Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

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What follows is a guest post by Steven Hales (Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania)

My parents are antique dealers, and if there is one thing that I have learned from them, it is that people will collect anything: coins, stamps, Tiffany lamps, Victorian salt shakers, gasoline pumps, barbed wire, automobiles, rocks, fossils, Coca-Cola advertising, airline barf bags. I collect rare books. When I was in philosophy grad school at Brown I met Dan Knowlton, the university’s on-staff hand bookbinder, and wound up taking private bookbinding lessons from him for two years. I’ve been a serious hobbyist binder ever since. So I have first-hand knowledge of the kinds of interventions bookbinders do, and what they hope to achieve as a result. Here are a few thoughts about the types of value that collectors are interested in and how restorers (especially bookbinders) maximize or minimize those values. Continue reading


Why Can’t Painting Just Be Painting

What follows is a guest post by Rebecca Victoria Millsop. Rebecca is a fifth year PhD student at MIT writing her dissertation in the philosophy of art. In the not-so-distant past she worked on issues in philosophy of logic and mathematics and, while she found this incredibly fun, she believes that working on issues in the philosophy of art will make more of an impact on the world. She also lives on a sailboat in Boston Harbor, paints, and volunteers for a non-profit art organization in Boston, HarborArts.

It’s been a while since painting was first proclaimed dead (apparently it was French painter Paul Delaroche in 1835), and ever since then there’s been a lot of ink spilled (and words typed) about whether or not it is dead, is dying, or never died in the first place. The consensus has shifted throughout the years, and, at least recently, the jury seems to be out (okay, the jury, at this time, thinks that painting is dead, but just by a little!):

Regardless of what the critics and headlines say, paintings are still created, put on display in museums and galleries, bought and sold… so there are folks that still care about painting. When asked about the supposed problem of painting, painter Amy Sillman responded “What’s the problem? Painters don’t see any problem!”[1] Painters are still painting and people are still buying paintings, so painting isn’t dead, but a lot of folks certainly think that they need to justify painting regardless of its capacity to breathe. This need-to-justify really caught my attention when I went to visit a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art here in Boston called Expanding the Field of Painting last year. The show consisted of 25 works by contemporary artists who, according to the assistant curator Anna Stothart, “through their varied investigations into the history, present, and future of painting, acknowledge and often exaggerate its contradictions to proclaim that painting still is, and will likely remain, very much alive.”[2]Not dead!screams the show, SO not dead! The idea behind the show, from what I gather, was a demonstration of how contemporary painting is important, relevant, and valuable because it goes beyond painting. I, perturbed by this message, warily went around the gallery rooms and pointed at different works “This is a work of video art,” I said pointing at Alex Hubbard’s 2011 The Border, The Ship,

and then again when pointing at Marylin Minter’s 2009 Green Pink Caviar,

and “This is just plain old sculpture,” I said pointing at Nicole Cherubini’s 2003 Gempot #3 with Fur,

“This is photography,” I said pointing at prints from Pipilotti Rist’s 1998 Remake of the Weekend

… and so on.

The problem with the show stems from the fact that a considerable amount of the work just isn’t painting. The works might be playing with or touching on aesthetic properties that are central to the nature of painting… but that doesn’t make them paintings! If I am getting the right message from the show, the conclusion I draw is that for a painting to have value, it has to be more than just painting.

Shortly after my visit to the ICA, a friend of mine posted an article to facebook written by the oh-so-lovely Jerry Saltz titled “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” The main gist is that the market is saturated with unoriginal canvases that are pleasurable while being devoid of meaning. “Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just ‘new’ or ‘dangerous’-looking enough not to violate anyone’s sense of what “new” or “dangerous” really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences.” Check out the slideshow for some examples.

Although I get his point and the examples given certainly make a viewer think geez I can’t believe people get paid to make these!, the emotions I felt after reading the article were interestingly connected to those I felt at the ICA show. The ICA show implies that everything has been done and in order to be an interesting painting, it has to go beyond what has already been done. The paintings discussed in the Saltz article aren’t original in any way, they are simply pleasurable to their audience. And that’s not okay, says Saltz. In order to have real value, a painting must be new and different from other paintings out there. Hence, the ICA show. But, why can’t these canvases, although similar, have value because they are bringing aesthetic pleasure to the individuals buying and enjoying them? What about the pleasure brought to the artists who paint them, as well as helping them earn a living?

