in fact, we should be looking at that past and see that what we are really doing is building on what others have done before us.

This excellent book isn’t made up of a series of simple interviews, either in the goal-directed sense of the term, nor in the format. Instead, it consists of what one might call ‘curated conversations’ between a series of philosophers and a distinctive mind eager to tease out and explore both points of contact and contradiction in the work of his interlocutors. I highly recommend reading it. Engaging with the arguments and discussions offered will be rewarding to anyone with an interest not only in art but philosophy in general.

Dawn M. Wilson

If I want to paint a portrait, it is helpful if the subject cooperates willingly, but it isn’t necessary. My paintbrush can apply paint to the canvas regardless. The subject of the portrait may be uncooperative, absent, dead, or entirely fictitious. A photographic portrait does not make these allowances. I can only cause the camera’s photosensitive surface to register light from the body of my intended subject if that body is presented to the camera. In portraiture of this kind the person in front of the camera cannot become the subject of the portrait until the body of that person has served as a paintbrush to apply paint to the canvas. Understandably, when the person in front of the camera is a vital component of the photographer’s medium, successful conversation between portrait artist and subject can make a big difference. The presence of a real, living, cooperative paintbrush is a great asset.

In Conversations on Art and Aesthetics, the philosophical portraits created by Hans Maes share just such a consideration with the accompanying photographic portraits created by Steve Pyke and Claire Anscomb. Maes could have ‘painted’ realistic portraits of ten contemporary philosophers of art and aesthetics by crafting fictional dialogues using his skill and scholarship. Instead he has engaged with his subjects through conversation and they have collaborated directly as paintbrushes in the production of their own portraits. The conversations started with face-to-face encounters, transcribed and followed up with further written exchanges and final editing. Maes created a well-prepared sensitive surface, focused on particular topics, chose an exposure time of months or years, applied judgement to the development process and refined the tonal range of the printed work.

Maes has done far more than document the established philosophical views of his subjects. I have said that his work is a kind of portraiture, but he is not working in a medium where portrait subjects can sit passively or adopt a fixed pose. Conversational dialogue, the true medium of philosophy, is a reflective to-and-fro between interlocutors that at its best is critical, creative, revealing and surprising. If Maes had used fictional dialogues to create his portraits every detail of philosophical interpretation and argument would be under his control. Instead conversational dialogue, just like photography, is inherently open to unanticipated outcomes and capable of challenging preconceptions. These exceptional portraits are inspiring examples of collaboratively created philosophy.

One Comment

  1. Please note that back in 2011, the American Society for Aesthetics approved $5,000 to cover costs of interviewing for this volume.

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