Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



The following is a guest post by Charles Peterson (Oberlin College).
This is one of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the first, by A.W. Eaton, and the second, by Paul C. Taylor. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.


The age of 75 can signify multiple indicators. At 75 years old, an ant would be ancient. At 75 years old a mountain would be considered infantile in its span and at 75 years old a human being, has lived to a ripe and healthy age. For an academic organization, 75 years is a perfect time to celebrate its longevity and take stock of its future. The American Society for Aesthetics is at this point in regards to the inclusion of diverse scholars and discourses in its proceedings.  The ASA stands at the threshold where its present efforts to open up, encourage and support the presence of women and members from previously underrepresented backgrounds can either move forward, grow and expand or retreat  into exclusivity and marginality.

As has been mentioned by Anne Eaton and Paul Taylor, the steps taken by the ASA at the organizational level, to increase and encourage diversity must be commended. I will not reiterate the efforts described by Eaton and Taylor but will focus on the need for the self-awareness necessary for these efforts to reap real reward.  Too often in these efforts there lay a gap between the programmatic endeavors designed to invite and support diverse populations scholars into mainstream institutions and the response of members of these institutions. These programmatic and organizational efforts are aimed to provide support and access to new members. They show an agency on the part of the organization to be clear about its goals regarding diversity. These efforts also are focused on the recipients of the programming but do not attend to the majority population of the organization. The presence of diverse members and perspectives does not reveal its full import if there is not a true relationship between all members on these issues. The failure for the entirety of the organization to undertake this effort, to in good faith, take up the responsibility of opening up the ASA as a space for true inclusion and intellectual expansion. This failure could lead to the exact opposite of the aforementioned efforts, as members from underrepresented groups make the principled choice to not participate in ASA. This choice is one based on the need to preserve ones health, dignity and integrity. To open up the ASA as a space of inclusivity, a real struggle must be waged. This struggle cannot be thrust exclusively on the shoulders of marginalized members and their allies and must be waged by all members of the organization. This is a programmatic struggle, a discursive struggle and it is an internal struggle that necessarily must be waged by the majority members. To paraphrase Claudia Jones, a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival in London, UK, it means that a struggle for inclusion must be boldly fought in every sphere of organizational interactions so that the open door of institutional membership doesn’t become a revolving door because of the failure to conduct this struggle.

This work, this struggle, must be of the most transformative type, wherein old organizational assumptions, behaviours and privileges must be examined and interrogated. At heart what academic organizations provide are community; for scholars of same or differing minds, for scholars that work in similar or contrasting areas, and for scholars that understand or are ignorant of each other’s, literal or metaphoric, languages. Despite these inconsistencies and divergences, these communities must be steeped in respect for all participants and what they contribute.  This respect, the foundation of community, can only be maintained when all members become self critical of the limits of their experience, understanding and knowledge. To function in the full privilege of the unexamined life, thought and action will only maintain walls between members that seal off the ASA from the rich complexity of difference. If these walls remain unbroken, they become the walls of a self -imposed prison.

It has been my belief that philosophy is a living thing, proactive and reactive, active and mindful, at heart an experience that is fully engaged with the world from which it rises and that it informs. Aesthetics among the sub fields of philosophy may be the most reflective of this belief. Art has long been a reflection of social change, a signifier for the world as it is, could, can and will be. The consideration of art, its forms and practices can do no less than open up to the ways of life. The world we live in, the world in which the ASA finds itself, is one where the old hierarchies, orders and practices are going the way of the mad man. The ASA as organization and its majority members must decide in what direction it will go. Will it embrace the realities of inclusion and diversity, wherein its members embrace and understand the importance of scholars that bring new and different ways of seeing, speaking and being and extend to them the respect they deserve? Or will it become like an object of contemplation, hanging on the walls of a long closed museum, decaying in its chosen irrelevance, atrophying in its unacknowledged limits.

This then is the tipping point, at 75 years the ASA and its membership can engage in an intense self reflection and consciously decide what will the organization be going forward, who will be welcomed and embraced in that future and how room can be made for those fellow travelers. The organization can take seriously the work necessary amongst the membership to craft a real and true community, wherein all feel and are truly welcomed. Or not. Conversely the ASA can look askance at those practices, which offend and insult women and persons of color. The ASA can remain silent on various forms of diversity, as Anne Eaton has noted, disability and class.  It can continue to work at the organizational level and not consider the community itself. These are not small questions, and there are no simple solutions but if the ASA is to take the first steps of the next 75 years as an inclusive and supportive body, its growth and expansion depend on its real ability to create and embody the community it hopes to be.

This is one of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the first, by A.W. Eaton, and the second, by Paul C. Taylor. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.

Notes on the Contributor
Charles Peterson is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Oberlin College and writes on film, political theory and fronts a cover band for spiritual nourishment. He is a co-editor of De-Colonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies (Africa World Press, 2003) and author of DuBois, Fanon, Cabral: The Margins of Elite Anti-Colonial Leadership (Lexington Books, 2007).

Image credit: Untitled Arch at Benbrack summit by Andy Goldsworthy, original photo by summonedbyfells via Flickr.



What follows is a guest post by Paul C. Taylor (Penn State).
[Updated:] This is the first of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the first, by A.W. Eaton, and the third, by Charles Peterson. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.