Alright, so before I continue with my rant I should put all my cards on the table. I am a painter, so I have a stake in this whole ordeal and, beyond that, I’m a non-representationalist, abstract painter, so I’m potentially guilty of creating a few of those meaningless zombie paintings…

Despite these important biases, I think that what bothers me comes from a less personal place: the art world has fetishized originality as an aesthetic/artistic value, and, further, this is problematic because other aesthetic and artistic values are placed on the back burner, resulting, often, in obscure work that is less accessible to many viewers. Originality as an important aesthetic value has been discussed and debated in the literature over the years; some rank it among the highest of aesthetic values (Wollheim, for example), while Beardsley claims that “originality has no bearing upon worth: a work might be original and fine, or original and terrible.”[3]

From all the different conclusions drawn on the subject, I find that Sherri Irvin comes to a helpful one in her 2005 paper “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art”: “there is nothing in the nature of art or of the artist’s role that obligates the artist to produce innovative works. The demand for originality is an extrinsic pressure directed at the artist by society, rather than a constraint that is internal to the very concept of art.”[4] To a certain extent, this pressure for originality is understandable; the audience hopes that a work of art will take them to new levels of understanding and, often, this occurs through new experiences caused by things the audience has never seen/heard before. But this begins to become a problem when individuals with incredibly buffed up art history backgrounds complain that works lack meaning because they are similar to works made in the past. A lot of people may not know about those other works, and they may have an incredible experience with that “unoriginal” work that means a lot to them. The demand for originality can force artists to move above and beyond what has been made in the past simply for the sake of moving above and beyond what has been made in the past. This can lead to really brilliant works of art but, often times, it can lead to obscure works of art that require a lot of art historical knowledge to even approach, let alone understand or appreciate. People have been painting for a really long time and there are a bunch of folks that know a lot about its history; these folks are often the ones writing the reviews, critics, and articles that demand painting to justify itself by being something more than painting.

To my surprise, I found that the contemporary painting show that just opened up at MoMA (the first painting-focused show in 30 years!) doesn’t give into the need to justify painting by making it something more than painting. (Granted, I haven’t seen the show in person yet, but I do have the show’s monograph!) The show is titled—yes, it’s a bit silly—The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World and it consists, completely, of objects that are obviously paintings.

Pictured above, descending: Richard Aldrich. Angie Adams/Franz Kline. 2010–11, and Amy Sillman. Untitled (Head). 2014.

The curator, Laura Hoptman, discusses the atemporal artist as one who creates works “of art that refute the possibility of chronological classification, [this] offers a dramatic challenge to the structure that disciplines like art history enforce—the great ladder-like narrative of cultural progress that is so depend upon this idea.”[5] Thus, the atemporal artists in the show are embracing their place as painters in the art historical narrative by giving up on the importance of making something completely original—i.e., a painting that is a video or a photograph, like those shown in the ICA show–that makes them stand apart from that narrative. They are working within it or, perhaps better said, with it. The artists in the show make beautiful, engaging, meaningful works that are obviously based on the work of past artists, and they aren’t making any apologies for this.

Pictured above, descending: Dianna Molzan. Untitled. 2009, & Oscar Murillo. 7+. 2013–14.

Hopman is using the word “atemporal” as it was introduced by William Gibson in 2003 to described “a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once,”[6] and I think it’s worth noting Gibson’s own views on the value of originality in a tweet a while back: “less creative people believe in ‘originality’ and ‘innovation,’ two basically misleading but culturally very powerful concepts.” For all of the heady, jargon-y language that Hoptman uses in the essay accompanying the show, I think there is a simple, important message once can draw from the show—one that is neatly tied to Gibson’s tweet: a work of contemporary art necessarily sits within a vast art historical web, but we don’t need to judge the art against that web by seeing if the work is more or less similar to it, rather we should consider how the artist works with that historical web to make a moving, meaningful, engaging work of art. I love this message because it does challenge the fetishization of originality that plays an important role in the “great, ladder-like narrative of cultural progress” that Hopman discusses in her essay; focusing less on the never done before and more on the aesthetic or experiential value of the work will lead, I believe, to artists focusing more on making solid works, rather than trying to do something that’s never been done before simply for the sake of being original. A painting doesn’t have to actually be a video to be engaging, just as a painting that takes on the qualities of many past paintings can be meaningful and engaging.

