The Concept of Art

Is there a universal way to define the word “art”?

If by “universal” you mean a way to define art that captures everything that is a work of art and excludes everything that is not a work of art, as opposed to a definition of art that is universally accepted, the answer is yes.

At least, there are ways of trying to define art universally, although none has been conspicuously successful or satisfying to all. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something by making the attempt and by reflecting on attempts made. There was quite a lot of that in the last half of the twentieth century, though in the last couple of decades the focus has shifted to artistic value – why art matters – and issues involving aesthetic properties. Beauty, especially, has gotten a good deal of (in my view) needed attention.

There are other ways to form a conception of something than by defining it, especially if you think of a definition as a statement of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. In the last century, however, George Dickie seemed to have found one. He said, roughly speaking, that something counted as an artwork just in case it was offered as a candidate for appreciation by someone institutionally authorized to do so. The institution in question was usually thought of as the “art world,” a rather loose but not utterly incoherent arrangement of practices, beliefs, values, authorities and other things we associate with an ongoing and purposive social activity. Continue reading

The History of Literary Criticism

I recently read Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard, 2017). North is very good at characterizing what the field settled into since the beginning of the 2000s, once the glory days of postmodernism were over. The main result of the latter was to play down concern with the aesthetic dimension of literature in favor of teaching students to think about literature from a “historicist” and “contextualist” – code for “political” and often crudely ideological – perspective.

That much is clear, but the question is, how did it happen?

According to North, the Baby Boom generation that accomplished the turn from aesthetics to politics relied on a misrepresentation of the so-called “practical criticism” of I.A. Richards, which they encountered in the form of the American school of New Criticism. This, the younger generation believed, was an essentially conservative enterprise that encouraged political passivity by isolating literary value from the wider world. The rebellion against it culminated in the New Historicism, which paved the way for post-colonialism, queer theory, disability studies, and the rest.

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Men Without Art

What would life be like without art?

One answer to the question is that it would be like the life of an animal.

The human mind is distinctive in that we have “meta-beliefs”: beliefs about our beliefs, such as that a belief is true or false. We also have meta-desires: we desire our desires to be appropriate, and we are sometimes concerned that our emotional reactions are inappropriate. We are not merely conscious, we are self-conscious. We not only know things, we know that we know them.

It’s impossible to be certain, but so far as I can tell my cat isn’t conscious in this way. When she forms the belief that a mouse is within striking distance, she doesn’t ask herself how she knows that her belief is true. She just knows that a mouse is near. And she certainly doesn’t ask herself whether she has a right to attack the mouse. She simply pounces when the opportunity arises, without any moral deliberation at all. Continue reading

Kubrick’s Style: Neoclassical Modernism

Stanley Kubrick’s visual style can be characterized by thinking about how Ezra Pound described Imagism. “An image,” he said, “is an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Among Pound’s instructions to poets are the imperatives “to employ always the exact word” and “to produce a poetry that is hard and clear.” F.S. Flint added the admonishment “to use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.” Pound likened the ideal poetic line to the musical phrase, and held that “concentration is of the very essence of poetry.”

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What is Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art”?

“The Origin of the Work of Art” (Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes) is an essay by Martin Heidegger, written and published in various versions from 1935 to 1960. It was drawn from lectures he gave during the same period.
It’s a rich, layered, and complex essay, and it has something to say about virtually everything pertaining to the philosophy of art and aesthetics – and much more.

One important theme is that art is not limited to aesthetic interests. Artworks are about something. They have what philosophers call intentional content. For Heidegger, that means that they are a source of truth, a way in which the world reveals itself. In fact, they exhibit the nature of truth itself, namely that it is “disclosure.” You might say that works of art disclose disclosure. In other words, they are reflexive: not only are they about something, they are about themselves.

Although Heidegger does discuss works of art such as paintings and poems, his main focus in the essay is on buildings that play an important role in the life of a community: the ancient Greek temples to Apollo, Athena, and Hera at Paestum; the Bamberg Cathedral. These works disclose, in an especially vivid, concrete, and immediate way, the understanding of Being shared by the members of their communities. The Greek temples crystalized the meanings of divinity, mortality, victory, and defeat; the Bamberg Cathedral illuminated the meanings of grace and sin.

Heidegger points out that the Greek temples no longer “work” – function – as they did in the past, because we don’t share the understanding of Being in terms of which they made sense. Ancient Greek artworks such as the Aegina sculptures in Munich have been “withdrawn” from their world, and we experience them aesthetically, not as disclosers of disclosure.

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What did Friedrich Schiller mean by “aesthetic education” and how can that form of education be put in practice?

“Aesthetic education” is the education of feelings, which had been sidelined by the Enlightenment, resulting in the corruption of moral sensibility and sensitivity. The instrument of aesthetic education is art, and artists, Schiller says, should devote themselves to creating “symbols of perfection.” If such symbols become ubiquitous, and constitute a people’s main cultural diet, so to speak, they will be inspired to raise themselves to art’s implied standards of integrity, harmony, and wholeness.

The implied standards are captured in a theory of human nature, which is to be deduced from the nature of the human mind. Human beings are constituted by two seemingly opposed principles, namely personal autonomy and freedom on the one hand, and its determining conditions on the other; in more familiar terms, mind and body or reason and appetite. The growth to maturity of any individual consists of bringing the two elements into a harmonious relationship with one another.

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