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View from a Bridge – Aesthetics as an Aid to Artistic Practice
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Matthew Rowe

In the last two years I’ve been lucky enough to have delivered a series of seminars on analytical aesthetics to undergraduates in an art school in which Art Theory is the usual theory taught. Yet, thanks to the enlightened and adventurous academic staff there I was encouraged to present some ideas from philosophical aesthetics to the students. Discussing aesthetics with the students there, thanks to their willingness to take part, was completely rewarding and gratifying for me as a philosopher. Here, I’m going to set out why it might have been rewarding for them as art students to be presented with ideas from analytical aesthetics.

To begin, I’ll provide an overview of the seminars. Then I’ll go on to offer these seminars as an illustrative example of how ideas from philosophical aesthetics can be used as an aid to what we might call ‘practitioners within the art-world’ – that is, artists, students, curators, critics, or even audiences.

The seminars were structured around a core of basic texts chosen both for their relative initial accessibility to a non-philosophy audience and for the range of discussion topics they could suggest. The texts and authors chosen were targeted at art students in that they were those which might (superficially at least) be regarded as most sympathetic to the art world and most relevant to the concerns of those involved in making artworks.

So, the seminars covered (i) the concept of art, (ii) artwork ontology, (iii) authorship and art making and (iv) mass art and the end of art. In fact, the range of topics covered within these headings included: The idea of indiscernibles thought experiments and institutional and historical theories of art. What, if any, are the differences between art and science? The history, formation and rationale behind existing art forms – why do we have the ones we have and not others? How can different artworks can be destroyed or lost? When and how can we be mistaken about artworks? What sort of work do you have to do to make an artwork? Is there anything you can’t do? Authorship versus convention in artwork properties – how much is input by an artist’s choice and how much by the prevailing conventions of an art form? Style – whether this belongs to artists, artworks or movements – and whether it’s the preserve of the variable properties of artworks.[1]
Plagiarism, copying and influencing – the relationships between an artworks’ ontology and its critically relevant properties. Does it matter whether something is art or not? Or whether you are an artist? Is it more important that what you make is good regardless of whether it’s art? Is there a future where the concept of art will become redundant? Will art become just another form of production and consumption?

However, most crucial was how these philosophical topics were addressed. We tried to tackle each abstract or conceptual philosophical problem through the prism of an artist asking themselves what this problem might mean for their own work. So, the focus throughout was on them as art students with their own practice and how they might relate and apply these ideas to what they were doing in their studio that morning or evening.

So, for instance the topic of the Concept of Art prompted questions including: What work is the concept of ‘art’ doing in your practice? What is the earliest date in the history of art that your work could have been an artwork? When in the history of you making things did you begin to make artworks?

The Authorship & Art Making discussions included: Could you make your artworks as non-artworks? If so, what would the differences be? Where would they lie? Could you be a ‘cultural practitioner’ – make things, and then decide, once they’re made, that they’re going to be artworks? Is this feasible? Or possible? Would you be prepared to be a bad person – break your moral codes – in order to make good artworks? Which way would you go if there was ever a tension?

The Artwork Ontology questions included: Can someone else perform your work?
Could your art be mass produced? Would that change how you related to your work?
Do you consciously make works within a definite art form? Can you imagine inventing an art form? Can you make an artwork that is not within an art form? How would you know if you’d made something in a new form or whether you’d made something different in an established form?

And in Mass Art and the End of Art, we discussed: How would you feel about making works to be sold under a celebrity’s brand? e.g., “Art by Paris Hilton”, with you the actual fashioner of the piece? How is this different to celebrity branded perfume?
How would you feel about approaching a celebrity to be the marketing face of your work? Is this any different from making it under a brand? Would it be better art this way?

Each of these is (to me at least) an interesting philosophical question in its own right. However, abstract questions about ‘art’ have been translated, using the underlying principle ‘If this position is true then what does this mean for you and your work?” into definite questions that can be asked of any artwork made any way by anyone. This approach was continued through setting the students practical tasks asking them to reflect on work they’d done in the light of our seminar discussions, that were intended as prompters for a student’s critical inquiry into their own work. These were the concept of ‘art’ tasks:

Use your critical skills to write a catalogue for the contents of a room as if it was an art exhibition with an overarching curatorial theme. If possible get someone else to do the same: (a)Then do it for a ‘real’ art exhibition. (b) Then for a show in which you have a piece. Compare and contrast the results ether with the real catalogue or with other people’s versions.

