03 Jan

Teaching the philosophy of art

Posted By polity_admin_user

Gracyk-photoWhen people ask me what I do, and I say that I work on philosophy of art, a great many otherwise educated people draw a blank. They can’t imagine what happens when philosophers discuss art.

The answer, of course, depends on your conception of philosophy: the sole origin of philosophy is a sense of wonder or amazement. Or at least that is the position that Plato ascribes to Socrates in the Theaetetus. Throughout Plato’s writings, Socrates’ method is to select a concept that everyone else seems to find unproblematic. He asks them to explain it, or he begins by reporting how someone else has explained it. He then unravels the assumptions of the explanation until it becomes apparent that the topic is far more complex than it seemed.

For those who possess the requisite sense of wonder, this process is stimulating. For many of Socrates’ discussion companions, it is frustrating and annoying, and some of the dialogues break off with the ancient equivalent of “Gosh, look at the time. I must be off to keep that appointment to trim my beard.”

For thirty years now, I have been professionally amazed by our assumptions about the arts. Above all, I have been puzzled by assumption that there is cohesion to the raggle taggle cultural activities that we group together with those words, “the arts.” And the longer I spend with the topic, the more amazed I am that almost everyone believes that there is a clear boundary between the arts and the many cultural activities that fall beyond that boundary.

I do not mean to suggest that the collapse of the boundary is something recent or particularly postmodern. It was no clearer a hundred years ago, nor two hundred. Three hundred years ago, the category was “the fine arts” (actually, it was sometimes an even more slippery construction: “the finer arts”), and it was used to distinguish between the books that were appropriate for the leisure time of a cultured reader and those that were not.

Today, bookstores routinely segregate the stuff called “literature” from the romance novels and vampire stories (and vampire romance stories) and self-help books that actually appeal to the majority of readers.

With minimal adaptation, virtually the same words could be used concerning the intersecting category of the aesthetic.

In the spirit of Socrates, I have found that teaching philosophy of art is first of all a matter of generating that motivating sense of wonder in my students. There are many challenges to doing so. There are the obvious ones that make any college instruction a challenge.

However, philosophy of art must deal with the additional challenge that almost every student who enters the classroom is quite certain that they can distinguish artworks from non-artworks. And yet, once we move beyond a few familiar names — the Mona Lisa, that “song” by Beethoven that starts da da da daaa — no two of them agree on which music or movies or books are artworks and which are not.

Another challenge is that almost none of them voluntarily spend time attending to the things that they push to the “art” side of the conceptual boundary. Never mind where you locate that boundary: today’s college students simply don’t have much exposure to art. I kept all of these challenges in mind when I designed this introduction to my philosophical field of specialization.

The Philosophy of Art differs from other recent introductions to the field by devoting four of its nine chapters to the topics of creativity, art forgery, authenticity and cultural appropriation, and the boundary line between fine art and popular culture.

Because they interest me, most of my previous writing has centered on the latter pair of these four. But they also happen to be philosophically rich topics that resonate with people who can’t work up much initial excitement about the more traditional issue of how to define art.

As I point out, that tradition is a recent one: Plato and Aristotle engaged in debates that remain central to philosophy of art, yet they were not culturally positioned to worry about the definition of art. Thus, philosophizing about art does not have to start with the issue of the proper definition of art. And therefore I reserve that topic for a later chapter, after showing that there are many other conceptual puzzles about art that can engage our sense of wonder.  (But have no fear: if the definition of art is the topic that makes you pick up the book, the chapters can be read as self-sufficient discussions of their nine topics. Yet there’s also abundant cross-referencing that points out where a point made in one chapter intersects with a related topic elsewhere in the book.)

I want to be very clear that the cultural ignorance that seems an obstacle to teaching philosophy of art is also liberating. Philosophers like to discuss Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Cindy Sherman. But few students who are being introduced to philosophy of art know those names. Those who teach philosophy of art must also serve as art history teachers.

What I find liberating about this situation is the freedom it offers us in selecting examples. From the neophyte’s perspective, Warhol and Emily Dickinson and Yoko Ono are all equally fresh and therefore equally subversive. 

However, it’s then a very small step to a more inclusive approach. To someone who’s paid no attention to poetry, seventeenth-century haiku is no more culturally remote than Emily Dickinson or T. S. Eliot. Or, to put it the other way around, a European “classic” like the ballet Swan Lake is as culturally remote as Japanese kabuki theater.

To the extent that philosophy of art explores human activities and values that are alleged to be human universals, we ought to be discussing both Swan Lake and kabuki, Rembrandt and Katsushika Hokusai, Mickey Mouse and anime. Therefore I do.

And once I got over the idea that there’s an organized canon of examples that we all know about, I finally accepted that most art is unfamiliar to most of us. At that point, the freedom to be more inclusive dovetailed with the responsibility to do so, and the result has been that students are relieved that their ignorance about the “big names” in art won’t be an obstacle to their philosophizing about art.  And then they become a bit more liberated in their thinking. They feel that they have permission to wonder about the full diversity of the art world. Its borders start to look very strange.

Another technique to induce wonder – on a small scale, admittedly – is the regular placement of short thought experiments. More than 60 of them are sprinkled through the book. They are clearly delineated invitations to stop reading in order to think about the implications of adopting an idea or thesis.

In some cases, the exercise is a simple reminder that the reader should now consider their own example of an artwork, rather than rely solely on the examples that others have chosen for them to consider. In other cases, I hope to create resonances between different parts of the book.

For example, early in the book, I call attention to Amie Thomasson’s point that some positions on the nature of art are simply too revisionist to succeed. Much later, I try to remind readers of this point by asking them to reflect on Leonardo da Vinci’s written descriptions of his goals in producing visual representations, and then ask whether it is plausible to accept a definition of art that implies that da Vinci completely misunderstood what he was accomplishing.

These many attempts to get the reader to think on the go are then supplemented by the traditional practice of ending the chapters with sets of review questions and with suggestions for further reading and, usually, of films that will provide additional grist for thought.

Theodore Gracyk is department chair and professor of philosophy at Minnesota State University.