The Philosophy of Art

During my recent visit stateside, I was often asked what it is I’m doing in France. I usually just say ‘schooling,’ and when asked the subject, say, ‘art,’ and when asked what kind of art, say, ‘the philosophy of art, also known as aesthetics.’ If the conversation continues, I usually get one or more of three questions: (1) Are the courses taught in English? (2) How does art have a philosophy? and (3) What does one do with that, professionally? These are good questions all.

First, my classes are not taught in English, with the sometime exception of my English class, which I’m taking because my German was so pitiful that the professor canceled the course. (I was the only student enrolled.) The English class is not a language course, however. While we do read texts by Anglophone philosophers, the lectures are given in French and we never discuss English grammar or vocabulary. On that note, with the exception of Diderot, Dubos, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Artaud and Derrida, the majority of the texts we read in any of my classes are by British and American authors, which I read in English. The same goes for the handful of German philosophers, most importantly Immanuel Kant (the sine qua non of modern aesthetics) whose onerous prose is made even more obscure in French translation (which can’t help but be florid), as the German lecturer of a course I’m auditing on the Analytic of the Beautiful has concurred. (This might be apocryphal, but it’s said that even freshman German philosophy students will first read the Critique of Pure Reason in English.) Oh, and there’s an Italian guy: Luigi Pareyson. I read him in French because no one’s translated him into English.

Next, how does art have a philosophy? Every major subject of philosophy is devoted to vast, intractable problems essential to human life. (I know of no branch of philosophy that has disappeared, having been sufficiently explored or ‘solved.’) There is nothing new under the philosophical sun: movements like phenomenology, hermeneutics and post-structuralism are merely modern variations on the same topics that Epistemologists and Metaphysicians have bandied about for millenia. Neurophilosophy? Philosophy of Mind, with some new toys.

Every aunt and uncle can recognize those topics as bona fide philosophical problems. But a philosophy of art? New fields of aesthetics continue to emerge, and trying to provide an exhaustive list and their respective interests would be pointless. They all share a few essentials, though, and one of them is not, surprisingly, the presence of a work of art.

Again, I’ll risk snubbing whole academic departments if I try to be comprehensive here, so I’ll only mention the two matters I usually write about, taste and ontology, and someone more informed can fill us all in on the philosophy of art’s ethical and sociological aspects. One of the reasons I love Aesthetics is that you can discuss it with virtually anyone. The same is not true of, say, Logic. (‘Mom, do you think there’s such a thing as an empty set?’) You cannot avoid having taste. Even the most open-minded individuals prefer some things over others. (I can’t find a citation, but John Cage, who championed a sort of equality of all sound, finally conceded when prodded by a journalist that he would rather eat he a ripe banana than a rotten one.) The philosophical question, then, is by what crtieria do we decide that one object (a work of art, a dish, a certain color of lipstick) is superior to another, and are we justified in that decision?

As I write this, I’m listening to the new Erykah Badu album, New Amerykah: Part One. I think it’s pretty good, but I’ll say that, in general, I’d prefer to listen to a late Beethoven string quartet. I could alternatively say that Beethoven’s late string quartets are better than this Erykah Badu album. Those are two drastically different remarks. The first is subjective: I like x more than y. No one can dispute that. The second remark, that x is better than y, is objective, and this is where the philosophy really begins. If I want to compare the heights of Erykah Badu and Beethoven, I can make them stand together say that she is taller: her head(wrap) extends beyond his head, which we could prove with instruments and measurements. But what if I want to compare their artistic quality? If I place their music side-by-side, what do I measure? Structure? Passion? Difficulty? Popularity? (Can 50,000,000 Elvis fans be wrong?) The enlightened individual will say, ‘There’s nothing to compare; to each his own; in matters of taste, there’s no dispute.’ As David Hume acknowledges in his ‘Of the Standard of Taste,’ ‘a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: because no sentiment represents what is really in the object.’ Fair enough. But there are some nagging realities that are difficult to ignore:

Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean. Though there may be found persons, who give the preference to the former authors; no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous. The principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot, and while we admit it on some occasions, where the objects seem near an equality, it appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.

Our professed indifference quickly disintegrates in practice. Hume goes on to propose a few qualities that enduring works of art possess. (Wittgenstein would disapprove: ‘You might think Aesthetics is a science telling us what’s beautiful–almost too ridiculous for words. I suppose it ought to include what sort of coffee tastes well.’) You may or may not agree with Hume’s conclusions, but the stamina of the great works of art in the human imagination is surely evidence of something. (Jerrold Levinson, a formidable modern philosopher, continued the discussion in his influential ‘Hume’s Standard of Taste: The Real Problem‘)

The second field of aesthetics that interests me is the ontology of art. It concerns the existential nature of works of art. (‘Ontos,’ is Greek for ‘being.’) ‘What is a work of art?’ is the fundamental question, which leads to the 20th century conundrum: ‘What isn’t a work of art?’ Ontological questions also extend to works that are generally admitted to be works of art. To take just one (musical) example, pretend that we’re in the audience for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. Where is the work of art? Is it the score the musicians have spread about before them? Is it those notational markings on the score itself? Or is it the sound produced when they play those scores and the ‘performance’ that results? If that’s the case, then what happens when the musicians stray, intentionally or not, from those markings? If the second violinist comes in late on her entrance, have we actually heard a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth? (Nelson Goodman, one of the great art-philosophers of the last century, says we haven’t.) You can apply similar questions to all art forms. They might sound like riddles (and they’ve often been dismissed as such), but such nitpicking often leads to conclusions that convincingly undermine our most fundamental notions of the work of art