These conclusions, I believe, could open the door for more accessible works of art or, perhaps, the acceptability of accessing a work of art without a degree in art history. Those super-original works of art are often those that push the boundaries of what is considered to be art for the sake of being original, and most of the time the only folks that can appreciate these works are those with an extensive art educational background. With the focus on originality many individuals without said educational background don’t even want to try and experience those works. The fetishization of originality has not only lead to painting needing to be more than painting, but also to the disengagement of a broader audience with contemporary works of art. Pushing the boundaries for the sake of originality often results in pushing away a potentially interested and engaged public. In the end, I don’t know if atemporal art is the savior, but I do think that the show at MoMA isn’t trying to justify painting, instead it celebrates the ability of painting as painting to remain impactful and engaging in the contemporary now.

[1] “Painting Beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-Medium Condition.” Participants who cited “the problem of painting” included art historians Benjamin H.D. Buchlqh and the critic Isabelle Grew.


[3] Beardsley, Monroe. Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 460.

[4] Irvin, Sherri. “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art.” British Journal of Aesthetics 45 (2005), 137.

[5] Hoptman, Laura. The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2014. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same title.

[6] Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addition to Its Own Past. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011.

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Animal Abuses in Art

What follows is a guest post by John Rapko. John is a Bay Area-based philosopher of art and art critic. Currently he teaches art history at the College of Marin and ethics and the philosophy of art at the California College of the Arts. He previously taught the philosophy of art and the theory of contemporary art at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the San Francisco Art Institute. He has published academic writing in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, British Journal of Aesthetics, and Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, and art criticism in Artweek and A volume of his lectures on the philosophy of contemporary art, Achievement, Failure, Aspiration: Three Attempts to Understand Contemporary Art was recently published by the Universidad de los Andes Press.

In late March of 2008 the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter McBean Gallery mounted a show of the artist Adel Abdessemed’s work, entitled “Don’t Trust Me.” Within days the show became the object of a storm of protests, the particular target of which were six videos, each just seconds in length, that depicted animals seemingly being bludgeoned to death with single blows of a sledgehammer to the head. The protests, in the form of emails to various administrators and staff at SFAI and of on-line comments, were of such vehemence as to induce SFAI to close the show within a week of its opening, and some two months before its scheduled end.

Or so it is said. Yet little about the work, and nothing of its significance, has been settled through discussion, and not only because of the brevity of the exhibition. The SFAI administration at that time put out numerous claims about the circumstances of the making of the work that were incredible on the face of it, and have since been explicitly contradicted by Abdessemed himself. Nor has anyone ever produced evidence of a single credible threat of violence towards anyone associated with the exhibition. The show seems more a rumor than an actual exhibition, with half a chorus objecting to show on the grounds of the evident depravity of the killing animals for, or perhaps as, art; the other half considers the objectors to be a herd of yahoos, part naifs, part terrorists.

The issues clustering around the use of animals as materials in contemporary art have been raised again in the recent show at SFAI, “Wrong’s What I Do Best.” The show, co-curated by Hesse McGraw and Aaron Spangler, allegedly presents the work of artists who bear some sort of resemblance to the country music ‘outlaws’ whose work is inseparable from their hard-livin’ lives, and yet whose work, in its very waywardness, somehow simultaneously obscures those very artistic lives from which it emerges. One wishes that the works shown were merely as murky as the concept. Aside from a characteristically challenging video from Kara Walker, almost hidden away under the stairs, most of the works are dispiriting, with a new kind of low reached by the ‘paintings’ from Club Paint, whose sole aim seems to be to catch and hold the viewer’s attention precisely so long as it takes to induce a mood of boredom tinged with disgust. The show’s announcement attempts to catch the eye with a photograph of a taxidermied pig, its back marked with a skein of tattoos. It’s a work, if that’s the word, by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who began tattooing live pigs in the 1990’s and who, allegedly in evasion of Belgium’s animal-protection statutes, in 2004 set up an ‘art farm’ of tattooed pigs in China. After being tattooed, the pigs, so Delvoye claims, are allowed to live some of their ‘natural’ lives. At some point, determined by who knows what criteria, the animals are killed, then either taxidermied or skinned; in the latter case, the skins are then stretched and displayed. These works, along with Abdessemed’s films of animals being slaughtered, and yet others of his showing animals confined in a tiny space and set to fight each other, and a recent one showing chickens afire, their legs bound and hanging from a wall, have been grouped together in discussions of the use and abuse of animals in art.