From the making artworks seminar: See if you can list all the things you did in a day that contributed to making any of your pieces of work. Make an artwork diary: List each thing you do in the construction of a particular work. For any of your works, see if you can list the choices and decisions that led to that artwork having the precise characteristics it does? Consider a work: Think what aspects are used only in this work and what are inherited tropes of this kind of artwork?

From the artwork ontology seminar: Take a work you have made: Set out what would have to happen for it to be (i) mislaid, (ii) misidentified and (iii) destroyed.
In light of the answers above, set out, in terms of materials, what is integral to your work? What does this mean for what kind of artwork it is? Try to characterize the same work so it has a different answer to how it might occupy each of the above categories (i -iii).

Lastly, from the mass art and the end of art seminar: Think what you would have to do to a piece of yours to construct its Mass Art version? If not possible for a particular piece think what aspects of your piece prevent this?

It’s worth noting that these are questions and situations that expose and test ‘art,’ but they have been translated again – into tasks. Moreover, these tasks require you to be an art practitioner to do them; they are not ones that we as philosophers could do. So, now I think we’ve moved away from philosophical aesthetics and into what I hope, would be a philosophically informed artistic practice.

What I’ve described above was only one specific approach, tailored to the particular concerns of art students involved in making artworks. It asked them to think about their subjects in the way philosophy does – from the outside in: This stands in contrast to much discussion about artistic practice in art schools, which is necessarily concerned with its content – what the students are trying to do in their work and how artworks function in terms of material, criticality, interpretation, ideology, etc. The seminars I did looked instead at structural questions – about why what the students were doing is art, what makes it art and what would stop it being art – the scenarios when, as it were, art breaks down.

Nevertheless, I think this type of approach is fruitful whenever we’re trying to present philosophical aesthetics to a non-philosophical ‘art-world’ audience. It’s an approach in which philosophical topics are presented, rather than examined – and I say this deliberately, to mark a crucial distinction. The seminars were not a course in philosophical aesthetics and their aim was not to deepen or generate a deeper critical understanding and appreciation of the nuances of the philosophical positions advanced – that, as I said to the students in the preamble to the course, was explicitly not the point:

There’s one very important point to be made at the beginning: This is NOT designed to be a course in philosophical aesthetics, nor is it designed to be prescriptive towards any kind of art or critical practice – it is about applying another set of questions and paradigms to what you are already doing to enable you to have fresh perspectives on that work.

This was in effect a statement of good faith – a contract with them as practitioners that I come to explore rather than to inculcate. And it’s this position that I’m advocating here: That it’s possible, and perfectly valid, to teach philosophical concepts without necessarily thereby needing to teach philosophy – where the intended results are not to increase the students philosophical nous and sophistication but rather to allow them to apply some philosophical concepts to their non-philosophy day jobs. And this is how philosophical aesthetics can be an aid to artistic practice.

Not all of what we do in philosophical aesthetics can do this – and that’s not bad – but a good deal can and when it can then that’s all for the good. It’s my view that we can design similar courses using other strands of philosophical aesthetics that would be of interest to other specialist audiences – cultural theorists, cognitive scientists or intellectual property lawyers – both within and without the academy. However, if we are to do this kind of work with non-philosophy audiences then the aim cannot be to tell that audience of their error, or to present a philosophical position as the preferred way to think about their subject. Instead we need to lay out some philosophical positions to them, as the raw materials with which they themselves make something within their own subjects. We use philosophy to introduce problems or areas of debate so that they can, through considering their own everyday problems through this new prism of philosophical aesthetics, move them on within their own subjects.

