Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Leave a comment


Philosopher: Maria Brincker, University of Massachusetts-Boston

Artwork: William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012, 30-minute multimedia installation; Kentridge worked with science historian Peter Galison researching the piece, and collaborators Philip Galison, who composed the score and designed its soundscape, and Catherine Meyburgh, who edited the video.

Words: This installation is a multidimensional reminder of our temporality, yet struggle for permanence. Our being in time as changing organisms, yet agents of lasting effects. Our created contexts of artifacts and cultural domination take center stage – as intricate tools of attempted control and record keeping. Metronomes and breathing sounds make our visceral rhythms loudly present while the power structures of technology and racist colonialism envelop us through a chorus of video clips, shadows, and sketches. “The refusal of time” speaks simultaneously to and about the funk and the intellect, and left me with a gasp and an enduring memory.


Leave a comment


Philosopher: Joshua M. Hall, CUNY, Queenesborough

Artwork: Mark Strand, “Keeping Things Whole,” 1964, poem


Words: This is one of the first poems that taught me that a poem can have the compressed power of an entire philosophical treatise—and that dedicating one’s life to poetry and to philosophy could thus be a single dedication.  The speaker’s main point here suggests Beauvoir’s claim, in The Ethics of Ambiguity, that to be free and to let the rest of the world shine are the same movement.  If absence can beautify, and everyday movement can save, then there will always be much left for us to hope, and much to love in the generous wake of Strand’s absence.

Leave a comment


Philosopher: Stefanie Rocknak (philosopher and sculptor), Hartwick College

Artwork: Toter Christus (Dead Christ)Zacharias Hegewald, 1630, 26.9 cm x 10.5 cm, wood carving/statuette


Words: Although I’m not religious, this piece took my breath away. It is rather small, just 26 centimeters long—if you could break into the case and pick it up, it could be cradled with one hand. Preciously carved, and, as evidenced by the darker spots on the wood, preciously touched for hundreds of years. The artist, Zacharias Hegewald, threw himself into this figure; he left nothing on the field.

1 Comment


Philosopher: Timothy Yenter, University of Mississippi

Artwork: Sense and Sensibility, written by Jane Austen, read by Juliet Levenson, unabridged audio recording, 11 CDs, 12h 43m, copyright 2005


Words: Jane Austen’s family loved reading aloud. Austen debuted new work this way, usually to her family’s acclaim, so she was troubled by her mother’s poor reading of Pride and Prejudice. Reading aloud is even praised by Fanny in Mansfield Park, who seriously objects to acting.

But what is the relationship between a novel and its public reading? Can a recording of Juliet Stevenson’s excellent reading of Austen’s novels be an artwork? Is it a performance, interpretation, translation, artwork, or all four? Does Austen’s expectation that her novels would sometimes be read aloud matter?

Leave a comment


Philosopher: Chuck Goldhaber, University of Pittsburgh

Artwork: Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture) /  Gerhard Richter / 1999 [Catalogue Raisonné: 858-4] / Painting, Oil on Alu Dibond / 50 cm x 72 cm


Words: Not all art must be architecture.  Some works need no floorplans, no precalculations.  Richter’s abstracts attract me through their randomness and ease.  They are made by running a huge squeegee over paint pooled on a panel in bands of contrasting color.  The squeegee drags the bands, sometimes covering one with another, sometimes smearing several together, sometimes scraping some away to reveal forgotten colors of a base coating.  This process is, at best, hardly controllable; Richter is, at most, a collaborator.  Nature—the secret laws of the mediums—does most of the work.  Richter’s main contribution is to judge when nature has succeeded

Leave a comment


Philosopher: Erich Hatala Matthes, Wellesley

Artwork: Radio-active substances, Susan Kae Grant, 1995 (5″ x 6″ x 2″, Lead Box, Phaser printing on lead, Polaroid Emulsion Transfers)


Words: Radio-active substances is an “artists’ book,” a genre-defying artwork that challenges our preconceptions about both books and art. It explores the life and work of Marie Curie, pairing archival images with excerpts from her research. The test tubes contain graphite scrolls with passages from the biography written by her daughter. The materials are contained in a lead box, the very substance that would have saved Curie from the radiation poisoning that took her life. The contents feel dangerous, conjuring images of broken glass and metal paper cuts. It fills me with horror.

Leave a comment



Words I

Philosopher: Hannah Ginsborg, UC Berkeley

Artwork: Words I, Kit Warren*, 2013 (Acrylic on paper, 50″ x 50″)


Words I, detail

Words: “Each sign by itself seems dead.  What gives it life?” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §432).  The shimmering, undulating surface of this painting is made up of words – 18,000 of them – some arrived at by the artist’s free association, others collected from friends, relatives and studio visitors.  They are painted without spaces between them so that their meanings disappear in a mass of letters. From a distance even the letters disappear, leaving only subtle rhythms of colour and the glint of light reflecting from the complex pattern of metallic brushstrokes.  These signs have lost one kind of life and taken on another.

*Warren is Ginsborg’s sister-in-law

Leave a comment


Philosopher: Sheryl Tuttle Ross, University of Wisconsin—La Crosse

Artwork: “The Problem We All Live With”, Norman Rockwell, 1964 (Painting, Oil on Canvas, 91 cm x 150 cm, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts)


Words: On November 14, 1960, Ruby Bridges, six years old, bravely walked to school, surrounded by four U.S. Marshalls who were protecting her in the face of outright hatred because of the color of her skin and her role in desegregating public schools. We are still dealing with the repercussions of America’s original sin: slavery. Still struggling to fully realize that Black Lives Matter. Perhaps, to serve as a reminder of the power of self-respect in response to racism, President Obama placed this painting in the Oval Office—indeed, useful as positive propaganda while we bend history’s arc toward justice.

[Ed. note: Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white public elementary in the South turned 62 yesterday, September 8.]

Leave a comment

100 Philosophers 100 Artworks 100 Words #51

Philosopher: Ben Blumson, National University of Singapore

Artwork: Self-Portrait with Lens Cap On, Johnny Manahan, 1972

Words: Johnny Manahan’s photographs are monochrome squares in the tradition of Malevich or Rauschenberg but in the medium of photography.

There are many examples of the informational content of photographs outstripping their intentional content – an accidentally taken photograph, for example, conveys information about a scene without having been intended to depict that scene. But Manahan’s self-portraits are illustrations of the reverse, since they are intended to depict Manahan, but – since the photographs would have been the same, even if his appearance had been different – they carry no information about his appearance.

Leave a comment

100 Philosophers 100 Artworks 100 Words #50

Philosopher: Derek Bowman, Providence College

Artwork: Planescape: Tormentrole-playing video game by Black Isle Studios, 1999.

Words: “What can change the nature of a man?” – This is the central question of Planescape: Torment

Like movies or novels, narrative driven video games encourage the player to identify with the perspective and experiences of the protagonist. But here the agency of the player and the protagonist are intertwined. In Torment the player and the Nameless One simultaneously act to uncover the secrets of that character’s past, and the desire to advance the game leads the player to enact the protagonist’s quest for redemption.

“What can change the nature of a man?” Perhaps the self-reflection occasioned by good narrative art.