The discussion of such works as Abdessemed’s and Delvoye’s can hardly be said to have advanced much in the past six years, but the general defense of such works characteristically involves one or both of two claims: (1) It is said that the works are ‘about’ something of evident social, political, or cultural importance (‘post-colonialism’ or ‘industrialisation of food’ in the case of “Don’t Trust Me”, ‘Arab Spring’ with regard to the video of the burning chickens). In most cases it is further claimed that the works are ‘critical’ of what is being depicted and/or of the practice of which the action depicted is an aspect; (2) The defenders of these works charge those who object with a lack of self-awareness and self–reflection. If those who object eat animals or animal products, they are said to fail to grasp how these works indict them for their complicity in larger practices of exploiting animals. If the objectors are moral vegans, they are said to lack the acuity to see that and how these works actually expose the very practices they oppose. So those who object to the works are said to be intellectually blinkered in their failure to grasp the work’s subject, and artistically obtuse in not sensing the work’s ‘criticality’. The claims in (2) diagnose the character traits that block those who object from grasping the claims made in (1).

Both these defenses are located at a very general level, and fail to consider, in a manner typical of contemporary theorizing in the visual arts, some basic questions  of meaning and value in art, and how these come to be attached to artworks: How and under what conditions, one wonders, does being ‘about’ some important issue relieve an artwork of the charge of immorality? What criteria govern ascriptions of ‘criticality’? If I show an episode of “My Mother the Car,” dub it an artwork, and declare it to be a critical examination of ‘the imbrication of industrialization and domesticity’, does it thereby possess that very meaning and significance? With regard to these particular problematic works, little has been published. A seemingly sophisticated attempt by Pamela M. Lee to interpret Abdessemed’s films as ‘about’ transhumanism (don’t ask) goes awry from the beginning when she misdescribes the films as showing human hands—there are none.

But it seems to me that neither these two lines of attempted defense of these works, nor my testy counter-questions, really approach what unsettles people so. For the unease here, I would suggest, is not alleviated by the assurances (false in these cases, but conceivably true in other works involving animals) that the animals were humanely treated (Delvoye’s pigs), or that the practice of slaughter is merely being documented (Abdessemed). How might we approach the issues? Is there anything in the widespread response that the very idea of using animals in art is problematic, even for those who eat meat and wear leather?

One line of reflection that suggests itself asks us to reflect on what an artist does in making a work, and what the significance is, in the mind of the viewer, of the very fact that the work is made to be viewed. In the opening chapter of his great book Painting as an Art, the philosopher Richard Wollheim describes how what the painter does in the course of practicing painting as an art; the account might well be thought valid, with some qualifications, for the visual arts generally. The painter paints and monitors with her eyes the results of her activity. So in the act of painting, the painter actually plays two conceptually distinct roles: the agent/maker, and the viewer. The painter qua maker marks something for the painter qua spectator. The painter, Wollheim stresses, is the first viewer of the painter, though of course not typically the last. And so the viewer of a painting, whether the painter herself in the act of painting, or a later viewer of the completed work, has a particular intimacy with the painter qua maker; the maker has made it for the viewer, and the viewer takes up what the painter has done, gazes upon it, explores it, imaginatively enters it, reflects on it, with each of these affecting and being affected by the others. In a different context of considering the use of animals as food, the philosopher Tzachi Zamir has noted that something made to be perceived has a what he calls an ethical depth-structure, that of a temporally extended action: the action inaugurated by the making of something is only completed in the appreciative viewing of the thing. So in the arts, the appreciative viewer necessarily experiences a kind of complicity, or again an intimacy, with the action of the artist to a greater degree and a greater intensity than in a wide range of other uses of artifacts. The viewer consummates what the artist begins: this is the very action, the making of something to be seen, put to such an astounding range of good uses in the millennia of human life, that is at the core of the idea of the visual arts. And when the inauguration of the work is morally problematic, the viewer shares in the maker’s fault; the making and the viewing are two parts of the same wrong. Zamir adds that this has an additional dimension of wrongness: not only completing the morally problematic act, but participating in, and so sustaining, a wrong practice.

If something along the lines of Wollheim’s and Zamir’s suggestion is right, we can see at least what would be so intensely objectionable about these works for the moral vegan: they ask not merely that one use the animal, and not just one enjoy the product of the use, but that one complete the use.  For the moral vegan, for whom all use of animals is abuse or exploitation, this multiplies the original harm. But does the moral vegetarian, and moreover the meat eater, have any special cause for complaint, beyond whatever artistic badness, narrowly construed as a work’s possessing the everyday artistic faults of being incompetent, boring, or trivial?