Additionally, this approach is not applying a philosophical theory to a situation in the world with the expectation that philosophy can provide an answer. Rather, we’re asking whether thinking like this will provide them with help with the questions they’re dealing with from within their subjects. The aim is to talk on our terms in respect of the content of a course but on their terms for the use of the material presented within that course. The intended outcome is that we combine some of our philosophical theories with the practitioners’ own work to come up with better work for them and more informed theory for us. Instead of us standing on their ground in order to judge or critically appraise them by philosophy’s standards – or indeed letting them do the same to us – what might be called the ‘audit approach’ on each side – we recognize these different standpoints and different criteria by which we judge the others’ activities. So, for example, philosophical aesthetics may judge the art world’s material in our discipline according to its internal consistency and how their work illustrates, confirms or counters our theories about art; similarly, the art world may judge our work by its ability to open up fruitful ways of thinking about and making artworks.

Working this way requires us using what could rather grandly be called a ‘principle of translation,’ where philosophical issues are translated into practice-based questions, which are in turn translated into practical non-philosophy tasks. This requires us to think about theoretical constructs and philosophical positions in such a way to produce practitioner-based questions and activities. Our basic approach must be to ask ourselves: “How could this affect what you do if you were actually involved in this activity? Our basic attitude to our material will be “How can this be of use to you, our intended audience? Or “Look at this stuff I’ve brought with me – is any of this useful to you?” Can you use any of it on your own terms to make your work more fruitful?” When we do this, what we must not expect is to get philosophy back from our art-world audiences (the art students, after all, were not getting artworks from me).

There are, of course, dangers and risks to such an approach. What was missing in my seminars was any prolonged or deep philosophical engagement with the positions offered. So there is the risk that presenting philosophical topics in this way might encourage a superficial, or a mis-understanding, of philosophical ideas. Secondly, there’s the related worry that we’re providing a little knowledge of these ideas – and that this, for similar reasons, is a dangerous thing. And perhaps there’s a slight distaste among us philosophers for this kind of ‘philosophy-lite’ approach, in which we’re presenting philosophical ideas without actually doing philosophy with them.

These risks are real. However, I think that they are manageable and justifiable. This is because in doing this kind of work, we’re not training philosophers and we’re explicitly not providing philosophical courses in philosophical aesthetics. Rather we’re providing non-philosophical courses in philosophical aesthetics – they aim to provide tools to art-world practitioners in order to make them more critically self-aware, so that they have a wider range of positions at their disposal with which to carry on with their core work. The point is to enrich one subject through the debates of another. We’re not asking them to do our core work. We continue to do that – they enrich it with their art-world engagement.

In my view, if we recognize this difference of approach but commonality of subject matter, the results can be that an artist’s acquaintance with philosophical aesthetics can become a practical source of high quality artistic practice and that artistic practice can provide philosophy with a perhaps more nuanced reading of existing philosophical problems. Moreover, as people that make the kind of stuff that we philosophers talk about, they can make work that hands a whole new set of problems, situations and considerations back to us philosophers.

To conclude: My examples here of the translation of philosophical topics from one strand of philosophical aesthetics into applied discussions, into practice-based tasks, was my own no doubt naïve application of this way of working. When I did it, thanks to their own efforts and goodwill the students did indeed bring their own experience of being an art practitioner into the discussions – and it was this practical application that was where the real philosophy was in the work we did together. Why might this be valuable to philosophers? Well, it shows that our great subject can have a relevance to the art world that it may not otherwise have. More generally, it shows that a philosophical approach to a subject may have uses outside of the philosophical arena – that there is room for applied philosophical aesthetics.

The moral? Perhaps we should continue to look at our own philosophical research and say “Who else might get sparked off by this?” and not be afraid of them not quite taking from it what we might take from it. That’s not the most important thing – the spark is the most important thing. We should approach other subjects with an open mind, an open heart and a bag full of philosophical goodies. And they of course, should do the same for us. That way aesthetics can be a guide to practice, research, society and debate. That way we all – the art world, science, law – but especially aesthetics – win.[2]


1. In the Watonian sense: See ‘Categories of Art’ Philosophical Review 79, 339-367, 1970.

2. I am grateful to Mary Anne Francis, Sherri Irvin and to the participants at ‘The State of Aesthetics’ conference, Institute of Advanced Studies, University of London, June 2011, where a version of this paper was prepared, for helping to bring this paper to fruition.

2012 © Matthew Rowe

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