Finally, what does one do having studied the philosophy of art? R.G. Collingwood, in his Principles of Art, found that people interested in the philosophy of art are either philosophers with artistic tendencies or artists with philosophical tendencies. There might be fewer professors of aesthetics than epistemology in American philosophy departments, but none of the great philosophers, it has been said, avoided the question of art. (Actually, I can’t recall Descartes writing anything directly about it.) Nietzsche wrote about art first, Kant wrote about it last. Artists with philosophical leanings are easy to come by, as well, yet few are successful on those terms. The films of Ingmar Bergman may be existential, but are they Existential? When critics say that Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are metaphysical, don’t they simply mean surreal, airy, poetic? Or are they thinking of the end of Solaris, which evokes magnificently the archetypal mind-body problem?

By whatever means artists sublimate their philosophy into art, some do it more gracefully than others. Terrence Malick is a fascinating example. One of the greatest living filmmakers, Malick was formerly a student of Stanley Cavell and Gilbert Ryle at Harvard and a professor of philosophy at MIT. He began as a Heidegger translator. Malick is, as far as I know, the most philosophically qualified (and perhaps the most philosophically interested) major filmmaker in history, yet his films have nothing in common with painfully literal ventures in the vein of Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein. Even if Malick were to make a film called Karl Marx Explique Tout, it would never be as cloying or pretentious as a Jean-Luc Godard film.

I should make the distinction here between a ‘philosophy of art’ and an ‘approach to art.’ The difference is subtle but crucial. Artists like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, John Cage, Godard, E.M. Forster and Marcel Duchamp (among many others) had a lot to say about art, but it was a ‘philosophy of art’ in the sense that one has a ‘philosophy of life.’ It was a philosophy of their art, or perhaps what they thought art should be. (A slight anomaly is Joseph Kosuth, whose theory seems more potent than his art, or perhaps they’re inseparable.) The theories of those artists have little to do with the work of Frank Sibley and other philosophers of art proper, even if those artist’s texts are sometimes indispensable documents for philosophic discussion. (Similarly, Aeschylus and Shakespeare were not psychologists.)

So, what does a student of the philosophy of art do for a living? Many become art critics. Arthur Danto, the arch example, is both a judicious art critic (for The Nation) and a brilliant philosopher (at Columbia). I feel very nervous among the budding art critics I’ve met. Whereas art philosophy can fall back on the literal validity or soundness of an argument (two different things), art criticism necessitates disagreements (that quickly turn to shouting and) which are won more with eloquence than ideas. Still, art criticism is a noble profession.

Where would I like to see myself in a few years: as artist-philosopher, art philosopher, or art critic? My background is in the performing arts, but I sort of lost my taste for it, at least for time being. Pursuing a career as a professional actor is, well, difficult. One of the traditional ways for a teacher to begin an acting class is with such a speech: ‘If you’re not ready to struggle, if you’re not ready to fail miserably, if you’re not ready to be walked on, beat up, torn apart, thrown down in the stinky mud and spit at. . . I want you to leave this classroom. Right now.’ This speech usually causes some of the more emotional members of the class to shed tears of determination (they’re actors and actresses, after all) but I often thought, ‘Really? Gosh, that doesn’t sound very pleasant or encouraging.’ If I hadn’t been paying an Italian journalist’s ransom to go to university, and if it wouldn’t have seemed like an act of defiance instead of indolence, I might have left.

I’ll talk later about my disenchantment with the theatre, but I don’t think any of my classmates will dispute that I was always a serviceable performer, even if I had the same shortcomings in some areas that all actors have. Still, I don’t foresee a life in the theatre, at least as an actor. I am drawn to the creative aspect, even though I’m only mildly familiar with the individual challenges faced by the director, dramaturge and playwright. As an art form, theatre is the one I know best. When I write about music as a philosopher, I have to stop myself the second I approach musicological territory; sure, I can listen to a piece of music and pick out from a stack of scores which piece is being played, but only if the scores are very unlike in appearance. My knowledge of musical theory is almost non-existent. But I can discuss fluidly any (non-technical) aspect of theatre. As the French say, I know it like the inside of my pocket. And because I grew up performing, I doubt I’ll ever be able to rid myself entirely of its influence, or that I’d want to rid myself of its influence.

The ideal life seems to be that of the professional philosopher: the tenured professor with summers off. I love reading, writing, thinking, teaching–and isn’t that what you’re being paid good money to do? I might have a romantic vision of professorship, and maybe it’s the same bag as acting (‘If you’re not ready to spend countless hours tearing your bloody hair out in the library basement…’), but I’ll never have the chance to find out if I keep blogging and ignoring my paper, will I?

I hope this discussion has been useful. If the philosophy of art interests you and you’re a ruthless autodidact, here’s a bibliography with everything you’ll need. You can always e-mail me if you want my opinion.

And I’m sorry I was so hard on Godard. He did make a couple good films.


~ by ohkrapp on May 16, 2008.

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