The philosophy Christy Mag Uidhir has investigated our responses to racial matching and mismatching of actor and character in films. Why, he asks, might we think that there is something artistically flawed in John Wayne playing Genghis Khan, but something artistically valuable in Linda Hunt playing a male dwarf in The Year of Living Dangerously? Mag Uidhir argues with great care for the conclusion that racial mismatching is a flaw when it encourages false beliefs about the character and/or the character’s perceived ethnicity. He briefly discusses the case of animal abuse in saying that we find Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthasar “less beautiful” when we learn that the donkey Balthasar was actually beaten as part of the making of the film. This seems off the mark to me, but the more general claim Mag Uidhir makes is helpful: as with racial mismatching, the use of animals is artistically objectionable (that is, aside from concerns whether the animal was in fact harmed in the making of the work) when it blocks the viewer’s ‘up-take’, one’s ability to engage with the work appreciatively, entering the open-ended process of play among cognitive, moral, imaginative, and participatory perspectives. In malign instances of uses of animals in art, we are constantly interrupted in such play by the awareness of the very thing, the animal, that was used in the process. We may be blocked not by the thought that the animal was harmed, but by the sheer thought that the animal was used. For such use is in an important sense unnecessary: there is no existing practice of, say, tattooing pigs in which Delvoye was participating, and so in the very viewing of the work we are asked to enjoy, and then to develop a taste for, works that involve an unnecessary use of animals. Artistic as well as moral creativity would be better channeled to other ways of artistic making, ways that could be reflectively affirmed.

Even if something along the line of thinking suggested here is right, this could only be the beginning of engaging with these complex issues. But there’s an irony in the show “Wrong’s What I Do Best” that escapes the curators. One wonders whether the curators did after all sense something of this depth-structure, and seek to exploit it for a further problematic effect. There are two of Delvoye’s pigs in the show, placed a few feet from each other in the gallery’s mezzanine. One cannot see them until one arrives near the top of the stairs. Both pigs’s heads are slightly cocked, the further one more so, so that one sees without preparation the pigs as if turning towards you as you arrive. The effect is of the briefest sort, as a kind of dullness and lack of focus afflicts the pigs’ eyes, and one is struck rather by their alienness and peculiar lifelessness, more dead than the dead. The cheapness and half-heartedness of the effect seem like nothing so much as the emblem of the show, as the show’s announcement suggests, but not in a way that does credit to the curators.


Pamela M. Lee, “Animal Feeling” (2012) in Adel Abdessemed je suis innocent.

Christy Mag Uidhir, “Aesthetics of Actor-Character Race Matching in Film Fictions” (2012). Philosophers’ Imprint 12/3

— “What’s So Bad About Blackface?” (2013) in Race, Film, & Philosophy, eds. Dan Flory & Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo

Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (1987)

Tzachi Zamir, Ethics and the Beast (2007)


Damn the Consequences

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What follows is a guest post by James Harold. James is a Professor of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College. He works primarily in aesthetics and meta-ethics, and is particularly interested in the intersection of those two fields. He has also written about the role of principles in critical evaluation, philosophical psychopathology, empirical ethics and aesthetics, and ancient Greek and Classical Chinese philosophy. In a universe not terribly distant from this one, however, he’s still working in scene design and carpentry, probably at some small regional theater.

When a contemporary philosopher condemns a work of art for being morally flawed, you can bet good money that she does not mean that the artwork has pernicious effects on its audiences.[i]More likely she means that the work sympathizes with a vicious protagonist, that it endorses a morally odious viewpoint, or something along these lines. In the twenty years or so since the revival of “ethical criticism” in Anglophone philosophy of art, an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the ethical evaluation of art, but almost nothing has been said about whether or not works of art might have real ethical consequences on audiences.[ii]Instead, champions of ethical criticism take pains to distance themselves from such thinking. To cite a pair of well-known examples: Noël Carroll writes that “a moral defect can count as an aesthetic defect even if it does not undermine appreciation by actual audiences so long as it has the counterfactual capacity to undermine the intended response of morally sensitive audiences”[iii]; Berys Gaut claims that his view “does not entail the causal thesis that good art ethically improves people”[iv].

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