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From the Author’s Perspective: The Philosophy of Art
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Stephen Davies, The Philosophy of Art (Blackwell, 2006)

I teach an undergraduate course that presents an overview of key issues in contemporary analytic philosophy of art. The students vary. Some have no philosophical background yet know a lot about art, and others are the reverse. As a result, I explain each technical notion, such as necessary condition, and present the topics as accessibly as I can, but I also include some challenging examples and draw attention to more complex or subtle lines for developing the ideas presented.

The Philosophy of Art (Blackwell, 2006) has emerged from the course I teach. It comprises eight chapters. Each chapter closes with an annotated reading list and questions designed to stimulate discussion of its themes. (In some cases I use these questions as essay topics.)

Chapter One asks whether art is the product of an evolved behavior (which as such is ancient and universal) or if it is an invention of eighteenth-century European culture. Arguments against the project of defining art are discussed in Chapter Two, along with many recently proposed definitions. While I claim that no definitions have been entirely successful, I also argue against the view that it is impossible to define art. Chapter 3 considers the shift in focus in the mid-twentieth century from the idea that there is a distinctively aesthetic frame of mind and that artworks can be appreciated purely in terms of their formal aesthetic properties (as presented directly to the senses, without knowledge of the work’s provenance) to the view that artworks take their identities and contents in part from relations to the art-historical background against which they are produced. The fourth chapter considers art’s ontological variety. Each of the first four chapters applies the theoretical issues to more concrete subjects: for instance, the role and function of the art museum and of experts and institutions in settling what is art, the status of forgeries, of clones, of recordings of music intended for live performance, and of the movie of the book. The subject of Chapter Five is the interpretation of literature; its purpose is considered, as well as theories about how, or if, it is constrained by authors’ intentions or the work’s identifying conditions. Chapter Six considers emotions in art: why do we respond emotionally to fictions? why do we seek out works that affect us negatively? how does purely instrumental music express emotions? why does sad music sadden us if we don’t believe it experiences the sadness expressed in it? The nature of pictorial representation in the visual arts, the features that distinguish art paintings from other pictorial representations, and the relations and differences between painted and photographic images are covered in Chapter Seven. Last, there is consideration of claims for the intrinsic and instrumental value of art, and evaluation of arguments both for the autonomy of art and for connections between the ethical viewpoints artworks presents and their artistic value.

My course consists of twelve two-hour lectures and eleven one-hour tutorials, the latter being discussion groups that focus on several readings relevant to the preceding lecture. In most cases I devote one lecture to each chapter, though I do not attempt to cover all the topics and arguments it addresses. Three lectures are given over to Chapter Three, however, because it is pivotal, not only setting the stage for what is to come but reflecting back to the start of the book. The first of these lectures deals with the reasons that led philosophers to challenge aesthetic theory, as well as the artworks that prompted them to do so. The second considers what art-historical features may be relevant to a work’s artistic contents; featuring here are questions such as whether the artist’s gender, or the fact of its being a copy or replica affect the piece’s properties feature. The third, which is intended to offer some respite from the intensity of earlier classes, debates the differences between rock and classical music. Excerpts from Japanese kabuki, Muddy Waters, Beethoven, Joe Cocker, Prokofiev, Eric Clapton, Mozart, the Beatles, Paganini, Led Zeppelin, and Stravinsky are played. (These composers/artists are regarded as more or less equally ancient by most of the students, of course, but the selection is dictated in part by the readings that are then discussed in the tutorial.) Also, I devote two lectures to the chapter on art and the emotions. In the final lecture I tidy up what was not covered in the previous session on the relation between art and ethical value and review the course.

The lectures are accompanied by PowerPoint presentations. These have one major disadvantage – they turn arguments into lists of bullet points – but they have two compensatory virtues – the students love them and they allow images, sound, and film to be integrated under the control of a single platform. (No more rushing from the OHP, to the slide projector, to the video, to the record player, while passing round postcards, posters, and prints in books.) These presentations, along with all course materials, are made available to students via a web-based interface. I load the presentations several days before the lecture and many students come with printouts, which already provide the outline and structure for their note taking.

I access digitalized pictures either from the image database of the University of Auckland art history department ( or by searching the net with Google Image Search. I use images of anything that might be relevant, not only artworks: peacocks to illustrate how sexual selection leads to extravagant and beautiful displays; storms and mountains for the sublime; cartoon caricatures, perceptual illusions, Australian aboriginal cave paintings, and advertisements in considering depiction; echidnas and platypuses when monotremes are mentioned in the chapter on definition; and sad basset hounds and smiling dolphins as illustrating one theory of how music could be expressive. As well, I employ digital films: home movies of Balinese temple ceremonies featuring dance, music, and elaborate offerings (the topic of non-Western art); the opening ten minutes of Camille of 1936, with Greta Garbo, first colorized and then in black and white (ontological questions about whether the result is a new film or a disfigurement/improvement of the old); the death of Mimi at the end of Puccini’s La Bohème (on being moved by fictions – I use Baz Luhrmann’s wonderful Australian opera production to disabuse students who assume all opera singers are short, fat, old, and ugly); brutal domestic violence from the New Zealand film Once Were Warriors (paradox of tragedy); and fifteen minutes of key scenes from Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. I opt for works with local content when I can, such as Once Were Warriors and, when discussing depictions of the female nude, colonial paintings of Maori women that can be viewed in the City Gallery. In a country as remote from the famous art collections as this one is, it is useful to bring the discussion back to cases the students can experience at first hand, including culturally shaped local products and not just Hollywood movies. (I should add, the University of Auckland has copyright agreements covering lecturers’ use of copyrighted materials.)

Though it cannot be so lavishly illustrated as the course lectures, The Philosophy of Art comes with a number of high quality prints and illustrations. One of these, a Balinese painting, hangs in my house. I discuss it in Chapter Three – in terms first of what can be seen in it and the formal features it displays, then in terms of the story it represents, and finally in terms of the underlying iconography, which ties it to the tooth-filing ceremony that marks the individual’s acceptance of the moral responsibilities of adulthood and his or her entry into the realm of sexual maturity. The choice is deliberate, of course. The foreignness of the example brings home to Western viewers who are ignorant of the art-historical and cultural background that is crucial to the work’s identity and content how little of its significance is conveyed by its manifest sensuous and formal properties. Once again, the fact that the work can be shown in the flesh adds to the power of the students’ experience, I think.

The format of my philosophy of art courses have varied considerably over the years and The Philosophy of Art has been a long time in the making. I hope I have learned what engages and stimulates students to pedagogically worthwhile achievements. The book contains more than can be covered in most courses, so it allows the teacher to dip and choose. And it is suggestive of many potential applications, so the lecture on rock and classical music could be replaced by one on movies, or installation art, or jazz, just as the Balinese painting could be replaced by one from any culture that is alien to the student but familiar to the teacher. I hope that others find as much fun in teaching from this book as I received from developing it.


© Stephen Davies

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