By the time my father turned 75, he was freely exercising the wide-ranging license to offend that family elders often enjoy. He could say or do pretty much anything, and we would chalk it up to him being set in his ways. We would weigh the costs and benefits of contesting his frequently insensitive and sometimes just rude behavior, or of reminding him of all the considerations that militate against talking about women or Jews or whatever like that anymore. And we would usually decide that discretion was the better part of valour, and we would let him alone.

So on he lumbered, cluelessly, sometimes willfully, out of step with evolving social mores. The good news is that he was mostly harmless, having tucked himself away into a quiet retirement where he neither had nor wanted influence or authority over anyone other than himself.

The American Society for Aesthetics (ASA), 75 years old this year, reminds me of my father. It has an at best uneven relationship to shifting social mores, especially as these bear on behaviours that should be as distant and grating to us as the world of Mad Men. And much as my father assumed he could say whatever he wanted and continue to enjoy the respect and love of his children, some members of the ASA seem to think the organization can both live in the 1950s and win the loyalty of people today. Continue reading



The following is a guest post by A.W. Eaton (University of Illinois-Chicago).
[Updated:] This is the first of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the second, by Paul C. Taylor, and the third, by Charles Peterson. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.


The 75th anniversary of the American Society of Aesthetics is an opportunity to reflect upon both our progress regarding inclusion and diversity and also upon the remaining work to be done. I discuss them here in turn. Continue reading

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The following is a post that appeared originally on the philosophy website Daily Nous as part of their “Philosophers On” series. Thanks to Justin Weinberg for permission to repost it here.

The news over the past several months has been full of revelations of sexual harassment and assault by men involved in arts and entertainment and other fields (for lists of recently revealed cases, see here and here). The cases have brought to the public’s attention a variety of questions concerning power, justice, gender relations, privacy, business practices, and the responsibilities of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. When it comes to those involved in the arts, most of us come into contact with them largely as consumers, and so it is no surprise that one of the questions many people are discussing is this: How, if at all, should the moral transgressions of those involved in making art change what we think about, and how we act in regard to, their art? Continue reading

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In the past, AFB has posted a few appropriately themed music videos for the holidays (see, e.g., here and here). But we’ve decided to take it up a notch!

When a holiday rolls around, various regular contributors to AFB will spotlight holiday-appropriate works of art. These are not necessarily works that the particular contributor thinks are the absolute best (although they might be), and they are not necessarily unfamiliar or particularly avant-garde. But hopefully the mini-essays included will introduce you to a new perspective on at least some of these works, or even just remind you of really cool works that fit that into the holiday mood!

In the future we plan on setting these up as a series of week-long mini-posts leading up to the holiday in question, but this Halloween we’re just going to throw a few of them at you all at once. So here goes! Continue reading



What follows is a guest post by Elijah Millgram.

You can be effective but ridiculous, or effective but a very special sort of unbelievable. And that tells us that some of the most basic distinctions in the domain of practical rationality—that is, of the reasons we invoke when we decide what to do—are matters of aesthetic judgment.

Most of us have seen various of Rube Goldberg’s once very popular drawings; here’s one of a “self-operating napkin” that involves a soup ladle, a parrot, a rocket, and a pendulum, among other components.

Self-operating napkin (Rube Goldberg cartoon with caption)

Rube Goldberg, illustration for self-operating napkin machine, Collier’s Magazine (1931)

And if you look around on the web, you’ll find one after another video homage to his work; this tribute, a construction that turns a page of your newspaper for you, deploys lit fuses, billiard balls, a vase, a smashed laptop, and an animal that I’m guessing is a hamster.

Now, it was naturally the comics page on which, a couple of generations back, Goldberg’s drawings of elaborately roundabout ways of performing simple tasks used to appear, because the public of the time found them spit-take funny. They were funny because they were crazy, and the craziness was all in their very visible instrumental irrationality—which is actually a bit of a puzzle. Continue reading

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A philosopher and artist is getting lots of recognition lately, culminating in an upcoming solo show at MoMA. Adrian Piper, who received the Golden Lion from the Venice Biennale in 2015, has enjoyed several shows in the past couple of years, and will now have a major exhibition at MoMA, “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016” (March 31 to July 22, 2018), which will then travel to the Hammer Museum in LA (dates being finalized) before going abroad.

From the MoMA press release:

[T]he exhibition, which will be seen in its entirety only at The Museum of Modern Art, will occupy the Museum’s entire sixth floor—the first time that entire level has been devoted to the work of a living artist.


And the MoMA title isn’t just about her art. She has written about Kant’s notion of intuition. And indeed, this isn’t a case where “philosopher” is just tacked on to add some weight to other titles (like all those “artist, model, poet, DJ, and philosopher”s out there now). Piper is hugely research active in philosophy. To get an idea of her philosophical breadth, see some of her work here. She has published on Kant, aesthetics, rationality, race, and non-Western philosophy. According to Wikipedia, Piper was also the first African-American woman to receive tenure in philosophy in the US.

Her conceptual art is centrally concerned with race – with topics like passing as white, exclusion, otherness – as well as issues like sexism, responsibility, and subjectivity. She examines these issues through performance, drawing, collage, installation, and painting.

And for those of you in NYC or nearby who can’t wait until the MoMA solo show can check out her work at the Levy Gorvy Gallery, up until October 21.

See other announcements: